Sega Master System 101: A Beginner’s Guide

sms-101

Note from racketboy: Special thanks goes to Chrono for putting most of this guide together! The RetroGaming 101 series is aimed at gamers who are just starting out in the classic gaming scene or are curious about an older console that they don’t know much about yet.

Before Sega made wave with the Genesis/Megadrive in the 16-bit era, it had its first international console release with the Sega Master System.  It didn’t have nearly the success in the US as the Nintendo Entertainment System, but it had large market share in Europe and Brazil and still has quite a following.  We’ll try to cover all the basics about the Master System, but if you have any other tips or tidbits of info about this little machine, feel free to share it in the comments below.

Historical Impact

  • The First version is the Mark III, which was only released in Japan (1985) and was basically an upgrade of the SG-1000 II, it looks similar and is backwards compatible with SG-1000 games.
  • The Master System came out in 1986 in North America, EU and Japan in 1987
  • Due to strong International support (mainly in European markets and in other regions like Brazil), the Master System is the second best selling Sega console with 13 million units sold, only the Mega Drive/Genesis sold more.
  • The Master System enjoyed a decade of strong sales in Brazil and other smaller markets when Nintendo did not sell the NES.
  • Their were no official mascots for the Master System, but Alex Kidd and Sonic are often thought of as being the unofficial mascots. (But Sonic showed up on the Genesis first)
  • The Master System laid the technical groundwork for Sega’s portable Game Gear system.
  • In the global market, the Master System was heavily overshadowed by the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
  • While early consoles typically came bundled with a game cartridge (such as Mario/Duck Hunt on NES), the Master System had games embedded in the console hardware.
  • The 3D Glasses were an ambitious accessory — especially for a first-party release.  They worked well and were innovative.

Strengths

  • Good 8-bit Color Palette: Better color palette than the NES, 64 colors to the 48 on the NES.  The SMS had up to 32 simultaneous colors available (one 16-color palette for sprites or background, an additional 16-color palette for background only) from a palette of 64 (can also show 64 simultaneous colors using programming tricks)
  • Some Excellent Ports: R-Type, Alex Kidd games, Ghouls and Ghosts, Sonic 1, 2 and Chaos, Shinobi, Phantasy Star, Fantasy Zone (if it doesn’t render you blind) are all great on the Master System.   IThe SMS also has a better version of Castle of Illusion than on the Genesis/Mega Drive, even if it is very similar to Mario 2.
  • Phantasy Star – It’s worth repeating that the original Phantasy Star (a wonderful RPG) is on the Master System.  Will complement the three sequels on the Genesis quite nicely.
  • 3D Glasses – An early example of Sega’s creativtiy in both hardware and software.  It created a number of its games to support the 3D glasses accessory.  They are rather hard to find, but worked surprisingly well.
  • Strong Support in Brazil – Classic Sega systems are still quite popular in Brazil and the Master System received many games published well after the machine had died off elsewhere.  Games included ports of Street Fighter 2 and Dynamite Headdy (from Treasure)
  • Very Durable Console Hardware: The machine itself (Master System 2 mainly) holds up well to coffee spills, kickings and overplaying surprisingly well. I’ve broken a Master System 1, but I’ve had the same Master System since 1991.
  • Play On the Genesis With Power Base Convertor: Even if you don’t have a Master System, but do own a Genesis/Megadrive you can play Master System games, just put a Master System Converter into the console and you’re set.  The Genesis sound chip is actually the same processor as the Master System’s CPU, so everything runs perfectly.
  • Master System and Genesis/Megadrive Controllers Interchangable: That’s right — Master System and Genesis controllers use the same connector and are backwards/forwards-compatible with each other.  (and Atari joysticks too)  So if you prefer Genesis controller or just have a bunch laying around, don’t worry about hunting down Master System controllers.  You can also use Master System controllers with your Genesis/Power Base Converter combo for more authenticity 🙂
  • Solid Game Boxes: The game boxes are of good quality, none of that cardboard NES, SNES and N64 stuff
  • More Affordable in the UK – NES games are far more expensive in the UK than they are in America which is why the Master System is so much more attractive in that region.

Weaknesses

  • Limited Game Library: The Master System had about 300 games compared to the NES’ 500+  classics.
  • Most Multi-Platform Games are Inferior: Despite having a few excellent ports (see above), most games that showed up on both NES and SMS seem to be inferior.
  • Low Quality Controllers – The D-pad on the standard controller feels unresponsive at times and breaks quite easily.
  • Difficult to Find in the US: Both the consoles are hard to come by games in America compared to the NES or Genesis.

