The Sega Master System, though not Sega's first 8-bit game console, marked the point where they began making waves in the international gaming market. It was released in 1986 in response to the arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America.
Realizing that the SG-1000 was too antiquated to compete with Nintendo's Family Computer on a global scale (the SG-1000 was essentially identical to the ColecoVision and the original MSX, as they were all built from common shelf parts), Sega significantly upgraded the console's technical capabilities for its third iteration. Released in October 1985, this new version of the console was dubbed the Sega Mark III and featured a slightly faster CPU and an upgraded video display processor over previous models (bringing it on par with both the Famicom and the MSX2), while having backwards compatibility with all legacy SG/SC series software and peripherals. Cosmetically, the Sega Mark III hardware was very similar to the SG-1000 II, aside from the addition of a built-in card slot, meaning that it could play games in so-called MyCard format (which required a separately sold Card Catcher adapter on SG-1000 consoles) in addition to traditional cartridges, as well as different placement for the controller ports (which were moved from the rear to the front) and the power switch (which was placed from the front to the back).
In the same way the Famicom became the NES outside Japan, the Sega Mark III was heavily redesigned for its export version (codenamed the "Mark IV"), receiving a black casing that would become a trademark for all subsequent Sega platforms (at least in the west) up until the Dreamcast. The console was originally marketed as the "Sega Video Game System" in North America (and simply referred to as the "Sega System" in technical documentations and certain commercials) and was initially sold in three bundles: the "Sega Base System", the "Sega Master System", and the "SegaScope 3-D System". Despite this, all the consoles produced had "Master System/Power Base" printed on them, regardless of the bundle purchased, and even the system's BIOS referred to the platform as the Master System, which is how it became the standardized name. The Mark III would be relaunched in Japan in 1987 with the Master System name and styling, and also with a built-in FM sound chip (never included in the export versions and sold separately as an add-on for the Mark III) to enhance the quality of chiptunes, along with a rapid fire switch instead of a reset button.
All things considered, the Master System was more advanced than the NES on a surface level, although the NES was able to keep up thanks to the inclusion of memory mappers in later game cartridges that expanded the hardware's capabilities. Ultimately, Sega failed to wrestle away notable market share away from Nintendo in the Japanese and American markets due to Nintendo's stranglehold on third-party developers with their strict exclusivity policy. Additionally, Sega couldn't pick up the slack with their own games, which at the time didn't have the same staying power of Nintendo's own franchises. The unfortunate timing of the PC Engine's launch in Japan, with its graphical capabilities that blew away both the Famicom and the Mark III, 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 Sega Genesis in North America.
The Mark III/Master System was discontinued in early 1989 in Japan, a few months after the launch of its successor in the end of 1988. In 1987, Sega licensed the American distribution rights of the Master System to Tonka in an attempt to boost its market share, but Tonka's complete lack of experience with video games resulted in worse sales than before. After Tonka's rights expired in 1989, it lasted only a couple more years in the United States as a budget-priced alternative to the Genesis in the form of the redesigned Master System II (aka "Mark IV Jr."), before being discontinued in 1991. Only about 2 million units ended up being sold in the North American market.
However, the Master System did gain a lot of ground in Europe, Oceania and South America. Nintendo had bungled their entrance into the European market with some bad decisionsnote , leaving an opening for Sega to swoop in and steal control with a cheaper product. The U.K.'s launch NES bundle with R.O.B. sold for about £140 with games upwards of £50, while the standard Master System bundle was £79.95 and its games were £29.99 at most. Sega's marketing ensured their system could compete with Europe's more entrenched home computer market by positioning the Master System as a machine for high quality arcade ports without any of the load times found in computer games. Sega's plan worked, and the success of the system in the region even led to a significant number of games that didn't reach North America get imported to Europe instead.
The Master System was especially successful in Brazil. Sega partnered with the recently-formed Tectoy in 1989 to distribute and manufacture consoles locally, letting them bypass Brazil's exorbitant import taxes that plagued (and continue to plague) other game consoles. Tectoy went all in on Sega, setting up an official fanclub and a phone hotline similar to the one Nintendo established in the U.S. to give hints on how to beat games. The Master System ended up being a huge success due to a lack of competition (Nintendo didn't try to break into the Brazilian market until 1993), establishing Sega's dominance in the country for over a decade. The Master System continued to receive new games in Brazil up until 1998 (including a version of Street Fighter II), with sales of the console itself only ending in 2003.
