Master System
Image: Evan Amos

Originally released in Japan in 1985 as the Sega Mark III, and following up in the west over the next two years, the Sega Master System was overshadowed both by the Nintendo Entertainment System and also by Sega’s own Mega Drive, which debuted not too long afterwards.

Despite this, Master System enjoyed a long lifespan as a cheaper alternative to Sega’s 16-bit system, with new games releasing long into the mid-Nineties, and was particularly popular in Europe and Brazil. You won’t find too many truly influential releases on this system but if you love old Japanese games then there’s plenty to get stuck into.

Whether it’s classy arcade ports, mini interpretations of Mega Drive hits or exclusive curios, Master System has a few little gems, if you’re prepared to look for them, while fans of shoot-‘em-ups, RPG and platformers will especially find something to love. Let’s take a look…

Alex Kidd in Miracle World (SMS)

If you owned a Master System II (the one that looked like a space-age bread bin) then chances are you’re very familiar with Alex Kidd In Miracle World, because it was built into the console! This was Sega’s big mascot platformer, years before Sonic and though it’s very different and more traditional, it’s a lot of fun. The varied level design – with vast pits to descend, underwater sections to swim in, fast-paced bike stages and flying helicopter levels – give the game a brisk pace and variety that’s enjoyable to return to again and again. If only we could say the same about those rock, paper, scissors boss battles. The game was recently remastered for modern systems, and you can get the original as part of the Sega Ages line on Switch.

Asterix (SMS)

You might not expect much from Asterix, but this adaptation of the popular French comic book character has the personality and cartoon quality to rival even the best Disney games of the era. There’s a pleasing weight to both Asterix and Obelix, so their attacks feel suitably powerful and in keeping with the comics, backed up by some expressive attack animations. But it’s the sheer number of secrets – both areas and techniques – that make Asterix so rewarding to play. This is a platform game you can replay many times and still keep discovering things to like.

Dragon Crystal (SMS)

If you played Dragon Crystal back in the day, little did you know you were being primed for an entire era of modern indie games. This was a Roguelike so early it was before most of us had even heard the term before, but is a great early introduction to the genre. As a highly traditional Roguelike, it boasts the classic hallmarks of the genre including simultaneous turn-based action, random generation and experimental item identification. Though Dragon Crystal received a worldwide release on Game Gear, the slightly altered Master System port was, strangely, exclusive to Europe.

Dynamite Headdy (SMS)

A true curiosity of the Master System library, Dynamite Headdy is a port of the Game Gear adaptation of Treasure’s original Mega Drive hit and was released very late in the Master System’s life, exclusively in Brazil. This collector’s piece will set you back a pretty penny (at the time of writing there is just one copy on ebay for £600), but it is actually a pretty remarkable conversion. While it lacks the detail of its Mega Drive brother, this is an extremely colourful and vibrant game by Master System standards and its fast pace and sense of action make it one of many great platfomers on the console.

Enduro Racer (SMS)

While every other 8-bit conversion of Yu Suzuki’s arcade racer attempted to recreate its “super scaler” into-the-screen visuals, Sega’s own home port was almost a completely different game, opting for an isometric, Zaxxon-like, perspective instead. Quite why is unclear; the Master System did feature more faithful conversions of Hang-On and Outrun, for example, but at least the game itself still holds up really well. Endurance is the theme of the game, with players attempting to navigate treacherous levels to reach the end before a timer runs down, and doing so is quite a challenge. Manage to get to the end, and Sega rewards you with an inspiring message, dedicating the game to all the “life riders who have started out on the solitary trip to find their own individual limits.” Deep!

Golden Axe Warrior (SMS)

While Master System had its fair share of downscaled arcade and Mega Drive ports, when it came time to bring the Golden Axe series to the system, Sega made a major swing in an unexpected direction. Rather than produce a pared-down beat-‘em-up, they opted instead to create an action RPG that’s often considered to be Master System’s answer to The Legend Of Zelda. Of course, it’s not a classic on that level, but it does provide a pretty decent adventure within a familiar world and setting. Unfortunately, Golden Axe Warrior is another pricey one – expect to pay around £100 – but it is unlockable in the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection for PS3 and Xbox 360.

Golvellius: Valley Of Doom (SMS)

This cult action-RPG from the creators of Puyo Puyo was originally released for the MSX before being licensed by Sega and completely remade for Master System. This version not only features improved visuals but also boasts completely original level designs. So in the unlikely event that you’ve already played the MSX version, you can still get a lot out of this one. Even if you haven’t, this is a great action RPG with colourful visuals, impressive bosses and a huge world to explore across both a top-down overworld and side-scrolling dungeons. Curiously, Compile also produced an entirely separate remake of Golvellius for MSX2, which paired the Master System graphics with yet another dungeon layout.