Hardware Variations

ms1 Master System (Model 1) / Mark III
The original Sega Master System was manufactured by Tonka. It was known as the Mark III in Japan (see picture of Mark III).  The original Master System and the Mark III included a card reader. The cards being slightly smaller than credit cards held less data than a cartridge, often lacking an ending to the games, there were very few card games.
ms2 Master System II
The Master System 2 was a cosmetic update that included some cost-saving technical changes as well.  Cartridges are inserted under the black plastic lid that slid back to expose the cartridge port. (Unfortunately, after repeated use, the lid over the cartridge slot loses it’s elasticity and just hangs half over)  The Master System II did not have an expansion port (which was never used anyway), card reader or reset button. All the cartridge games functioned properly on the SMS II, but because of the lack of a card port, the Sega Card games and the 3D Sega Scope Glasses were not usable on the SMS II. The Master System II also included Alex Kidd in Miracle World as the built-in game (1991 saw Sonic 1 built into some consoles)
ms3 Master System III (2003)
In Brazil the Sega Master System is still alive and well, mainly due to the fact that many people can’t afford to guy a brand new XBox or PS2 and so settle for the cheaper Famiclones or SMS clones instead. Looks pretty much like the domestic SMS II (which was also released in Brazil.) Not so sure about the pastel color though. I believe this console has Alex Kidd in miracle world built in, but I could be wrong. Picture taken from the Tec Toy website, the official distributor of Sega products for Brazil and most of South America.
ms3-2008 Master System 3 (2008)
The Master System 3 (not to be confused with the Master System III (above) from 2003). The new console has a more modern design similar to the Genesis/Megadrive and comes with 131 built-in games (such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Alex Kidd and Golden Axe and a six-button controller. (However, none of the included games have been found to support the extra buttons).  The main disadvantages are the lack of a cartridge slot and the relatively high price (about $125 USD)
mscompact Master System Compact / Girl
Only released in Brazil, this rather innovative iteration was the wireless Master System Compact developed by Tec Toy. This little machine actually transmits the audio and video over an RF connection (similar to over-the-air TV). It was produced from 1994 to 1997 and is still a collector’s piece. A variation of this machines was the Master System Girl, was also released in an attempt to attract female consumers. The only difference in this version is a strong pink casing and pastel buttons.
powerbaseconvert Power Base Convertor
Even though it isn’t a formal Master System console, I figured it should be included here since its a great way to play original Master System games.  Serving as a simple pass-through device, it will let you play Master System games perfectly on your Sega Genesis/Megadrive.
sms-portable Portable Master System
The Master System hardware are re-purposed into a smaller handheld form factor in late 2006. It is 3 AAA batteries, has a brighter active matrix screen, and contained 20 Game Gear and Sega Master System games. It was released under several brands including Coleco and PlayPal.

Game Library

  • Games That Defined The Sega Master System –  Many were direct competition to Nintendo’s biggest titles, but Sega did have some of it’s own personality in some areas.
  • The Cheapest Sega Master System Games Worth Your Time – If you want to build your Master System cart collection quickly on a budget, take a look at this guide to get your the values.
  • Much like the Genesis, the Master System had plenty of old-school sports to choose from. Games like World Class Leaderboard, Wimbledon, Super Kick Off and California Games are the front-runners (shockingly no Track and Field)

Accessing Built-In Games

  • The games Hangon/Safari hunt were built into later models of the original Master System to replace an unnamed puzzle game that was originally included.
  • Pressing up, 1, and 2 on Master Systems without Hangon/Safari Hunt would bring up snail maze
  • Pressing 1 and 2 and THEN turning the master system on, on master systems with hangon/safari hunt on (ie not Master System 2 onwards).