Although Sega's first party titles didn't gain ground until the Mega Drive/Genesis, their popular Phantasy Star series got its start on the Master System. Their sole handheld, the Game Gear, uses hardware quite comparable with the Master System, which facilitated the development of ports and multiplatform releases on both platforms. In fact, converters exist that allow Master System games to be played on the Game Gear and vice-versa.
- The CPU: Zilog Z80A note , 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.
- Eight kilobytes of main Random Access Memory with 16 KB of Video RAM. Games like Phantasy Star really showed all this memory off.
- Game ROM sizes ranged from 8 KB (Snail Maze) to 1MB (Virtua Fighter Animation).
- Like the NES, SMS sprites are 8x8 or 8x16 pixels, with up to 64 on screen.
- Resolution was 256x224 pixels.
- 32 colors were allowed on screen, out of 64 total.
- Video is obtainable through an RF modulator, composite cables, or SCART/JP-21 cables, and can be modded for S-Video support. The Master System II only supports RF and composite, but can be modded for RGB and S-Video. What makes the Master System unique is that its AV outlet is a standard RGB port rather than a proprietary design, meaning that it's possible to plug in any old SCART cable rather than having to buy specially designed ones; this trait would be carried over to the Mega Drive/Genesis.
- 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 an FM Sound Unit could be purchased separately as an add-on for the Mark III, which connected into the console's expansion port, enhancing the sound quality of all compatible titles (over 40 released in Japan). The add-on employs a Yamaha YM2413 sound chip, which is very similar to the YM2612 later used by the Genesis/Mega Drive, adding nine extra sound channels that provided a superior sound quality over most Famicom/NES games (in turn, the only Famicom cartridge to output FM audio was Konami's Lagrange Point, which utilized a customized mapper). Unfortunately the add-on was never released outside Japan due to the omission of the expansion port from the Master System redesign of the console, although the Japanese MK-2000 model has the Yamaha chip built into the hardware to compensate for this. An FM Sound Unit can still be installed into a western console through modding.
- Due to the abrupt discontinuation of the Mark III/Master System in Japan, certain games that were programmed to be compatible with the FM Sound Unit ultimately ended up having overseas releases only, such as Ultima IV and OutRun 3D, thus the only way to enable FM sounds in these games (besides emulation) is through console modding or by playing them on a Japanese console with a converter. With Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap in particular, the game will only enable FM sounds when played on a Japanese console.
- Japanese and South Korean cartridges used a 44-pin connector, whereas cartridges in other regions (the Americas and Europe) used a 50-pin connector. The 44-pin connector in the Japanese and Korean consoles made them backwards compatible with all SG-1000/SC-3000 cartridges. However, SC-3000 specific cartridges (which consisted of educational and programming software) are not fully compatible with the Japanese Master System due to the lack of expansion port required to plug in the SK-1100 keyboard, which the Mark III did have. Japanese Mark III/Master System cartridges can be play on a western console with a converter, but not SG-1000/SC-3000 cartridges (due to the western consoles not having the required SG-1000 BIOS). The Japanese Mark III cartridges were released in two lineups: first party Gold Cartridges, comprising almost the entirety of the system's cartridge library; the exceptions were two titles published by Salio (a dummy branch of Tecmo), which were labelled Silver Cartridges.
- The Sega MyCard format (called "Sega Cards" outside Japan) was very similar to the HuCard format later employed by NEC and Hudson Soft for the PC Engine, in which games were sold in small credit card sized IC chips that were smaller and easier to produce than cartridges. In fact, the first year of Mark III software in Japan consisted almost entirely of MyCard releases, as its first "Gold Cartridge" game (Fantasy Zone) came out almost a year after the console was launched. However, the vast majority of the MyCard games in Japan were actually developed to be compatible with SG-1000 hardware through the Card Catcher cartridge add-on, and only a handful of MyCards (15 to be exact) were designed to run exclusively on the Mark III. By the time the Master System was launched in North America, Sega was already phasing out MyCards and going back to traditional cartridges that could hold more ROM space. The card slot was ultimately removed from the Master System II redesign of the console (consequently rendering the SegaScope 3D glasses incompatible as well) and many Sega Card games ended up being reissued in cartridge format in Europe.
- Aleste (aka Power Strike)
- Power Strike II (notable for being released in PAL regions onlynote )
- Alex Kidd in Miracle World (and several sequels)
- Basketball Nightmare
- Ghost House
- Land of Illusion
- The Lucky Dime Caper
- Master of Darkness
- Phantasy Star
- Psycho Fox
- Sonic the Hedgehog Chaos
- Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap
- Zaxxon 3-D
Ported, Reformulated, or Concurrently Developed
- After Burner
- Alien Storm
- Alien Syndrome
- Altered Beast
- Asterix and the Great Rescue
- Baku Baku Animal
- Bonanza Bros.
