Games That Defined The Sega Master System

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While most gamers probably think of the Genesis/MegaDrive as Sega’s first console, the Master System System actually preceded the the 16-bit wonder but failed to adequately compete with the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Technically, the Master System was superior to the NES, with better graphics and higher quality sound. However, the SMS came up short for the most part in terms of quality games.

Even though the Master System may not have quite the library that the NES has, there are a few gems to check out if you happen to have a Master System or at least via emulator. Here is a quick rundown of the best exclusive games in the Master System library.

 Phantasy Star
As one of the greatest exclusive SMS games, Phantasy Star was an RPG that topped any other game in the genre that was from the 8-bit generation. Phantasy Star was also the first console RPG to be released in the United States since Nintendo had not seen fit to import either Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy for the NES at that time.

Phantasy Star was jam-packed into a full 4MB cartridge and was superior to both games in terms of both graphics and sound. It delivered fully detailed on-screen displays and character graphics (as opposed to the tile-like graphics of Nintendo’s offerings) and made full use of the Master System’s PCM synthesis chip to deliver one of the best FM-based audio experiences ever heard in an “old-school” 8-bit RPG.

Originally developed a showpiece, Yuji Naka’s Phantasy Star was also one of the last titles ever made by Sega for its 8-bit console. It went on to became one of the most popular games Sega ever released and quickly attracted a worldwide following. A science-fiction RPG with decidedly fantasy elements as well, it told the story of a young woman named Alis and her quest for justice against an age-old evil threatening her world.

It was superior to both of them in terms of graphics and sound, delivering fully detailed on-screen displays and character graphics (as opposed to the tile-like graphics of Nintendo’s offerings) and making full use of the Mark III’s PCM synthesis chip to deliver one of the best FM-based audio experiences ever heard in an “old-school” 8-bit RPG. It is also worth mentioning that Phantasy Star was the first RPG to use first-person perspective (during the dungeon-crawling sequences). As a true landmark in RPGs, Phantasy Star is definately worth a try.
Full Review of Phantasy Star

 Golden Axe Warrior
The Legend of Zelda was a ground-breaking game in the 8-bit era and many other development houses did their best to join in on the party and make their own “version”. (This practice still goes on to this day — Grand Theft Auto clones, anyone?)

As good as The Legend of Zelda was, there were actually “ripoff” games that actually beat out the original ins a number of aspects. SMS’s answer to Zelda was known as Golden Axe Warrior (Golvellius is another title in this catgegory as well, but was not exclusived to the SMS).

Golden Axe Warrior was a RPG spin-off of the popular Golden Axe arcade series that follows a young warrior who was trying to avenge the death of his parents by exploring nine caves and collecting missing diamonds. The infamous Death Adder, from Golden Axe, makes a cameo as the boss of the game.

The graphics in Warrior were the most obvious improvement over Zelda (much like other “clones” like Crystalis) with colorful and detailed sprites with plenty of animation. While the sound and music department didn’t hold up to Zelda, Warrior was still solid in terms of gameplay and story.

Now that these older games are much more accessible (aka emulation), games such as Golden Axe are definately worth a good look for those that enjoy the Action RPG genre.
Full Review of Golden Axe Warrior

 

 Sonic the Hedgehog
Perhaps most impressive Sega Master System games were the late-era conversions of Genesis hits like Sonic the Hedgehog that truly showcased the power of Sega’s 8-bit machine.

If you are at all familiar with the Sonic games on the Genesis, you know what to expect in term of gameplay.

While the Master System version obviously is going to have some graphical compromises, it holds up fairly well. (Keep in mind the Game Gear uses the same basic hardware) Master System Sonic is still incredibly colorful and there is a surprising amount of detail.

While this game is still a rarity (see our feature on the Holy Grails of Console Gaming), you should still be able to emulate it quite easily.

 Alex Kidd
Before there was Sonic the Hedgehog, there was Alex Kidd. This monkey-like boy in the red jumpsuit was Sega’s mascot in the early years.

His first game, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, was released in 1986 and is considered to be a true classic. In 1990, this game was re-released, by having it built into the Master System II model, replacing the Snail Maze/Safari Hunt/Hang On (depending on the version) game(s) of the first model.

