For those of us in North America, the Sega Master System could be viewed as a Hidden Gem itself, but we are excited to share a collection of games that are highly recommended checking out if you’ve already explored some of the Defining Games of the console (although some of these might actually be even more satisfying). I’ve had many discussions with many experienced Master System fans in order to determine a list of all the best Master System games that most people haven’t played (or possibly even heard of). Much like previous entries in the Hidden Gems series, this guide is divided up by genre to help you find games that suit your tastes.
I’ve done my best to not only include multiple in-depth recommendations for the most popular genres, but also include a handful of honorable mentions. For a system like the Master System, which doesn’t have a lot of mainstream exposure — especially in North America, honorable mentions may include both relatively unknown games that are interesting for fans of the genre, but also impressive ports of otherwise well-known games that didn’t get the attention that they deserve.
A special thanks to those the contributed their game summaries: PresidentLever, G to the Next Level, and Blu of Tightwad Gamer, and everyone else in the forum that pitched in with ideas! If you have more games to share, please use the comments section below and I’m terribly sorry if we overlooked your personal favorite!
In this classic platformer, you star as a fox (who would have guessed?!) who progresses through stages by punching and jumping. You can either punch or jump on enemies, and defeating enemies allows you to collect usable items. The most useful items that you can collect is a little black bird who you can throw around like a boomerang to defeat enemies and act as your only hit point in the game. The running and jumping can feel a bit “slippery”, so the controls can take a bit getting used to, but they will eventually become predictable while also being responsive.
By utilizing the Psycho Stick item, Psycho Fox has the ability to transform into a hippopotamus, a monkey, or a tiger, each of which has its own special abilities, strengths and weaknesses. This was a rather unique feature in the early days of platforming, but seems very inspired by the powerups in Super Mario Bros 3 or the multiple selectable characters in Super Mario Bros 2.
There are multiple paths available in each level, with varying difficulty and item pickup possibilities (reminiscent of many of the 2D Sonic the Hedgehog games). The later levels do ramp up considerably in difficulty, but they also happen to show off some excellent level design skills (although some are indeed inspired by its peers)
While it might not have the charm and polish of Alex Kidd or Wonder Boy, it could be considered the best pure platforming game on the Master System. Despite its rather straightforward presentation, Psycho Fox has lots of solid gameplay mechanics and depth built into it.
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While Quartet is a spin-off of Sega’s arcade game of the same name, it really is a different game. There was a great video from My Life in Gaming that compared the arcade version to Corey’s beloved Master System version.
While the arcade version thrived on its 4-player adventure setup (riding off the popularity of Gauntlet), the Master System maintains a lot of its cooperative sci-fi action but with only two-players. There’s only six levels in the SMS version compared to the 32 arcade levels. However, the home console version brings in bigger, more interesting levels — a worthy tradeoff for the extra level design substance.
The objective of Quartet is to navigate through each maze-like, side-scrolling level while shooting or avoiding enemies. You must ultimately defeat the boss that carries the door key used to open the “exit door” for the level. Some of the levels in this Master System version have multiple rooms that add some depth and challenge. Along the way, there are power-ups along the way (which you drop when you get hit), and when playing multiplayer it’s fun to race for those items in addition to trying to beat the level together. When playing in co-op, Quartet feels much more balanced and the fun levels increase as a result. An added bonus, you can jump on the shoulders of your teammate, letting you reach objects like power-ups and out-of-reach ledges.It’s entertaining to fly around on your jetpacked teammate blasting enemies. With that in mind, it’s also worth stating that the Master System version is more fun than the arcade when comparing single-player experiences.
Some have compared Quartet to the run-and-gun stylings of Contra, but it has much more of an exploratory aspect to it that still has some Gauntlet vibes along with some Fantasy Zone similarities. The changes made to the Master System version of Quartet feel like a good decision as it makes for one an interesting gameplay experience that isn’t really replicated anywhere else in the 80s and 90s eras.
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Master of Darkness
As the underdog in most parts of the world in the 1980s, Sega was extra scrappy and did their best to offer in-demand gaming experiences. Of course, Sega did come up with some original creations, but Master of Darkness is an example of replicating a classic to prevent loyalists from switching over to Nintendo.
Just by looking at certain screenshots of Master of Darkness on the Master System, you can tell that the developers made few attempts to cover up their inspirations for the game.
The bulk of the level design is very similar to Castlevania, with platforms connected by staircase made of diagonally-arranged square blocks. However, some of the settings are somewhat unique compared to the Castlevania games that were released at the time.
There were a handful of things that Master of Darkness had as a selling point over the early Castlevania titles — especially its more responsive and flexible controls. The protagonist, Dr. Social can alter his course mid-air and jump off stairways (however, there isn’t the option to jump off of stairs).
He can also pick up four different melee weapons along the way, each with advantages and disadvantages. There’s also some sub-weapons you can collect and utilize as well. Master of Darkness also has the Master System hardware to thank for outputting its detailed graphics.
If you ask around, you will likely hear different opinions spanning from Master of Darkness being superior to the original Castlevania to it being a blatant knock-off. In reality, it’s a solid game that may not have the refined polish of Konami’s classic, but has enough redeeming qualities to make it a worthwhile adventure to those that enjoy the Castlevania series or the Metroidvania “genre”.
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Typically a Ninja Gaiden game would not be in one of our Hidden Gem guides, but this is a rather unknown installment of the series that is not a port of the essential NES classic. Even in Europe and Brazil, where the Sega Master System thrived, this Ninja Gaiden title went mostly undetected and it was never released in other regions. The fact that the NES game was called “Shadow Warriors” in PAL regions may have something to do with it.