Legend Of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (SMS)

No, that’s not a typo, this Master System game really was released in 1998! Not only did the Mega Drive and Saturn exist by this point, this was also the year the Dreamcast debuted in Japan. So the humble Master System was getting pretty long in the tooth but still cranking out top-quality platformers. Legend Of Illusion, which previously appeared on Game Gear in 1995, is the sequel to the better-known Land Of Illusion and offers plenty of fun Disney platforming, with great art and dynamic action that makes great use of the level design.

Operation Wolf (SMS)

Operation Wolf was one of the hottest arcade lightgun games of its era, thanks to a rapid-fire mounted Uzi and action inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. The various home ports were a real mixed bag, but the Master System version delivered one of the most faithful conversions of the game and remains one of the best ways to play today. The arcade game has rarely been reissued and, even when it has, it’s been without any lightgun compatibility. Grab yourself a “Light Phaser”, tighten those commando boots and you’re likely to have a blast.

Phantasy Star (SMS)

While the NES dominated medieval-style JRPGs with the likes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Sega flew off in the opposite direction with Phantasy Star, taking the RPG into outer space! The otherworldly setting gave Phantasy Star a feel all of its own, as did the unique perspective, which allowed Master System owners to explore dungeons in first-person! These kinds of graphics would become commonplace in 16-bit RPGs like Shining In The Darkness and Dungeon Master, but to see them on an 8-bit system in the Eighties was mind-blowing. The impact was so big that Phantasy Star became a staple part of Sega’s early console history and has endured with a series that’s still around in the form of Phantasy Star Online decades later.

Power Strike II (SMS)

Here’s an interesting one. When Compile brought their MSX shoot-‘em-up, Aleste, to the Master System, it was renamed Power Strike for the west. However, Power Strike II isn’t a conversion of MSX’s Aleste II. Instead, it’s a completely original game that keeps the standard Aleste gameplay but ditches the spaceships for a historical setting. Arguably the best shooter on the Master System, this European exclusive boasts fast action, colourful graphics, great pacing and some huge enemy designs. Sadly, the cartridge is quite rare and expensive these days but, thankfully, Power Strike II was recently included on the Aleste Collection, so it’s pretty easy to play on modern hardware.

R-Type (SMS)

One of the greatest arcade shooters of all time, R-Type was converted to virtually every home system under the sun and continues to be re-released decades later. Many of its 8-bit home versions, including the Master System port, are actually very good indeed, so there’s nothing particularly unique or special about Sega’s version. But R-Type is just so good that it remains one of the greatest games in the system’s library. R-Type is a beautiful game, with deep tactical gameplay that has stood the test of time, and you should probably have a copy for every console you own, just to be on the safe side.

Rescue Mission (SMS)

One of the more unusual lightgun games you could hope to play, Rescue Mission is a Master System exclusive, having never been released in arcades, and eschews the traditional front-facing perspective in favour of a top-down one. It’s also unconventional in that you’re charged with protecting an on-screen character, rather than just indiscriminately killing enemies. Your job is to protect an army medic who rides a handcart around rail tracks in search of soldiers to rescue, and it’s a really difficult job too! Every level sees scores of enemies swarm towards your little guy, requiring plenty of practice to successfully keep them at bay. Be thankful you don’t need to pump credits in to keep playing this one!

Sagaia (SMS)

Far from an arcade-perfect port of Darius II, this renamed conversion is missing a few levels, routes and bosses, as well as the two-player mode. But as a Master System shmup in its own right, it’s still a treat. The gameplay remains great fun, while the signature “huge battleship” bosses are just as big, colourful and detailed as you’d expect. It’s a delight to see a shmup this ambitious running on Master System and well worth having in your collection if you’re a fan of the genre. If you do pick this one up, here’s a handy tip… change which pilot you play as and you can look forward to a completely different boss battle on stage five.

Shinobi (SMS)

While the Mega Drive hosted a large number of excellent sequels and spin-offs to Shinobi, if you wanted to play the original at home, then Master System was the way to go. This side-scrolling ninja action game is a stone cold classic and should need no introduction, but if you’ve never played it you can look forward to a very precise and methodical experience that rewards patience and skill, making it an arcade-action game you can come back to again and again as you keep improving. Its tightly wound gameplay and perfectly pitched skill ceiling has ensured that Shinobi has stood the test of time for decades.

