Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the SEGA Master System, the first video game system that was distributed by SEGA outside Japan (there was the SEGA SG1000 before the Master System and the Japanese version was named the SEGA Mark III).
For me it was my first love with the 8-bits consoles post-Atari (my first console I got my hands on was the Atari 2600 when I was 4). It was through my BFF that I got introduced. It was the console of the misfits, the console of the nerds, the console of the alternative when everyone was mainstream with the “Nintendo Entertainment System”. What made it so special? I have my bunch of reasons.
Firstly, the colors. You can argue as you want but the color on the NES were fairly ugly despite having a palette of 54 colors. The Sega Master System had 32 colors with 64 colors using a raster effect. The problem with game licenses were kind of having the right cards in your hands, but some editors have published in both consoles. Lets see the comparison of Double Dragon between NES and Master System:
Secondly the sound chip. I found the SEGA sound system much more appreciable on the ear than the NES. Being greeted by the SEGA Master System was an enjoyable experience:
If you were in Japan or having a Japanese SEGA, some versions were greeted with the Space Harrier theme:
What I really despised is the decision to remove the FM Synthesizer from the US and European version of the Master System and was sold separately as an FM Module. To give an idea of what we missed, there is a video comparing the same game without and with the FM Synthesizer:
It makes such a big difference, that makes the gaming experience even more enjoyable.
Thirdly, the games proposed. Yes, Nintendo was all about Mario and Zelda, as well as Castlevania. Yes, Alex Kidd never reached the cult status of Mario. But if like me you grew up playing on coin-op games, arcade games (back in my days it was during carnivals and fairs we had a chance to play arcade games), this was the console you wanted to have. All SEGA hits built on the System 1/16 and the subsequent different iterations (Shinobi, Golden Axe, Altered Beast, After Burner, Out Run, Space Harrier, Super Thunderblade, Hang On, Fantasy Zone…..) as well as third-parties that have dual licenses such as Taito (Rastan), Irem (R-Type, Vigilante) it was back then the only way to play these games at home.
Another remarkable thing is the popularity of the SEGA Master System in Europe, in particularly in France. Here is a French commercial from 1989/1990 when the SEGA Master System sales was full-sail: http://www.ina.fr/video/PUB3784122096. It was fairly popular that one TV game show called “Le Chevalier Du Labyrinthe” was offering a SEGA Master System as a prize:
If I have to put a game list I really loved to play on the Master System (arcade ports excluded, I would recommend the arcade version through MAME), here would be my list:
Alex Kidd in Miracle World
Astro Warrior/Pit Pot
Golden Axe Warrior
Fantasy Zone II: the Maze
Nowadays, the SEGA Master System can be found. I have starting collecting my consoles here in the US (and plan to migrate my collection from France to the US next time I travel back to France). What I can tell? The price are going high fairly crazy, I believe we have a generation of retrogress now getting into full age and with the $$$ to afford it. I am scouting the Goodwill bid site (www.shopgoodwill.com) and the Master System naked (no games) are easily going for $60-100 especially if it is complete in box (CIB). I am not even not talking about the version 2 that is probably go even higher. To give you an idea, Goodwill got this stuff donated and in a regular store it would have been gone for $5-10 as is. I feel Goodwill found a way to make some easy money on folks. Games usually range between $5-10/game but I have seen some lot going to $100 (like Phantasy Star). If you like some exotic variants, you should go visit Brazil where SEGA under the distribution by TecToy got a real popularity there and even Brazilian-specific games.