Ninja Gaiden was a technical wonder on the NES, but seeing Temco’s work on the Master System is a little breathtaking. The shading, detail and animation on the sprites is quite impressive for an 8-bit machine and makes. The movements of Ryu’s sprite is pretty impressive even by 16-bit standards. And while the NES Ninja Gaiden has some iconic tunes, the Master System Ninja Gaiden has a sweet sound with its own personality.
So what about the gameplay? Well, the overall controls will feel very similar to its NES brethren, as will the attacks and power-ups. The Master System version runs very fast with no slowdown. The controls are also spot-on. It’s still a very challenging game, but you definitely won’t be able to blame it on cheap design and lackluster controls. It’s pretty much how you would dream the game would run — perhaps like on a well-done modern revival game.
In regards to the challenge, one thing that does make the situation more forgiving vs the NES version is that you get to keep your ammo and power-ups if you die. However, there are some enemies in the Master System game that take multiple hits to defeat, while the NES standard enemies take a single hit. Regardless, Ninja Gaiden will definitely push you to learn the gameplay system and be on your game at all times to succeed.
The level designs are completely fresh and well-designed. There’s multiple approaches you can take to the different levels, which gives you some creativity in your gameplay.
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Also known as “Legend of a Great Swordsman” or “Sword Saint Legend”
If you’re into Shinobi or Ninja Gaiden, Kenseiden is a solid hack-and-slash Master System game to look into as it seems to draw a handful of inspiration from these legendary titles. Some have also compared it to Castlevania with a samurai theme due to the control/movement similarities between Kensieden’s protagonist, Hayoto and Castlevania’s Belmont in addition to some of the level constructions.
Hayoto must traverse 16 provinces of 16th century Japan and battle 5 warlocks along the way to unlock new sword techniques and abilities. Before unlocking these new techniques, the game can be rather challenging. However, as you accumulate these power ups while also getting more acquainted with the gameplay, Kenseiden becomes a bit more manageable.
Much like in games like Super Metroid, Kenseiden becomes nonlinear in the way Hayoto can choose to proceed through the providence levels, but certain bosses and areas can be much more challenging if you don’t obtain a certain power-up from another area first.
Unlike most Master Systems games, Kenseiden projects a rather dark and gritty persona, but still makes good use of the Master System’s 8-bit capabilities. The characters are nicely drawn and there is a solid attention to detail in the presentation.
Due to its stiff controls and questionable hit detection it is hard to place Kenseiden in a list of the very best Master System games, but if you enjoy old-school action / Metroidvania games with a very Japanese vibe, Kenseiden could very well be worth the effort. In fact, there are still many Master System aficionados that truly love the game — just be aware it isn’t for everyone.
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Retro gaming fans and Disney aficionados alike have debated this question for decades… Which is better: Sega’s Genesis/Mega Drive version of Aladdin or Capcom’s Super Nintendo version? The question that should be asked is: have you played the Master System version?
Sega’s rendition of Disney’s Aladdin for the Master System may have been missed by many as it was only released in PAL territories for the system, but it certainly is a treasure worth seeking. You don’t even have to trek into the Cave of Wonders to get it.
The game basically is a side-scrolling endless runner with a little bit of Prince of Persia action mixed into it. In most stages, the game auto-scrolls as you jump to avoid barrels, enemies, and other obstacles. It is a “trial-and-error” type of game, and while it is challenging, it’s never frustrating. You’ll find yourself wanting to give it one more go until you can pass it. Every level is more fun than the last.
The running levels vary from the Agrabah Market, to running on the rooftops with Jasmine, to escaping the lava on the Magic Carpet (which some feel to be superior to the 16-bit stages of the same).
The traditional side-scrolling stages require a bit of puzzle solving to get through their maze-like designs. This is where the Prince of Persia inspiration comes into play, particularly the final battle with Jafar. It never gets old, and that’s not even taking in the visuals.
The graphics and animation are outstanding for a Master System game. Aside from the colors, it really could pass off for an early 16-bit game, especially when you see small details like the parallax scrolling and pseudo-3D wall scapes in the market. The audio is very well done, with fantastic 8-bit renditions of famous songs from the movie.
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- Batman Returns (eBay) – Every version of Batman Returns that Sega released were unique. The Genesis version was a traditional, yet unimpressive side-scroller, while the Sega CD version added 3D driving sequences and a killer soundtrack. The Master System version is a fun platformer that harkens back to the days of games like Mega Man, with large, explorative levels, fun grappling hook mechanics, and a wonderful soundtrack. Only downside is that you die in one hit (unlike the Game Gear version), but the challenge seems to be balanced without feeling cheap, as opposed to the Genesis version. This one was also only released in PAL territories but like Aladdin, is worth importing.
- Alien 3 (eBay) – Also released only in PAL territories, the Master System version of Probe’s Alien 3 is pretty faithful to the original Metroidvania-style game, where you have to rescue the hostages from the Aliens and get out before the time limit. While an impressive attempt (especially the music), it doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the Mega Drive/Genesis version.
- Rastan (eBay)– Taito’s hack-and-slash platformer Rastan was a big hit in the arcade and the Master System received a very impressive port by Sega that didn’t get much attention. All the stages are there and the controls are silky smooth, with great graphics and fantastic music, especially if you experience the FM version of the soundtrack. This was a much better attempt at bringing Rastan home than the unfortunate sequel on the Mega Drive.
This fairly late Master System release (the second-to-last Japanese game) puts you in the role of Paladin, “the toughest bounty hunter in the galaxy” in the year 2242 and you’re on a mission to track down baddies in the enemy Cyborg Fortress.
Cyborg Hunter is kinda a typical side scrolling action adventure game, but you have to pick up certain items before you can progress to the next location and it has a rather innovative interface to manage your mission.
