SEGA Master System - The Other 25th Birthday

Joint birthday parties are invariably a bad idea. More often than not, one of the birthday boys/girls is more popular than the other and garners far more attention than their co-celebrator. They invite more friends, receive more presents and in the ultimate diss, their name is sung far louder during the happy birthday song. They are the belle of the ball, and when the attendees reminisce on a night well spent, many will forget that it was a joint celebration in the first place.

As you are most probably aware, October saw the 25th birthday of the Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom, with all and sundry shouting its praises. The NES was a watershed moment for home consoles and was indeed an anniversary worthy of the highest celebrations. The NES is the 8-bit platform with all the friends, but there is another console celebrating its 25th year, relegated to the shadows and starved of attention, though more than deserving of some praise of its own. It's the Sega Master System, and shame on you if you forgot to bring him a present.

Released in Japan on October 20th, 1985 as the Sega Mark III, and first reaching western shores seven months later, the Master System struggled to compete with Nintendo in some markets (Japan and US) yet rivalled, and even eclipsed the NES elsewhere (Europe, Australia and Brazil). In fact, in Brazil the Master System is still manufactured today as the Master System Evolution, minus a cartridge port but with 132 built-in games. Don't ask me where they got 132 games from!

The Master System was home to a number of well-loved franchises such as OutRun, Afterburner, Alex Kidd and Phantasy Star as well as a unique version of Sonic the Hedgehog that was entirely different to its 16 bit counterpart. Up until 1991, Nintendo America prevented its third party developers from making titles for other platforms, meaning that the Master System suffered from a low number of ports, but at the same time it pushed SEGA to be increasingly more creative and release its own original original IPs for both the MS and the Mega Drive/Genesis, with Sonic the Hedgehog being the most prominent. One could argue that this lay the foundations for a company culture of software innovation and excellence that would later lead to trailblazing and critically acclaimed titles such as Nights, Jet Set Radio, Space Channel 5 and Shenmue. Europe was not subject to such constraints, as the Master System enjoyed a deep roster of games both from SEGA and a wide variety of outside developers from the get-go, flourishing in some markets that the NES never reached.

The Master System II was my first console, a Christmas present back in the early Nineties, so perhaps I do view it through slightly rose-tinted glasses. Back in the days when one title would last me months and a game backlog was something I could not have comprehended, Sonic the Hedgehog, Alex Kidd in Miracle World and Double Dragon provided me with hours upon hours of entertainment. I can still vividly recall playing Sonic for the first time on Xmas morning, struggling mightily through the first stage and playing the final level of Double Dragon *SPOILER WARNING FOR A 20 YEAR OLD GAME* with my brother and being shocked by the realization that, in the ultimate twist, we had to turn and fight each other.

While the gaming press had a collective orgasm over the NES turning 25, even summoning up enough energy a week later to bang out another for the PS2's tenth year, the Master System's anniversary went largely un-noticed. By all means wax lyrical about the NES, but don't forget that for a short while - or the best part of two decades if you are in Brazil! - Nintendo's claim to 8-bit dominance did not go uncontested.

Odds & Ends

1. I recently downloaded the Undead Nightmare pack for Red Dead Redemption. RDR still stands as my favourite game of 2010, tied with Mass Effect 2, and the zombie apocalypse has given me another excuse to get back in the saddle. The single player campaign is hefty for a piece of DLC and the multiplayer, non-stop zombie onslaught is terrific.

2. There was some great news on kotaku this morning regarding the possibility of a new Timesplitters game. Crytec UK (what was once New Radical) is apparently discussing the possibility of a return with a number of publishers. I hope this happens, as I love the Timesplitter games and am sure that the multiplayer element would be a blast on the consoles of today. The full story is here.


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