AV Connections

  • Composite cables are going to be the best standard video quality from the Master System.
  • The Master System uses the same video cables as the Model 1 Sega Genesis.
  • A hardware hack is available to put S-Video in your Master System

Master System Accessories

While this isn’t an extensive list, here are the most popular accessories for the Master System.  It’s also worth noting that Master System controllers use the standardized Atari-style 9-pin connector and can be connected without modification to all other machines compatible with that standard, including the Sega Genesis/Megadrive, Atari 2600, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum with Kempston interface or similar.
Here’s some additional pictures of Master System Accessories

controlpad Standard Controller
Very similar design to the NES controller.  Early versions of the pad had a removable thumbscrew and the connector cable came from the right side of the pad. Sega later revised the pad and took away the thumbscrew option and placed the connector wire at the top of the pad where it should have been to begin with. One odd thing worth mentioning is that standard Master System controllers did not have a pause button.  Other variations include a 6-button version that was released in Brazil and the SG Commander controller that was later released with built-in rapid fire.
controlstick Control Stick
This was supposed to give more control for arcades classics like Afterburner and Outrun.  For some strange reason, Sega put the buttons on the left side of the controller.  Understandably, this threw everyone off.  Even if you turned the controller upside down, the buttons were in the “wrong” order.
handle-controller Handle Controller
This controller for driving/flying games was only released in Europe. Supposedly, it broke easily.
sms-phaser Light Phaser
The light phaser was like the NES zapper but heavier and far more responsive and accurate (no need to go and press on the screen).  The styling was modeled after the Zillion gun from the anime series.  And much like the NES Zapper, Sega was forced to issue orange guns so they would not be mistaken for real weapons.  Tec-Toy also released a blue Light Phaser in Brazil.  (The SMS Light Phaser is not backwards-compatible with Genesis/Megadrive light gun games)
sports-controller Sports Pad
Only released in the USA and Japan, this trackball controller was required by some games, such as Sports Pad Football and Great Ice Hockey and isn’t supported in most games.
3dglasses 3D Glasses
Unlike the red/blue paper 3D glasses these actually work. The glasses plug into the Master System Power base 3D glasses adapter then into the Master System’s card slot. Unfortunately very few titles make use of this accessory.  Keep in mind, these only work with the original Master System and the Power Base Converter as they went into the card slot.
genesis-controller Genesis Controllers
As mentioned above, you can also use Sega Genesis/Megadrive controllers on your Master System as well (and vice versa).  The B and C buttons on the Genesis controllers correspond to 1 and 2 respectively and the other buttons (most notably Start) don’t do anything.

.

Emulation

  • Emulators are available from a variety of sources such as PC, Mac, Dreamcast, XBox, GP2X, Nintendo DS, PSP and more.  Many of the Master System emulators are actually built into Sega Genesis emulators as the Master System CPU is actually the Genesis sound processor.
  • The major PC emulators are Kega Fusion, Meka, FreezeSMS and Gens Plus — many emulators for other platforms are based on these emulators.
  • If you would like to learn more about emulating the Sega Master System with Kega, check out this guide for setting up Kega Fusion on a Windows PC.
  • You also have commericial emulation options like the Wii Virtual Console.

Importing

  • Master System games are region free between the US and the UK

Affordability

31 Comments

  1. Ack says:

    Good job, Chrono!

    Man, the combination of 3D glasses and light phaser really make me want a Master System…

  2. elvis says:

    Here’s a mod I did to add A/V and S-Video out to a Mater System II unit:
    http://www.stickfreaks.com/smsmod.php

    Picture quality is fantastic!

  3. ZikZak says:

    Very nice article.
    The SMS was my first console and I still love it, I’m collecting the Sega Cards now.
    I also purchased the Playpal months ago, a very good handheld and it survived in the hands of my nephews ^_^

  4. Aypok says:

    It’s nice to see that the SMS hasn’t been forgotten by everyone. 🙂

    A few corrections, though:

    * The SMS didn’t “lay the ground-work” for the Game Gear, since they are effectively the same machine (but the latter supports a palette of 4096 colours, has stereo sound, a smaller in-built screen, etc). But they have the same CPU, VDP (for the most part), RAM, sound system, etc.
    * Sonic 1 and 2 are not ports of the Mega Drive versions – they are completely different games.
    * Whilst the Mega Drive controller will work with most SMS games, /some/ don’t work correctly with them.
    * Not all SMS games came in plastic boxes; Tec toy’s early games were released in card boxes.
    * The orange tip of the light-phaser was a US-only thing, that did not happen in the EU.
    * While the SMS is region-free, Japanese carts won’t fit in to non-Japanese machines (except Korean ones) and Japanese cards won’t work on non-Japanese SMSes (even though they will fit).

    Two great sites for anyone interested in the Sega Master System: Sega 8bit (http://www.smstributes.co.uk/) and SMS Power! (http://www.smspower.org/). They both have great forums which are well worth checking out.

  5. d says:

    You might want to mention how the Japanese Sega Master system is far superior in the sound department due to FM sound which sounds completely different and much better.
    The FM unit was an option for the markIII, but the Japanese ms combined the two. fm sound was only for Japan.

