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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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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