Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sega Master System: The End of an Era

I hope everyone enjoyed the first ever Chrontendo April Fool's Day post. While I think that Chron-CD-i is a great idea for a chronogaming project, I also think it's a great idea for somebody other than me to do it. That's one boat that's never going to sail from this port. Of course, our April Fool's post was a hastily slapped together hack-job compared to some. Socks Make People Sexy did another pretty elaborate redesign resembling Giant Bomb, including some funny fake news articles. Most of you will have already seen this, but Google's NES Google Maps is typically brilliant and relevant for Famicom/NES fans. Also, I thought the Nintendo 3DS Dubstep trailer was pretty cool. This was already discussed here, but I always get confused when I hear "dubstep" music or Skrillex, or whatever. The thing is... I remember listening to stuff that was called dubstep some years ago -- guys like Burial or Kode9. This kind of music felt like it grew out of the weirder, late period drum 'n' bass artists such as Grooverider, Yet I don't see much of a connection between this kind of music and what is called dubstep today, which seems to refer either to goofy pop music or irritating noise (or frequently, irritating noise inserted into goofy pop music.)

Moving right along, the big news is the release of Chronsega 7. Naturally, the new episode is available for your viewing pleasure at and Youtube. It's the same as always; 15 games are covered, from late 1988 through mid 1989. But it's also sort of a sad occasion, since this episode features the final Sega Master System games released in Japan. Sega's first attempt at competing with Nintendo in the console market ended in utter, abject failure in its home country. The Master System continued on in the US for a little while longer, but it was quickly rendered obsolete by the newer Genesis. Surprisingly, the Master System experienced a rebirth in other parts of the globe, namely Europe, Australia and Brazil. It even outsold the Mega Drive/Genesis in Europe well into the 90s.  1989 will be sort of a low point for the system, with only around 20 new games released. It will actually peak in 1993 (about 50 games that year) before finally dying off in 1998. Yes, 1998, the same year the Dreamcast was released.

Virtua Fighter for the SMS. This somehow exists.
While the Master System continued to exist after 1989, in one way, it resembled the Famicom more than 1985-1988 era Master System. As we've noticed in Chrontendo, Nintendo released very few Famicom games themselves during the second half of that console's existence. Likewise, as Sega devoted most of their resources to the Mega Drive/Genesis, third party developers and publishers dominated the Master System's catalog. Expect to see lots of stuff from the likes of Sanritsu, Tiertex and Probe in the future. Sega's lack of investment in the Master System is already evident in this episode. None of the games in Chronsega 7 are that great. But at least one is pretty ambitious:

Chou-on Senshi Borgman/Cyborg Hunter

You play as the Boba Fett guy.
The last "big" game for the Japanese Master System is, like its spiritual predecessor Zillion, based on an animated TV show. For the Western release, Cyborg Hunter, all references to the anime were dropped and a few characters redrawn.  In either version, the game is sort of boring and repetitive. You wander down countless identical horizontal passageways and pick up the occasional power-up. These power-ups bestow new abilities and give Cyborg Hunter a slight Metroid feel. Imagine stripping Metroid of any sense of exploration and non-linerity and you would get something much like Cyborg Hunter.

Aside from Cyborg Hunter, we have a few other notable games.

Bomber Raid

Here's an idea: Fly around the tank and shoot him from behind!
Notable for being the last Japanese Master System release, this Sanritsu developed shoot-em-up resembles Capcom's 1942 games or early Toaplan titles such as Sky Shark. Military themed vertical shoot-em-ups were quite popular in arcades at this time. It's too bad that Bomber Raid is so uninteresting and generic in its construction. There are no cool weapons, enemy patterns are boring, and the backgrounds are uninspired.  Bomber Raid would be a pretty solid shooter if only Sanritsu had thrown in something to make it stand out from the pack. When you consider that it was released only a few months before Hudson's Blazing Lazers on the PC-Engine, it makes Bomber Raid seem all the more old fashioned.

Double Dragon

We can place Double Dragon next to Rygar as evidence of an emerging trend in arcade ports: the Master System version will be very similar to the arcade game while the Famicom version will be substantially reworked.  The SMS Double Dragon retains the original's two player co-op and is in most ways a very faithful port. One exception - enemies tend to be much tougher and often spam the jumping kick attack. As a result the jump kick becomes your go-to attack in most situations; trying to walk up to an enemy and punch him will often result in a jump kick to the face. I wouldn't say that the SMS Double Dragon is better or worse than the Famicom game, but it is certainly different.

