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My Toast To The Master System

by Jeff Cork on Sep 19, 2013 at 11:30 AM

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The Sega Master System was the 8-bit era’s little engine that could – until it couldn’t. While NES owners were busying themselves with Mario, Castlevania, and Contra, SMS players had to make due with the likes of Alex Kidd, Penguin Land, and Teddy Boy. They were fun games, to be sure, but I always felt as though something was a little off. Fortunately for me, the NES was in my room, and I was able to coerce my younger brother to buy Sega’s counterpart.

If you didn’t grow up with one, the Master System is actually worth checking out today. You can grab most of the games that are worth playing at flea markets for reasonable prices. And because of the way the games were packaged – in thick, plastic boxes that predated the Sega Genesis – people tended to keep the instructions. Here are some of my favorite Master System games and why they’re worth your time.

Alex Kidd: High-Tech World
Alex Kidd in Miracle World is the game most people associate with the little guy, but I preferred another game that he starred in. In Alex Kidd: High-Tech World, the failed mascot doesn't ape Mario. Instead, it's an adventure game that challenges players with getting Kidd out of his castle and over to the Sega arcade. It blends object-managing puzzles with action-based sections. It's weird and tough, and I loved it – even though Prince Alex remains the grossest-looking hero in gaming history.

California Games
EPYX made several Olympic-style games throughout its life, such as Summer Games, Winter Games, and World Games, but I always liked California Games best. It had surfing, BMX, and skateboarding games, but those were pretty lame. Believe it or not, the Hacky Sack event was actually pretty fun. Your character had a limited amount of time to go through a fairly wide array of tricks, and you were rewarded for variety. Maybe I liked it because I have a soft spot for any game that lets me hit seagulls. 

It might make me a heretic, but I always thought Columns was as good a puzzle game as Tetris. The Genesis version of Columns looked and sounded better, naturally, but the Master System port was perfectly fine. The only problem I had with this one is that  the Master System's mushy gamepad lacked the precision required for high-level play. Regardless, it's still a great pick.

Enduro Racer
This was loosely based on the arcade game, by which I mean they share the same name. The home port scraps the behind-the-back perspective in favor of showing your motorcyclist from an isometric view. It's a game that's as much about bouncing from jump to jump as it is outrunning the various bikes and hot rods (?!?) that share the track.

Fantasy Zone
If you like shooters, you should look past the pastels and give Fantasy Zone a try. The game featured a customizable ship, Opa-Opa, who could be upgraded after visiting the in-game store. Actually, don't look past the pastels. They were a great change of pace from the era's fascination with darkness and bio-organic surfaces.

OutRun put a twist on racing games by letting players choose their own paths to the finish line. At certain intervals, players could choose to go right or left, and the scenery would change. You might race past stone pillars or palm trees, depending on your decision. And like the arcade game, the Master System port gave players the chance to select their own tunes before hitting the road in their red convertible. If you didn't pick Magical Sound Shower, however, you chose poorly.

Penguin Land
Penguin Land always reminded me of another old game, Lode Runner, only this one was much cuter. Basically, you had to dig holes and avoid obstacles to get your egg to the bottom. Look at that polar bear! Even the bad guys were adorable!

Phantasy Star
Phantasy Star was a landmark release on the system. The sci-fi epic was one of the earliest console RPGs to hit the West, and it spawned a number of sequels that endure to this day. I remember sitting in front of my TV with a pad of graph paper, charting the dungeons so that I could avoid traps on my inevitable second time through. If the battery in my cartridge wasn't dead, I'd be tempted to start a new game on the original hardware.

This puzzle game was all the rage in the late '80s and early '90s, and it was ported on nearly every available platform. The Master System was one of those, and it's a perfectly solid way to play the game.

Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap
This is it. If you had to boil it down to one game, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap is the game I'd most recommend playing on my list. It's a great platformer/adventure game with unlockable characters, secrets, and upgrades. It was also one of the few games that I could show my NES-only friends and inspire a tinge of jealousy. That didn't happen very often with the Master System, and I relished that feeling.