In addition to the typical side-scrolling view, you have a front view HUD of sorts that serves as a warning system to let you anticipate incoming enemies. This is especially useful for identifying Chief Cyborgs that must be defeated in each level before progressing. The other part of the screen shows you the floors (there’s a lot of elevators to utilize) and areas of the building you are in to help you keep track of where you are exploring while tracking down your required objectives.
You start with a standard punch attack and a Psycho Punch (which blasts a limited-range projective) plus a duck and jump. However, you can eventually pick up other weapons and upgrades.
You can tell the developers really wanted to try new things and innovate in the 8-bit era. Cyborg Hunter is an interesting game to try if you get a chance for this reason alone. There is a lot of back-and-forth hunting to be done, but it can be a strangely addicting effort. Some gamers have retrospectively compared Cyborg Hunter to Metroid, but it isn’t really as much of a direct comparison as some other SMS vs NES rivalries.
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Spellcaster is a fascinating hybrid of side-scrolling action reminiscent of Castlevania and story-telling-based/puzzle-solving adventures like Shadowgate or Deja-Vu. If you happen to be familiar with the Sega Genesis/Megadrive title, Mystic Defender, it is a sequel to Spellcaster and has a very similar setup.
Emotion is conveyed well with the detailed motion portraits that helps make up for the lack of voice acting in the classic cartridge-based format. It also had a rather unique characteristic compared to many of its 8-bit peers in that characters talk with you instead of at you. These innovations make Spellcaster feel much more immersive.
Spellcaster also did an impressive job in conveying different vibes in both visuals and storytelling, including some quite chilling moments. Spellcaster was very much ahead of its time when it comes to using the medium for interactive storytelling. There’s lots of choices offered for you to expand conversations, show items to people, and cast spells. This is great for finding new information or solving a puzzle.
The action parts of the game are fairly well done for the era. The animation isn’t as impressive as some of the better actions games on the platform, but the controls are reliable and its a solid gameplay experience. And true to the game’s title, there are plenty of spells that you can cast to help your along your adventure. The action sections of the game also tie in closely with the RPG elements, so it still provides a cohesive and deep experience. For a more thorough look into the game as a whole, I recommend Hungry Goriya’s video review if you don’t mind some minor spoilers.
The boss battles throughout Spellcaster are rather impressive. While some aren’t too challenging, there are some that will test your skills. All are rather visually impressive and really start to rival some early Genesis/Megadrive titles.
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While some would say Zillion is the Metroid clone of the console, a closer look shows that it plays more like a Metroid/Impossible Mission hybrid, with a few new ideas of its own.
As J.J., you must infiltrate the underground enemy base, and locate five diskettes. You must feed these into the main computer deep down in the base, then blow up the base and get out alive. As the player makes their way into the labyrinth, they’ll find one of many rooms containing a locked door, a computer terminal and a few capsules. Cracking these open yields parts of the “open door” codes for the room you’re in, or sometimes useful items.
Half the challenge of the game is remembering the codes that you’ll need to enter while you fight off respawning soldiers, avoid laser traps, mines, walkways leading into traps, moving turrets, and yellow alarm lasers before you enter those codes into the computer.
Other commands than “open door” can be entered to temporarily disable various traps in the room you’re currently in, as well as display a basic map showing the labyrinth’s layout, explored rooms, the main computer room and your current position. Furthermore, there are two commands that let you teleport within the base, one leading to the elevator near the surface, and one leading to the nearest elevator to your position.
Unless used to open the next door, ID cards are one use only. This adds a tactical element to the game where the player has to choose between making a room easier to traverse and saving up cards for possibly harder rooms later on. Another innovation for the time is that rescued team members are playable, have different base stats and can be switched between on the fly.
All in all, Zillion is a worthy addition to the collection, particularly if you like the aforementioned similar games. The sequel might be a better action game in some ways, but this one will scratch that Metroidvania itch with more of an exploration and character development focus, as well as multiple endings. For more a more info, check PresidentLever’s review.
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Jurassic Park on the Master System is a great example of a 16-to-8-bit de-make that became a game unique to its brethren that provided more fleshed out and polished experiences akin to some arcade to NES ports back in the ’80s. Booting it up you’ll notice a new intro and soundtrack, and an added level select screen similar to Mega Man, showing a map view of the island from the movie (four levels are available from the start, and beating them unlocks the fifth and final one).
Selecting one of these levels, you’d expect to be taken to the location and start jumping and shooting, right? In a fairly unique twist, this game makes you drive to each location before the platforming starts and these actually play out more like a gallery shooter, with the player controlling the crosshair of whoever’s holding the gun and shooting from within the car (this isn’t quite clear) while the car itself is CPU controlled, making these segments qualify as escort missions of sorts.
Thankfully, these are rather simple affairs, and while they’re not too terribly exciting for the most part, they allow a skilled player to increase their health bar and life count for the upcoming level, and they all end with a boss fight of sorts where the car is chased by a larger dinosaur and has to be shot enough times to let up the chase.
Getting to the meat of the game, we can see some decent improvements in controls, a more zoomed out view, and a generally more polished take on the original’s levels with less trial & error and a bit more variety in each one as well.
As one makes their way inside the facilities on the island, the tone shifts to horror, with raptors making sudden leaps towards the player as they navigate lifts and open gates. They’re good places to go into the weapon inventory menu and start experimenting with Grant’s arsenal, which while small feels tailor made for the game’s level design and is given to the player from the beginning.
The game carries on like this until the final level, introducing one or two new gimmicks per level and ending them with the player fighting off a dinosaur as a standard boss fight, followed by a minor cutscene. Overall, this 8-bit Jurassic Park experience is a solid pick for fans of 8-bit action games in general and run ‘n gun platformers in particular. Check out PresidentLever’s full text review here
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The Ninja (Sega Ninja)
Before Sega made its mark with the landmark Shinobi franchise, they had another ninja-based arcade title that mostly slipped into the shadows. Sega Ninja, is an arcade run-n-gun game that plays like Commando or Ikari Warriors, but with knives and shuriken.