  6. Alex (PresidentLeever) says:

    Portable sms has to be the most redundant console ever 🙂
    Great article!

  7. Alex (PresidentLeever) says:

    “Most Multi-Platform Games are Inferior: Despite having a few excellent ports (see above), most games that showed up on both NES and SMS seem to be inferior.”

    I don’t know about this though, which games would that be?

  8. Droid party says:

    @Alex(pre…)
    I know the port of double dragon is better on the sms than the nes.Apart from that your probably right.

    @Racketboy,Another great article buddy. This console was my initiation into gaming. I never owned one (my first console was a MD2 years later) but my mates and cousins pretty much all did and I played the hell outta em whenever I could.Great memories.

    One thing I will add. While the d-pad was rubbish, I always prefered the buttons over the nes. Overall Nintendo gamers definatly had the better pad.

  9. Pete says:

    Awesome post, well done.

    The SMS is a great buy for any MD fan. Games like the SMS versions of the Sonic Series, Donald Duck and the Lucky Dime Caper, Castle of Illusion etc. could have been inferior ports, instead they were completely different takes on their 16-bit cousins.

    I think I only had 2 or 3 friends who owned NES’s, the rest had SMS.

  10. caleb says:

    Excellent article!

    SMS is a nice little system for single player games. The controller does suck and you actually have to re-solder the thing to get it to work again if the D-pad breaks. I reccomend just using a Genesis controller if you are going to be playing Phantasy Star for hours.

    I have a model 1 SMS as well as a Coleco portable I got on clearance at Target.

    I don’t recommend the portable unless you get it for dirt cheap like I did. The emulation on games like Altered Beast is horrible.

  11. greenenergy says:

    Awesome article! THANKS A LOT!

  12. Sean says:

    There’s some really great stuff on this site. It’s an excellent source for obscure gaming info. I do take issue with this statement, though –

    “Most Multi-Platform Games are Inferior: Despite having a few excellent ports (see above), most games that showed up on both NES and SMS seem to be inferior.”

    The NES has its advantages over the SMS but this area isn’t one of them. This is how I would rak the multi-platform games:

    Better on NES:

    Ninja Gaiden
    Strider
    Rygar
    Double Dragon
    Dick Tracy
    Alien Syndrome
    Solomon’s Key/Solomon no Kagi

    Better on SMS:

    Bubble Bobble
    Rampage
    Operation Wolf
    Ghostbusters
    California Games
    Renegade
    Paperboy
    Gauntlet
    New Zealand Story/Kiwi Kraze
    Alien 3
    Klax
    Micro Machines
    Rambo
    Choplifter
    Cloud Master/Chuka Taisen
    Miracle Warriors/Haja no Fuuin
    Ultima IV/Quest of the Avatar
    Ys
    Asterix
    The Terminator
    Captain Silver
    Star Wars (U.S. Gold)
    Prince of Persia
    Marble Madness

    not to mention Sega’s own properties:

    Shinobi
    Space Harrier
    After Burner
    Fantasy Zone (moreso vs. the Tengen rev than Sunsoft one)
    Fantasy Zone II
    Altered Beast
    Wonder Boy (on NES as Adventure Island)

    Undecided:

    Monopoly (I never put much time into these versions)
    Spy vs. Spy (I mostly played the C64 version; I recall liking the NES one a bit more than the SMS port)
    Ms. Pac-Man (The NES one is closer artistically to the arcade but the SMS one has more detail)
    Heroes of the Lance (I barely touched this. The SMS looks nicer anyway).
    Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy
    Batman Returns (they’re pretty different. I wasn’t a big fan of either one)
    Lemmings (both seemed pretty downgraded from Amiga but I don’t remember them well)
    Rainbow Islands (I recall the NES one having less slowdown)
    Rampart (the SMS version seems better than the domestic NES port of the arcade but there was also a Konami version in Japan that was different. I never played it much due to to language barrier but it looked cool)

    I’m sure I forgot a few but you get the point. Some of these games are the same in name only, and I’m sure not everyone will agree on each version, but I think SMS easily wins for multi-format games. Even though I think the NES is the better overall system because of quantity of good titles, the SMS deserves a lot more credit than it usually gets.

  13. Eyeball says:

    Not too bad, you have several mistakes there, however. Go check out the sega8bit boys to learn more if you’re interested guys.

