The Sega Master System, known as the Mark III in its native Japan, was Sega's 8-bit console to rival Nintendo's NES. The company's international operations at the time were rather shambolic (what's changed?), with the machine making little impact in the US (distributed by Tonka of all people), although the reverse situation was true in the UK towards the end of the machine's life (more due to Nintendo's indifference to the European markets than Sega's marketing ability).

A Z80-powered machine, the SMS was significantly more advanced than the NES, boasting a higher resolution, larger palette and better sound. Third-party support was almost non-existent until around 1992, with Sega doggedly preventing other publishers from developing for its machine without getting a cut of the profits (this changed toward the end as a knock-on effect of the success of the Megadrive and Game Gear, especially in Europe).

In the early years (1985-89) the machine relied largely on arcade ports (Golden Axe, Shinobi, After Burner, Out Run, Hang On, Double Dragon, etc.) although prominent original games began to emerge (such as Phantasy Star, Fantasy Zone, and Alex Kidd). The system was frequently accompanied by two popular and reasonably well-supported peripherals : the Light Phaser and the Sega 3D Glasses. The original model Master System had Hang On and (for the gun bundle) Safari Hunt built in (as well as the famous hidden Snail Maze). It could accept games on cartridge or cheap-to-produce 64k cards. The Master System II sported a smaller, sleeker design and dropped the obsolete card slot and introduced new built-in games (usually Alex Kidd In Miracle World).

Perhaps the turning point in the Master System's history was the game Castle of Illusion (starring Mickey Mouse) in 1990. A platform game of awesome quality, it was the first of a number of very polished titles for the machine. Soon, publishers such as Domark, Tekmagik, and US Gold were churning out ports of any game they could acquire the license for (including extremely ambitious ports of 16-bit originated games) .

However, the machine's days were clearly numbered with more and more gamers turning to 16-bit systems after 1990, and the Game Gear proving to be a flash in the pan (the Game Gear and SMS were technically almost identical, so publishers saw them as an easy way to get two titles out for the development cost of one). The machine struggled on in some secondary territories (such as Brazil) for a few more years, but was a spent force by the mid-Nineties.

It has been emulated with a 100% success rate under DOS, for those wishing to wallow in nostalgia.

Re: Clone's WU : My Master System had Hang On, Safari Hunt, and the Snail Maze built in. All you need for a good night in. Provided you are clinically insane.

Want to see what it looks like (and make a stylish paper model)? Try www.segagaga.com

A few additional notes to fondue's spanky writeup:

The Mark 3 was superior to the Master System released outside Japan, as it contained an excellent FM synth chip, capable of producing some phenomenal tunes. Probably the finest example of this is Phantasy Star, although Fantasy Zone 2 and Spellcaster (Kujaku-Ou in Japan) were also superb. FM is emulated perfectly in Meka and other SMS emulators, but unfortunately the FM code was removed from the translated Phantasy Star cartridge, so track down a Japanese ROM.

The Snail Maze was a fantastic game. Built into the BIOS of the first version of the SMS1 (removed when Safari Hunt and Alex Kidd were integrated in later versions), it could be accessed by booting without a cartridge, and holding down UP+1+2 on controller one. The game consisted of a series of increasingly difficult mazes (white on blue background) which had to be completed in a set time limit by the player, represented by a snail. Not hugely fun, but it played the most infectiously catchy tune ever. Doot doot doot doot...

The mass of official Sega controllers and periphials seen for the Dreamcast is a tradition. The SMS sported the following:
  • Sega Control Pad - the official pad. Blocky corners made it uncomfy.
  • Sega Control Stick - hilariously loose joystick, with a giant head. Notably had buttons on the left hand side of the stick.
  • Sega Handle Controller - A flight yoke or set of bike handles, depending on which game you were playing. Had a stuck on instrument display with a maxed out speedometer. Broke very easily during frantic games of After Burner.
  • SG Commander - A more expensive version of the basic pad. Had a more robust d-pad and - thank god - rounded corners.
  • Light Phaser - Damn near identical to the NES offering. Curiously indestructable.
  • SegaScope 3D Glasses - Far ahead of their time. Delivered the best true 3D seen in console games to this day.
  • Sports Pad - A trackball, with pad buttons to the left of the ball. Very limited release outside Japan, which meant we never got excellent games like Megumi Rescue. Can be adequately emulated using the mouse.
  • Paddle Controller - Your guess is as good as mine. Certainly released in the UK, although I only ever saw the box once. If anyone knows, /msg me.
  • Infra-Red Control Pad - Wireless wonder. Notable for actually working, which was novel.
  • Rapid-Fire Unit - The RFU worked as a joypad passthrough. While active, holding down fire would cause rapid fire; seeing as the SMS wasn't originally supposed to be capable of this, it led to some interesting bugs/cheats in early games. Initial versions of this device were curiously made out of metal.
  • Telecon Pack - The Japanese had all the fun. You plugged a gaudily coloured mini radar dish into the back of your TV, and popped it on the telly. Then you plugged a matching unit into the back of the Mark 3, and the M3's AV output appears on the TV. Pointless, but undeniably cool.
Lastly, the UK version of the SMS suffered horribly from the 50Hz/60Hz PAL/NTSC disparity. Any UK gamer reliving his past through emulation will wonder why the music in all the games seems so much faster; because it is. Likewise, games are tougher at full speed. So beware.

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