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Sega Master System – How Not to Fulfil Potential
Well friends, it all started in Christmas 1990…
A young man saw an advertisement for MS Power Base and instantly fell in love. I’d like to show you the video but the internet, despite having 12,000,000 shades of great content, doesn’t have the space. I’m starting to wonder if I’m imagining it all. In any case, for the month of December I pestered my father relentlessly (B. Simpson would have been very impressed) to buy a Power Base and Hang-On, a Safari Hunt and a Light Phaser. And bless the man, ignoring the late payment, last wishes and angering my mother, he forced them. I was very surprised.
However I found an American ad for a package which at £100 seemed expensive but offered excellent value for money. In addition, there was also a hidden maze game. Someone should bring back the stealth game. I dug out my Master System a few months ago, it still works even though my cousin injected me with coke (I’m sure if you take too much breath on the Xbox it will explode) and boy did he remember! What really struck me was how bad some of the chapters were. This was the game I played to death! Ninja and World Soccer were favorites but both are terrible. This sounds painful because they were some of the early release titles but let me continue.
Golden Ax is the game that has stuck in my crawl. Ninja (1987) and World Soccer (also 1987) were released two years before Golden Ax (1989) but if you put them side by side you’d hardly think they came from the same console. Other popular titles from the 80s (such as Ghostbusters, California Games) and early 90s titles (Indiana Jones, Tom & Jerry) pale in comparison to Golden Ax’s images. Sure, the levels are two-dimensional and the rendering is messed up in places but the sprites look the same as 16-bit. The sprites are large and detailed. A great champion may only have 15 frames but the swing of the sword is smooth and true. All of this is a palette of only 64 colors compared to the Mega Drive’s 512.
Many conversions from 16-bit to 8-bit are terrible (the bad E-SWAT immediately comes to mind) and many good things can be said about the way Sega does different games on 8-bit under the same license (Sonics 1 & 2) but I ask you to check out Streets of Rage and Mortal Kombat. All of these games are one-dimensional and thus making different 8-bit versions would seem silly. The care taken by both is amazing. There’s not much that can be done with Master System’s Texas Instruments (remember them?) noisy SN76489 chip but its imaging capabilities are amazing. Of the 64 colors available, the Master System can display 32 simultaneously. This compares to the Mega Drive’s 64 and the NES’ pithy 25. The Zilog processor in the MS runs at 4 MHz compared to the NES’ 1.79 MHz. The Zilog chip was also used in the Mega Drive alongside the Motorola 68000.
The signs were there. Streets of Rage, after a night with many jars (blurry eyes) can be wrong with a 16-bit version – to prevent bad noise. Compromises had to be made, the Master System’s memory (even double that of the NES) couldn’t handle two players, but all parts remain intact including the upgrade part. With Mortal Kombat many sacrifices had to be made. There are only two episodes but most of the characters are there except for the unpopular Kano. Each model is large, well-drawn, and the animation works to create a fun beat, the likes of which European/Japanese Master System owners have never seen before. Why is it especially regional? Well…
Did you know Street Fighter 2 was available on the Master System? I sure as hell didn’t until earlier this year I found out that MS still supports Brazil (with promo stuff in China and Taiwan). SF2 is a huge success and even though it looks pretty basic (even better than the C64 version) it makes you wonder what Sega could have done with their original console. Some Master System games are also available through the Wii network – who in the world would think of this as a Nintendo console in the early nineties!
There are things that could not be helped. The NES’s robust library of games and personal recognition meant it outsold the Master System almost five to one. By the time Sega created Sonic, the Master System had limited dialogue and graphics. The inventive Galaxy Force is the anomaly here, Sega didn’t take advantage of MS’s advanced technology until it was too late. Sonic 1 was the last MS release in the USA. Many would think that the release of the Mega Drive was the reason for this and Sega had to do something to stop the dominance of the NES. The fact is that Sega made an excellent 8-bit console for the NES but chose to go 16-bit first, inviting the inevitable punch of the Nintendo sucker (SNES).
I will always love the Master System and although I have no doubt that I will have a sequel I can still enjoy Sonics, Streets of Rages (oh yes, there’s a sequel) and Mortal Kombat. Not to mention E-SWAT.
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