Unlike the Sonic series where changes in game mechanics between games are minimal, most games in the Alex Kidd series differ dramatically from one another, the sole exception being Alex Kidd in Miracle World, and its direct sequel Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle (from the Genesis/Megadrive). While most games in the series were still platform-based, the only things tying these games together as a series were the name and the title character. The fact that fans of the first game were completely lost with the rest of the series may have been a contributing factor to the failure of this series.

The Alex Kidd Master System franchise included Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars,Alex Kidd BMX Trial, Alex Kidd in High-Tech World, (This game is actually a modified version of the Japanese Master System game Anmitsu Hime.) and Alex Kidd in Shinobi World.

 Wonder Boy
Yes, the 8-bit era was filled with platformers-a-plenty. As if Alex Kidd and Sonic the Hedgehog were not enough, we also have another gem of a series called Wonder Boy.

The main character in Wonder Boy is known as “Tom-Tom” – a caveman-like character whose girlfriend has been captured by a monster. The player must guide Tom-Tom through nine areas (each with multple rounds) made up of forests, hills, oceans, caves and ice palaces.

Tom-Tom can arm himself with a stone hammer, which he can throw at oncoming foes, a skateboard with which he can rush through the levels and survive one attack by an enemy, and temporary protection by a fairy which allows him to destroy foes by simply running into them.

The original Wonder Boy game was also followed up by Wonder Boy in Monster Land and Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. It’s also interesting to note that Hudson’s Adventure Island series actually started off as a clone of Wonder Boy. The first game was basically Wonderboy with slightly different sprites and a different title. (The sequels were original, however)
Full Review of Wonder Boy

 3D Games
The Sega Master System was also the first home console to experiment with virtual reality in the form of 3D glasses.

These spectacles were little more than an electronic variation of the red/green or red/blue 3D spectacles used by thrill-seeking moviegoers back in the 1950s. Each lens would rapidly strobe between opaque and clear, and this was carefully timed to correspond with identical rapid shifting of on-screen graphics imagery to simulate a 3D environment.

While admittedly crude by today’s standards, they worked quite well and proved popular enough to warrant a series of SMS games designed especially for their use. This was the top-of-the-line model as far as the SG-1000 product line went, but it would not be the last iteration of the hardware.

Gamers raved about them (and still do), because they provided a very immersive experience. Unfortunately, only six 3D games (Blade Eagle 3D, Maze Hunter 3D, Missile Defense 3D, Space Harrier 3D, Poseidon Wars 3D, and Zaxxon 3D) were released, and the glasses only worked with the first version of the SMS (SMS I).

 Arcade Ports
One of the biggest selling points initially for the Master System was its library of arcade ports. This technique may have worked if every other console didn’t use the same marketing technique.

Fortunately, the Master Systems superior power gave it an edge over the NES. However, most of the arcade ports still weren’t terribly impressive.

Sega naturally built up the bulk of the arcade libary with titles such as Outrun, After Burner, Space Harrier, Hang-On (which was integrated into one version of the console), Thunder Blade, Teddy Boy, and Shinobi.

In addition to the Sega arcade classics, you can find some enjoyable ports of other arcade games. Double Dragon was far more faithful to the arcade hit than the NES version, and Sega’s version of R-Type was just amazing. Other successful conversions include Ninja Gaiden, Rampage, Ghouls n’ Ghosts, and Choplifter.


Psycho Fox
Ok, here is yet another platforming game — I just could let this one slip by. Psycho Fox didn’t get a worldwide release, so not everybody got a chance to play this title.

Throughout the game, Psycho Fox has the ability to transform into a hippopotamus, a monkey, or a tiger, each of which has its own special ability. This was a rather unique feature in the early days of platforming (but made popular by Super Mario Bros 3.)

Although it wasn’t my favourite Master System game, it is definately worth a play every now and then. Alex Kidd and Wonder Boy are a lot better in many ways, but it is a good complementary title in a Master System library.
Full Review of Psycho Fox

Honorable Mentions:
Astro Warrior – Along with Hang-On, integrated into one version of the console (the Sega Base System, which was slightly less expensive and lacked the Light Phaser).