Gameplay is often fast-paced, but there is some strategy and finesse that can be implemented along the way. Button 1 lets you aim your projectiles, while Button 2 throws them straight ahead, which can let you strafe.
You can also acquire the ability to disappear and become invincible for a few seconds, which comes in quite handy during the really intense moments.
It regularly changes style and pace throughout the adventure, which very much helps it avoid repetition. It even has one level that you have to jump between logs across a fast-moving river — not to get across, but to help you aim at your enemies.
If you enjoy either shootemups or fast action titles, The Ninja is a worthwhile game to try out.
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- Time Soldiers (eBay) – Solid arcade port that is fairly faithful to the original. The gameplay is very similar to Ikari Warriors, but doesn’t offer a whole lot to have it stand out in the sub-genre. It is a nice co-op opportunity for Master System fans though.
Shooters / Shmups
Power Strike (Aleste)
Compile is one of the most respected developers amongst fans of the shoot ‘em up/shmup genre due to their work on games like Blazing Lasers/Gunhed, the Zanac series and the Aleste series (which includes MUSHA, Space Megaforce, and this Master System gem, Power Strike). Compile’s shooters consistently were not targeted at arcade-goers but the home console audience, offering the latter a once-elusive doorway into the exciting world of baddie-blasting and bullet-dodging, right in their own living rooms. Compile excelled at maintaining a gamer’s attention without depending on the need to feed quarters into an arcade machine to maximize profits.
Compile’s first major success (and first North American appearance) was with Zanac on the NES. Zanac was known for its artificial intelligence that throws different kinds of enemies at you, depending on what weapon you are using and how well you are playing, forcing you to adapt to different situations. Power Strike (known as Aleste in Japan) is actually considered a sequel to Zanac and takes many gameplay and theme inspirations from its predecessor (the name change was as a result to corporate trademark ownership). The main changes over Zanac is how the weapons systems and power-ups are implemented and the move vivid graphics.
Even this early on, Compile prided themselves on their shooter weapons system. Power Strike fine tuned the nine weapons from Zanac — the standard laser plus eight, iconic special/secondary weapons that show up in numbered capsules. There are also “P” capsules that increase the main weapon’s power and range (from 1 shot to 3 shots).
The special secondary weapons (other than #1) are finite and can only be used for 80 seconds. However, collecting another power-up of the same number will add another 80 seconds to its longevity.
Not only is Power Strike one of the better 8-bit console shooters, but it’s also an early installment of one of the most iconic franchises from a cornerstone developer in the shmup genre. It falls into the “easy to learn, but difficult to master”. It also has an intriguing weapons system without getting overly complex.
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Power Strike II
With the original Power Strike game being published in Japan as Aleste, you might think that Power Strike II is also part of the iconic shmup series, but Compile actually rebuilt it from the ground up as its own entity and is distinctly a Power Strike game (but was only released in Europe and Brazil). Fans of Compile’s shooters can be assured, however, that it still plays in a way that will feel familiar.
The impressive opening cutscene sets the stage for Compile’s SMS swan song, depicting a wild alternate take on the late 1920s where pilots out of a job have taken to steampunk-aided sky pirating and it’s up to one man alone to stop them. The visuals and audio throughout the rest of the game won’t let you down either.
Each level in the game is well paced, varied and with unique set pieces – There’s a nice blend of small fry, mini-boss style enemies, ground defenses and the occasional natural hazard such as the erupting volcanoes rising out of the ocean in the first level. As is common in Aleste games there’s always at least a few enemies and bullets on screen, and beyond the first one there are several really intense moments to test your shooting skills (or in a couple of cases, that you’ve equipped and upgraded the right weapon). At the end of each one you of course fight a boss, and the game shines here as well with bosses that have multiple patterns and large, detailed sprites ensuring they’ll be intimidating to face.
You have the trademark Compile weapon system in place here meaning there’s plenty of variety as well as upgrades for each sub weapon (6 and 6, respectively). Their more forgiving takes on respawning and ship speed control also make a return here along with difficulty options (5 levels in total), making the game a bit easier to get into for newcomers to the genre. You also have the usual screen clearing smart bombs, however they trigger when touched here and don’t always show up when you really need them.
New to this game there’s a shotgun-like charge beam triggered by letting go of the shot button (it auto-charges while shooting and has a 5 second cooldown period), which is satisfying to use and balances out most of the difficulty spikes quite well as it also takes out enemy bullets for a brief moment. There’s also a spinning orb shield power up, which when upgraded to level 2 is very effective at taking out regular enemy bullets.
Power Strike II is pretty amazing for an obscure “stuck in PAL land” 8-bit shooter. It’s one of the best of its generation, and one of the best games for the system period.
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Astro Warrior is an early shmup, developed by Sega back in 1986. The game acts as a classical transition between fixed arcade shooters of the early 80’s such as Galaxian, and the mature shmups of the late 80’s. Much like the Galaxian breed of shooters, Astro Warrior’s three vertical levels have many different kinds of enemies that attack in various patterns. However, there are a handful of power-ups that can be collected by shooting targets on the ground. These power-ups include an increase to your ship’s speed, a stronger laser weapon (able to pierce enemies and ground targets), and two Gradius-style options, which mimic your ship’s armament. Capturing Weapons Supply Ships increases the Astro Raider’s speed and firing ability, as well as changing your ship’s sprite. These power-ups become quite essential to progressing successfully in the game. pon losing one of your lives, all power-ups are lost and you’ll revert to an earlier checkpoint in the stage. Beat each level’s boss and you’ll be treated to some great Japanese-translated flavor text and a warp speed animation to the next level. If you complete the three main levels, the game loops back with the difficulty level ramped up significantly.
