Review by Xodyak
Forward Thinking, Powerful, Intuitive, But No One's Master
Raw power. I remember that being a major determining factor when trying to choose between consoles. In fact, it still is today. That hasnt meant that the most powerful system has won the competition, or was even the best decision to own. Segas Master System was undeniably more powerful than the Nintendo Entertainment System, but it was also the lesser of the two.
Not everyone would jump to agree with me. The Master System caught fire in Europe and South America, where it was even more successful than Nintendos console. In the U.S. and Japan, Nintendo was king, and for good reason. The Master System didnt have the library or support that the NES did, but it did do many things right.
The Master System, also known as the Mark III in Japan, was Segas follow up to the Mark II, and was the first real foray into the western market. It was released in 1986, almost a full year after the NES, and had to deal with the third party strangle hold Nintendo was forming in the market. It didnt help that Sega enlisted Tonka to be their distributor and marketer, who knew nothing of software, which probably aided in their short fallings.
What also didnt help is how ugly the system is. An oddly shaped black box with system schematics labeled across the front with a maroon backing is no way to appeal to the kiddies. Even today, the system design has to be one of the oddest things I have seen. Nintendo had made the game market attractive again by appealing to the toy market, yet the Master System wanted to remind you how much of a hardware device it was.
The overall system design in terms of functionality works though. The cartridge slot is on the top with a dust cover, a major difference over the NES. Dont expect any flashing power light of cartridge blowing or reinserting here. The Master System works almost every time you put your game in, which is more than welcome over its competitor. The first model also has the card slot to be used for the budget games Sega released on the Sega Card and the 3D Glasses, which just looks cool knowing theres more to the system than the basics.
From a visual, and functionality standpoint, its easy to tell that the Master System was superior to the NES. Multi-platform releases such as Double Dragon and Rampage stress how big of a gap there truly was. Games are generally more colorful and run faster on the SMS, in addition to providing larger and more detailed sprites. The Master System also generates an RGB visual signal naturally. So with SCART or other methods you can have some of the clearest looking 8-bit visuals possible, something the NES just couldnt do.
The sound card is a different story. I find the Master Systems sound to be horrendous. While I find many 8-bit music to be enjoyable from the NES and the Game Boy, I never found that variety and variance with the Master System. I think Sega didnt either as there were plans for a sound chip to be installed through the extension port for an upgrade to music many games can utilize. Unfortunately, this feature stayed exclusive to Japan, but with third party hardware you can install in on American models as well. There are games I feel do a good job with what they have (OutRun being an example, which I prefer to the Genesis music), but the modification makes compatible games sound much, much better.
The controller provided is not very good. The directional pad is this square panel that does the job well enough, but nowhere near as good as the NES gamepads. I often find myself inadvertently pressing down when trying to move left or right, or I just dont find it as precise as the standard cross design. The two action buttons are rather mushy and seem to require more force to fully register. I will say it is more comfortable to hold than an NES controller for whatever reason, as the corners dont feel as sharp. Fortunately, you can use any of the amazing Genesis controllers instead. Be warned, the Genesis controller is not 100% compatible with every game.
The one major element missing from the controller is a start/pause button. Instead of placing this on the controller, Sega instead placed the pause button on the actual system itself. I have no idea how or why this happened, but if I ever needed to pause the game for any reason it severely interrupted play and for some games, resulted in game overs or major mistakes. What makes the pause button on the console even worse is that its right next to the reset button, and I sometimes get the two confused resulting in frustrating results.
Any review of the Master System wouldnt be complete without praise for some of the accessories and forward thinking decisions that were made for the system. For starters, every system came with a built in game. The one I have comes with Missile Defense 3D. Others come with a puzzle mini game, Hang On, Alex Kidd and so on. A built in game into the system itself was almost unheard of at the time, and continues to blow me away.
Accessories were also a very, very strong point for the SMS. Its Light Phaser put the NESs Zapper to shame. The light gun feels much more accurate and requires much less force on the trigger to activate a shot. This is probably why the SMS supports a lot more light gun games, and higher quality ones at that. Just make sure to use that CRT TV. Theres also the 3D glasses that work with specific games in the library. Sega used the same technology for its 3D that modern 3D TVs utilize. Not all 3D games are created equal, but games like Maze Hunter look incredible in 3D. How far ahead of the times the Master System was in this aspect alone make it worth a look.
With all the praise Ive given, its a wonder why the Master System couldnt best the NES. Until you address its library of games. There are only around 100 total games for the Master System in the west. Fortunately, you can import European games which will work on an American SMS just fine, but that doesnt solve the overall issue. The real issue is the lack of overall quality experiences. As said earlier, Nintendo had a strangle hold on third parties at this time, limiting the diversity in experiences available. Activision was a visible presence, they just didnt have any huge or significant games. But Segas effort didnt help matters much. Segas main experience was in the arcades, and the focus seemed to be on ports. Games like OutRun, Space Harrier, Altered Beast, and Shinobi were all released to the Master System with mixed results. There were obvious discrepancies from the arcade releases, choppy gameplay, and bad sound that hurt the overall experience. Sega tried making a mascot in Alex Kidd to compete with Mario, a console only appearance, but those efforts paled to any of the Mario games. There just wasnt a killer app for Sega to push to the audience. Even amazing games like Phantasy Star didnt take due to the lack of a console RPG base.
Without a strong library, the Master System couldnt perform at the same level of the NES. While it did many innovating things in the industry, it could never be the torch bearer Sega wanted it to be. It was a significant first step for Sega who would shake up the industry with its next system, which would allow the play of the Master System through an attachment.
If youre looking into purchasing a Master System, its very affordable to get into. Games are relatively cheap with the exception of the rarities, which there are few of. The problem, as stated earlier, is finding games as fun as what you can find on the NES, and a volume of such. Its a nice footnote in the history of videogames, and anyone who was around during the 16-bit era should at least check out where Sega learned their lessons.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Sega Master System Hardware (US, 06/30/86)
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