Safari Hunt – Sega’s answer to Duck Hunt Integrated into one version of the console

Snail Maze – A simple maze game that was included on the system BIOS. It was accessed by pressing and holding Up and buttons 1 and 2 after turning on the system without a game loaded.

Ys: The Vanished Omens
– While it was not a SMS exclusive, this version is credited with introducing many players to the legendaryYs series of RPGs.

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55 Comments

Anonymous says:

holy crap, I gotta try Golden Axe RPG… thanks for the heads up!

gnome says:

Hmm…perhaps A Master Sytem can be a worthy buy… They are dead cheap over here you know…

Anonymous says:

The Ninja Gaiden game for the MS was by no means an arcade port. It was a game all it’s own. It’s so good! I like it better than all of the NES versions of the game and I love those. Racket, you should do a meta review of the MS Ninja Gaiden and give it a little attention!

kevinski says:

I’ve played Ninja Gaiden for Master System, and I agree; that game is amazing. Much better than the NES versions. As for Golden Axe Warrior, yes, it’s very, very enjoyable, as well. I love the opening text dialog whenever you start a new quest. It’s basically something along the lines of, “Death Adder destroyed your town. Death Adder killed your parents. [Yadda yadda…]” It just makes me laugh. ^_^

Anonymous says:

Yeah the MS Ninja Gaiden was the reason why I bought a Master System in the first place. Now I have two!

I’ll have to try Ninja Gaiden and Golden Axe Warrior sometime. I haven’t had my Master System very long, so i’m still looking for some good games!
Anyway, i’m wondering if someone can clarify for me: I was under the impression that the Sonic games for the SMS were different from the Genesis versions entirely, and that they were the same as the Game Gear versions (which would make sense since the hardware is basically the same). Anyone know for sure about this?

Anonymous says:

Alright from what I can tell is that the gameplay, level design, and sounds of the GG Sonic and MS Sonic are exactly the same. The only differences I could tell is that the screen is “zoomed-in” on Sonic in the GG version probably just to make it easier for portability on a smaller screen, therefore the MS version is easier to play because you can see more of the level at one time (the Gameboy versions of Megaman is similarly harder than the NES versions for the same reasons). There may be other differeces but this was just an observation of a quick play of both.

kevinski says:

I hate the GG Sonic games, especially Sonic 2. Take about a game that is just laden with cheap deaths.

Anonymous says:

Ugh…especially that damn hangliding segment….

Anonymous says:

By the way I have a SMS that I’m thinking of putting on eBay. It has the box and styrofoam(though both are pretty worn) and all of the controllers and light gun. I’ll probably throw in a game or two. Anyone interested?

Anonymous says:

Psycho Fox is pure crap. Even at release it was an obviously botched attempt to copy a Mario game.

I have serious reservations about a lot of this article, actually. It’s bizarre that you’d mention Wonder Boy instead of Wonder Boy in Monster Land, and if you’re going for NES parallels (Zelda, Metroid etc) you should really include Master of Darkness – a Castlevania clone that easily equals the game it mimics. Phantasy Star is a 4Mbit cart (ie, 300KB), not 4MB (MegaByte) as listed, and the “PCM synthesis chip” you’re mentioning is probably an incorrect reference to the Yamaha FM synth included in Japanese Master Systems, which was well used by Phantasy Star.

Next time get someone who knows the system a little better to do the writeup? And for God’s sake, stop linking to worthless GameFAQs reviews…

racketboy says:

I mentioned all of the Wonderboy games, not just one.

Some of the information you are correcting is from Wikipedia, so maybe you should take it up with them.

As for the reviews, you find me some better ones, and I’d be glad to link to them.

Anonymous says:

You wrote:

“It is also worth mentioning that Phantasy Star was the first RPG to use first-person perspective (during the dungeon-crawling sequences).”

That is not true at all.

First person perspective was used in several RPG’s long before the Sega Master System was even conceived!

Perhaps the oldest example is Richard “Lord British” Garriot’s Akalabeth, circa 1979.

Yes – 1979!

And while that game may not be a full RPG, the Ultima series of the early 80’s also used this type of view, and they were THE games that early Japanese RPG’s devs were mimmicking.

racketboy says:

I was speaking in terms of console gaming, actually, but thanks for bringing those up!