The loss of power-ups later in the game can be quite devastating and is one of the weak points of the game. Otherwise, it’s a relatively simple and enjoyable shooter that encapsulates a certain era in the genre. And while it might not have the depth ang graphical effects of its best 8-bit and 16-bit shmup peers, Sega brings a solid 80s arcade feel in terms of the graphics, music, and gameplay that can appeal to more than just dedicated shooter fans. It also has smooth controls plus a great frame rate with no flicker to provide an excellent old-school experience.
Astro Warrior was actually included as a pack-in on a budget release of the Master System console back in the day, so we actually included it as an Honorable Mention in the Defining Games for the Master System. However, other than dedicated Master System fans, most gamers haven’t had much exposure to this gem. Many of those that have spent a good amount of time with the game put Astro Warrior on a short list of their favorites.
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This vertical shooter from Activision feels reminiscent of Capcom’s 1943 (even though the cover artwork features a much more modern aircraft). In reality, Bomber Raid is the spiritual successor to the Atari 2600 classic River Raid is every bit as good as its pioneering forerunner.
The visuals are pretty impressive for the Master System and the controls are solid. Unlike most NES shmups from the same era, there’s hardly any flickering or slowdown to ruin the pace and tempo. The action is constant and lightning fast and the boss fights are impressive for this era.
Red numbered power-ups add flanking ships to accompany you. The number indicates the position of the additional ship and grabbing multiples of the same number will add more ships to that same position.
Green “S” power-ups boosts your speed and the P raises your power which makes your shots stronger. At first you fire small bullets, but that changes the more P capsules you catch. Your weapons will grow immensely strong, culminating in its best form when you fire something that looks like a horseshoe which quickly destroys any enemy and nullifies incoming attacks
A word of warning: Bomber Raid is another one of those shooters in which you do lose all your weapon upgrades if you die, so it’s not an especially forgiving shooter.
It is a great score-based game — in fact ,At the end of each stage you’re awarded a bonus based on the percentage of enemies killed. It has 5 well-designed stages that loop back around on a higher difficulty level, if you’re up for it.
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Classic gaming fans are often aware of this classic helicopter action game that involves a combination of intense hostage rescue and strategic shooting of enemies. This blend of gameplay mechanics made Choplifter a timeless classic that keeps gamers on the edge of their seat.
Choplifter originated as a 1982 home release on the Apple II but was one of the few games from the 20th century that originated as a home game before being ported to the arcade. While Choplifter did see some early home ports to other home computer platforms plus the Atari 5200 and ColecoVision, Sega created a full arcade port in 1985.
Sega then ported the Choplifter arcade game to both the Famicom and the Master System. As you might expect, the Master System far exceeds the quality of the NES port. In fact, the Master System does a pretty solid job replicating the impressive presentation of the arcade version. While the Master System version might not benefit from as robust a color palette, it does still have some detailed sprite artwork, some subtle parallax background effects, and some silky-smooth animation and control. The helicopter has weight and momentum which is quite an impressive feat on an 8-bit home console.
Instead of a single map in the original home computer game, you get three on the Master System with each one having a harder configuration for essentially six levels. This may not sound like a lot to keep you busy, but Choplifter definitely fits into the “tough but fair” camp as you get progress into or past the second level. Most gamers will find this one challenging, but it is not unforgiving.
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We’ve covered a few shooters in this list already, but Global Defense (known as Strategic Defense Initiative in the arcades and Japan) is a unique game that has a lot going for it. If you fuse together elements of Gradius and Missile Command, you’ll be introduced to Global Defense. You’re in control of a satellite as various missiles, spaceships, and ground defenses attack your ship and the planet you’re tasked with defending. The game’s intro begins with a lone missile striking what appears to be New York City. You can tell this is serious.
As the player, you’ll control both the spaceship and its aiming-firing system. An on-screen reticle for your shot is controlled with the d-pad. In order to control your spacecraft, you hold down the 1 button and press on the d-pad. The 2 button fires off your weaponry. It’s not a conventional control scheme, but provides an interesting and enjoyable experience. You can also acquire power-ups that do one of three things: reduce damage taken, increase speed, or increase firepower (and radius) of your shots. As you progress in the game, you’ll visit five different detailed stages: Earth, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt, Saturn, and a mysterious hidden planet.
The game has two phases: An offensive stage and defensive stage. You begin each level at the offensive stage, a side-scrolling shooter where you must attempt to destroy all enemies and avoid taking damage yourself. Should any enemies escape your assault, they’ll damage the Earth, indicated by a bar on the bottom of the screen. Furthermore, any enemies not destroyed brings you to the defensive stage. This stage takes a top-down view like Missile Command, where the enemy launches missiles aimed at the planet below. Get a perfect on the offensive stage and you’ll skip the defensive stage outright.
Global Defense is a pretty unique mash-up of two well-regarded games. It provides an enjoyable style of play, rewarding and challenging gameplay, and cool little cutscenes in between stages. I loved being picked up by a space shuttle at the end of the stage. If you’ve never played Global Defense, it should not be missed.
It’s a unique enough game that it especially makes up for the technical limitations that some of the lesser 8-bit shooters suffer from. The innovative gameplay system makes it a more timeless addition to a Master System collection.
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Honorable Shmup Mentions:
- Cloud Master (eBay) – This lighthearted horizontal shooter is an competent arcade port with a cheery color palate and zany enemies. The bosses are nearly as strange, but their attacks are all pretty similar. The game design isn’t quite as deep a as Compile’s productions, but Cloud Master is an interesting and challenging diversion. It was the only console version of the game that made it outside of Japan, but it is also noticeably superior to the Famicom counterpart. (Although it did have a more impressive PC Engine version that was either a re-imagining or a sequel to the arcade game — read more in our TG16/PC Engine Shmups guide)
- Sagaia (Darius II) (eBay) – Excellent port of the classic. It may not be as exciting as the games mentioned above (especially Compile’s work), but it is a solid addition to the Master System library.
