Platform Profile: Sega Master System

The Master System is an 8-bit home videogame console developed by SEGA which released, initially across western markets, from 1986 onwards and would be Sega’s first console to see widespread distribution outside of Japan.

At its core, the Master System is essentially a restyled and rebranded Sega Mark III, a console that had debuted in Japan in 1985 as the successor to both the Sega SG-1000 and Sega SG-1000 II consoles, released in 1983 and 1984 respectively.

At the start of the 1980s, Sega had become one of the top five arcade game manufacturers in the US, with a string of successful titles including Heavyweight Champ (1976), Monaco GP (1979) and Deep Scan (1979). However, a sudden and unexpected downturn in the arcade industry in 1982 prompted the then Sega Enterprises president, Hayao Nakayama, to suggest the company move into the home hardware market. The company would soon begin development on the SC-3000, a computer with a built-in keyboard. However, after learning of rival company Nintendo’s plans to release a dedicated home videogames console, Sega began work on their own, known as the SG-1000.

Sega’s first dedicated home video games console, the SG-1000

Both the SC-3000 and SG-1000 would release in Japan simultaneously in 1983, on the exact same day as Nintendo’s new home console, the Famicom. Although released exclusively in Japan, rebranded versions of the SG-1000 did see a limited release in Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and Spain. Despite selling above Sega’s initial expectations, the console was considered a failure, ultimately struggling to compete with Nintendo’s Famicom.

One year later, Sega would again attempt to tap into the home console market with the release of an updated and redesigned successor to the SG-1000, the SG-1000 Mk II. Again, despite several subtle improvements over the original, Sega’s console would fail to make an impact.

Undeterred, the company would release yet another successor, the Sega Mark III. Thanks to a new display processor and more RAM, this third revision offered improved graphics, including twice as many on-screen colours and sprites and smooth scrolling. Although Sega’s new machine was by far more powerful than Nintendo’s Famicom, Nintendo had steadily secured the support of countless third-party developers and was subsequently amassing an impressive library of available games.

The Western Sega Master System was fundamentally a remodelled Sega Mark III

Committed as always, Sega’s next step would be to try and break the US market and launch their latest machine there. Just as Nintendo had done the year before, by redesigning and rebranding their ‘Famicom’ as the ‘Nintendo Entertainment System’, Sega chose to restyle the Sega Mark III as the ‘Master System’, now sporting a sleek, black case. However, Sega would be too late. Nintendo again had managed to gain a significant hold on the market, establishing countless exclusivity agreements with numerous publishers. With Japan, and now the US, utterly dominated by Nintendo, Sega looked to another territory to launch their machine, Europe.

Although somewhat overshadowed by Nintendo’s NES, the Sega Master gradually built a library of solid titles, including the first entry in Sega’s Phantasy Star RPG series

Somewhat preoccupied with both Japan and the US, Nintendo’s efforts in pushing their NES console across Europe were comparatively minimal, allowing Sega to swoop in. The Master System launched across Europe in 1987 and would prove to be a huge success for Sega, selling significantly more units than Nintendo’s console. Over time, interest in Nintendo’s machine in Europe would gradually start to pick up. Sega’s response would be to launch the redesigned, and cheaper, Master System II, in 1990. Even when the console had been officially discontinued in Japan and North America, European interest in Sega’s 8-bit machine would continue, with the console even sharing the market with its successor, the Mega Drive, for several years. Sales of the Master System across Europe would eventually reach 6.8 million, over double the combined sales of Japan and North America.

Brazilian company Tec Toy continue to sell Master System console revisions

One particular market where the Master System saw enormous success would be Brazil, another region with limited competition from Nintendo. Launching there in 1989, the console would be distributed by the Brazilian toy and electronics manufacturer, Tec Toy, who continue to release numerous revisions of the console (such as the Master System Super Compact and Master System Girl) across the country to this day. (According to their website, the company are currently selling a variant called the Master System Evolution with 132 built-in games!)

Developed as a response to Nintendo’s Mario, Alex Kidd would get his start on Sega’s 8-bit machine

The Master System is a console that regularly divides opinion, often depending upon your region. To some, it is a fondly remembered platform, home to some excellent home arcade conversions, licensed titles and, of course, Alex Kidd. To others, it is a complete failure, forever in the shadow of the NES, a console with a vastly wider library of game.

Despite its mixed success globally, the Master System helped to introduce Sega in the home console market, inevitably establishing the foundations for the release of Sega’s next console, the Mega Drive.

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Twitter: @wleigh85