Sega Master System

Sega Master System logo

The Sega Master System, known as the Sega Mark III in Japan, was released by Sega in 1986, only 7 months after the launch of the hugely successful NES console. The original console was sold alone, or as part of the Sega Base System which included an extra controller and a 'Light Phaser' similar to the Nintendo Zapper, and which sold for $200.

The Light Phaser itself was considered to be more accurate than the NES Zapper and was modeled after the gun from the Zillion Japanese anime series. The gun was critiqued for looking too realistic, and was later changed to include an orange tip which made it look more like a toy.

Sega Master System

The Master System is Sega's second console in the video game market after the unsuccessful Japanese cartridge based system, the SG-1000.

The Master System has both a card slot and a cartridge slot for games. Games for the system were produced on both types of hardware. The Japanese Master System was designed to also support SG-1000 games, and this was what led to the technical decision to continue to produce software on the same cartridges and cards that the SG-1000 supported. The cards were used for cheaper, smaller games as they held less data than the cartridge. The shape of the carts and pin configuration of the cards was changed between the North American and Japanese systems as a way of region locking the console.

One unique aspect of the Master System was that it contained built in games accessible when no cartridge is inserted in the system. Snail Maze was a hidden game that was included on the original master system which could be played by holding Up and Buttons 1 and 2 on the controller while booting up the system with no game inserted. Astro Warrior was also available to play on the cheaper system, while the Sega Base System packages included integrated versions of Hang-On and Safari Hunt.

The original controllers for the Master System were similar to the NES controllers. Many have a screw hole in the d-pad for a thumb stick attachment. The controllers also contained a start button, 1 button, and 2 button, The select button was on the console itself. The connectors for the controllers were the same as the later produced Sega Genesis controllers, and so both the 3 and 6 button Genesis controllers are usable on the Sega Master System, although this causes issue with a very small number of games.

Sega Master System box

Several peripherals were produced for the console, including a remote controller, rapid-fire unit, and 3D glasses which were inserted through the card slot and supported 8 different 3D games. The LCD shutter glasses rapidly opacity alternate between the left and right lenses; when this is used in tandem with two different alternating images flashed from the TV, and when this is synchronized with the switching of the 3-D Glasses, it creates a natural stereoscopic 3D effect. The technology takes advantage of the fact that televisions display an interlaced image and displays the left image in the top frame and the right image in the bottom frame. As a result, the glasses tends not to work with non-standard televisions and most capture cards, as they tend to combine fields.

The system itself couldn't compete with the NES in North America, or even in Japan, which is why it is not as well known here, but it Europe and in Brazil it was so successful it continued to sell much longer after the next generation became available. After its first failure, the North American distribution rights were sold to Tonka, but as it continued to fail, Sega eventually regained the rights, focused heavily on marketing, and began publishing a new package which included Alex Kidd built in.

The most commonly mentioned contributing factor to the Master System’s failure is the third party license that Nintendo held with developers, which prevented third parties from releasing any of their titles on opposing consoles if they had been made available on the NES. As the NES held over 90% of the market share, only Activision and Parker Brothers attempted to produce Master System games, but both companies produced very few.

Sega Master System 2

Under the new direction, Sega marketing switched company mascots from the original Fantasy Zone Opa-Opa to Alex Kidd, who was eventually replaced once Sonic took popularity upon the release of the Sega Genesis. Sega also launched a redesigned system called the Master System 2; the system was cheaper to produce and left out several components including the reset button, expansion port, and original card slot. This made card based games no longer playable on the new hardware, but Sega did re-release many of the original card games on cartridges. This also made the 3D glasses no longer usable, as they interfaced through the card slot.

Despite the marketing, new console redesign, and a court decision made in 1991 which prevented Nintendo from holding their third parties to their publishing policies, the system could not gain popularity.

Sega's overall popularity picked up with the release of the Sega Genesis, and Sega released the Power Base Converter attachment for the Genesis. This add-on contained both the cartridge and card slots of the Master System and allowed the Genesis to play Master System games. Only the original Base Converter was released in the North America, and was not made compatible with the more commonly found Genesis 2 redesign, although the European Power Base Converter 2, or a third party converter, could be obtained.

Getting a Sega Master System

The Sega Master System is not quite as easy to come by in North America because it wasn't as widely produced as the NES, and the power base converters are just as hard to come by.

The easiest way to play Master System games is currently on Wii's Virtual Console Service.

>> Games for the Sega Master System