- Scramble Spirits (eBay) – If you enjoy the 1941 / 1943 style of shooter, this arcade port of a lesser-known game can add to your entertainment. It has six challenging levels, but doesn’t necessarily add much innovation to the genre.
Puzzle Action / Platformer
It’s always fun to find a solid puzzle platformer game on an 8-bit system. You know that when you find one that is well-crafted it will be something that avoids being overly complex, but lets you both use your brain creatively and zone out a bit.
Penguin Land is one of the best examples that is a Master System exclusive (but this is a follow up to a Japanese-only SG-100 and MSX game and had a Japanese MegaDrive follow-up as well).
You play as a penguin that needs to creatively move their egg (which bobbles back and forth like eggs do in real life) to the bottom of the level area. To do so, you’ll need to traverse yourself and your egg through a maze of blocks, periodically breaking some blocks to let you egg drop through. Of course, you can let your egg fall too far or it will break.
The block variations define Penguin Land’s puzzles. Your penguin can dig left and right, similar to Lode Runner. There are blocks to push, floating blocks, unbreakable blocks, blocks that drop down to crush things, and half-broken blocks. Some even only allow a penguin or an egg through. There are also some other fun tricks to pull off along the way.
There are a handful of other creatures such as polar bears and birds that will hurt you or your egg, so you need to tactfully avoid them as well. Oh, and don’t take your time too much as a phantom creature will gobble up your egg if you move along too slowly.
Penguin Land is a fascinating puzzle experience that has some fun concepts and physics for the time of its release and holds up pretty well to this day.
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Honorable Puzzle Action Mentions:
- Rainbow Islands (eBay) – Excellent port of the arcade follow-up to Bubble Bobble. Playing as the human form of Bub and Bob, players can release rainbows that act as weapons, makeshift platforms, and item collectors. Slinging rainbows damages any enemies and acquires any items that the rainbows come in contact with. All-around it is a great example of a Master System game that is speedy, smooth, and highly playable.
- Rampage (eBay) – This arcade classic is hard to categorize in a genre, but is one of the most iconic multiplayer experiences of the 80 and this is one of the best console ports of the decade. In this well-crafted Master System port, you get the full thrill of trying to take down a city while avoiding damage. And like other puzzle action titles, you’re always trying to move efficiently to accomplish your goal without being defeated yourself.
- Lemmings (eBay) – Technically impressive port of a wonderful classic. Sega lovingly recreated all the 100 levels of their original wacky world with all its attendant dangers. Cliffs, acid baths, fire, and walls stand before the green ones and their goal. As they trek onward the player has the onerous task of guiding and protecting them, by employing their skills wisely
- Solomon’s Key (eBay) – Great game but controls aren’t as solid as the NES version. The Master System version was also only released in Japan.
Fighting / Beatemup
Masters of Combat
There’s plenty of other retro systems that are going to be better go-tos for one-on-one fighting games than the Master System, like the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast (or even the SNES or original Xbox). But for those that are diehard fans of the genre, we often like to tinker with niche fighters and greatly appreciate those that were ahead of their time and perhaps did especially well considering the hardware limitation they were working with. Masters of Combat, developed by SIMS for Sega is an excellent example of this. It was published in 1993 to try to flesh out the Master System library — especially in those countries where the Master System still had a strong foothold — all while the one-on-one fighting genre was really starting to bloom with Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat taking over the arcades.
Comparatively speaking, Masters of combat is remarkably good for an 8-bit tournament fighter, most 8-bit tourney fighters look and play like garbage. The game is also an excellent example of making good use of the Master System’s capabilities with a strong color palette, excellent animation and a relatively fluid fighting experience.
If you’re looking to track down an original cartridge of Masters of Combat, it can be rather rare and pricey, but it admittedly is a rather cool collectors piece for Master System fans. With this level of quality, it is a shame that Sega didn’t get recognized for this game amongst a sea of Street Fighter clones.
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- Double Dragon (eBay) – This is one of the better ports of the arcade classic that kicked off the Golden Age of the Beatemup Genre (read more in our Beatemups 101 guide). When Double Dragon was released in 1987, it introduced some key new features into the genre, including two player co-op and the ability to pick up and use weapons. Double Dragon on the Master System remains a solid co-op beat ‘em up that’s worth seeing through to the end despite its many imperfections.
Sega has always been known for ports of their iconic arcade games. Enduro Racer originated in the arcade as a follow-up to Hang-On, but the Master System version isn’t really a port, but more of a de-make that takes on an isometric perspective.
In this version of Enduro Racer, there are actually more races than in the arcade. And the goal of the “race” isn’t necessarily to get first place, but to finish the track before the timer runs out. As a bonus, the more time you have left when completing the course, the more time will be added to the time for your next race.
In addition to the time bonuses, you collect points for each of the racers you pass, which can be redeemed for bike upgrades to be used for your next race (not carried over to future racers). The upgrade system is pretty cool and your ideal selections add a nice bit of strategy to the game (and may remind some of games like Super Off Road or RC Pro Am — aside from upgrades not carrying over to more than one race).
As opposed to Excitebike, where you have to avoid overheating your engine, Enduro Racer has you avoiding damaging your bike too much. Once your damage meter reaches 99, your race timer will start counting down twice as fast.
It’s worth noting that the Japanese version of Enduro Racer has more tracks than the English versions — including a very challenging snow track.
Enduro Racer serves as a pretty solid pick-up-and-play game, but with some practice, you can beat it in a relatively short time. The challenge can be to see how quickly you can beat it — almost in a true arcade-at-home experience.
