The Best First-Gen Sega Master System Games

Published: June 14, 2014

Success breeds imitation. Nintendo's entry to the console scene opened the door for other mid-range Japanese studios, like Zaxxon and Congo Bongo developer Sega, to follow suit.

To get to the Master System Sega actually released a few lesser consoles, each about as powerful as Nintendo's Famicom or the Colecovision. The first of this line, the SG-1000, actually hit shelves the exact same day as the Famicom. A later system featured simple games on credit card sized wafers, not unlike the HuCards used by the Turbografx-16.

Finally in 1985 -- the same year that Nintendo's Famicom made it to US shores as the NES -- the Sega Mark III hit. This system was way more powerful than its predecessors, or than Nintendo's leading system, with more colors, more sound channels, and a much faster processor. The Mark III was also backward-compatible, so all of Sega's earlier games were playable -- either cartrige or card-based.

To compete with Nintendo's wide launch of the NES, the Mark III got a makeover -- a snazzy new shell, new branding, a new image, and was released stateside as the Sega Master System. Although Sega could never compare to Nintendo for marketshare (thanks in large part to Nintendo's strict no-compete monopoly on third party developers), the Master System built up a decent library of high-quality original software, served as a shoe in the door for Sega's next major console upgrade, and taught Sega a lesson in self-sufficiency. If no one else would support their system, they had better be productive -- and endlessly creative.

From these seeds we get the heady days of the Sega Genesis, leading up to Sega's near-revival and second major creative boom with the criminally neglected Dreamcast. Squeaking by on a mix of flash and genuine ingenuity, the Master System is the foundation of a whole development culture and creative legacy that would stretch forward for decades.

Here are the best games released within the 12-month North American launch window.

  1. OutRun

    In the arcade, Sega's first real hit came with Yu Suzuki's weirdo passion project, a smooth-scaling faux 3D racer with a ride-on motorcycle. It was a risky, expensive venture, and Suzuki put his job on the line to get it done. But Suzuki was a brilliant man, Hang-On was a hit, and Sega moved to new fortunes and prestige as the go-to company for high-end arcade hardware. Meanwhile Suzuki kept his head down, avoided the limelight, and kept working.

    A couple of iterations later, Suzuki refined that technology to videogame perfection. Mixing in his passion for Ferraris and 1980s California culture, Suzuki produced OutRun, one of the all-time great arcade machines.

    OutRun is basically a fantasy trip, a sort of a hands-on daydream. You leap into a fast car with a girl by your side, choose a smooth bossa nova piece on the radio, then race around the world at top speed for exactly as long as the music will last. It's not really that hard to get to the end, and no matter how well you play the dream will never last more than five minutes. The point is simply the experience -- an experience enhanced by a fancy motorized cabinet, that moves along with your car's every dip and swerve.

    Of course this game is going to suffer in any home port, particularly to an 8-bit system -- yet of all of the many translations of Suzuki's original, none hews closer to the spirit or screams of technical mastery more than the very first one, for the Sega Master System. Here, if there were any chance of a competition, Sega's system would easily leave Nintendo's in the dust. The Master System port shows off the wide and suble range of Sega's color palette, its ability to paint with large, fast sprites, and the kinds of graphical tricks available to a system with more powerful processor.

    Flash back to 1987, and Sega's port of OutRun is the most technically astounding thing on any home gaming hardware. Even today you can feel the effort and ingenuity driving this port, absent from somewhat lazier ports for more capable systems like the Sega Genesis. Had Sega the slightest chance of catching the public eye, OutRun would have been its killer app. What it lacks in added depth this port makes up for in arcade accuracy and replayability. Amongst the multiple paths, the choice of background music, and the sheer joy of the experience, there's no getting tired of OutRun. There's always time to play, and you'll always come out with a smile on your face.

  2. Zillion

    If OutRun is pure, joyous flash, then Zillion gets by on depth. Where Nintendo has Metroid, Sega has this spin on Commodore classic Impossible Mission. Accompanied by a rocking Tokuhiko Uwabo soundtrack (he of later Phantasy Star fame), the player explores screen after screen of complex traps in search of secret codes. Whereas most action adventure games are based on a linear lock-and-key progression of power-ups -- you find and collect items which, one by one, expand your reach of exploration -- Zillion bases its roadblocks on player knowledge. To progress, you need to learn how to progress. It's a neat model, that you don't see much outside of hyper-progressive games like Riven: The Sequel to Myst, which itself stands out as the black sheep in its series.

    Zillion is a neat, experimental game that in some ways calls back to early efforts by Nintendo R&D#1 -- like the way that Balloon Fight refines Joust into mechanical and thematic elegance. The elements of Zillion were already on the shelf, but here Sega takes them to a place of magic.

