Year Released: 1986
Original Price: £99 (Core Pack)
Buy It Now For: £15+
Associated magazines: Mean Machines, Computer + Video Games
Why The Master System Was Great: With a far brighter colour pallette than Nintendo’s NES and some superb arcade conversions, the Master System proved to be a cracking purchase if you were a die-hard Sega fan
The Sega Master System is something of an enigma. One of the most powerful home consoles of its time, the machine is barely worthy of a footnote when it comes to deconstructing the history of the American and Japanese gaming industries. It sank almost without trace in these two key territories, failing to make even a dent in the seemingly impregnable armour of Nintendo’s NES (or Famicom). However, in other parts of the world – most notably Europe and South America – it was a tremendous success, winning hordes of fans and establishing Sega’s reputation as a first-rate purveyor of arcade smash hits in the process.
Founded in 1940, Sega (an abbreviation of ‘SErvice GAmes’) initially gained renown for its unique brand of automated coin-operated arcade games. Having plenty of experience in the field of amusements, the company was perfectly poised to compete when ‘true’ arcade titles like Pong and Space Invaders started to appear. Thanks to games like Future Spy and Zaxxon, Sega soon garnered a reputation as something of an expert when it came to arcade thrills and spills.
As the Eighties began to unfold, the videogame industry seemed unstoppable. Encouraged by the sterling performance of its coin-op division, and the sheer amount of money American company Atari seemed to be making from the VCS/2600, Sega decided to enter the home entertainment arena. Released in 1983, the SG-1000 was Sega’s first attempt at cracking the console market. However, it was not the triumph the company had hoped for. To make matters significantly worse Atari managed to successfully flush the US home videogame market down the toilet in the same year, causing the first worldwide videogame crash. Sega’s assets were hit badly in the ensuing fallout, but salvation came from American David Rosen (who had previous ties with Sega) and Japanese businessman Hayao Nakayama. These two men stopped the firm from collapsing into the gaping hole created by Atari’s poor management.
After a period of stabilisation, Sega was purchased in 1984 by Japanese corporation CSK and subtly re-christened ‘Sega Enterprises’. Despite the abject failure of the SG-1000, plans were made for a successor in the shape of the updated SG-1000 ‘Mark II’. Sega, like fellow Japanese company Nintendo, knew that although the crash of 1983 had damaged confidence in the videogame industry, it had created a void that simply begged to be filled – in Japan at least. The Mark II struggled to shift units at retail, but this hardware would eventually evolve into 1985’s SG-1000 ‘Mark III’ – bar a few technical differences this was the Master System in all but name.
It was around this time that Sega’s rivalry with Nintendo – which would later bloom into a full-scale war when the Mega Drive and SNES arrived on the scene – became apparent. Sega’s machine was more powerful than Nintendo’s, but when the Mark III and Famicom went head-to-head in Japan the former was given a rather humiliating beating by the latter. Nintendo’s popular console trounced Sega’s technically superior hardware thanks to a wealth of third-party support. Developers were infamously forced to agree that they would not publish their NES titles on rival hardware, which left Sega in a rather tight predicament – it could only rely on its own home-grown arcade titles for so long. The solution was to obtain the rights to ‘re-program’ the games of other developers (a process that PC-Engine creator NEC also indulged in, ironically converting many of Sega’s key arcade hits to its own 8-bit format), but even this strategy wasn’t perfect – many of the licensed titles were distinctly lacklustre compared to the ‘cream of the crop’ that the NES enjoyed.
Undeterred by the underwhelming performance of the Mark III on home soil, Sega decided to release the hardware in the US, where it was radically re-styled and rebranded as the impressive-sounding ‘Master System’. Released in 1986 (a year after Nintendo performed the same trick with the Famicom, which became the big loveable slab of grey plastic known as the NES), the Master System found itself in a similar predicament to the one experienced in Japan. Nintendo had spent the previous year busily promoting its new console and had snapped up key developer support from Capcom, Konami and Taito. Again, Nintendo requested that developers keep their games ‘NES exclusive’, and given the unassailable position the console enjoyed, few had the will to defy this request. Despite possessing technically superior hardware, Sega had, unfortunately, come to the party too late, with the Master System also crippled by a meagre software library. Compared to the multitude of third-party developers that supported the NES, Sega was only able to call upon the allegiance of two in the US: Activision and Parker Brothers.
By 1988, Sega’s Japanese overlords had decided that enough was enough. Keen to offload the under-performing console, the questionable decision was made to sell the US distribution rights to toy firm Tonka. While the company was the indisputable king of the bright yellow plastic digger, it, sadly, had no experience whatsoever of effectively selling a cutting-edge electronic entertainment system. Tonka immediately made some puzzling choices regarding software choices and vetoed the localisation of several key titles (many of which were selling like hot cakes elsewhere in the world). Compared to the stunning collection of software available on the NES, the result was something of a foregone conclusion. Despite Tonka taking over the distribution duties, the Master System continued to perform poorly and was all but ignored by American gamers.
A rather pointless Japanese release of the Master System hardware followed in 1987, with the console being treated with the same level of disdain as its predecessor – unsurprising when you consider it was effectively the same machine that had been released to general apathy in 1985. It was eventually discontinued in Japan two years later. Any other company would have capitulated in the face of such a dismal performance, but Sega wasn’t about to give up without a fight. Carefully scanning the globe for possible conquest, the stubby finger of fate fell on Europe – the one region where Nintendo’s influence had yet to be felt. Nintendo had released the NES in Europe towards the end of 1986, but poor promotion coupled with a lofty price point meant that the market penetration enjoyed by the machine was decidedly unimpressive. Sega saw the opportunity and pounced.
Ably distributed by UK company Mastertronic (previously famous for releasing budget games for the 8-bit home micros), the European variant of the Master System was unleashed in time for Christmas 1987. Spurred on by adverts that promoted the console as ‘an arcade in the home’, and supported by a range of killer coin-op classics such as Hang On, OutRun, After Burner and Space Harrier, the Master System quickly mopped up the market share Nintendo had been too slovenly to secure. Gamers weaned on the Spectrum and C64 suddenly saw the attraction of owning a home console – rather than playing bumbling, half-arsed conversions of their favourite arcade hits by Western companies only concerned with cashing in on popular titles, fans could indulge in highly accurate ports produced by Sega itself. “The Master System raised the bar in terms of arcade-style home gaming,” explains Neil West, former editor of Sega Power magazine. “The hardware was a leap forward from the home computer systems we’d all been used to.” It was with the Master System that many UK gamers experienced instantaneous loading – an astonishing revelation after years of waiting for tapes to load on the home computers.
Such was the success of the machine that Mastertronic soon found that the Master System was accounting for nearly its entire yearly turnover. Such spectacular performance attracted the attention of Richard Branson’s Virgin, who eventually acquired the firm (which was renamed Virgin Mastertronic) and, therefore, the European distribution rights to Sega’s hardware and software. It was a timely intervention and a shrewd business move as the Master System’s successor was on the horizon and it would prove to be even more successful…
Four Great Master System Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 44, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
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