After a shaky start at the console-making-powerhouse game with the SG-1000, Sega began to hit its stride with its second console. Or maybe its third? Or was it the fourth….?
The numeration of the Sega Master System can be a little confusing, and this speaks rather pointedly of the company’s residual lack of focus in managing the machine. The Japanese name for the Master System, the Mark III, would seem to denote a third iteration. But there was no console between the SG-1000 and the Mark III, and the SG-1000 itself came in two alternate versions (the SG-2000 computer add-on, and the SG-3000 integrated console and computer). So how was it the third? It’s a mystery.
Also a mystery is why Sega would bother with the pointless dual-format input system. The Master System could read both cartridges and “Sega Cards,” credit card-sized games that slotted into the front of the machine. The idea behind Sega Cards was to offer a low-cost alternative to cart-based games—much appreciated in the days of high-priced ROMs and no online distribution—but by the time the Master System launched in the U.S. the limited capacity of the cards (which lacked the data density of the TurboGrafx-16’s similar format) made those games feel laughably limited. Nintendo wisely declined to localize the Famicom Disk System for precisely that reason, but Sega built the instantly obsolete format right into its machine.
What shouldn’t be a mystery is the Master System’s near-crippling lack of third-party software. By the time Sega managed to launch the machine, Nintendo had practically cornered the marked on Japanese home console development (and the U.S. console development pool wasn’t worth bragging about, the nation having leapt to PC publishing a few years prior). Sega could sometimes license third-party titles, but they had to do the programming work themselves.
Despite all of these factors working against the console, it was hardly a waste of space. While ultimately an iteration on the SG-1000 at heart, the Master System was considerably more powerful than its forebear and completely stomped the NES on a technological level. And while the third-party limitations hurt the machine, the upside to Sega doing its own heavy lifting on conversions meant that Master System ports were often vastly superior to the competition: Compare the Sega renditions of Ys or R-Type to their Famicom counterparts and the difference will leave you reeling. To top it off, the Master System also played host to some incredible original titles, including Golvellius, Wonder Boy III, and the classic Phantasy Star.
Though it arrived a little too late to make much headway against the NES—and Tonka’s terrible North American distribution sure didn’t help—the Master System proved Sega was moving in the right direction. The machine was never a hit (outside of the bizarre Brazilian market, of course), but it blazed a trail, John the Baptist-style, for the mighty Genesis.
Article by Jeremy Parish
GameSpite Journal 12: Mastering the Master System