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Sega Master System / II

Sega Master SystemThe Sega Master System model 1 (as shown in the thumbnail to the left) was the rest of the world's answer to the Japanese-exclusive Sega Mark III. The Sega Master System's internals were virtually identical to the Mark III, but the exterior casing received a visual refresh. The Master System was released in June 1986 in the US, September 1987 in Europe, and September 1989 in Brazil.

Sega's 8-bit World Console

Unlike the SG-1000 and the SG-1000 Mark II, which were Japan/Australia exclusives, the Sega Master System (post-Mark III form) was Sega's first entry in to the world console market. The Master System was intended to compete head-to-head with the Nintendo Entertainment System on the world stage. In the United States and Canada, the Master system performed extremely poorly when compared to the NES. In Europe and Brazil, however, the Master System actually did quite well. The console was officially discontinued in the US in 1992, but wasn't discontinued in Europe officially until 1996! In Brazil, the Master System was, and still is, extremely popular.

Master System Model 1

Sega Master SystemThe original non-Japanese incarnation of the Master System came with the creation of the Master System model 1 (Sega model 3010 and 3010-A). The console itself is made of black plastic with a red sort of flow chart sticker on the top near the cartridge slot. The unit features two or three means of playing games, depending on model. The first is via a cartridge slot on top of the system. The second is via a card slot on the front of the system, which accepts Sega Card games. Not many Sega Card games were produced for the US market, but they were cheaper to produce and purchase than cartridges - though they couldn't hold as much information (256KB on a Sega Card vs. up to 1MB on a game cart). The third method was via a built-in game, which was a combination of Safari Hunt and Hang On. This built-in game is only available on Master Systems with model number 3010-A. Model 3010 came with a physical pack-in catridge containing these included games, and the cart was required to play them.

Sega Master SystemGame catridges were similar to the cartridges used on other systems of the time. They were plastic cartridges with paper sticker labels on the top/front, some warning verbiage on the back, and an exposed cartridge connector on the bottom. Master System carts were more like Atari-style carts than NES carts, as the system was top-loading vs front-loading like the NES. As a result, the Master System doesn't have the reliability issues that the NES is plagued with (blinking screens, etc.) due to a direct connection between the cart and the cartridge slot on the system board, instead of an intermediate connector like the NES used. Unlike NES carts though, Master System carts do not feature colorful game art, and basically all look the same sans the game title.

Sega Master SystemThe Master System came packed with two joypad style controllers which contained a removable thumb joystick that screwed in to the D-pad, much like the Sega Mark III. The controllers also featured two action buttons, but unlike on the Mark III where the buttons weren't labeled, Sega labeled them "Button 1/Start" and "Button 2" on the Master System controllers. Like the Mark III controllers, the cord for the controllers exited through the right side, which could make them feel akward while playing games.

Sega Master SystemOn the front of the unit is the power button and two control ports, which are the same style control ports utilized on the Mark III and the Sega Genesis. The card slot, which can be used with Sega Card games and which also served as the interface for the 3D glasses accessory is also located on the front of the unit. Unlike the NES controller, there is no dedicated Start/Select buttons on the Master System controller to pause gameplay, so a dedicated Pause button is on the top of the console near the cartridge slot, right next to the Reset button.

Sega Master SystemOn the back of the unit there are ports for a DC adapter input, an RF output for RF video, a channel 3/4 selector, and a DIN-style AV output port for composite video output. The composite cable used is a Commodore 64 style cable, which is the same cable used on the Sega Genesis model 1.

Sega Master SystemOn the underside of the unit, behind a small removable door, is a plastic plate that is held on with small plastic legs. The plate is designed to be removed to expose the expansion port. This expansion port looks like the cartridge connector that is visisble through the bottom of a game cartridge, and is the same expansion port that exists in the front of the Sega Mark III console. Unlike the Mark III in Japan, Sega never released any accessories outside of Japan which would utilize this port, so it was never used.

Master System II

Sega Master SystemSega later released a second Master System in many markets, including the US. The Master System II was designed to cut costs when compared to the original Master System console, and so several things were removed or changed on the console and its accessories.

Sega Master SystemThe console itself appears much more basic. The new Master System lacks a Reset button, and instead only features a large Pause button and a Power On/Off toggle switch that slides left and right instead of pushing in/out as does the power switch on the Master System model 1. The Master System II also lacks a power LED.

Sega Master SystemThe spring-loaded dust cover on the cartridge slot has been replaced with a large door that must be manually opened and closed. Sega completely removed the Sega Card slot, which means that the Master System II is not compatible with any of the Sega Card games, nor is it compatible with the 3D Glasses add-on. All of the other Master System accessories, including the Light Phaser gun and the Sega Sports Pad trackball are still compatible with the Master System II.

