This week -- or maybe next week, or possibly last, I'm not very clear on this point -- marks the 20th anniversary of the Sega Master System. Now, last year was the NES's 20th anniversary, and we marked the occasion with a really enormous blowout. For the SMS... we're posting the two-page write-up I put together for EGM.
Bias? You bet.
Well, OK, not really. I don't have anything against the Master System -- in fact, I bought one and gave a bunch of its games a fair shake two summers ago. The problem is... well, there's just not that much to say about the system. The EGM piece could probably stand to be expanded on ever-so-slightly, I guess (since the EGM Retro style is deliberately fatuous) -- but not by much.
Part of the problem (for me) is that I only knew a single person who owned a Master System back in the day, and he had serious compensation issues. I'd go over to his house to check out his games and he'd spend the entire time talking about how much better the SMS was than the NES; he'd come over to my place to play NES and harp on the most mundane details as proof of the SMS's superiority. "Zelda II has such slow text scrolling! NES games are for idiots." Or, "That Blaster Master stage four music is too creepy. Videogames shouldn't sound like that. Master System is better."
In other words, I had lots of practice for the Internet.
The bigger issue at hand is simply that the Master System, despite having superior hardware to the NES, lacked the breadth and depth of its competition's library. Sega did lots of clever things with their first internationally-distributed console, but they fell flat when it came to wrapping up third-party support. And we all know that third-party software is what makes a console great! (Except, ironically, Nintendo's more recent entries in the hardware arena, which have largely gotten by on in-house stuff.)
But I come to praise Master System, not to bury it. Despite some tough times, it had its moments. And I cling to these tiny bits of Sega nostalgia to convince myself I'm not really just a hopeless Nintendo fanboy at heart.
[ Sega | 1988 ]
Sadly enough, I have no nostalgia for Phantasy Star whatsoever. I can, however, respect that it was a groundbreaking game that by every right should have spawned a franchise equal to Final Fantasy. But it didn't. Likewise, Phantasy Star Online was the first-ever console-based MMO and should be putting out numbers on par with World of Warcraft... or FFXI, anyway. But it's not.
Sega, you can be so boneheaded sometimes.
Anyway, Phantasy Star mixed Dragon Quest-inspired role-playing with a charmingly '80s anime sensibility -- back when big hair was puffy rather than spiky -- along with an actual plot featuring well-defined characters, and Wizardy-style dungeon combat with delectable (for the time) graphics. And the main character was a girl, who didn't strip to a bikini if you beat the game fast enough. Classy. Although maybe a little skin would have helped PS's long-term fortunes...
[ Irem/Sega | 1988 ]
On the other hand! I do have some fairly vivid memories of two of the Master System's finest action games: Irem's R-Type and Sega's very own Zillion. They are the yin and the yang -- one offered a compelling reason to covet the SMS while the other made me want to stay far, far away.
R-Type made me seriously doubt the worthiness of the NES. I was forced to admit, quite sadly, that Nintendo's system couldn't even begin to offer graphics as vivid as these. (Having since discovered the Japan-only Famicom port of the game, I have learned I was correct.) Giger-esque alien fetuses! A pulsating space heart with gigantic worms squeezing through its tubes! A level that consisted entirely of dismantling an enemy battleship. Holy crap. Never mind that its precision gameplay made for very lopsided alternating play session with my friend (who had mastered the stupid game) -- R-Type sold me on the Master System's graphical prowess.
[ Sega | 1987 ]
Zillion did, too, by looking a lot like a prettier version of Metroid with more concrete, goal-oriented gameplay. But it also demonstrated one of the Master System's worst features: its horrible square D-pad. I guess Nintendo had the cross design patented, or maybe Sega just wanted to be different; whatever the case, the square pad was one of the worst ideas in the history of anything. The majority of the D-pad's space was given over to diagonals, and if your thumb slipped from a cardinal direction your brave product-shilling Zillionettes would suddenly find themselves hugging the floor. Thank goodness for emulation and the ability to use well-designed D-pads, eh?
Golvellius: Valley of Doom
[ Compile/Sega | 1988 ]
The Master System had a lot of games that could be described as "Like (Nintendo property X), but with (unique element Y)." Phantasy Star was Final Fantasy but with more sophisticated gameplay; Zillion was Metroid but with mushy diagonals; Alex Kidd was Mario but with brain damage. But nothing was quite so SAT-analogy-friendly as Golvellius: Valley of Doom, which might as well have been called Zeldallius. Except, wait! The top-down exploration (highly reminiscent of Crystalis) was augmented by side-scrolling caverns with really floaty jumps and the most awkward attack hitboxes this side of Faxanadu.
In other words, it was kind of like a mash-up of Zelda I and II. Nowhere near as good as either, sadly, but still curiously addicting in its own way. Plus, it existed in some aspect of the Compile-verse, which mean you got to hang with the Blue Lander doing his best Thor impersonation.
No, no. Not that one.
But who am I kidding? We all know the real reason everyone bought a Master System:
Killer app, built right in. Awww yeah.
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