Unlike a lot of kids my age, I didn’t cut my thumbs on the Nintendo Entertainment System. My first home video game console was a Sega Master System. I had played other video games before – the kids of one of my parents’ friends had an Atari 2600 and a couple of those little tabletop mini arcade machines. My dad thought I should’ve got the NES instead of Sega’s machine, but living in the small town of Maple Ridge, BC (basically a suburb of Vancouver these days), my only friend who had a home console had the Master System. The fact that it was technically a better machine than the NES didn’t factor into my decision to get the Sega Master System, but being able to trade and borrow games definitely swayed me.
Boxy, yet sleek and sexy.
Just like the NES, the Sega Master System came with two controllers, a light gun for shooting games, and a game cartridge with two games. Hang On
is a motorcycle racing game, and Safari Hunt
is a shooting game in the same vein as Duck Hunt
, but with a variety of locales and game to blast with the light gun. The games came on cartridges, which were about half the size of NES cartridges. Many titles were also available on game cards, which were about the size of a credit card and loaded in the front of the console. The card games sold a little bit cheaper than cartridges, and were usually (but not always) smaller/simpler games than those sold on cartridges.
Sega's Master System was like the Betamax to Nintendo's VHS machine. While it was technically a better console, it failed to capture the market share Nintendo enjoyed. In terms of raw processing power, Sega had Nintendo beat in almost every way. While both machines had 8-bit processors, Sega's console ran at 3.579545 MHz, almost twice the speed of Nintendo's 1.79 MHz processor. The system hardware's main RAM is 8KB, four times that of the NES. The SMS can display 32 colours simultaneously, while the NES could only do 24. It also has more colours for programmers to choose from; 64 compared to the Nintendo's 53 (five of which were shades of gray).
Whenever the same game showed up on both systems, the SMS version usually looked better than its NES couterpart. Compare the two screen shots below; first up is Wonder Boy
, a game Sega adapted from their arcade title of the same name. Right next to that is a screen from Adventure Island
on the NES. It’s the same basic game - with an admittedly cooler name - but with the main difference being Wonder Boy's
main character, Tom-Tom, has been replaced with Hudson's character Master Higgins. The Sega version just plain looks better, with richer colours and more detail in every object.
But even if a kid had both an NES and a SMS, he’d probably pick the Nintendo version of the game. Back then, we didn’t have the internet or even many video game magazines to compare games, and most video stores didn’t rent Master System cartridges, so the box art was often the only criteria we had to base our decisions on. The box art for Adventure Island
looks pretty awesome, with monsters, cavemen, dinosaurs, giant spider and a kidnapped, scantily-clad princess painted in a lively style. The cover of Wonder Boy
, on the other hand, shows a kid in a leaf skirt jumping over a snail, with cartoony art that looks like it was drawn by a nine year old on graph paper.
Really... at nine years old, which would you pick?
Aside from Hang On & Safari Hunt
, I only really remember ever having three games for the Master System; My Hero
, Teddy Boy
, and Altered Beast. My Hero
is a fairly standard beat ‘em up game, similar to Double Dragon
or River City Ransom
. At the start of the game, your girlfriend is kidnapped by thugs, and you run through city streets fighting bad guys until you rescue her from the gang leader. Teddy Boy
is a classic platformer. You run around mazes, shooting at enemies, which turn into little eggs you have to collect to advance to the next level. To this day I don’t know if the game ever does end; like a lot of early 80s games, the levels of Teddy Boy
seemed to repeat endlessly with the speed of the enemies increasing to ramp up the difficulty.
Anyone who owned a Genesis or played in arcades back then remembers Altered Beast
, one of Sega’s biggest titles in the days before they debuted Sonic the Hedgehog
. Set in some vaguely defined Greek mythological millieu, Zeus commands you to rise from your grave and fight demons, zombies, and other monsters, collecting orbs to power your transformation into various beast forms to fight your enemies and rescue Athena from Neff, Lord of the Underworld. Yeah, I know. While the Master System’s 8-bit version couldn’t match the graphics of the arcade or Genesis versions, and there were two levels and one beast transformation missing, Altered Beast
on the SMS pretty much blew my young mind.
If you need another example of what I was talking about earlier when I said Master System games looked better than NES games, check out these screens from Altered Beast
. The second pic is from the Nintendo Famicom (the Japanese version of the NES) version of the game. For some reason, it was never released for the NES in North America.
Even after I got an NES a couple of years later, I kept the Sega hooked up to the TV and played it every once in a while. Eventually, one of the controllers wore out, and replacement Master System controllers weren’t easy to find in 1990. By the time Super Nintendo and genesis came around, I ended up selling the console and games at a garage sale, and I have to admit I still have some some regrets about that. Master System emulators are available, though not as easily found as NES emulators and ROMs. Still, emulators only go so far to capture the feel of the classic gaming. I'd love to get my hands on an old Master System console at some point and play some of those old games again, but since no one had them back in the day, they can be pretty hard to track down these days.