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Sega Mark III

Sega Mark IIIThe Sega Mark III is Sega's third console. Under the Mark III iteration, it was released only in Japan in 1985 under the "Mark III" name for 15,000 yen. The console was later externally re-designed and re-branded as the Sega Master System and was released in North America in 1986, and in Europe in 1987. The Mark III and its Master System counterpart are largely regarded amongst collectors as one of the most under-rated consoles of all time.

An Answer to Nintendo's Famicom

The Mark III was released in Japan as Sega's third major video game console, with the two predecessors being the SG-1000 and the SG-1000 Mark II (a redesigned version of the SG-1000). The Mark III was designed to compete directly with the Nintendo Entertainment System both in Japan and when it was eventually released in other markets.

The Mark III, as well as the Master System variants that would eventually follow, were technically superior to the NES. The 8-bit Zilog Z80 processor ran at 3.58Mhz compared to the NES' Ricoh 2A03 processor which runs at 1.79Mhz (NTSC/NTSC-J versions) or 1.66Mhz (PAL versions). The Mark III included 8KB of RAM vs. 2KB in the NES, and the Mark III was able to display up to 32 simultaneous colors on screen from a palette of 64, while the NES was only able to display 25 simultaneous colors from a palette of 46 colors and 6 grays. Although the Mark III was technically superior, it failed in almost all markets when compared to the NES due to its broader support by third party developers and its massive library of games.

The Mark III Console

Sega Mark IIIThe Mark III console itself, unlike almost every other Sega console to follow until the Dreamcast, is a very light beige color - almost white. The top of the console features a Sega Card slot that's used for playing 4-bit Sega Card games, as well as a standard cartridge slot with a manually retractable dust cover, which is used for playing cartridge based games. Sega Card games were cheaper alternatives to full-blown Mark III cartridge games. They weren't nearly as expensive as the cart-based games, but due to the fact that they could only hold 256KB of data vs 1MB or more in a cartridge, they typically weren't as complex or immersive as the cart-based games.

Sega Mark IIILike the Japanese Famicom, the Mark III console has docks on either side that act as a cradle for holding the controllers when not in use. Unlike the Famicom, however, the controllers are removable and do share the same style plug as the Sega Genesis, Sega Master System, and many other Sega consoles that would later be released. The Mark III controllers simply consist of a direction pad with removable thumb-stick, much reminiscent of the first generation North American Master System, as well as two buttons. Unlike the Master System, these buttons are not labeled "1" and "2" on the Mark III controller. In fact, they are not labeled at all.

Sega Mark IIIThe front of the Mark III provides two joystick ports, which again are the same style ports used on the Genesis. The console also has a removable panel which hides an EXT port. This port was used in Japan for Mark III accessories, two of which included a full keyboard accessory which was bundled with a game cartridge to provide home users with the ability to program games and programs using the Sega BASIC programming language. A more common attachment was the Sega FM Sound Unit, which contained a Yamaha YM2413 FM chip which dramatically enhanced the quality of sound output from the Mark III. More on this later.

Sega Mark IIIThe rear of the console is where the power switch is located, as well as the DC power input, RF TV output, "HI-LOW" switch (channel 1-2 selector), and an "EXT OUT" port which, thankfully, provides composite video output. If you are lucky enough to find a Mark III still complete in the box, it will come with the larger DIN-style EXT OUT cable to provide composite video. I'm told this is the same style cable as the Genesis model 1 and the Commodore 64 - and it does appear to be. The console will also come with a male-to-male RCA cable and an Atari 2600-type TV/GAME selector box for RF connectivity.

Although the console was never released in the US, the composite video output makes the console compatible with US NTSC television sets without any special modification or channel tuning. The RF output can be used to provide coax output via an RF adapter box, but since channel tuning isn't the same on NTSC TVs as it is NTSC-J TVs, this doesn't really work with US NTSC television sets. I have read that channel 95 or 96 on a US NTSC television set is the same as channels 1-2 on an NTSC-J television set, but I have yet to try this myself to see if it works. Regardless, most newer US television sets are opting not to include an NTSC tuner due to analog channels being phased out in favor of digital channels. Thankfully, composite output from the Mark III works just fine on even the newest US NTSC TVs with a composite input.

Backwards Compatibility

The Mark III is backwards compatible with all Sega SG-1000 games which were released for the SG-1000 and SG-1000 Mark II. A special area of note though: The Sega Card games that were released in the US for the Master System are not compatible with the Mark III's Card slot, as they are too wide to physically insert in to the slot. Also, the US game carts for the Master System are shaped differently than normal Mark III games, so they also will not physically fit in the cartridge slot of the Mark III and are therefore incompatible. Sega also changed the pin-outs between the Japanese Mark III carts and the Master System carts released elsewhere, making cross-compatibility impossible without a third party adapter.

I have read that the Mark III comes with a game that's built in to the system ROM, but my Mark III only displays a black screen when powered up without a game inserted, so I cannot confirm that this is true with all versions of the Mark III.

Mark III Accessories

The FM Sound Unit never found its way in to any of the Master System consoles released outside of Japan, but would later be integrated in to the release of the Japanese version of the Master System (a physically re-designed version of the Mark III). This re-designed Mark III looked almost identical to the first generation North American Master System console and was released near the end of the Mark III/Master System's life in Japan in a last-ditch effort to move stock of existing Mark III/Master System games, as well as provide a lower-cost alternative to Sega's newly-released Mega Drive (Genesis) in the Japanese Market. The Japanese version of the Master System was superior to versions sold elsewhere in the world, and came with the FM Sound Unit's hardware, the Sega Rapid Fire Unit (a device allowing for turbo-fire buttons on non-turbo controllers), and the 3D Glasses Adapter hardware built-in.

Another accessory for the Sega Mark III was the Sega Telecon Pack. This strange device would allow you to wirelessly attach the Mark III to a television set to avoid having an RF or composite video cables draped across the floor if you wanted to hook up your Mark III in a location other than near your television. The Telecon Pack came with a small box that would attach to the RF OUT port on the back of the Mark III and had a small antenna that would attach to this box. A larger antenna would be placed atop the TV and would recieve the signal broadcast by the console. This larger antenna looks similar to a rectangular satellite dish. The Telecon Pack is rather hard to find today, and although it doesn't work extremely well (or basically at all on a North American TV set), it's still highly collectable today.

Final Thoughts

Sega Mark IIIThe Mark III is an extremely interesting console for any collector - as is virtually any other console that was never released in their home country (for me, the US). Just like any other console that was never released anywhere outside of Japan, it's also fairly expensive and sometimes can be hard to find. Mark III consoles appear no eBay regularly with varying degrees of completeness and price. I was lucky to find a complete in-box Mark III console with no yellowing for a price I was comfortable paying given the rarity of the console. My unit is in like new condition with no signs of wear, but the box itself is a little more beat-up than I'd like. That being said, I have seen a few unopened new-in-box examples on eBay recently, but those typically are going for $400-$500 US plus an additional $70-$80 shipping from Japan - slightly higher than I'd be willing to pay at this point.

Sega Mark IIIThere are really no games for the Mark III that are "must-haves" when compared to what you can find for a Master System outside of Japan, so if you are collecting the Mark III and it's accessories you will probably be doing it just for the fact that it's a console that was only released in Japan, one that's not so easy to find today, and as an interesting conversation piece amongst friends. That being said, the Mark III is a shining example of Sega's commitment to quality in their hardware and like all other Sega consoles is built extremely well and is an awesome addition to any Sega fan's collection.

Pictures

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