Sega Master System
The Sega Master System was a machine, for its time it was far more powerful than its nearest rival Nintendo, but failed to put a dent into either its home territory of Japan or the lucrative American market, it did however perform well in Europe and Brazil leading to a lot of territorial exclusives that makes it a perfect machine for collectors, especially as the North American machine can play European games without the need for modding.
The birth of the Master System lies in Sega’s first foray into home consoles, Sega had been in existence since the 1960s and was one of the early arcade pioneers, so their entry into the home market wasn’t too much of a shock, their first home console the SG1000 was released in Japan on July 15th 1983, the machine was a little powerhouse, Hardware expansions were released for the machine that allowed it to function as a personal computer with a similar specification as Sega’s SC3000, the console was succeeded by the SG1000 Mk II, both of which failed to make any waves in the Japanese market.
Utilising the the same NEC 780C processor based around the ubiquetous Zilog Z80A running at an identical clock rate of 3.579545MHz for NTSC and 3.54689493MHz for PAL & SECAM regions, the Sega Mk III wasn’t a huge leap over its predecessors, 8kb of Rom, coupled with 8kb of Ram and 16kb of video ram was a definitate upgrade, replacing the aging Texas instrument chipset of the older systems (the same chipset that had been used in the ColecoVision) and outputting at a resolution of 256 x 192 pixels, upping the available colours from 16 to 32 available on screen from a pallette of 64, the ability to play Sega’s MyCard format was now built into the base system instead of requiring the use of a The C-1000 Card Catcher peripheral.
The Sega Mk III was released in Japan in October of 1985, but like its predecessors the machine was far from successful, Nintendo had the Japanese market sewn up and it seemed like any competiton was doomed to failure, Sega however remained undeterred, setting their sights squarely on the American market the Mk III was redesigned in a sleek new casing and rebranded as the Master System, the new revision was unleashed upon the American market originally planned for September of 1986 but stock didn’t hit shelves until the following month, for around $139 you could pick up the Power Base which came packaged as the console with one controller, for $10 more you could pick up the Master System which also included a second control pad and the Light Phazer peripheral.
The problem was immediately apparent, the move to break America still left Sega in a head to head competition with Nintendo and their popular NES hardware which had been available in America for almost a year before the Master System arrived, to make matters worse, just like in the Japanese market Nintendo had most of the big third party developers tied up in licensing agreements that prevented them for producing their games on rival systems.
Nintendo had courted pretty much all of the major developers, companies like Taito, Namco, Capcom, et al, had happily signed on, Nintendo as part of their licensing agreement insisted that developers keep their games exclusively on the NES platform and given that at that point they were the only real player in the game, everybody was more than happy to acquiesce, so despite having superior hardware Sega’s lateness to the party would cost them dearly.
Nintendo had their reasons, which some would argue were not all about destroying any potential competition, the videogame crash of 1983 had pretty much destroyed every company in the industry at the time, blamed in no small part on the market being flooded with sub par games, Nintendo sought to prevent this from happening again by forcing developers to adhere to Nintendo’s licensing terms, as a result developers had to sign agreements limiting them to only producing five games a year, all of which would have to pass Nintendo’s seal of quality and be exclusive to the NES, which obviously seems like a massive overstretch if they were just worried about shovelware, by design of course it also left Nintendo with a complete stranglehold of the wordwide console market.
This put Sega in a tough position, it could only survive on it’s own arcade conversions for so long, the solution wasn’t perfect but it was workable, Sega would obtain the rights to “reprogram” other developers games for their own system, however most of these titles were not the AAA games that had lit up the local arcades, Nintendo seemed to have a stranglehold on those, so although the Master System’s software library was bolstered, it was with games that were unlikely to give them a killer hit.
By 1986 Nintendo controlled 90% of the American video-game market, Sega couldn’t find anyway to secure a foothold, the NES had an impressive library of games and at the time retailed for $10 less than Sega’s hardware, Nintendo also had a far superior distribution chain including outlets like Toys ‘R’ Us, which gave them much better brand recognition, to all intent and purpose when Americans thought of video-games, they thought of Nintendo.
