Presented by Racketboy, Blu, AlienJesus, Exhuminator, and iretrogamer
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 as their console debut in North America but failed to adequately compete with the Nintendo Entertainment System in most of the worldwide market.
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 quantity of substantial games and the cultural phenomenon that Nintendo experienced at the time.
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, a Power Base Converter for your Genesis, or via services like Nintendo’s Virtual Console. Here is a quick rundown of the best exclusive games in the Master System library.
As opposed to most RPGs of the day being set in a fantasy setting with swords and sorcery, Phantasy Star was a sci-fi space saga that happened to be an RPG while mixing technology with fantasy elements. As one of the first story-driven games in the West, Phantasy Star followed a young woman named Alis (who was one of gaming’s first female protagonists) and her quest for justice against an age-old evil threatening her world. Phantasy Star takes place on the Algol system, consisting of three different planets — Palma, Motavia, and Dezoris. Via spaceport travel, the player is able to explore the unique environments and fight the many types of enemies whilst on their journey.
Phantasy Star is lengthy and challenging, but is a wonderful role-playing experience. Phantasy Star features detailed overworlds and interactive towns. It is filled with first-person, 3D-animated dungeon crawling that is both visually impressive (especially for consoles at the time) and may require some graph paper to prevent you from getting lost.
Phantasy Star was jam-packed into a full 4 mb cartridge and was superior to its peers in terms of both graphics and sound. It delivered fully detailed on-screen displays and character graphics. During battles, enemy sprites featured animations of their own, a unique feature for RPG’s at the time.
Phantasy Star was also the first console RPG to be released in the North America and Europe since Square, Enix and Nintendo had not seen fit to import either Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy for the NES at that time. In North America, Phantasy Star also retailed for a heft $70 or more, making it one of the most expensive games of the 8-bit generation. It is also worth mentioning that many big-name RPG series didn’t make it to Europe until the PS1 era or later, including Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. So, Phantasy Star was one of the only major RPG releases to arrive in PAL territories in the 8 bit era.
Originally developed a technical showpiece, Yuji Naka’s programming work (before his days on Sonic the Hedgehog) was an early indicator of the success that would soon welcome both himself and Sega later in the decade. Phantasy Star also ended up being one of the last significant titles to be released in North America for Sega’s 8-bit console. It went on to became one of the most popular games Sega ever released and quickly attracted a worldwide following.
The franchise eventually was followed up with three sequels on the Genesis/Megadrive, the Phantasy Star Online and Phantasy Star Universe franchise, and a few other spin-offs on various consoles and handhelds. Phantasy Star is a wonderful classic, an important part of console RPG history, and the beginning of an impressive legacy. If you are an RPG fan, you should definitely spend some time with Phantasy Star. Also, feel free to read up more on Phantasy Star and its legacy in our Together Retro write-up.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World
Before the advent of Sonic the Hedgehog, there was a period of time where Sega struggled for proper mascot identity. Characters such as Opa-Opa (of Fantasy Zone fame), Wonder Boy, and perhaps even the snail from Snail Maze all shared moments of limelight. But it wasn’t until the release of Alex Kidd in Miracle World in late 1986, that Sega had a viable character capable of representing the Master System. At least presentable in a way that was somewhat comparable to Nintendo’s Mario. That is to say Alex Kidd in Miracle World offers cute colorful graphics, catchy music, simple responsive controls, challenging gameplay, and plenty of quick death, all through the conduit of a cute human protagonist.
It’s true, Alex Kidd in Miracle world is a platformer not unlike Nintendo’s flagship Super Mario Bros. Like Mario, Alex must run and jump through scrolling stages. But that’s where similarities start to end, as Alex Kidd’s game design contains considerable differences. Rather than breaking blocks and killing enemies using jumps as Mario does, instead Alex Kidd punches blocks and enemies alike. Punched blocks release power-ups, or money, or sometimes a jerk of a grim reaper. Alex can also find (or purchase) a magic ring that gives him the ability to shoot a powerful beam from his fist. In addition, Alex collects money bags he can use to buy various power-ups and vehicles. Alex can purchase a motorbike or helicopter, making stage traversal faster though considerably more hazardous. When he’s not running, riding, or flying, Alex can also swim underwater during certain stages. Alex must always be wary of animal inspired enemies, avoiding or killing them as need be.