  14. Metalcrack says:

    Beautiful article! I’m glad to see someone showin’ some love for the Master System. I even found a few titles I need to pickup…

  15. marurun says:

    Good article but needs editing for grammar and typos/spelling.

  16. Vince says:

    You forgot to mention the SMS converter for Game Gear so you can play SMS game on your Game Gear. Otherwise an impressive article. Thanks.

  17. Arkanoid says:

    You really should give Asterix a mention! But apart from that (and the typos lol), another nice article.

    Btw, you should remove that Majesco 6-button controller POS and replace it with an image of the original Sega manufactured 6-button goodness. 🙂

  18. boringsupreez says:

    I have the power base converter. I bought it because I wanted to play Alex Kidd, but I prefered paying $30 dollars for a Genesis hookup than paying $50 for an actual master system. Also, a Master system related Item this list is missing is the attachment that lets you play Master System games on a GameGear.

  19. Radarscope1 says:

    Is the Power Base Converter also backward-compatible with SG-1000 games like the Mark II?

    Great job again, Chrono and Racket.

  20. Sturat says:

    The article implies that Sega issued completely orange Light Phasers like they did with Stunners, but actually, they just added an orange tip to some of them:

    http://segacollect.blogspot.com/2008/07/sega-light-phaser-is-one-of-most.html

  21. butane bob says:

    The master system 1 av output was a multi av out like the snes etc. You can get an RGB signal out of this but no svideo.

    Sean – Ninja Gaiden wasn’t a port, the sms version is its own game, and it’s actually really good.

  22. Aulbath says:

    A quick note, you can also use Commodore Amiga joysticks and other periphals on the Master System / Genesis / Atari (and of course it works the other way around – nothing beats playing Turrican with a proper joypad rather than a Competetion Pro)

  23. Darius says:

    Racketboy, great article, greatest site.^^
    I’m from Brazil and I had a SMS III, and it came with Sonic The Hedgehog on the console hardware. I bought mine in the early 90′, maybe 94, I can’t remember, but I now it was re-released several times around here, till that last one without cartridge slot, together with a re-release of GENESIS, Mega-Drive III around here, with 125 built-in games and without the cartridge slot too, and it costs about U$25 more.

  24. Darius says:

    *know

  25. racketboy says:

    Glad you’ve enjoyed it and thanks for the comments 🙂

  26. discoalucard says:

    The Power Base Converter is NOT compatible with any of the SG-1000 cards unfortunately. This is even the case with the Japanese version, the Mega Converter. It also only plays PSG sound. Personally, it may just be my nostalgia, but the SMS FM synth sounds pretty awful in practically everything, except maybe Ys. I greatly prefer the PSG.

    Also, while the SMS may have had a greater number of “superior” ports, they’re basically about games nobody cares about. I mean, great, the superior version of Captain Silver! The big stuff like Ninja Gaiden, Strider and Rygar were definitely better on the NES.

  27. Benj Edwards says:

    Awesome article, Racketboy. Thanks for putting so much work into this guide.

  28. Readme.readme.readme says:

    * Limited Game Library: The Master System had about 300 games compared to the NES’ 500+ classics.
    Uh, hello? SMS might not have as many games, but it has more GOOD ones. Like the N64, GameCube, or PS3.
    * Most Multi-Platform Games are Inferior: Despite having a few excellent ports (see above), most games that showed up on both NES and SMS seem to be inferior.
    Nu-uh.
    * Low Quality Controllers – The D-pad on the standard controller feels unresponsive at times and breaks quite easily.
    That’s fixable. Third-Party controller, anybody?
    * Difficult to Find in the US: Both the consoles are hard to come by games in America compared to the NES or Genesis.
    Oh.. Maybe so, but that’s not a downside.

  29. Readme.readme.readme says:

    I also have to say that the controller was made for lefties, which make up less of the population of the world than righties.

  30. Barbarian_bros says:

    I have a Brazilian ‘Master System III Compact’.
    The top half is grey when the lower half is black.
    The only video connector is a R/F antenna connector, so the on-screen picture is awfull if you compare it to the Scart RGB video connector image available in Europe…
    The included Game is Sonic the Hedgehog, a clue to guess it : the printed Sonic on the side of the Sega Logo.

  31. SMS_game-nerd says:

    The SMS is a fantastic console… I just modded mine with heat sinks if you want to check it out.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDU0jJ2xxxw

    There are a large wealth of PAL games available. I think it’s better than the NES in my opinion.