  3. Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa

    Before the advent of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega went through a long line of potential mascots. One of the earliest and most pervasive of these is a sapient little egg-shaped spacecraft named Opa-Opa. Though our little friend appeared in games as far afield as, well, Zillion, his home territory is the nonlinear shooter series Fantasy Zone.

    Whereas the original Fantasy Zone got a rushed home port, close on its heels was a more considered and tehnically impressive console-only sequel. As with the original, Fantasy Zone II is basically a Segafied take on Defender. Here you fly around freely, destroying enemy "bases" (which until their destruction produce scores of enemy drones), and collecting coins to spend on power-ups. At the end of each level is a huge and distinctive boss, with its own attack patterns. Here the major difference from the previous game is the addition of warps, which allow the player to leap back and forth amongst various zones, effectively doubling or tripling the size and complexity of most levels.

    Fantasy Zone is one of the touchstones of Sega's early years, and this first sequel is one of the highlights of this would-be flagship series.

  4. Space Harrier

    Speaking of the Fantasy Zone, prior to OutRun Yu Suzuki made his own stop in Opa-Opa's back yard in one of the arcade's oddest and most memorable rail-shooters. Making use of the same sprite scaler technology driving OutRun and Hang-On, Space Harrier depicts a muscular blond fellow with an anti-grav gun, running across a checkerboard landscape to save the land of dragons from all manner of strange invaders.

    Whereas the arcade version controls with a flight stick and is known for its rapidly moving objects, the Master System port is rather more modest. Although it keeps the general premise and level structure of its arcade counterpart, the home port slows down a bit to allow for the changeover to digital control. Since you can no longer dodge that shot by quickly jerking the stick to the side, now the game gives you time to react at a steady rate.

    Otherwise, some graphical quirks aside, this is an excellent port of the arcade original -- particularly for 1987. As far as spectacle goes, its use of color in particular puts any NES game to shame. Even at its slower rate, as compared to the arcade game, Space Harrier hurtles along at a monstrous clip. To bring more interest to the home version -- given the more linear structure of Space Harrier compared to the likes of OutRun -- you can also unlock secret modes, like a jet airplane to replace our familiar blond Harrier.

  5. Wonder Boy

    Wonder Boy must be the most convoluted game series in history. The confusion starts from its very inception. Whereas Sega owns the trademark to the series and all of its character, the games themselves all are owned by their developer, a company named Westone. So if Wonder Boy looks oddly familiar yet you've never touched a Sega console, you may be thinking of an NES game called Hudson's Adventure Island. That was Westone, milking its code while staying true to the letter of its agreement with Sega.

    That pattern would continue with most of the Wonder Boy sequels. As the series developed it would incorporate more and more adventure and RPG elements, with the story to each game building on what happened in the last -- and then Westone would turn around and port each game to a rival system, swapping in random characters and changing the title.

    I mentioned adventure and RPG elements. Well, those really start in the second game, Wonder Boy in Monster Land -- which is to say that the third console-based Wonder Boy game is explicitly the second chapter in the story begun in Monster Land. So, a second numbering system begins to develop. Add in a third arcade game that fails to factor into the Monster World series (as it becomes, and eventually you get games with titles like Wonder Boy V: Monster World III. Yikes.

    This first game is much simpler. It's a scrolling platformer in which the player has a certain amount of momentum, and in which a well-placed jump tends to make fruitmagically appear out of nowhere. Grab a skateboard, and you can move even faster. It's a stylish and charming game, well worth a look. If you've played its NES port, then this one is more colorful and, well, original.

  6. Penguin Land

    One of the more obscure games in the Sega Library -- unfairly so -- is this second chapter in the Doki Doki Penguin Land series, a charming and responsive puzzle platformer which tasks the player with delivering an egg unbroken from the top of a level to the bottom. Involved are digger mechanics like those in fellow puzzle platformers Lode Runner or Solomon's Key -- yet here the level design is posisbly even stronger. It certainly has more of a sense of momentum, progressing as it does essentially straight down rather than all around. You could almost think of the game as Ice Climber in reverse, and you'd get both the premise and the appeal.

    Adding to the appeal, and speaking of Lode Runner, is a level editor. Yes, just as Nintendo had its programming series Sega had Penguin Land -- and here the level editor is even better. The interface is better than in Wrecking Crew, and it's at least as good as Lode Runner. Unlike Lode Runner, the editor here builds full-length levels rather than single-screen puzzles.

    Toss in some brilliant, colorful full-screen animated cutscenes and we have a real winner here, even today one of the best games of its genre. Why haven't you heard of it? Because it was made by Sega.