Rather than jumping onto a flagpole at the end of a stage, Alex’s goal tends to be seeking a riceball instead. But that’s only in the earlier cartridge versions of Miracle World. Later system integrated revisions of Miracle World change this graphic to a hamburger, as western knowledge of onigiri wasn’t exactly widespread. (Also the jumping and hitting buttons were reversed in the system integrated version.) Eating riceballs isn’t the only esoteric part of Alex Kidd’s gameplay. Perhaps the most memorable is that instead of being reasonable and punching bosses to death, rather Alex challenges them to a game of jan-ken-pon (rock-paper-scissors). Unfortunately if Alex loses this friendly game of suggestive hand gestures, he dies.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World was well received critically, and is considered a true classic of the Master System’s library. Unfortunately none of Miracle World’s sequels managed to capture the same level of quality and charm of this original release (. Due to a decline in sequel quality, Alex Kidd lost his merit as a mascot, eventually fading away from public consciousness. But that doesn’t mean Kidd’s original game is any less worthy of continued consideration. In the Japanese version, there’s a hidden ending message requiring a special code to see. The message reads: ‘We dedicate this story to Kouichi and Emi. May children yet to be born be strong, and have love and bravery, like Alex. And we, together with Alex, hope that all who love Alex may be forever happy.’ Forever is a long time, but even over thirty years later, it’s still easy to be happy while playing Alex Kidd in Miracle World.
Wonder Boy Series
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. Originally developed by Escape (now known as Westone Bit Entertainment), Wonder Boy released as an arcade title in 1986. Wonder Boy has been ported to many platforms since. Its release schedule is near nebulous given all the systems, regions, and release times. And to this day Wonder Boy’s popularity has been buoyed by virtual console release, with even a PS4 remake in 2014. Despite its myriad iterations, Wonder Boy is perhaps best remembered for its 1987 Master System release. The Master System version retained the graphics of the arcade version (with some HUD reductions), most of the audio, and added two new areas (areas 4 & 8). Upon release in 1987, critics acclaimed Wonder Boy as an incredible accomplishment porting an arcade game to home console. This release for Sega truly showed off how powerful the Master System was in relation to the NES.
As for the original Wonder Boy’s gameplay, the player controls a caveman-like boy (named Tom-Tom in the Master System version) who runs through side scrolling stages. As was so vogue at the time, he’s off to rescue a kidnapped love interest from a big meanie. Wonder Boy can throw stone hatchets at enemies to defeat them, or simply avoid such baddies to progress. As Wonder Boy travels he finds eggs, these eggs act as item boxes. Upon breaking them, Wonder Boy might find a new weapon, a damaging trap, a protective angel, or even a skateboard. When riding a skateboard, Wonder Boy can travel faster and jump higher, but avoiding obstacles and enemies becomes more difficult. The reason Wonder Boy might wish to travel faster, is so he doesn’t starve to death before level’s end. Yes, instead of having a life bar, Wonder Boy has a stamina bar which must be constantly refilled by collecting fruit. Even if Wonder Boy doesn’t get hit by enemies, his stamina bar depletes automatically over time. Wonder Boy can also die by falling in pits littering stages. In every stage the player can find a hidden doll. If all the hidden dolls are found, a secret level unlocks. There are also random warp holes in stages, leading to bonus rounds. Periodically Wonder Boy must fight bosses as well, which boil down to how fast he can throw hatchets into their faces.
The Master System’s library is hardly devoid of platformers, but few of them match the quality of Wonder Boy. Wonder Boy is a must-have release for platformer fans despite its furious difficulty. Wonder Boy’s crisp colorful graphics and catchy music tracks still hold up admirably all these years later. With its controls being simple and responsive, Wonder Boy makes for a great pick up and play. The only parts of Wonder Boy that have not aged well, are the racist depictions of Africans in certain stages. Also the inherent sexism of implying a woman must always need saving by a man. So if you’re sensitive to such things, maybe give Wonder Boy a pass. Forgiving its yesteryear societal foibles however, one must consider Wonder Boy a truly defining classic of the Master System era.
The original Wonder Boy game was also followed up by Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, and Wonder Boy in Monster World (exclusive to Europe). If you had to play one game out of the series that truly defines the Master System, it’s Wonder Boy III. The appeal and charm of Wonder Boy III is bountiful: Wonder Boy, after defeating the first boss, is cursed into a fire-breathing lizard. Each subsequent boss carries a curse of their own, changing Wonder Boy into a new form, be it a Lizard, Bird, Mouse, and more. It’s a mechanic not unlike non-linear elements that Legend of Zelda presents through acquiring new equipment. Combined with some beautiful sprite work, endearing soundtrack, and excellent password-save feature, this is a game that is still highly regarded today. It received a multiplatform HD remake that released in April of 2017.