Ys: The Vanished Omens

In contrast, the Master System Ys is very similar to the Famicom version that we saw a while back. In fact, the Japanese SMS release cam out only around 1 1/2 months after the Famicom Ys, so the two versions were almost contemporary.  The main distinguishing feature of this Ys is the completely redrawn character portraits. It was also the first version to be released in the US.

Galaxy Force

In short: overly ambitious and tragically flawed. Sega already had issues trying to get a decent version of Space Harrier on the Master System.  Galaxy Force, an arcade game from 1988, is like Space Harrier to the power of three: it is jammed full of crazy sprite scaling and 3D effects. Sega did an impressive job getting it on a 4 megabit cartridge. But, man, is it one ugly, flickery mess!

Time Soldiers

A port of the SNK/Alpha Denshi vertical run 'n' gun. Just like Ikari Warriors, this used a rotary joystick in its original arcade incarnation. The console version is better than the NES Ikari Warriors, but it's still a little dull, in my opinion.

The majority of games in Chronsega 7 were released in western markets only, meaning the US, Europe and Brazil.  One point of interest is the emergence of two US based publishers, Activision and Parker Brothers. Activision ended up releasing several Sega titles in the US, such as Bomber Raid and Cyborg Hunter. Also, Sega published its first Master System games designed by American developers, Monopoly.


A US/Europe only release from Activision. It's a decent looking port, but the controls are a little "off."


This was published by Sega, but developed by Gilman Louie's Nexa Corp. It's a no frills electronic version of the board game. The one exception is the Nexa created little animations of the game pieces moving along the board, done in isometric perspective.


That's a salami Alf is holding. Literally.
A US only graphic adventure game from Sega. This was developed by Sphere, the successor to Nexa. You can read an interview with a Nexa/Sphere employee on GDRI here. The game itself is pretty terrible and contains some very poorly implemented action sequences. And, yes, it is based on the silly 80s sitcom about the alien.

Montezuma's Revenge

Awesome key collecting action!
The retro game in today's episode. It's actually an old Atari 800 platformer in the Spelunker/Pitfall 2 mode. The Master System game is a pretty snazzy looking upgrade from the original, but it seemed antiquated by 1989 standards.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

"Assy" is just "Embassy" with the first two letters cut-off, in case you're wondering.
The Broderbund computer game that spawned an edutainment empire receives an console port. The graphics have been reworked from the ground up for this version.

Walter Payton Football/American Pro Football

Sort of the SMS equivalent to John Elway's Quarterback. On an related note: a couple days ago I was driving behind a car with a "John Elway Manhattan Beach Scion" license plate frame. I guess the guy owns car dealerships now.

California Games

Prepare to hear me bitch about the overly complicated controls in these games, again.

Altered Beast

Some of the worst clouds seen in a video game.
This game is far better known as the pack-in game for the US Sega Genesis. The Genesis version is pretty good. The Master System Altered Beast is abysmal. Just about everything than can go wrong in a console port goes wrong here: ugly graphics, a weird control scheme, a missing level, compromised hit detection.... but the real killer is jerky, laggy, almost slo-mo feel to character movement. This turns Altered Beast from a sub-par game into an unplayable mess. I declare this to be the biggest disappointment this episode.

The next Chronsega will cover a decent chunk of 1989. However, the "chrono" part of Chronsega is going to have to be taken with a pretty big grain of salt from here on out. There does not seem to be any reliable source of release dates for US and European Master System games. In the future, everything will be a matter of guesswork and/or random ordering of games.

So, once again, please visit or Youtube and check out Chronsega Episode 7. Next up: Chrontendo 44!


Kamiboy said...

Don't sell the Master System short yet dear doctor.

It might have seen its last Japanese release but at this point in time it has yet to see the release of the finest master piece of its catalog.

I'll never forget the day my mother took us to the store, bought us a Master System and a completely random selection of 3 games. Among this lot, by whims of the fates, was nestled one of the finest 8-bit games ever made, and certainly one of the top five Master System games to ever see release.

Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap, which is one of the many names by which it is known. Perhaps you'll get around to it on the next episode, but deuce that game sure is one fantastic piece of unique software.

GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

My favorite Master System game is Golden Axe Warrior. Yes, it's the most blatant Zelda knockoff ever, but hell, Zelda's cool, Golden Axe is cool, and as a's cool.

Kamiboy said...

Talk of the devil, I did one day long ago find Golden Axe Warrior in a bargain bin and promptly purchased it on a whim.

I never did get to play the original Zelda properly, so this was a pretty well crafted substitute.

I actually really love it, and it is my third favourite SMS games along with Wonderboy III, R-type, Alex Kidd in Miracle World and Fantasy Zone.

