Wow! An exciting new era for Chrontendo begins today. For we are broadening our scope to little to take in the other home console of the 8-bit era: the Sega SG-1000 Mark III aka the Sega Master System! Yep, Chrontendo presents -- Chronsega Episode 1.
A superior console on a purely technical level, the Master System failed to make much of a dent in Nintendo's market share in the US and Japan. However, the system was successful in Europe, Australia and Brazil and actually had a fairly long lifespan, from 1985 to 1998. The main culprits for the Master System's failure to make an impact on US consumers are usually given as exceptionally bad marketing (the Master System games had notorioulsy awful cover art in the US) and lack of third party support. Virtually every major Japanese game developer/publisher had already thrown their lot in with Nintendo. Due to Nintendo's restrictive contracts, they were prevented from dealing with Sega. During the system's Japanese and US lifespan, almost every game was released by Sega themselves.
And, of course, the Master System was not known for having a lot of good games. Whereas Nintendo threw all their effort in the Famicom, during the 80s Sega seemed like an arcade game manufacturer that just happened to make a few console games on the side. The original titles for the Master System were not always top-shelf Sega. On that note, let's take a look at the 15 games covered in Chronsega Episode 1. These games span October 1985 through July 1986. Keep in mind that during this same time period, we were seeing such pioneering titles as Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda and Dragon Quest being released for the Famicom.
Surprisingly, Sega released very few arcade ports during its first 10 months of existence. The best Mark III/Master System this game turns out to be a port of their almost brand new 1986 arcade title. A horizontal shoot-em-up, Fantasy Zone is, along with Konami's Twinbee, one of
the first cute-em-up games: shooters that replace the typical military or sci-fi themes with silly, cute enemies and environments. While Fantasy Zone is definitely charming and cute, it is isn't actually a humor game, the way Twinbee or Parodius are. Humorous cute-em-ups tend to insert mundane objects into bizarre, inappropriate settings. For example many of the enemies in Twinbee are household objects, or in Hudson's Star Parodier, your ship is actually a PC Engine console! Fantasy Zone, on the other hand, exists in a coherent fantasy setting, albeit an usually colorful and cutesy one.
The game itself is surprisingly good for an 8-bit shooter; certainly miles above the other two shooters this episode. While some graphical elements from the arcade version needed to be eliminated, the Mark III Fantasy Zone still looks great. And it features some of the biggest and most creative bosses seen in a console game so far.
A port of Yu Suzuki's 1985 arcade game, Hang-On was a launch title for the Mark III. Certainly, the game shows off system's capabilities, with its fast, smooth, sprite based 3-D effects. Granted, the game loses something in the translation, since you are not playing while sitting on a motorcycle as in the arcade version, but the Mark III Hang-On is still a fun little racing game.
Comical Machine Gun Joe
A short arcade style shooting game, Machine Gun Joe is a pleasant time killer. It features an early version of the mechanic found in Cabal; your fedora and trench coat clad character is
free to move horizontally along the bottom on the screen. Enemies appear in the background/top half of the screen, spraying bullets down upon you. This game is a good example of the Japanese humor game aesthetic: while Machine Gun Joe has an ostensible gangster theme, various incongruous elements are thrown in. Enemies include pigs, giant spiders, schoolgirls, and Joe travels from docks and dive bars to a wooded fairyland.
I suppose the fact that such an average game as Ghost House made this episode's "good games" list says a lot about the quality of the Mark III's early releases. Ghost House is a typical arcade style platformer, distinguished only by its horror theme. While this was released a few months before Castlevania, it is not anywhere near as unique, exciting or well-designed as Konami's game. Games such as Ghost House give the impression that Sega was putting most of
its resources into its arcade titles, and relegating second-tier game ideas to the Mark III.
The Bottom of the Barrel Games:
Seishun Scandal/My Hero
This prototypical beat-em-up, developed by Coreland (later known as Banpresto), worked fine as an arcade game. However, something went seriously wrong with the Mark III version. Three out the four levels were scrapped, and the difficulty level shot sky-high. In the arcade game, your character could cut through punks like a hot knife through butter; in the home version, coming in contact with an enemy will frequently result in the enemy getting the first hit in. Considering that a single hit will kill you, this is serious problem. Come to think of it, maybe one-hit-deaths in beat-em-ups is a bad idea.
Wretchedly dull vertical shooter. Every aspect of Satellite 7 is undistinguished: enemies, power-ups, music, backgrounds. Seriously, this is one of the most generic shooters I've seen, and I've already covered quite a few lame shooters for the Famicom.
Sega, needing to put some software on the shelves for its new console, published a series of hastily developed sports games, all with "great" in the title. Of the three covered in this episode, Great Soccer, Great Baseball and Great Tennis, the soccer games is probably the worst. All three games are derivative of Nintendo's early sport titles, but Great Soccer features some daaaamn ugly character sprites.
Astro Flash: Another shooter, released immediatly after Satellite 7. Considerably better, but still not exactly a classic.
Fushigi no Oshiro Pit Pot: This sort of resembles a top down puzzle game such as HAL's Lolo games crossed with Legend of Zelda. That might not be a bad idea, but it this case, it resulted in a remarkably lame release.
F-16 Fighting Falcon: Port of super dull looking MSX flight simulation game. The fact that it requires two controllers to play the game makes it a bit of a drag. This late 1985 release is the first third party developed Mark III title; it was by the US based company Nexa.
Hokuto no Ken/Black Belt: This is about a million times better than the Famicom Hokuto no Ken game released by Toei around the same time. But it's still not very good.
Teddy Boy Blues: The other Sega launch title, and a port of a now forgotten Sega arcade platformer. The odd title comes from a hit Japanese pop single, and the game itself has nothing to do with Teddy Boys.
Gokuaku Doumei Dump Matsumoto/Pro Wrestling: Decent, but frustrating wrestling title. The Japanese version is based on a real female wrestler while the US release features fictional male wrestlers.
Great Baseball/Great Tennis: Just your average everyday mid-80s sports games. These are remarkably similar to Nintendo's Tennis and Baseball, but with slightly better graphics.
I really shouldn't be too hard on Sega; after all, it takes every console a while to hit its stride. On the other hand, this was Sega's second console. They had been releasing games for the old SG-1000 for a few years, and had developing video games since the late '70s, so you would hope they would approach the Mark III as grizzled veterans, not bumbling newbies. But, I have high hopes for Chronsega Episode 2, which will feature one of the Mark III's most respected titles. Look for it shortly after Chrontendo Episode 15.
To stream or download Chronsega Episode 1, go to archive.org.