It is also worth noting that the popularity of the original Wonder Boy lead to Hudson Soft contracting Escape to develop a clone of Wonder Boy. The main character was altered to reference Hudson Soft’s spokesman Takahashi Meijin (renamed Master Higgins in the Western releases). Hudson Soft’s ripoff was entitled Adventure Island. Adventure Island soon released for NES, giving Sega’s Master System version stiff competition. (The sequels to both series were original, however). You can read up a bit more about the connection between the two games and their legacy in our Wonder Boy/Adventure Island Together Retro feature and get some thoughts on how best to explore the two franchises in this Racketboy forum thread.
If there was a series that helped inspire the subgenre of cute-em up, Fantasy Zone deserves a fair amount of credit, along with Konami’s Twin Bee. In Fantasy Zone, you control the lovely spaceship, Opa-Opa, battling enemies that looks more out of a fairy tale than a space/sci-fi setting.
Fantasy Zone had unique features for its time. Instead of scrolling in one direction, Opa-Opa can move in either direction, left or right (similar to Williams Electronic’s Defender). Opa-Opa can even walk along the ground. This means that the way this game is played is always different. In each stage, a series of enemy bases must be destroyed. There is a radar at the bottom of the screen showing which bases are active in the stage. Once all of them are destroyed, the stage boss appears. Defeated enemies and bases drop coins which Opa-Opa picks up to earn power ups through a shop balloon that appears at certain times during each stage. Power ups include bombs, extra shots, different shot types, engines for faster travel, and wings for easier movement.
What you receive is a very easy-going, yet challenging shmup. Fantasy Zone was widely ported and spawned two sequels, Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa and Fantasy Zone: The Maze (in addition to some spin-offs). Fantasy Zone II is probably one of the most challenging shmups and beautiful games on the console. As opposed to the original games, Fantasy Zone 2 was build from the ground up specifically for the Master System (but it did get an arcade port and System 16 upgrade later). Fantasy Zone: The Maze is a very fun Pac-Man clone that incorporates shooter elements. Due to its quality as a series, it earns a spot on the list.
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 take on the game style. For the Master System, Sega’s answer to Zelda was known as Golden Axe Warrior, and in some ways exceeded the standard of its muse.
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, returns as the villain of this adventure.
The graphics in Warrior were the most obvious improvement over Zelda 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. If you are a fan of the old-school Action RPG genre, Golden Axe Warrior should be on your short list to explore if you haven’t already (if you’d like to learn the basics of the game, check out our Together Retro entry for Golden Axe Warrior).
Whilst the name Asterix is not that well known in the United States, in Europe this series of French comic books starring the titular Asterix and his portly pal Obelix are very popular. Asterix lives in the only Gaulish village not conquered by the Romans, and defends it with his cunning, guile and help from the village druid, who brews a magic potion that grants super strength to the drinker. His friend Obelix fell into the potion as a baby and thus has the power permanently. The tone of the series is light hearted and fun.
Asterix, being a colourful, fun and popular franchise in Europe was a perfect fit for the Master System, a colourful, fun and popular system in Europe, and so Sega acquired the license and set out making a game for their 8 bit console – that’s right, this is a 1st party title!
Asterix is a standard platformer where you scroll right, punch enemies and throw potions to reach the exit. The game has 7 stages, but in each you can choose between playing as Asterix, who is more nimble, and Obelix who is slower and bulkier, but capable of crushing blocks without a power up. Levels offer variety in mechanics, with secret paths, auto scrollers and other features to keep things interesting. Each character has unique levels themed around their abilities, offering lots of replayability.
Asterix was only released in Europe, where 2 further Asterix titles were also released on the Master System. The first of these was Asterix and the Secret Mission, which was a direct sequel to this game, developed by Sega, which offered more of the same high quality platforming. The second, Asterix and the Great Rescue, is by Core Design and isn’t worth your time.
One of the first big hitters on the Genesis was Sega’s own licensed title Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse, which later received a follow up on the platform known as World of Illusion. However, the Mega Drive wasn’t the only system to receive great Disney games from Sega, as they released many of them for their 8 bit consoles as well. Although many of these are better known on the Game Gear in the States, the Master System was still a popular budget console well into the 90s in Europe, so many of these games arrived there too.
The first of these games was an 8-bit version of Castle of Illusion, which had many similarities but was a completely different game overall to the Genesis title. The games shared some similar level themes and controls, but brand new level designs and new mechanics were featured on the 8 bit incarnation. Mickey can now pick up and throw blocks and other object in stages as an attack, or to create new platforms.
