SEGA MASTER SYSTEM/MARK III | HISTORY FEATURE

SEGA Master System
Master System Mark 1 Console

The SEGA Master System/Mark III (MS) was SEGAs dedicated games console that turned their focus away from computers and the first piece of their hardware which was actually marketed outside of Japan.

Although a superior machine on the 8-Bit market, it was never able to break the iron grip that Nintendo held with the Famicom/NES not just on the games console market but the developers also.

However, SEGAs dominant arcade presence meant the MS was home to many ambitious arcade conversions and many unofficial mascots would get their home debuts before a certain blue hedgehog would replace them all.

Whilst perhaps not as successful as hoped in the two biggest markets, it scored a surprise hit in the new market of Europe and it was instrumental in setting the stage for SEGAs huge success in the coming 16-Bit war.

Inception

SEGA had limited success in Japan in both the console and computer markets with the SG-1000 (SEGA Game 1000), SG-1000 Mark II hardware and SC-3000 (SEGA Computer 3000) which was a personal computer that could play games. Whilst no significant inroads into the market were made, valuable experience was gained, infrastructure created and a new console R & D division established. Some of the greatest names in the company and indeed industry such as Yu Suzuki and Yuji Naka had started there.

SEGA 8-Bit Systems
SEGA SG-1000 (Original Version) SEGA SG-1000 Mark II SEGA SC-3000

SEGA SG-1000 (Original Version)

SEGA SG-1000 Mark II

SEGA SC-3000

SEGA came to the understanding that only way to take on Nintendo and its Famicom was to have a superior machine designed only for games.

This next iteration of SG-1000 hardware removed the Texas Instruments video processor with SEGA created a highly customised version adding a much larger colour palette, 16 colour sprites and hardware scrolling. RAM was increased and support for much larger cartridges was added.

Thus, the SG-1000 Mark III was born though it would simply go by the name of Mark III and was more than enough to shame the Famicom in comparison.

Cartridges would house the more complex titles whereas cards called My Card, would hold the smaller and less complex titles to create a budget range of games. Also, noteworthy was that it offered backwards compatibility out-of-the-box allowing both Mark SG-1000 Mark 1 and Mark 2 software to be used.

Superior controllers with a much more precise D-Pad and softer buttons were made.

A range of peripherals was produced such as an arcade stick and light gun. More ambitious peripherals were designed also. A FM Sound Unit containing a YM2413 chip to provide extra audio abilities, 3D glasses notable for being an innovative attempt to bring 3D graphics into games. In fact, it was the first console to ever experiment with any form of virtual reality experience. A Rapid-Fire Unit was on hand for delivering mega-fast button presses with a single press.

For international release, it would go through a cosmetic change and renamed the Master System.

Regional Histories in Brief

Japan

Launched: October 1985. Available Titles: Hang-On and Teddy Boy (My Card's)

The first batch of games were only released on the cheaper My Card format. The first cartridge was Fantasy Zone.

Over 1 million consoles were sold within the first year but in reality, the Mark III's chances were slim.

Nintendo's massive amount of third-party support where the developers were infamously forced to sign agreements to not release their titles on other hardware meant that SEGA could only rely on its own efforts.

In 1987, the Master System itself was launched in Japan with the bonus features of the FM Sound Unit built in as well as a 3-D glasses port and a built-in Rapid Fire Unit.

Later there was a release of the Master System (MSII only) into Japan but that went largely unnoticed and was discontinued in 1989 with the launch of the Mega Drive.

1.7 million consoles had sold.

Final Title: Bomber Raid in 1989 from SEGA.

North America

Launched: 1986 (late in the year). Available Titles: Hang-On and Safari Hunt (Double Cartridge)

The system was cosmetically redesigned and rebranded "Master System" (MS) possibly to capture the attention of the American youth that the MS was a superior console.

By now the SEGA brand had begun to carry some weight having made some of the best arcade games of the day and undeterred by poor performance in their native turf SEGA introduced the system to this region a year after the launch of the NES.

It was available in two packages: SEGA Base System that included the console and two controllers for >$150 and no game included, and SEGA Master System (deluxe set) having an additional Light Phazor and Hang On/Sarafi Hunt for around >$200.

Whilst a superior console, it found itself in very much the same cruddy situation: a NES dominated landscape. The biggest third-party developers such as Capcom and Konami were forced to make their games exclusive. SEGA could only rely on two such developers: Activision and Parker Brothers and thus SEGA ported most of their arcade hits of the day. This resulted in a small games library and the system was all but ignored by US gamers.

Shortly after launch Alex Kidd in Miracle World was released which was received warmly but otherwise failed to gain popularity. Likewise, the My Card format and the 3D glasses failed to take off.

By 1987, SoJ had decided to cut its losses and offload the struggling platform to Tonka Toys. This decision was somewhat odd since they had no experience selling a new piece of electronics but they were seen as having more access to retailers. They generously put some $30 million into marketing but their efforts did little to improve the situation. Their ownership of developers Parker Brothers did allow for some exclusive titles.