It is funny, all those games found their way to me by pure chance, and it was only years later that I learned that without knowing I had come to own only the best games for that system.

Doctor Sparkle said...

I'm not denying that there will be no more good games for the SMS. Later in 1989 we have Wonder Boy III and Psycho Fox, sort of a better version of Kid Kool. There will be trickle of original first party titles that I don't know anything about, like Double Hawk or Dragon Crystal. Anyone every played that? But the system will take on a much more western flavor after 1989.

The Dord said...

I'm really waiting for Dragon's Trap to get posted in one of your Chronsega episodes, it's probably my favorite SMS/TG16 game.

Sean Clements said...

I remember during this era always wanting good ports of arcade games and I loved Time Soldiers in the arcade. So when I saw that a SMS port was coming I jumped on it. it was probably the last SMS game I purchased. I remember being kind of disappointed. The game was very hard with the controls and graphically could not match the arcade game with its varied enemies in time. Less so then Alien Syndrome which had similar sacrifices. Around this time I sold my SMS and games to by Genesis in July or August . So it's all new territory for me which Chronsega after this. Although the friend I sold my SMS to bought WBIII and I got to play a bit of that great game. The only time really I think I had sellers regret. It's funny how early on it seemed tha the SMS had an advantage in graphics and such earllier in the US but later NES games were head and shoulders above later SMS games for the most part. It's funny because I bought a used NES from my friend after I sold my SMS and got to play a lot of great later NES games through rentals like castlevania 3. But mostly looking forward to both Cronsega/tendo episodes after this point in time (and turbo) as I was mostly absorbed in the 16-bit generation at this point and didn't see what I was missing.

Sean Clements said...

Also even though Japan was dead after this point was Seaga of Japan still behind a lot of the Sega releases? It would be interesting seeing Japanese company still making games for markets outside of its home market exclusively and something I think Nintendo never had to deal with.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Sean - Many of the later Sega published Master System games were done by Sanritsu, a company that did a lot of work for Sega. Others were done by Sega themselves, I'm sure.

Nintendo developed very few US only games for the NES; there were a few exceptions, such as Star Tropics. But most US only games were by Rare or some other contract developer.

qaylIS aka Nicolas Deu├čer said...

Oh dude, please stop talking down on ALF, I happen to love that show. Though, when you believe imdb, it was far more popular in germany than in the US, even the TV-movie "Project ALF" (which sucks, even for most fans) ran in cinemas here. And I admit that it is one of these 80s shows which shouldn't be remade today, ou could never catch its flavor again.

The Professor said...

Another great episode Dr. S! My only question is this: are you going to go through ALL of the available SMS games (which, as you mentioned, ran all the way till 1998 or so) before you move on to the Genesis or are you going to start mixing the two together?

Doctor Sparkle said...

Wait a sec - the Alf movie played in theaters in some countries?! Did Alf benefit from some extraordinarily gifted translators or something? Please don't tell me Small Wonder was also huge in Germany...

GarrettCRW said...

Remember those meds you were on in that DC-i vid? You'll need them once the Europeans start murdering that Master System sound chip.

GarrettCRW said...

Ironically, they're the same meds that made me type out "DC-i".

joedick said...

Project ALF is worth seeing just to watch Martin Sheen have a conversation with ALF.

Jungman Jansson said...

Oh, Altered Beast for the Master System isn't that bad... I've played through it (without any help from save states) and while it does have many faults, it isn't entirely intolerable. At least I find it vastly preferable to ALF.

You should try the Atari ST version. It's truly nasty, even if it does look better than the SMS game.

Ruben Kraken said...

Rise from the Grave!

Finally got around to updating the episode guide after a kind of insane hiatus. Sorry about that. You know.. life and things.

Episode 13 has been added (may need to hit refresh on the page). Here is hoping 14 won't take me another 2 years!

Discoalucard said...

A note about Carmen Sandiago - the reason it was always asking you about other countries' flags was because the game included them all in the manual (or a separate book included with the game, can't quite remember.) The computer versions came with massive...almanacs, I think?...which Parker Bros didn't want to invest in, so that was the closest it could get so kinds could try to get practice using reference material. Due to its inherently limited shallowness, it missed the point.

The NES version of the game (which I think may have been "Where In Time" rather than "Where in the World") was closer to the computer versions, DID include the book though.

Doctor Sparkle said...

DA - You are right, the original Carmen Sandiego came bundled with the kids version of the World Alamanac. Broderbund took its edutainment seriously, it seems.

I've never seen the NES game, but it looks like Konami released it? I'm sure including a book made it more purchasable in the eyes of parents.