This game was followed up by Land of Illusion, which added new game mechanics to the series with power ups awarded at the end of some levels which could be used to find new routes through old levels. The final game in the 8 bit trilogy, titled Legend of Illusion, was only released on the Game Gear in the west due to its late release, but it did receive a Master System port by Tec Toy in Brazil.
Mickey wasn’t the only Disney character to star on the Master System though, with Donald Duck also starring in 2 of his own games on the system – The Lucky Dime Caper and Deep Duck Trouble. Deep Duck Trouble in particularly is very visually impressive title for the system, but all of the titles are worth your time!
Sonic the Hedgehog
If you are at all familiar with the Sonic games on the Genesis, you know what to expect in term of gameplay, but there’s lots of things to recommend this game alongside it’s 16 bit counterpart. This game features all new levels and zones, alongside an amazing new soundtrack scored by Yuzo Koshiro, who also composed the soundtrack for Streets of Rage.
While the Master System version obviously is going to have some graphical compromises, it holds up fairly well, with respectable speed and lots of visual flair. Master System Sonic is still incredibly colorful and there is a surprising amount of detail in the levels. The game was also released on Game Gear, but this version is somewhat compromised by the zoomed in perspective and blurry nature of the handheld’s screen, so the home console version is the definitive way to play.
While the US Master System version of this game is still a rarity (see our feature on the Rarest and Most Valuable Master System Games), the game is very common in Europe and thus a fairly cheap title to import.
The Sega Master System was the first home console to experiment with virtual reality in the form of 3D glasses. With the popularity of projects like the PlayStation VR, HTC VIVE, and Oculus Rift, these games deserve a nod.
Sega employed Active Shutter 3D glasses rather than the 3D glasses you may find at a movie theatre. 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 (Space Harrier 3D, Blade Eagle 3D, Maze Hunter 3D, Missile Defense 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 Sega’s strengths in the 80s was it’s impressive array of Arcade games. Titles such as Outrun, Thunder Blade, Hang-On, After Burner, Alien Syndrome, R-Type, Shinobi, Quartet, and more represent Sega’s greatest strength. And so it was inevitable that Sega would make use of these well-known titles on their home-console system too, with the Master System being promoted as the best place to play arcade games in the home.
Many of these titles are dated now, and some weren’t even that good at the time of release, but in the late 80s, Master System arcade ports were some of the most faithful and impressive around. They were a key selling point for the system, particularly in Europe where the ports often trumped the comparable 8-bit home computer versions of the era on systems like the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum.
Some of these titles were given very basic ports to the system (such as OutRun and After Burner), whilst others (such as Shinobi and Quartet) were given new mechanics and level designs to offer something new to the home console crowd.
Sega weren’t the only ones to get on board though, with many other popular Arcade games being ported to the system – including the likes of Double Dragon, Choplifter, Bubble Bobble, Ghouls n’ Ghosts, Rampage, Rainbow Islands, Marble Madness, Special Criminal Investigation, The New Zealand Story and more.
Early Movie Licensed Games
Ghostbusters, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, Rocky
While licensed games were rather common on many platforms going back to the Atari era (E.T., anyone?), these games set an early precedent for Sega utilizing popular franchises, be them movies or sports figures, to sell their games and stand out more from Nintendo’s shadow. Sega doubled-down on this approach during the early years of the Sega Genesis (primarily Michael Jackson for Moonwalker and sports celebrities for first-party sports games).
Ghostbusters on the Master System was a port of the Activision Commodore 64 hit. Rambo was originally a Japanese Sega Mark III title known as “Ashura”, and Rocky was positioned to go head-to-head with Nintendo’s Punch Out. I would argue that all three of these games sold well, especially when you take their “blue label re-release” counterparts from 1990.
- 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 legendary Ys series of RPGs.
- Zillion -This is a series that is an action-adventure and platformer in nature. The first game can be directly compared to Nintendo’s Metroid. You must infiltrate an alien base and activate a self-destruct sequence (sound familiar) Sega made this game in conjunction with an anime series by Tatsunoko Production. They even use the actual Light Phaser in the anime! It’s a cool nod and worth exploring if you’re seeking a new Master System adventure.
- Golvellius: Valley of Doom – This Action / RPG is often compared to Zelda II on NES, and for hardcore fans, is one of the most beloved games in the Master System library. It was developed by Compile (MUSHA, Robo Aleste). In 2009, the game was re-released on iOS.
- Sega Master System 101: The Beginner’s Guide
- The Best Hidden Gems on the Sega Master System
- The Cheapest Sega Master System Games Worth Your Time
- The Rarest and Most Valuable Sega Master System Games
- The Games That Defined the Sega Genesis / Megadrive