  7. Alex Kidd in Miracle World

    For old-school Sega fans, this was the answer to Super Mario Bros. It's not really the same kind of a game, and it's not nearly as refined or ambitious as Miyamoto's super-opus, but this first Alex Kidd game does give the system a distinctive mascot platformer. You run, you jump, you break blocks, and you do random stuff.

    Alex Kidd is a much weirder game, though, and to overly compare it with Super Mario Bros. is to overlook its own aims and personality. Here we have yet another variation on Journey to the West, with a young monkey boy on a long journey fraught with peril and tricksters. Young Master Kidd can punch, and when he punch his fist is quite large. He can ride vehicles and gain other power-ups. The game presents the player many clear advanages. Yet it is also fickle.

    More than in most games, the player's progress depends on an element of chance. Certain power-ups are deadly, and you can't always necessarily avoid them. One of the most distinctive features of all Alex Kidd games is their Janken duels -- games of rock-paper-scissors, which you need to win to bypass a boss. Lose, and... well. You can probably guess.

    These games do not really present a Western ideal of cause and effect and free will. Their world is an arbitrary, dangerous one where even the most clever and willful of players may easily fall afoul of random happenstance. In that, they are a fascinating yet rather frustrating model of a character-led action game -- which at once makes them a wonderfully different perspective on game design and explains why Alex Kidd never quite took off as a mascot.

  8. The Ninja

    Here, then, is Sega's version of Commando or Ikari Warriors. The home port is... a little weird, though.

    The Ninja began in the arcade as a game called Ninja Princess. The protagonist there is, as the title suggests, female. She does everything that the he-men of other top-down action games can do, and does it faster and more elegantly. On the trip home, somehow she get a gender shift. Because there weren't enough male leads in action games, apparently.

    Whatever. The Ninja is still an excellent and neglected addition to the top-down run-n-gun genre -- better than the NES would see until SNK's Guerilla War.

  9. Ghost House

    While we're talking obscure, let's talk The Sega Card. I mentioned these HuCard-like slabs of silicon. The games they present are by necessity simplistic. With mid-1980s technology you only get so much ROM space on a card like this. Ergo, there just isn't much to most of these games. You have a character, and he moves to the right and does the same thing over and over.

    Ghost House is more complicated than that -- and in fact is more complicated than most launch titles for either the Master System or its more popular competitor. Here you wander several stories of a haunted mansion, punching monsters and mummies rather like Alex Kidd, in search of diamonds. Collect all of a level's diamonds to move on.

    To collect the diamonds, you need to fight "Draculas", each of whom sleeps in a locked coffin. Find a key, unlock the coffin, and get ready for a difficult battle. If you should stab the Dracula several times then stomp his ashes into the ground, you will find a diamond.

    Stab? Well, yes. You can also find a sword -- though the method is subtle and weird. That's the thing. This game is riddled with secrets, and to play it well you have to find and master them all. Each level is huge, freely scrolling left and right then cutting up and down three or four times. Linking these distant areas are many secret portals and hidden passages. If you need to startle the enemies for a moment, you can leap up and smash a light bulb. Each enemy must be approached in a uinque way, be it punching them, leaping on them, or simply avoiding them.

    Behind this is an absolutely fantastic (if limited) soundtrack, setting up the unease, the mystery, and the light-hearted adventure of the journey.

    Ghost House is a tough game, and even the best players only get so many levels in, but it's a deep and novel experience that will stick in your head forever.

  10. Choplifter

    Speaking of Defender, here we have Dan Gorlin's famous save-'em-up, Choplifter. Its presence both on this console and this list may seem a little weird. Somewhat explaining the former is that in the mid-1980s Sega ported this Apple II game to the arcade and made it a smash hit back in Japan. This arcade version then received many home ports -- yet none as advanced as Sega's own.

    For the Master System edition, Sega went all out. Not only is the game gorgeous, and supported by a rocking soundtrack. If you look more closely, it also incorporates parallax scrolling. Years later parallax was still impressing people in early Genesis and Super NES games -- and here it is in a launch title for Sega's 8-bit system.

    Actually, combine this feature with the meticulously drawn and animated sprites, and the great use of the console's sound channels, and you could easily mistake Choplifter for an early Sega Genesis title rather than a Master System cart.

The Master System was big on glamor and gloss. Compared to the NES, which practically required developers to think laterally and reinterpret their arcade games as larger, more contemplative works, here Sega could easily get away with direct arcade ports -- with all their thrill and ease of play, yet also their brevity. Soon enough Sega would buck that trend with breakout games like Phantasy Star and Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap, but even in its launch library, even in its flashiest games you see an effort for joy and replayability alongside the technical displays.

Sega may not have enjoyed the happiest of endings, but they had a noble beginning -- and oh what a journey that followed!