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Road Rash is normally synonymous with the Mega Drive/Genesis versions of the same name, but the Master System port could possibly be one of the most technologically impressive ports in the system’s library.
Road Rash’s premise is simple: get on a motorcycle, grab a weapon, and slug it out with other bikers as you race your way down a drag track to get into first place. The better you play, the more money you make where you can upgrade your bike’s parts, or even buy a new bike altogether. As ghastly as it may sound, there’s something so satisfying about the simplicity of riding from point A to point B and beating up everyone along the way.
What makes this version of Road Rash so memorable is how shockingly close it is to the MD version, not only in content, but in its presentation. The Master System version retains the pseudo-3D scaling effect of the stages and the animations of the bikers to an extremely close comparison to the 16-bit version. Some sacrifices had to be made, particularly in the hill scaling, a slight decrease in speed, and in how many bikes can be on screen at once, but it still does an amazing job at replicating the look and feel of the Mega Drive original. You’ll hardly notice the difference.
Most of all, the conversion was done by one person! Gary Priest did all the programming and graphic conversion of the Master System version of Road Rash on his own. Amazing job, sir!
While the Master System version of Road Rash was also a PAL exclusive, it was released worldwide on the Game Gear.
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- Hang-On (eBay) – the quality port of the iconic Sega racer doesn’t get the proper attention.
Golvellius Valley of Doom
This Action / RPG from Compile (known for the Aleste/Power Strike shmup series, Puyo Puyo, and the NES adventure gem, The Guardian Legend) is often compared to the original Legend of Zelda (with some hints of Zelda II) on NES, and for hardcore fans, is one of the most beloved games in the Master System library. Because it is often a top underground recommendation on the Master System, it also showed up as an honorable mention on our Games That Defined the Sega Master System.
While the overall structure and gameplay mechanics may have a lot of similarities to the Legend of Zelda, Golvellius pulls different inspirations in to create their own, interesting world that has its own personality. The overworld areas within Golvellius are very diverse in landscapes and are a treat to take in. And as opposed to the more wide-open areas of Zelda, Golvellius is more linear and focused in its approach.
The combat is solid but does differ from Zelda series a bit and there typically are a generous quantity of persistent enemies. There isn’t any leveling up in Golvellius, instead you’ll be accumulating and spending money on weapons, armor and other items to improve your capabilities and to open up more parts of your adventure. With plenty of re-spawning enemies in certain areas, grinding for cash is definitely an option to help your conditions.
Effectively progressing also requires stumbling on some criteria to open up cave openings such as hitting a certain amount of enemies or hitting certain on-screen items a certain amount of times. If your goal is to progress without using a guide resource, you’ll most likely want to talk to get clues from fairies in the caves, take notes, and experiment a lot. If you enjoy a heavy old-school feel of exploration, this can be quite satisfying. However, some may be turned off by this kind of situation.
Most of the game takes place in the overworld, but there are a couple other play modes that can occur when entering a cave: one that is a side-scrolling adventure and another that is similar to a vertical shooter. Some of these have some auto-scroll built-in that can be a little unforgiving and require you to back out and try again. Instead of being overly frustrating, these areas add variety and encourage you to master their patterns and techniques. These cave adventure areas each contain some mini-bosses and lead up to a battle against a demon boss battle that you’ll need to complete.
One disappointment to be aware of is there is no save battery on the cartridges, so you will either need to deal with passwords or use an Everdrive or emulation situation that supports save states.
Overall, Golvellius is one of those games that may start out a bit frustrating, but for those that enjoy old-school adventures, there is a lot of charm and challenge that will feel rewarding in the end. If you want to see and learn more about the game, I recommend watching Hungry Goriya’s video review – she always does a great job letting you know what to realistically expect.
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Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
Much like Choplifter, Ultima IV originated on the Apple II before being ported to a handful of the mid-80s personal computer systems. As a whole, Ultima IV is ranked as one of the very best PC games of all time and its designer, Richard Garriott considers it to be one of his personal favorites from the Ultima series.
Of course, with a famed title making a Hidden Gems list, we have a good reason. Not only was the Master System version and excellent port of the game that had pleasant adjustments for a console gamepad, but it was also extremely hard to find in North America as it came out after the Sega Genesis console was released (but was easier to find in Europe where the Master System had a bigger impact).
The biggest difference with the Master System version is that the dungeons feature an overhead perspective instead of first-person and the controls have been simplified for a controller rather than a keyboard. As opposed to the NES port, the Master System’s redrawn graphics keeps the style of Origin System’s aesthetic. It still feels more like a 1980s PC game than other Master System games and provides a pretty solid experience.
If you’re interested in a quality video review from a gamer that wasn’t well-versed in the Ultima series and just happens to be playing this Master System port, [check out Hungry Goriya’s video review](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvqwQ6z_RHs]. She even talks about the initial frustrations and confusions she had, but how it was worth sticking around to learn the game and experience its benefits.
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As one of the first Japanese RPGs to be brought to North America and Europe, Miracle Warriors is not only a great historical piece, it has some intriguing interface elements and gameplay mechanics that provide a timeless charm to those that enjoy old-school RPGs.
The game adopts the Wizardry-style graphical interface in which the player has a small window to see the world from the perspective of the player’s party of characters, while other parts of the screen are dedicated to the party’s stats and a tactical overhead view. For those that haven’t experienced this type of interface, it’s a rather interesting experience and the Master System handles it well. The environment artwork is also nicely completed with some of the most detailed enemy sprite designs seen on Sega’s 8-bit console.
In Miracle Warriors, you start out as a lone warrior accompanied by the magical fairy Ica, who shares the messages which appear on screen. Along your adventure, you must find three other warriors to help you on your journey, each of which has different weapon sets.
