Originally released in Japan in 1985 as the Sega Mark III, the Sega Master System hit the U.S. in June of 1986, which was less than a year after the stunningly popular Nintendo Enter- tainment System (NES) made its debut. De- signed to compete with Nintendo’s juggernaut of a console, which single handedly revived the video game industry in America, the Master System never came close to dethroning its chief rival, thanks in part to the lack of third-party support. Despite the short lead time, Nintendo had already wrapped up exclusive licensing agreements with most of the larger third-party software developers, leaving the Master Sys- tem out in the cold (though Activision and Parker Brothers did release a few titles for the SMS).
Regarding the unit itself, the Master Sys- tem is a wide, but narrow black console with a cartridge slot, pause button, reset button, and burgundy label on top and a power button, two controller ports, and a card slot on the front. While most Master System games were pro- duced in a standard cartridge format, several were released as Sega Cards, which were credit card-sized media that were cheaper to manufac- ture and were capable of holding fewer bits of game code (256K bits for the cards compared to 1048K for the cartridges). In 1990, Sega released the Sega Master System II, which was a scaled down, budget-conscious Master System that lacked the card slot, reset button, and power light. The SMSII also removed the logo/music intro that would appear on the television screen when the unit was turned on.
The Master System controller design mimics the NES control pad to some degree, but the directional-pad isn’t as tight and doesn’t feel as precise (in terms of directing onscreen images) as its NES counterpart. In addition, there are only two buttons on the SMS con- troller, compared to four on the more func- tional NES controller. Since the pause button is on the SMS console instead of the controller (ala the Atari 7800), players are oftentimes in- convenienced by having to get up (or at least reach over) to pause a game, especially when playing such titles as Alex Kidd in Miracle World, in which the pause button plays a role beyond simply freezing the action (pressing pause in Miracle World brings up a subscreen containing a map, list of possessions, number of lives, current score, and amount of money the player has).
One of the coolest things about the Mas- ter System is the Sega 3-D Glasses, which are compatible with such dazzlingly visual games as Zaxxon 3-D and Space Harrier 3-D. The glasses, which look cool (at least in a geek chic kind of way) and plug into the console card slot (meaning SMSII owners are out of luck), fit comfortably, not unlike a pair of thick, plastic sunglasses. To produce the illusion of three-di- mensional on-screen imagery, the lenses house LCD shutters that create a flickering effect by rapidly opening and closing over opposite eyes in synchronized fashion. Unlike the headache- inducing Virtual Boy (Nintendo’s failed 3D system from 1995), the Sega 3-D Glasses cause little or no disorientation or other side effects.
The other prominent peripheral released for the Master System is the Sega Light Phaser, which was modeled after the gun from Zillion, the Japanese anime series. The black, solidly built pistol plugs into the joystick port and is compatible with such games as Shooting Gallery and Marksman Shooting/Trap Shooting. The lamest addition to the line of Master System gadgets is the Sega Sports Pad, which is a slug- gish, unresponsive trackball controller that is compatible with Great Ice Hockey and the much-maligned Sports Pad Football. Other SMS-related products of note include: the Sega Control Stick, which is a joystick with a bulky knob on the end; the Sega Rapid Fire Unit, which is an extender cord that gives the stan- dard controller rapid firing capabilities; the Power Base Converter, which lets gamers plug in and play Master System cartridges on the Sega Genesis; and the MasterGear Converter, which lets gamers plug in and play Master Sys- tem cartridges on the Sega Game Gear.
The Master System’s sports lineup is largely dreadful, and the game library as a whole is much smaller than that of the NES, but the system does have a number of stand-out arcade conversions, including R-Type, Rastan, Columns, and Time Soldiers, and some nifty original titles, such as Alex Kidd in Shinobi World, Phantasy Star, Penguin Land, and Za- xxon 3-D (a sequel to Sega’s arcade classic, Za- xxon). In addition, though there were only 114 titles released in the U.S., the NTSC format Master System is compatible with the PAL for- mat European console, expanding the library substantially (at least for those willing to pur- chase imported games). Both American and European cartridges are housed in a sturdy, plastic casing (often called a clamshell case), a design Sega carried over to the next-generation Genesis console (1989), which was the com- pany’s 16-bit follow-up to the 8-bit Master Sys- tem.
Today, though the console was officially discontinued in 1992, the Sega Master System has experienced a revival of sorts via the Nin- tendo Wii Virtual Console, which lets players download an assortment of pixel-perfect Mas- ter System titles to their Wii. Though nowhere near as ubiquitous or as mainstream as the NES, the Master System does maintain a re- spectable presence in the collector’s market, frequently changing hands via eBay, video game conventions, and online and brick-and- mortar gaming stores.
The game is similar to Spy Hunter (sans the de- fensive oil slicks and smokes screens), with players driving up roadways (viewed from overhead), firing away at other vehicles while trying to avoid getting bumped into walls. Players begin on a motorcycle (the same one from Hang-On), but can grab letters to trans- form the vehicle into a car and a jet plane (the arcade version, which benefited from steering wheel control, also let players pilot a helicop- ter, a boat, and a racecar). The jet plane por- tions evoke Xevious. Docking with a Sega Truck (which is similar to the weapons van in Spy Hunter) gives the motorcycle or car dual firing, auto-missiles, or temporary invincibility. Ac- tion Fighter, which features five timed missions, is fast and fun, but crashing into walls is far too easy.