- Bubble Bobble
- Captain Silver
- Castle of Illusion
- Chuck Rock
- Cool Spot
- Desert Strike
- Dick Tracy (Sega)
- Double Dragon
- Dynamite Dux
- Dynamite Headdy
- Earthworm Jim
- Ecco the Dolphin
- Fantastic Dizzy
- Fantasy Zone
- Férias Frustradas do Pica-Pau
- Fire and Ice
- Gain Ground
- Ghouls 'n Ghosts
- Golden Axe
- Heroes of the Lance
- Impossible Mission
- Jurassic Park
- King's Quest
- Laser Ghost
- The Lion King
- Marble Madness
- Michael Jackson's Moonwalker
- Montezuma's Revenge
- Mortal Kombat
- Ms. Pac-Man
- The New Zealand Story
- Ninja Gaiden (a standout reformulation)
- Operation Wolf
- Prince of Persia
- Psychic World
- Road Rash
- RoboCop Versus The Terminator
- Seishun Scandal
- Sensible Soccer
- Shadow of the Beast
- The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants
- The Simpsons: Bart vs. the World
- The Smurfs
- Solomon's Key
- Sonic the Hedgehog (8-bit)
- Space Harrier
- Spy vs. Spy
- Street Fighter II
- Streets of Rage 1 & 2
- Super Smash T.V.
- Ultima IV
- Virtua Fighter Animation
- Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?
- Wonder Boy
- Xenon 2 Megablast
- Xevious (actually an unlicensed version called MICRO XEVIOUS)
- Ys: The Vanished Omens
- Damn You, Muscle Memory!: One of the strangest design elements of the console is that the controller has no pause button — the pause switch is located on the console itself!
- Demand Overload: Demand in Europe was so high during the June '87 launch that Sega was caught off guard and couldn't provide enough units until Boxing Day.
- Divorced Installment: A number of games originated as tie-ins to popular Anime and Manga series; since virtually none of these had been exported to America or other Western markets, Sega often localized them as genericized titles with the license stripped out. Most famously, the game Black Belt was originally a Fist of the North Star game
- Follow the Leader: The Master System tried hard to play catch up to the NES in the US. Even the controller is identical to an NES pad, albeit without a start or select button.
- Germans Love David Hasselhoff: Despite being unable to dethrone the NES in North America, the system still lives on in Brazil, where plug-and-play variations of the console are still being sold to this day by Tectoy, Sega's representative in the region. This is because of the draconian restrictions on imported products and because Nintendo took some time to finally make official products in Brazil, so that bought time for Sega and Tectoy to put resources into marketing and, therefore, gain success. As a matter of fact, the Master System is so popular in the country that it even rivaled recent consoles such as the PlayStation 4 in terms of units sold, and that conversions of titles like Street Fighter II and games based on local franchises such as Monica's Gang were made to appeal to local tastes. It makes sense, considering how it's way less expensive than newer systems, coupled with Nostalgia Filter by Brazilians who grew up playing games on the Master System.
- Insistent Terminology: Similar to the NES, the Master System, at least in North America and Europe, had its own names for the system, the cards, and the cartridges. The system itself is the "Power Base", the cartridges are "Mega Cartridges", and the cards, as previously mentioned are "My Cards" in Japan, and "Sega Cards" in North America and Europe; something the box art for most games will remind you of. They'll usually say "The Mega Cartridge" or "The Sega Card" under the game's name, although a few games didn't do this.note
- Moe Anthropomorphism: There is a Sega Hard Girls representative for the console. She is very well-liked in Brazil and the rest of South America, referencing the console's own popularity in that continent.
- Older Than They Think: While commonly associated with the Sonic the Hedgehog games for the later Sega Genesis, the Sega jingle, which had been used in Japan since the SG-1000 (in the commercials), made its North American debut here, albeit in electronic form. It plays whenever the system is turned on, once "MASTER SYSTEM" appears.
- Product Facelift: The Sega Master System II considerably slimmed down the console into a minuscule size. All versions of the latter came with in a built-in game of some kind, be it Alex Kidd in Miracle World or the 8-bit Sonic the Hedgehog. This version lacked the card slot and was incompatible with both the Sega Cards and the Sega Scope 3-D interface adapter. Though since no new card game had been made in over two years and very few people owned the 3-D glasses peripheral, this was a relatively slight loss.