Anonymous says:

Excellent article, thank you!

Anonymous says:

You are totally missing wonderboy 3, this is THE title to own on the master system. Also did the master system have some awesome shoot’mups like r-type and power strike….

Koobert says:

On a trip home to see the family last month, I hooked up the old SMS. I made a good stab at playing through two of the best SMS games you didn’t mention – Spellcaster and Kenseiden. Spellcaster was one of the better looking SMS games, and although at the time disappointing (back then, EGM called it the sequel to Phantasy Star) it aged really well. Check out a ROM of it if you get the chance, it’s a bizarre combo of Shadowgate/Deja-Vu adventure gaming and Castlevania. It plays just like the later Genesis game Magic Defender.

H says:

Nice write on the best 8 bit system (Master System)

It always used to kill me, how my friends used to love to come over and play my Master System and how much they liked it better than their Nes sitting at their homes.

Metroid / Zillion… I liked Zillion better

SMB3 / Sonic 1 (SMS)… I liked Sonic better and even better than the genesis version.

Dragon Warrior/Final Phantasy /… Phantasy Star all the way

Zelda/ Golden Axe Warrior … This one is a tie. But Golden Axe is superior in the graphics department.

Ninja Gaiden (Nes)(all 3) / Ninja Gaiden (SMS)… Master System’s one game was better than all three. It plays close to a 16-bit game.

SMB2 / Alex Kidd in Shinobi World … This is my personal favorite Alex Kidd game. SMB2 was good, but I would rather have AKISW.

Man I love the MASTER SYSTEM, my favorite system of all time.

Gary says:

RE: Zillion.

Zillion wasn’t just a laser tag game – it was an Anime series co-produced by Sega. The SMS Light Phaser and the laser tag game are modeled on the guns used by the characters in the series.

This idea was later used in reverse, when Nintendo incorporated the Zapper gun into the Captain N cartoon series.

God, how do I know this stuff? I’ve wasted my life…

No SuRReNDeR says:

Ok I was one of like 4 kids in my school that had an SMS and I agree with most of these posts. However, I think there are 3 games not mentioned here that were equally amazing.

#1.Miracle Warriors: the Seal of the Dark lord-
A great rpg with great monster art and for the time great graffix. If you like phantasy star dont miss miracle warriors.

#2.Spellcaster- This Anime style rpg was also a side scrolling action game. It was a unique mix of puzzle solving rpg and action. This is one of the first games I remember where the plot was key to what made it so great. The graffix are almost genesis quality at times.

#3.Fantasy Zone- This is the weirdest shooter I have ever played but strangely addictive. You have to get money from the creatures you shoot to buy “upgrades” to your ship /guy/thing–Opa OPa I think it was called . Anyways you may not want to waste all your money on the rocket booster when the big wings are easier to control. This is a classic Sega game.

Chris George says:

I definitely agree with the above poster regarding Fantasy Zone. That game had more vibrant colors and better graphics than any NES game out at that time. I actually just recently finished the game for the first time, through the use of an emulator and constantly saving the state of the game.

Pingfa says:

A pretty good list, though I think quite a bit of those games are redundant due to the fact that they are either Genesis ports or there is a better Genesis remake.

Personally, I always really loved The Ninja for the Master System as a kid, and it was my most played game for Master System.

However, your description of Zillion has really sparked my interest. I haven’t played it, but I loved Super Metroid and had been looking for a game on the Genesis that was even close to Super Metroid, but had not luck…
I wouldn’t assume Zillion is superior to Super Metroid, but it certainly seems worth checking out. What, in your opinion, is the funner game: Zillion, or Super Metroid?

I would love for a similar game on the Genesis, but I highly doubt such a thing exists. 🙁

See you next time.

racketboy says:

Actually, if you want a Metroid-like games on the Genesis, check out Phantom 2049
http://www.racketboy.com/retro/2007/03/review-phantom-2040-sega-genesis-super.html

Thanks for the comment!

Matt says:

What about Sonic 2, Wonder Boy 3 and Asterix? They all had such a cool vibe. Glad to find that Psycho Fox got a say.

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