Review by The Vic Viper

"The start of Sega's long history of getting crushed by the competition"

Among the general gaming public Sega has always been “that other console maker,” except during the Saturn/N64/PS1 era, when many people seen to have completely forgotten that Sega still existed. This is unfortunate because Sega is a very good software developer, especially for its first two consoles. Unfortunately Sega never had the marketing ability to reach the mass the way Nintendo did and Sony (and to a certain extent Microsoft) does today. As a result they were never ability to pull in third part support like the competition so they never got the attention they deserved. The Sega Master System (SMS) was the first of Sega's line of consoles and released in 1985, two years after Nintendo released the NES. By this time Nintendo had already created a massive fanbase, so Sega had to fight an uphill battle to break into the market from the very beginning.

Releasing their console much later than Nintendo did give Sega a few advantages though, specifically the technical power of the console. As an 8-bit console, it had a palette of 256 colors, however it was able to display up to fifty-two of them on screen at any given time, which was significantly more than the NES, or at least it could in theory. In reality, most of the games did not use the hardware to its fullest, so the average SMS game looked like the average NES game.

The same held true for the audio capabilities of the SMS. It has a much better sound card than the NES, though back then a better sound card only meant slightly less crappy audio, since low-bit mono was as good as it got. Also like the graphical capabilities, the audio power of the SMS was never really tapped by developers, so you would never really notice the difference between an SMS and NES game just by listening.

Like most of the consoles back then, the system was very durable and could stand a lot of abuse. Since the SMS used cartridges you didn't have to worry about lenses getting dirty or misaligned and there were a lot fewer moving parts that could break down on you. A Master System that was made in 1985 would more than likely still be working today, assuming a minimal amount of care was put into it. The games were also very durable, since the data chips were encased in a think layer of plastic (though the Sega Cards that a few bargain bin games came on were much less durable). The cartridges and system were amazing in their ability to attract dust, no matter how often you used it or where you kept it (in all fairness, the NES was the same way).

The controller was basically a copy of the NES controller: a small rectangular block with four digital buttons and a directional pad on top. The difference was that it had an eight-way directional pad as opposed to the four-way pad on the NES. This made controls much easier in many games, especially side-scrolling shooters where you controlled a spaceship or plane. Surprisingly the controller was not uncomfortable as one might imagine, though my hands were a lot smaller at the time, so it is less comfortable now. The controller is still easy enough to use, it's just so much nicer to use one the current generation of controllers.

While the SMS did not have any special features that modern consoles come with (e.g. a built in music player), it did have a ton of accessories including arcade pads (Sega was trying to promote the SMS as a “home arcade system,” a light gun (similar to Nintendo's Zapper), and a few other accessories that never really took off. The most noteworthy accessory are the 3D glasses, which no other system ever copied. While not virtual reality, these glasses could give you an experience (kind of) similar to a 3D movie.

The biggest problem with Sega's accessories is that they were rarely ever used by game developers. This is a problem with all optional accessories, but it was more noticeable with Sega's. For example, despite the innovativeness of the 3D glasses, only six games ever took advantage of it. Likewise, the special controllers could be used with almost any game, but few developers ever created games with those controllers in mind.

The Sega Master System's (hell, all of Sega's systems) death blow came from its lack of third party support. Most of the game were developed, or at least published by Sega themselves. In all fairness to Sega, this was the fault of Nintendo who used the fact that they had 90% of the console market to strong-arm developers into signing long-term exclusivity contracts. The ten percent leftover was shared by Sega, Atari (who tried to make a comeback with their Atari 7800), and the Intellivision. As a result of Nintendo's market share developing exclusively for Sega wasn't very appealing, even without Nintendo's contracts. As a result only a handful of smaller companies signed on with Sega, mostly to avoid getting crushed by the big name developers who were working with Nintendo.

As if Nintendo wasn't doing enough to destroy the SMS, Sega made a serious mistake when they sold the rights to sell SMS games to Tonka Toys (in America anyway). After getting the SMS games, Tonka then proceeded to make a series of the worst marketing mistakes in the history of the gaming industry. They would reject bringing over games that were highly successful in Europe and Japan in favor of games that were absolute crap. As a result Sega never took off in America, though they did fairly well in Japan and Europe.

This is not to say there weren't any good games released for the SMS, just not enough to make the console worth owning. Phantasy Star is a fantastic game, and one of the few SMS series that still exists today, though not on a Sega console. Wonder Boy was also a great series that lasted a few generations. The classic shmup, R-Type, made its console debut on the Master System, as did Sonic (though it never made it to the US).

Like all of Sega's consoles, the Master System focused a lot on sports games and arcade ports. While all of the console makers tried to pass their products off as arcade machines at home, Sega actually meant it. Aside from the many sports games there are quite a few fighters (including the Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter series). Action games were another specialty with such classics as Shinobi, Alex Kidd (Sega's original mascot), and Ninja Gaiden.

When the Game Gear was introduced in 1990 it breathed new life into many Master System games. The GG was for the most part a portable version of the SMS, but with better graphics and sound. One of my favorite SMS games, Dragon Crystal, was a very rare SMS game, but was ported to the GG where it received more attention. Even though the SMS was a failure it did at least pave the way for the Genesis and Game Gear, which are two of the best systems ever made.

Fortunately Sega was able to reacquire the rights to US games later on, but it wasn't enough to save the SMS. It was around that time that Sega released a cheaper, redesigned system (the SMS II) and the Game Gear portable, as well as the Genesis console, which faired much better than the SMS. While the SMS failed in the US it did surprisingly well elsewhere, especially in Europe were it was not officially retired until 1995, ten years after it was introduced.

Was the Sega Master System worth owning back in the day? No, especially if you were in America. Was it nice to own an NES and have a friend who owned a Master System so you could play the few good SMS games? Defiantly. Now that the system is basically dead, you might as well go get a good emulator like MasterGear and get the ROMs online. Granted it's not exactly legal, but I really doubt Sega cares at this point about their SMS games. While you won't be able to use the accessories like the glasses or light gun, you will be able to get a hold of the many decent titles that never made in to America.


Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 04/20/05, Updated 09/26/05


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