Sega Master System: How Not to Harness the Potential

Well, my friends, it all started at Christmas 1990 …

A young me saw an advertisement for MS Power Base and fell in love instantly. I would love to be able to show you that video, but the Internet, despite containing 12,000,000 tones of adult material, has no room for it. I’m starting to wonder if I figured it all out. In any case, during the month of December I relentlessly bullied my father (B. Simpson would have been very impressed) into buying the Power Base with Hang-On, Safari Hunt and Light Phaser. And to the credit of the man, ignoring the late mortgage payments, the final lawsuits, and much to my mother’s chagrin, he duly agreed. I was stunned.

However I did find this American ad for the package which at £ 100 seemed pricey but was actually very good value for money. Furthermore, there was also a hidden maze game. Someone needs to retrieve hidden games. I took out my Master System a couple of months ago, which still works even though my cousin threw coke on it (I’m pretty sure if you breathe too much on an Xbox it will explode) and wow, it brought back some memories! What also caught my attention was how bad some of the titles were. These were games he had played to death! Ninja and World Soccer were personal favorites, but both are graphically pitiful. That sounds harsh given that it was some of the early release titles, but let me continue.

Golden Ax is the game that really got me. The Ninja (1987) and World Soccer (also 1987) were released just two years before Golden Ax (1989), but if you put them side by side, you wouldn’t guess they are from the same console. Other popular ’80s titles (eg Ghostbusters, California Games) and even early’ 90s titles (Indiana Jones, Tom & Jerry) pale in comparison to the Golden Ax graphics. It’s true that the levels are two-tone and the rendering is puzzling in places, but the sprites look almost the same as 16-bit. The sprites are large and well detailed. The main protagonist may only have around 15 animation frames, but the sword movement feels smooth and true. All this with a palette of only 64 colors compared to the 512 of the Mega Drive.

Most of the 16-bit to 8-bit conversions are terrible (the hideous E-SWAT immediately comes to mind) and a lot of positive things can be said about Sega’s stance of making completely different games in 8-bit with the same license. (Sonics 1 and 2) but I invite you to take a look at Streets of Rage and Mortal Kombat. Both games are one-dimensional and therefore creating different 8-bit versions would seem silly. The care taken with both is remarkable. There’s not much that can be done with Master System’s SN76489 Texas Instruments sound chip (remember them?), But its graphics capabilities are amazing. Of the 64 available colors, the Master System can display 32 at a time. This is in comparison to the 64 on the Mega Drive and the terse 25 on the NES. The Zilog processor in the MS runs at 4 MHz compared to 1.79 MHz in the NES. The Zilog chip was also used in the Mega Drive alongside the Motorola 68000.

The clues were there. Streets of Rage, after a night of partying with too many jars (blurry eyes and all) could be mistaken for the 16-bit version, except for the ghastly sound. Sacrifices had to be made, the reduced memory of the Master System (although still double that of the NES) could not handle two players, but all levels remain intact, including the excellent lift stage. With Mortal Kombat, more sacrifices had to be made. There are only two stages, but most of the characters are there, with the exception of the unpopular Kano. Each object is large, well drawn, and the animation works to create a fun beat em up, the likes of which European / Japanese master system owners never saw again. Why so specific to the region? Well …

Did you know that Street Fighter 2 existed in Master System? I sure didn’t do it until earlier this year when I found out that MS is still supported in Brazil (and emulation products in China and Taiwan). SF2 is a capable beat em up, and while it seems decidedly more basic (albeit better than the C64 version), it really makes you wonder what Sega could have done with its first flagship console. Some Master System games are also available through the Wii online service, who the hell would have thought this on a Nintendo console in the early nineties!

There are things we can not avoid. The NES ‘stronger game library and character recognition meant it outsold the Master System by nearly five to one. By the time Sega invented Sonic, the Master System was subject to poor arcade conversations and puzzle games. The inventive Galaxy Force is the anomaly here, Sega didn’t make use of the advanced capabilities of the MS until it was too late. Sonic 1 was the last MS release in the US Most would assume that the Mega Drive release is to blame for this and Sega had to do something to stop the dominance of the NES. The fact is, Sega made an 8-bit console superior to the NES, but opted to use 16-bit first, thus inviting the inevitable Nintendo (SNES) hit.

I will always love the Master System, and while I am unlikely to own its current incarnations, I can still enjoy my Sonics, Streets of Rages (oh yeah, the sequel is there too), and Mortal Kombat. Just don’t mention E-SWAT.

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