Like many 8-bit RPGs, there is a considerable amount of grind required to build up your currency and items, but it makes it very satisfying to buy the items that you need to progress on your journey.
The battle system is also a bit unusual, but interesting in comparison to the typical RPG. In battle, only one of your party members can attack each time, before your opponent executes their attack. This adds a bit of strategy to your combat as the physical attacks from the enemy only affect the party member that engages them. This allows you to de-prioritize those party members that may be low on health. However all enemy magic attacks affect the entire party. As you might expect, if you do keep a certain party member out of the battles, they will not build the experience points and levels that will help them mature as a strong party member. Party members accumulate a bit of experience points every other turn they attack, so each interaction is worth considering.
In addition to experience points, you also have a charisma/reputation rating to maintain. This is based on how decisions you make or how you handle situations and can affect how storekeepers and other community members treat you.
There are some translation issues that can cause some confusion and frustration along the way, but it doesn’t quite outweigh the grand adventure and satisfying conclusion that Miracle Warriors provides.
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Honorable RPG & Adventure Mentions:
- Aztec Adventure (eBay) – It doesn’t have traditional RPG elements, but Aztec Adventure is an interesting maze action title that was popular enough to get referenced in Segagaga’s final boss fight, and it’s a decent little adventure game, although a bit slow and awkward at times.
- King’s Quest (eBay) – under-appreciated port of this Sierra adventure classic. King’s Quest is commonly considered the progenitor of third-person-perspective adventure games. As opposed to earlier graphic adventures, the player is able to navigate the protagonist on screen in eight directions, creating an effect of three-dimensional exploration. It also was the first adventure game to feature graphical animations.
Light Gun / Gallery Shooter
Those of us that lived through the 8-bit era and the strength of the arcade world typically had a soft spot for light gun games. They always provided a more physical novelty that your standard controller games.
The NES obviously had some popular gun games like Duck Hunt and Hogan’s Alley. The Master System had Safari Hunt (which was an honorable mention on our Defining Master System games) that was built into some of the Master System console models. While Hogan’s Alley was more of a shooting range concept with large and more detailed [but relatively static] artwork, Gangster Town progressed more towards a more “realistic” city scene that is plagued by organized crime. You could almost look at it as a precursor to the likes of Lethal Enforcers and the like. It does start with a training round that assesses your skill level and determines your starting level and hearts quantity.
Gangster Town also supported two-player gameplay, which was a pretty big innovation in the era for light gun games. Of course, you would need to invest in two Light Phasers for the best experience, but many fans say it’s worth it.
One other interesting thing about Gangster Town is that when you shoot a gangster, a little ghost will rise up from their body. Not only is it kinda a cute touch, but you can also shoot the ghosts for extra points. Again, in a way, this is a precursor to games like Virtua Cop where enemies would fall back, when shot, but you could get extra hits afterward.
Overall, Gangster Town is much of what you would want in a light gun shooter: it’s really fun, challenging, has some solid variety and was a great experience with friends and family. It also helps that the Sega Light Phaser gun was one of the best light guns for classic game consoles.
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If you want more of an old-school gallery style shooter, Bank Panic is a pretty entertaining option that is a bit more like Nintnedo’s Hogan’s Alley but with a more cheerful theme. However, this game does NOT support the light phaser, but instead requires you to move quickly with your controller. Regardless, it’s loads of fun that maintains an arcade experience.
Working as an old west sheriff/security guard working at a bank, you are to protect the bank and its loyal customers from all the baddies that are after the cash. For some reason, this bank has 12 doors to guard and you can check up on three at a time. You need to do your best to shoot off any criminals (especially before they shoot you) or help a customer in need. Once every door has given you the bank a deposit it’s on to the next level.
There’s different characters in the game that have different scenarios and rewards if you take care of them. One of the more interesting ones is a kid that’s wearing a stack of hats offering to give you some cash if you can shoot off the hats. There’s also some tricky hostage situation to throw you off.
It’s a shame light gun support wasn’t an option, but Bank Panic is still a nerve-wracking experience that is plenty of fun.
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Honorable Light Gun Mentions
Putt & Putter / Minigolf
In my opinion Mini Golf is an under-utilized inspiration in the video game medium. I grew up with Zany Golf on the PC, a wonderful creation by the old-school Electronic Arts in 1988 (before they turned into an industry behemoth). Putt & Putter has much of the same mechanics and isometric presentation, but in general has less theme design creativity, but possibly a bit more challenge added.
The Sega Megadrive (Genesis) had Putter Golf, the 1990 predecessor to Putt & Putter that was only available in Japan as a download through the Sega Game Toshokan service. Putt & Putter seems to be an evolution of Sega’s work on that game and was released on the Game Gear in 1991 (which had its own courses), and then on the Master System in 1992 (but only in Europe and Brazil).
The levels in this third installment in this underground “series” is full of carefully-crafted isometric courses that will introduce you to the mechanics gently before ramping up the difficulty quickly. In a way, Putt & Putter ends up feeling like an interesting hybrid of golf and a puzzle game — actually the game’s box touts it as a cross between mini-golf and pinball.
The levels are filled not only with some obstacles, but a number of different course features such as bumpers, switches, and portals that make you think creatively about how to efficiently navigate the course in a minimal amount of strokes. Much like Zany Golf before it (and many puzzle-like games) you might struggle a bit on levels you haven’t played before, but you start learning from experience and figure out the best way to “solve” a certain course effectively.
One rather cool feature is a two-player mode in which two balls are in play simultaneously and you can bump into the other ball without penalty. This makes for an especially interesting strategic setup!
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- More of the Hidden Gems Series
- The Games That Defined the Sega Master System
- The Master System 101 Beginner’s Guide