Useful Notes: Sega Master System

"Now, There Are No Limits."

The Sega Mark III was Sega's second video game console in Japan, as well as their entry into The 8 Bit Era. The Mark III, as the name indicates, was technically the third game console released by Sega in Japan, following the SG-1000 and its revamped model SG-1000 II (which had a hardware casing similar to the Mark III). Realizing that the SG-1000 was not advanced enough to compete with Nintendo's Family Computer, Sega significantly upgraded its hardware, which had been largely similar to the MSX computer platform, giving the Mark III graphical capabilities on par with both the MSX2 and the Famicom.

The restyled international version of the Sega Mark III was simply known as the Sega System and was initially sold in different bundles, each carrying its own name. The "Sega Master System" (or "Sega Base System" in Canada) consisted of the core console (or "Power Base") plus two controllers. The "Sega Master System Plus" (or "Sega Master System" in Canada) included the contents of the standard package, plus the Light Phaser gun controller and pack-in games. The "Sega Super System" (or "SegaScope 3-D System" in Canada) added a pair of active-shutter glasses and additional game to the Master System package. Despite the existence of these differently named bundles, all the console units had "Master System/Power Base" printed on them, which is how the Master System became the standard name for the console. The Mark III would be relaunched in Japan with the Master System name and styling, and also with a built-in FM synth card (never included in the international version) to enhance the quality of chiptunes.

All things considered, the Master System was arguably the most powerful of the 8-bit systemsnote , although the NES was able to catch up with the inclusion of memory mappers in later Game Paks that expanded the system's capabilities. Ultimately, Sega failed to wrestle away the majority of the market share away from Nintendo due to their stranglehold on third party developers with their strict exclusivity policy. The unfortunate timing of the PC Engine's launch in Japan, with its 16-bit graphical capabilities that blew away everything in the market, didn't help matters, which forced Sega to come up with a new system that could succeed the Master System and compete adequately with the emerging 16-bit generation: the Mega Drive, otherwise known as the Genesis in North America.

The Mark III/Master System was discontinued in early 1989 in Japan, a few months after the launch of the Mega Drive in the end of 1988. It lasted only a few more years in the United States as a budget-priced alternative to the Genesis in the form of the redesigned Master System II, before it got discontinued in 1991. However, it did gain a lot of ground in Europe and South America. Heck, games were still being developed for the Master System in Brazil by the mid-to-late 90s (such as a port of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition). The SMS' popularity in the UK in particular was helped by a bungled distribution campaign from Nintendo which meant that the NES was so rare in Britain as to be practically mythical.

Although Sega's own series didn't really gain ground until the Mega Drive, their popular Phantasy Star series got its start here. Their handheld, the Game Gear, uses hardware quite compatible with the Master System, and converters exist to run Master System games on the Game Gear.

The Master System was the first console to put full game programs on small "cards", in addition to traditional cartridges. Due to the cards' limited memory, though, the format was limited to "budget" games (though Hudson Soft and NEC would improve on the card format with their PC Engine/TurboGrafx 16 platform). The SegaScope 3-D glasses were powered by the card port as well. The Power Base Converter, an add-on for the Mega Drive, allowed full backward compatibility with all Master System games (including the card and SegaScope games). However, the redesigned Master System II would drop the card slot, as game card production had already ceased, and Sega had already stopped supporting the SegaScope.

Specifications:

Processor
  • The CPU, a Zilog Z80, runs at 3.55 or 3.58 MHz, depending on the region.
  • The graphics are handled by the Video Display Processor, a modified version of the TI 9918/9928 GPU MSX and Coleco also used.

Memory

Sprites
  • Like the NES, SMS sprites are 8x8 or 8x16 pixels, with up to 64 on screen.

Display
  • Resolution was 256x224 pixels.
  • 32 colors were allowed on screen, out of 64 total.

Sound
  • The system's basic sound functionality included three square wave channels, a noise generator and a DPCM channel. This was the only area in which the Master System's hardware was noticeably inferior to that of the NES, lacking a triangle channel and any of the nifty hardware effects that the NES could apply to music and sound effects, although it was still way ahead of what the Atari 7800 had to offer.
  • That is unless you lived in Japan, where the latter versions of the console included an FM synthesis chipset, giving it vastly superior sound capabilities to any other of the 8-bit systems, and even putting it on a par with what the Genesis later offered. Sadly none of the versions released outside of Japan included this chip, though it can be added to the console with some modifications.

Games:

Original Titles

Ported, Reformulated, or Concurrently Developed


Alternative Title(s):

Master System, Sega Mark III