Hey folks, today’s text heavy update is a hardware profile of the Sega Master System that I created for the ever awesome Consoles and Conkers site. The feature still holds up, especially the mention of 3D gaming being the ‘future’ so I hope that you enjoy this old – but new to some – feature. Obviously for more like this head over to Consoles and Conkers itself and marvel in the Web 1.0 greatness.
Hardware Profiles: The Sega Master System
For many gamers, Nintendo’s toaster-like NES was the epitome of 80’s console gaming, with many great franchises being born and an entire generation of gamers turned forever to the ways of all things that go yellow over time. For me, and a number of like-minded individuals however, we were loyalists to the ‘other side’; the darker, more grown up world of Sega’s masterpiece, the Master System. Destined to be constantly overshadowed by the NES, the Master System saw many new concepts well in advance of other consoles and featured games with far more depth and vision than any Mario fan could find on the other side of the barricades. From the card-swallowing Star Trek-styled Master System 1 to the altogether more slender and squat Master System 2, Sega was testing the waters and most of what they tried floated like Russell Grant in a helium-jet Jacuzzi.
Power: 8 Giant Fists out of 10
Let’s get straight down to the facts, hands down the Master System was more powerful than the NES on every level, and yet it is the latter device that gets recognition as the trailblazer. The Master System was capable of more onscreen, more colours, better audio and thanks to the controller you could even hunt cattle if you wished. Thanks to it’s 8-bit Zilog Z80 processor, the little consoles that could manage the unimaginable. Take a look, if you will at this little comparison. The NES’s poster boy was most definitely Mario, and the Master System had that Big Eared freak Alex Kidd. Now both series made their debut on the 8 bit systems (at least in the form we know today) and yet the differences are immense.
Whereas Mario fans will hail the simplistic nature of Mario’s first outing, Master System owners were enjoying full colour bouts of rock paper scissors with genetic mutations, stopping only to chow down on burgers and outrun death. This would not have been possible without the power the Master System had under its casing. With the Master System you felt like you were playing a cartoon, a million miles away from the vector like graphics of many home computers, no colour limits here as you would find on the Spectrum, just good cute sprites. Of course some titles made little use of the machine’s power, Ninja for example, but it didn’t matter, if you picked out the right games you were in for not just a solid visual treat but a solid-playing game as well (something Sony should have paid more notice to *cough* Motorstorm *cough*).
Game Support: 8 Ubiquitous Crossover Titles out of 10
Sega may not have had a history steeped in the playing card industry, but it knew enough about the world to throw out title after title, often managing the near impossible feat of arcade conversions that resembled the originals, as well as coping well with licensed products and new intellectual properties. The original Master System had two ways of gaming, the ‘Mega Cartridge’ (which later became the two mega and four mega cartridges as games got larger) or the Game Cards which were under-supported and soon replaced, with the Master System II having Alex Kid in Miracle world or Sonic the Hedgehog cards fused into the machine as a built in game. Support was long lasting though, and much like police brutality is still popular in Brazil, which took to Sega’s machine with gusto.
Master System 1: 9 Dilithium Crystals out of 10
If anyone decided to make a console-movie, the Master System 1 would be played by Michael Dorn in full Klingon make-up, reflecting both the angular beauty of the machine, but also the Star Trek look of the piece. Like the A-Team and Knightrider before it, the Master System was decked out in stylish burgundy and black, (which almost sounds like a 1970’s crime-fighting duo I guess, “Burgundy and Black are BACK!”) and with more sharp edges than a Ford Capri, it was one hell of a bold looking device. A new style for a new generation. This console was designed to look like how you imagined a console would look like in the far off future, like Space Lego. This was the look consoles would have in 1995 and we had it nearly a decade early. Had Sega invented a time machine? No, obviously, as they would never have gone down the swanny if they had, but the Master System had a look you never forgot. Some say they prefer the second-generation machine, but not me. When I think of retro styled machines I think of two machines. The Atari 2600, with its timelessly attractive rose-wood paneling encapsulates the seventies, and the Master System was as eighties as you can get; no doubt purposely-designed to be sat upon a flimsy black ash computer desk bought from the back of your mum’s catalogue book. If you cut it, yuppies would fall out. With the right keypad inputs, it can probably even talk and transform in order to fight crime. The ‘Mega Base’ as the console was subtitled, was a schematic sketch brought to life. When the designer labeled components, the manufacturer labeled them on the real thing, lending an element of nigh surrealist genius. The card slot was labeled as a card slot. And it was a slot you put cards in. None of that ‘Mega Pak’ nonsense, Sega called a spade a spade, or at least they would have done if the Master System had one attached. It didn’t though. Shame that.