It didn’t take long for the people at the top of Sega to concede, deciding to invest less money for the American markets advertising budget, instead they signed a two year distribution deal and in 1988 offloaded the US distribution rights to the toy company Tonka, a move which would seal the fate of the Master System in America, Tonka may have been kings of the toy world, but their experience in videogames was non-existent, their decisions on how to market the machine and what software to release were baffling to almost everybody except themselves, which left the console dead in the water.
Sega turned their eyes toward Europe. Nintendo had been so busy mopping up American and Japanese currency that they had treated Europe as something of an afterthought, Sega found a distributor in the form of Ariolasoft and the machine arrived first in Germany in October of 1986, Originally Ariolasoft was set to distribute the console in the UK, but after some back and forth the deal would eventually fall through.
In the UK the distribution rights for the Master System fell to Mastertronic, the former king of budget software for the UK’s sizeable home computer market, marketed as an arcade in the home, the Master System would debut in August of 1987 and retailing for £99.95, the launch would be supported by seven games, Hang-On, Transbot, Black Belt, Fantasy Zone, World Grand Prix, Choplifter and Action Fighter, with some of Sega’s killer coin op conversions, Space Harrier and Outrun due to hit the shelves before Christmas and Afterburner due out in the first quarter of 1988.
The Master System quickly set about canabalising the market share that Nintendo had seemed so disinterested in, to UK gamers who had been used to playing poorly coded arcade conversions on hardware that was never designed with that in mind, the market was shifting and the old 8-bit home computers were beginning to show their age, replacements came in the form of the 16bit Atari ST and Commodore Amiga but these were high priced machines and for consumers on a budget, game consoles suddenly became attractive.
The Master System offered people something special, singlehandedly raising the bar for what european consumers would come to expect, such was its success that the Master System was responsible for nearly all of Mastertronic’s annual turnover, raking in about £5,000,000 per year for the company, Nintendo released their NES console in the UK around the same time with distribution handled by Mattel, as 1988 got into full swing the Master System was considered a success, the NES however was anything but.
Brazil was another territory where the Master System found a home, it’s difficult to understate the impact that the Master System had in the region, released in 1989 and marketed by Tek Toy the machine would become something of phenomenon. As a territory Brazil was viewed as technologically behind the other major regions by the Japanese, the NES had a small following through the availability of cloned hardware but had no official representation in the market, Tektoy was able to capitalise on this and during the 1990’s would claim an 80% market share.
Tektoy also handled localised Portuguese translations, these included the first three of Sega’s Phantasy Star series along with such heavy hitters as Shining in the Darkness, they also modified certain titles to take advatage of local licenses, Sega’s successful Wonderboy series became Monica’s Gang, they even went as far as creating some unique ports including a technically impressive version of Street Fighter II released for the Master System in 1997 mixing both elements from Special Champion Edition and The New Fighters.
Back in the UK a new player was watching things play out with interest, Richard Branson’s company Virgin, stepped in and acquired Mastertronic rebranding the company to Virgin Mastertronic in the process, it was a canny move, as Sega were busy working on a new console and the distribution rights would stay with the Virgin branded company.
In 1989 Virgin reduced the prices on a selection of the older Master System games, meaning that some were available for as little as £9.99, Nintendo refused to follow their lead leaving the Master System looking far more attractive to new purchasers, it also managed to see off competition from a range of consolised 8-bit computer systems, like the C64GS and Amstrad GX4000, although both were based upon hardware that had been incredibly successful in the region, they were released too late and looked severely underpowered next to Sega’s hardware.
As the successor to the Master System appeared Sega regained its distribution rights in America, although it didn’t help, a new cheaper Master System II was released in 1990, it did little to help and the final game to be officially released in North America was Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991, all in all the Master System recieved short shrift in America, with only about a third of the games catalogue being released in the market.
In the UK the Master System had shifted 1.5 million units by 1993 and around 6.95 million in Europe, bolstered by the release of the Master System II model and sporting an impressive library of both first and third party titles, it was by far the most popular gaming system in the region, remaining popular even after the release of Sega’s MegaDrive successor, it was eventually discontinued in 1996 as Sega shifted its focus to the Sega Saturn.
In Brazil the Master System would continue to be made in varying iterations through the next 20+ years making the Master System the longest running continuously produced console worldwide, to date over 8 million consoles have been sold in the region, with many games featuring specific localisation and translations, the system survived with little competition.