Sega Master SystemOn the back of the unit, Sega decided to remove the DIN-style connector for composite video output, and as a result the Master System II is only able to display standard RF output. Because of this, video and audio output quality is not as good as it is on the Master System model 1. Sega also decided to remove the expansion slot on the bottom of the Master System II altogether, which isn't an issue in the US market, since it was never used.

Sega Master SystemWhile most of the Master System II was stripped down and made worse, the controllers were actually made better. The ability to install the removable thumb joystick was removed, and instead of having a tapped center, the D-pad for the Master System II was just flat. Since the thumb stick was hard to use, and when not installed on the Master System I controllers the hole where the thumb stick was supposed to be would chew up your thumb anyway, the removal of the thumb stick was a welcome change. Also, Sega decided that instead of routing the cable out the right side of the controller (where your right hand should go), that it'd be a better idea to route it out the top, like an NES controller.

Another welcome change to the Master System II was the inclusion of better built-in software. In the US, the Master System II came with Alex Kidd in Mircale World built in. This 2D side scrolling action game is much more epic in scope than the previously provided Hang On/Safari Hunt combo. Some markets, like Brazil and Europe, even got Master System II consoles with Sonic the Hedgehog built in - though those consoles are rare and quite collectable now.

Japanese Master System

As a last ditch effort to breathe life in to the dying Mark III in Japan, Sega decided to release a Japanese version of the Sega Master System and market it as such. It wasn't marketed as completely new console than the Mark III, rather as an upgrade.

Unlike the Mark III, which required the FM Sound Module add-on to produce advanced FM sound from games which supported it, the Japanese version of the Master System came with the Yamaha chip from the FM Sound Unit built-in. The Japanese version of the Master System was the only version to come with this, as Master System I and II units in the rest of the world never got it.

The Japanese version of the Master System would see some other upgrades as well. The Sega 3D Glasses adapter, which for the international release of the Master System as well as the Sega Mark III console required that the glasses adapter be inserted in to the Sega Card slot, the Japanese Master System had this module built-in. This mean that you could keep your glasses connected via the 1/4" phono jack while playing Sega Card games (though no Sega Card games were ever released with 3D support).

The Japanese version of the Master System also came with the Rapid Fire Adapater built in. This adapter was an add-on accessory in other markets, which would allow a non-turbo controller's 1 and 2 action buttons to have turbo functionality. This meant that by holding down a button, a small device that connected in between the controller and the console would modulate button pulses so it appeared to the console as if the user was repeatedly pushing the button very quickly. This functionality was very important in Japan, where 2D top-down and side-scrolling plante shooters (SHUMPs) are very popular.

Brazil and Europe

Due to the popularity of the NES in Japan and North America, the Sega Master System never really cought on. There were some good games produced, but good games were few and far between, and always relied on Sega to produce them. In the US market, there were only two companies besides Sega that produced Master System games, and neither of them were any good at it. In total each third party manufacturer only produced between 3-5 games, and none of them are noteworthy. Part of this is due to the anti-trust monopoly that Nintendo had on third party developers. Nintendo's contracts specified that third party developers could not develop ports of their games on any other console if they were developing them for the NES. Ultimately the US Supreme Court would rule this was illegal in 1991, but the Master System was on its death throws by then.

In Europe and Brazil, the Master System would see huge success though. This momentum would eventually drive the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive in those markets to keep Sega ahead of the game in the 16-bit war bewteen the Super NES and the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. Even after the release of the Mega Drive in Europe, the Master System stayed extremely popular, and even saw ports of games like Street Fighter 2, Virtua Fighter, and the first three Mortal Kombat games. Most of this success was due to the company TecToy, which was responsible for marketing the unit in Brazil. In North America, Tonka (yes, yellow trucks) was responsible for marketing the Master System, which proved to be a failure.

Final Thoughts

The Master System is a great console. It's relatively easy to find and fun to collect. The few good games that were released for it in the US market have held up fairly well and are still fun to play. The system is new enough to where the graphics are nice enough to still enjoy (think NES, not Atari 2600), and the console itself is a fun conversation piece with an interesting history. There are a lot of peripherals that were released for the Master System which can still be had pretty cheap, and the good games provdie a fun alternative to the NES. The only thing that disappoints is the number of games. Quite a few were released, but not all of them were even near great. The good news is that the 20-30 good US titles for the Master System can be had readily and cheaply.

Pictures

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