There was to be no catching up with Nintendo and their 90% market share.

In 1989, SEGA recovered the rights to distribute the system and released the redesigned Master System II. They marketed the system hoping the hype for the Genesis would resurrect this platform too. Unfortunately, it did not happen so the release of the Genesis spelled the end.

Almost runaway success in Europe allowed for a few more titles to be released in the US but for the most part the console had gone unnoticed.

Last Release: Sonic The Hedgehog 1991.

Europe

Launched: 1987. Available Titles: Action Fighter, Blackbelt, Choplifter, Fantasy Zone, Hang-On (My Card), TransBot (My Card), World Grand Prix.

This final region for the consoles release was a totally new market for SEGA.

The NES was released here towards the end of 1986 and yet was not selling well. Things were so bad that several MS games were ported to the NES examples being Fantasy Zone and Space Harrier. A perfect opportunity had arisen. And also, Nintendo's exclusivity agreements did note reach the 'new' Europe.

Mastertronic - a well-known name in Europe for making games for microcomputers of the era (ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64) - were enlisted for distribution and SEGAs superior 8-bitter landed in stores for Christmas 1987 cheaper than Nintendo's offerings.

Marketed as an arcade-at-home experience backed up by the top-quality ports of SEGAs arcade hits European gamers quickly soaked this up particularly in the UK with many leaving their tape loading computers for SEGAs instant action console. No tape loading was a revolution and the MS quickly looked superior to the computers that used them. And for arcade fans they could now play conversions SEGA themselves made rather than the crappy facsimiles on these computers.

Some memorable marketing such as a brightly coloured TV saying "Do me a favour, and plug me into a SEGA" followed by the "To the this good takes AGES. To be this good takes SEGA" was deployed.

Mastertronic had made the machine so successful that it made the company attractive enough to be purchased by Virgin who then quickly went about distributing across the whole of Europe turning further success – and now the successor console (Mega Drive) was on the horizon.

The redesigned Master System II launched at a low price £40 packaged with Alex Kidd in Miracle World and later Sonic The Hedgehog. It maintained a large market share keeping the system alive into the years of the Mega Drive and even the Saturn with games such as Sonic Chaos great ports such as Streets of Rage 2 and some very rare third-party games such as Buggy Heat and Power Strike 2.

Ultimately the console performed brilliantly outselling the NES and other competitors such as the Atari 7800.

Last Release: 1996 The Smurfs: Travel the World by Infrogrames.

Brazil

A special mention must be made as it was released in 1989 and thrived for almost 10 years with almost no competition.

Its marketing and distribution were managed by TecToy and this region has several titles not known to other regions such as Dynamite Heddy, Mortal Kombat 3, Street Fighter II and variants of the console such as a wireless version dubbed 'The Compact'

Legacy

Ultimately the MS became SEGAs second best-selling hardware mostly through European sales totalling some 13 million consoles worldwide at the end of 1994 and many of the final games were developed in Europe. Success in Europe allowed the establishment of a new base of operations – SEGA of Europe (SoE).

For many it was the first console that introduced players to 'the arcade at home' experience especially as the SEGA brand was well known to arcade goers creating a solid foundation.

Experience with producing their own software/original IPs specifically for the console turned SEGAs R & D departments into software factories which would be crucial in the future also. It was also the home to several of SEGAs unofficial mascots.

Despite its bad performance in two of the three biggest markets it was key to success with the coming Mega Drive/Genesis.

Some of the best 8-Bit games ever made were on the MS from both SEGA and third-parties alike.

The Master System/Mark III Today

So today, the console is still alive in several ways. There is a small contingent of hardcore players (like myself) who still play on real hardware for the real experience. It is also a testament to the quality of the hardware. As an aside, my Model 1 got caught in a storm and was underwater – and still works having dried out!

Real hardware and software is still easily available in and outside of Ebay, however, prices are now beginning to rise and with many TVs dropping the SCART connector this can be sometimes tricky.

There are a few handheld versions made by third party manufacturers the most popular being from AtGames and Blaze which include 30 games (some Game Gear titles) and TV output for around £30. Capabilities of models vary such as quality of the screen and/or SDCard slot so checking the specifications and reviews is recommended.

Software is preserved to an excellent degree as quality of emulation is superb and available for multiple platforms.

Over the years, games have been re-released on Wii Virtual Console (which also includes Game Gear games) and a smattering on Xbox Live in collections.

There have been several more releases under the newer SEGA AGES brand for the Nintendo Switch that bring new features to some classic titles such as Alex Kidd: In Miracle World thanks to the technical brilliance of M2, however, none as yet on the SEGA Forever brand for mobile devices.

Plenty of community websites exist dedicated to the system (as well as the Game Gear as the hardware is the same) offering discussions, historical finds, reviews and other content such as soundtracks, game hacks and prototype/unreleased games now surfacing. More interestingly, there are new homebrew games and coding competitions that produce some outstanding results from the hardware and well worth a look. Check out plenty of projects on Youtube.

For much more content for Master System zen then check out some if the URLs in the Links section below.


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