Sonic Chaos (SMS)

Although Sonic The Hedgehog made his debut on Mega Drive in a highly successful attempt to compete with Super Nintendo, the series was so phenomenally popular that it wasn’t long before Sega brought it to the 8-bit systems too. The ports of Sonic 1 and 2 (developed by Yuzo Koshiro’s Ancient) are both excellent mini versions of the games, with their own unique touches, but if you want a game that was fully designed for 8-bit, then Sonic Chaos is the way to go. As well as entirely new stages and power-ups, this is also the first Master System game in the series to allow you to play as Tails.

The Lucky Dime Caper Starring Donald Duck (SMS)

Essentially a spin-off of Castle Of Illusion, The Lucky Dime Caper is of course far superior, simply because Donald Duck is a way better character. Take it up in the comments if you have a problem with that! Like Mickey Mouse’s game, this platformer excels thanks to colourful graphics and expressive animations that make you feel like you’re playing an interactive Disney cartoon. Yes, the NES had some really special Disney platformers in the form of DuckTales and Rescue Rangers, thanks to Capcom, but don’t discount Sega’s efforts. If you love Disney and platfom games, then the Master System is a must-have console.

Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap (SMS)

If you were to ask this writer which is the very best, most essential game on Master System, it would be Wonder Boy III by a country mile. Like other Master System platformers, The Dragon’s Trap is packed with colourful characters, great fundamental gameplay and has bags of charm. But Westone’s clever design takes things to a new level that other games can’t compete with. The structure is more akin to a Metroidvania, with a huge interconnected world to explore, and there are a few RPG/adventure touches that lend the game an awesome sense of depth. The ability to unlock new animal guises that transform your appearance, attacks and traversal ability, is the masterstroke that makes Wonder Boy III not just the best Master System game but also one of the greatest games, full stop. The recent remake is also utterly essential.

Ys: The Vanished Omens (SMS)

Nihon Falcom is a huge name in JRPGs nowadays thanks to the burgeoning Legend Of Heroes/Trails series as well as latter Ys games, like Ys VIII: Lacrimosa Of Dana. While the company has had a meteoric rise over the past decade, some may remember that the first Ys game – complete with its unusual “bump combat” action - did in fact make it to Europe way back in the Eighties via this Master System port. This is far from the best version of Ys – the PC Engine CD remake is a superlative action RPG – but this edition is still pretty good, even if series protagonist Adol is stupidly renamed to Aron!

Megumi Rescue (SMS)

One of only four games designed exclusively for Sega’s “Paddle Controller”, Megumi Rescue is an original take on Breakout. Rather than bat a ball back and forth to break bricks, you control a pair of firemen using a sheet to bounce a third fireman into the air so he can retrieve civilians from the windows of a burning high rise… As long as you catch them both on the way down! The tried and tested gameplay is extremely addictive, while the original premise, and a handful of secrets, really capture the imagination. If you own a Japanese Master System (aka the Sega Mark III) then consider a Paddle Controller and Megumi Rescue an essential addition.

Is Master System more powerful than NES?

Because it was released later than the NES, the Master System was indeed the more powerful system – although only in terms of things like on-screen colours. Both consoles have the same screen resolution and similar internal components. Ultimately, it didn't matter all that much as the NES had Nintendo's games and amazing support from third parties.

Why did the Sega Master System fail?

As is the case with any console, the Master System struggled for multiple reasons. The most pressing was the fact that, by the time the Master System (or Mark III as it was known in Japan) arrived, Nintendo's Famicom / NES had pretty much dominated the Japanese and North American markets. Nintendo also locked down publishers by making them enter agreements where their titles would be exclusive to the NES, preventing Sega from releasing them on the Master System.

Another major issue was the fact that the Master System was distributed by Tonka in North America, a company which lacked the experience to challenge Nintendo. Sega would eventually assume distribution duties in the region, but by that point, it was too late.

It's worth noting that the Master System was incredibly successful in Europe, where Nintendo had a weaker presence. It was also massively popular in Brazil, where it was distributed and marketed by Tec Toy.

What is the longest Master System game?

The longest game ever made for the Master System was Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar, which takes 21.5 hours to beat – and that's if you just focus on the main story.

How many Master System games are there?

It is estimated that around 360 games were officially released for the Master System.

Ashley Day is a mostly ex-games journalist who edited the Retro section of gamesTM magazine from 2006 to 2012. These days he works in the games industry and occasionally writes about the old games he’s been playing on his personal blog, Games From The Black Hole.