Sega Master System – How Not to Fulfil Potential
Well my friends, it all started in the Christmas of 1990…
A young me saw an advert for the MS Power Base and instantly fell in love. I’d love to be able to show you said video but the internet, despite containing 12,000,000 shades of adult material, doesn’t have space for it. I’m starting to wonder whether I imagined it all. In any case, for the month of December I relentlessly badgered my father (B. Simpson would have been very impressed) to purchase the Power Base with Hang-On, Safari Hunt and Light Phaser. And credit to the man, ignoring late mortgage payments, final demands and much to the annoyance of my mother, he duly obliged. I was stunned.
I did however find this American advert for the package which at £100 seemed expensive but actually provided pretty good value for money. Plus, there was also a hidden maze game. Someone needs to bring back hidden games. I dug out my Master System a couple of months ago, which still works despite my cousin tipping coke into it (pretty sure if you breathe too heavily on an Xbox it will explode) and boy did it bring back some memories! What also struck me was how bad some of the titles were. These were games I’d played to death! The Ninja and World Soccer were personal favourites but both of them are graphically woeful. That sounds harsh given they were some of the early release titles but let me continue.
Golden Axe is the game that really stuck in my craw. The Ninja (1987) and World Soccer (also 1987) were released a mere two years before Golden Axe (1989) but if you put them side by side you wouldn’t guess they’re from the same console. Other popular 80s titles (e.g. Ghostbusters, California Games) and even early 90s titles (Indiana Jones, Tom & Jerry) pale in comparison to the graphics in Golden Axe. Admittedly the levels are two-tone and the rendering is baffling in places but the sprites look almost the same as in the 16-bit. The sprites are large and well detailed. The main protagonist may only have around 15 frames of animation but the swing of the sword feels smooth and true. All of this with a palette of only 64 colours compared to the Mega Drive’s 512.
Most 16-bit to 8-bit conversions are terrible (the awful E-SWAT immediately springs to mind) and many positive things can be said of Sega’s stance to make completely different games on the 8-bit under the same license (Sonics 1 & 2) but I invite you to take a look at Streets of Rage and Mortal Kombat. Both of these games are one-dimensional and thus creating different 8-bit versions would seem silly. The care taken with both is remarkable. There’s not much that can be done with the Master System’s Texas Instruments (remember them?) SN76489 sound chip but its graphics capabilities are surprising. Of the 64 available colours, the Master System can display 32 at once. This is in comparison to the Mega Drive’s 64 and the NES’ pithy 25. The Zilog processor in the MS runs at 4 MHz compared to the NES’ 1.79 MHz. The Zilog chip was also used in the Mega Drive alongside the Motorola 68000.
The clues were there. Streets of Rage, after a night out with a few too many jars (blurry eyes an all) could be mistaken for the 16-bit version – bar the awful sound. Sacrifices had to be made, the Master System’s reduced memory (albeit still double that of the NES) couldn’t handle two players, but all the levels remain intact including the excellent lift stage. With Mortal Kombat more sacrifices had to be made. There are only two stages but most of the characters are there with the exception of the unpopular Kano. Each sprite is big, well drawn, and the animation works to create a fun beat em up, the likes of which European/Japanese Master System owners never saw again. Why so specific with the region? Well…
Did you know Street Fighter 2 existed on the Master System? I sure as hell didn’t until earlier this year I found out that the MS is still supported in Brazil (and emulation products in China and Taiwan). SF2 is a capable beat em up and although it looks decidedly more basic (although better than the C64 version) it really makes you wonder what Sega could have done with their first landmark console. Some Master System games are also available through the Wii’s online service – who on earth would have thought this of a Nintendo console back in the early nineties!
There are things that couldn’t be helped. The NES’ stronger game library and character recognition meant it outsold the Master System almost five to one. By the time Sega invented Sonic, the Master System was subjected to poor arcade conversations and puzzle games. The inventive Galaxy Force is the anomaly here, Sega didn’t make use of the advanced capabilities of the MS until it was too late. Sonic 1 was the last MS release in the USA. Most would assume that the release of the Mega Drive is to blame for this and Sega had to do something to halt the dominance of the NES. The fact is that Sega made a superior 8-bit console to the NES but chose to go 16-bit first-off, thus inviting the inevitable Nintendo sucker punch (the SNES).
I will always love the Master System and although I’m unlikely to ever own its current incarnations I can still enjoy my Sonics, Streets of Rages (oh yes, the sequel is on there too) and Mortal Kombat. Just don’t mention E-SWAT.
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