Master System 2: 8 Roll Back Hoods out of 10
As we have seen since day one, gaming evolves, fast. The same is true with console and computer design, with two reasons, mostly for money, but sometimes as a result of a console looking a bit daft. As the NES grew in popularity Sega soon realised that the now useless card slot, and the uber-cool nerdy styling of the original ‘Power Base’ were dating fast, while the off-white toaster was selling well. In stepped the sexy younger brother of the power base, and at once girls swooned as they viewed his non-mechanical roll back slot cover (something women should be fitted with, especially if they like their slots blown), its big sexy button that did nothing but pause the game (which could also be done in some games by pushing a button on the second controller) and the beefy muscular shape had no straight edges, the angles were gone and the curves were in. It was simple; it was all you needed and nothing more. So aesthetically it was both better and worse, depending on what your view of the first power base was. I preferred the angles and labelled parts, but that’s just me. The machine continued to sell well, lasting well into 1991 before it all went downhill, but the Mega Drive had landed, and Sega were riding high on a wave of publicity damning what Nintendo Nintendon’t do, or should that have been ‘what Nintendo Nintendidn’t do being as we are talking past tense?
Controller: 9 Possible Directions out of 10
Before the Playstation generation there were precious few peripherals and accessories that were essential. Of course the occasional joystick with a turbo button could be helpful, but it was the Master System that ushered in a new age of frankly barmy ideas, potentially resulting in the Menacer light gun as punishment for its sins, yet it also created the analogue controller culture we know today. The controller for the Master System was essentially the same as the NES pad, only it had the buttons the right way around. The originals had the quirky ‘wire coming out of the side of the pad’ theory going on (later developed in the Dreamcast’s ‘wire coming out the bottom’ experiment) before evolving into traditional ‘sticking out the top’ wires and it had a full on analogue control pad, with eight directions. To put that into perspective for you, the Xbox 360’s controller pad isn’t capable of that. Before the analogue d-pad most consoles had simple directional crosses or four separate buttons. But thanks to the Master System we can enjoy fighting games with rolling combos. Thank you Sega. If Sony had ripped off Sega instead of Nintendo with the PS1, the PSP would have had a decent control system, albeit still on a shite handheld.
Import Compatibility: 6 Less Pins out of 10
The Master System didn’t catch-on wildly anywhere in the world, with the exception of Brazil where it became a massive success, so as a result most games were released worldwide to try and make a return on production costs. But it was possible to import Japanese cartridges if you knew a decent importer, which in the late eighties had not really become a major thriving business venture, and even then they were of a different design so you would also need a Japanese machine. Japanese consoles used forty-four pin cartridges, in a different shaped case, while the rest of the world had fifty pin carts, so the American carts were the only ones that were compatible. With the lack of importers and low quantity of exclusive import titles available, you were essentially stuck with the still-healthy supply of games released in your own territory.
Accessories & Peripherals: 9 Ways to Eat Burgers out of 10
So the pad was a resounding triumph of engineering, but the best was yet to come. Evolving from the control pad came the Sega Control Stick, which flipped the buttons onto the left of the controller and added a chunky assed joystick for ultra realistic games of Afterburner. Many people resent the moving of the buttons but for others, particularly lefties like me it was a blessing, leaving our more artistic left hands able to button mash ‘righties’ into the dirt with all the grace of Jenna Jameson astride a sybian.
Is that it? Nope… prepare yourselves for the awesomeness that is…
THE SEGA 3-D GLASSES! A masterpiece of engineering so great that blind people today still wear them as a fashion accessory. Although only six 3-D games were released, and the glasses were only compatible with the original variant of the platform as they were plugged into the card slot missing on later models, the glasses provided the best home 3D gaming experience possible. As this ad shows us, the future of gaming was a reality for Master System owners: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMoMbXZCbT4
Then throw in a six-button controller; I shit you not, for playing beat-’em ups as well as some nifty multi-platform converters allowing Master System goodness on the more portable Game Gear (well, as portable as carrying a black plastic brick with a one hour battery life around with you is) and the Mega Drive. The Master System even managed to create a light gun that Sinclair would rip off for the spectrum, not that I blame them it was brilliance cast in plastic. That said, it must have caused problems when they both turned up to a party… “Oh you came as a Zillion gun too…”
Overall: 8.5 Forgotten Classics out of 10
When we look back at the Master System, the shadow of its offspring becomes deep and enveloping, but when compared to the consoles before it, the Vectrex, the Atari 2600 hell, even the Colecovision, it is clear to see how much of a leap was made in the little black bastard. Ok, it is easy to dismiss it as a demented half-brother in the Sega Family, but the fact that its games are still mostly playable today, the visuals stand alongside those of the Mega Drive well, and the sheer innovation demonstrated in the years it sat atop Sega’s family table cannot be ignored. For me it was the system that started my love of consoles. No loading times, no typing out instructions, just slot in the cart and off you go. With the coming of the second iteration it was slimmed down to the essentials, it was something you wouldn’t mind sat astride your 14 inch Grundig telly. Sega knew what worked, accepted what didn’t and threw it out. By bundling the second version with Alex Kidd built-in and Sonic in the box, they achieved a masterstroke and the first blow in the forthcoming great 16-bit wars. It may not have won the battle of immortality, but by Christ it stuck two fingers up at Nintendo and uttered a simple stark message.
“Someday, maybe sooner than you think, people will grow weary of family friendly entertainment systems and crave something will balls and when they do we will be there, Heck the challenge will always be there!”
Oddly the Master System is still in production, in Brazil and the Master System III is still a massive seller, which is only testament to how a simple idea can be enjoyed for an eternity, especially if stuck in a drug lord controlled market street.
Originally Published: 28th March 2007
Via: Consoles and Conkers