Nintendo struck some gold when it decided to go ahead and produce that Mini NES. Whoever would have thought that simple, cute, official plug-and-play console that actually played nice with modern TVs would be a hit? Madness!
Meanwhile, Sega went and let a company that apparently didn’t care as much for overall emulation and presentation quality make a Mega Drive that was notably less impressive. Also, mock-Mega Drive consoles and game re-releases are a dime a dozen.
What is far less common is love for Sega’s previous console, the Master System. The growing influence of the web has left it often as a footnote, as most American writers skipped it. Granted, plenty of Aussies did as well, but it was notably more successful than it was in NTSC territories – I grew up with a Master System 2 that my brother and I bought with Christmas money when I was eight. I knew other people with the console. Occasionally we swapped games to expand our libraries.
The end result? Too many years later, I’m able to write a fantasy list for what I would put in a mini Master System – starting with a very personal top ten and then working down randomly, with frightfully little research. This is about passion, man.
Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse
The Master System suffered from sharing its lifetime with the Mega Drive, and ended up having the poor person’s version of numerous games as a result. That said, you could make a sensible argument that the Master System version of Castle of Illusion bests the Mega Drive one. It doesn’t look as good (and let it be known that the Mega Drive version looks incredible), but it’s a tighter, perhaps more puzzle-driven platformer with a much more steady difficulty curve.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Apparently the Sonic purists aren’t really into the Master System version of Sonic 2, but, well, some Sonic fans are certifiably crazy at this point - you can even find people who defend that 360 game - so, yeah, let’s still include Sonic 2. Actually released slightly ahead of the Mega Drive main event, the Master System Sonic 2 was a completely different beast - different stages, different music, even different sound effects. Just don’t be scared to use a guide to find where the chaos emerald is hidden in Sky High Zone, and you should find it because you need them all to access Crystal Egg Zone, the game’s final stage, which is some kind of pink crystal Dr. Robotnik pleasure palace populated by flying fish. Yeeeeah.
Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap
The first Wonder Boy, if we’re being honest here, wasn’t really that good. But the franchise grew into something else entirely, replete with confusing numbering and naming systems. If you only ever play one, though, then make sure it’s The Dragon’s Trap (and since this plug-and-play Master System is entirely fictional, be sure to keep an eye on the excellent-looking remake). It’s a true adventure that goes far beyond the simple platforming that a small child might expect based on the box art. Frankly, it’s still an excellent game, although it’s also the most compelling argument for having an emulation box including a built in save system. Those passwords were absolute madness.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World
The game originally built into the Sega Master System 2 before the last run of the machines apparently went and included Sonic instead, Alex Kidd is regrettably most remembered for people mistakenly calling it Alex the Kid. Get past that and you’ll discover an opening stage that has you punching dragons in the face as you descend a rocky cliff-side before eventually tumbling into the ocean, wherein it seamlessly transitions into a swimming session. You’ll soon enough be riding bikes and gyrocopters and shooting boomerangs from your fist and playing too much paper-scissors-stone and really this game is just great.
An initial disappointment to eight-year-old me, Penguin Land isn’t a fast paced action-platformer. Rather, it is a puzzle game about eggs. Well, about one egg. Let this be a lesson in actually reading the three-sentence blurb on the back of the box.
That said, once initial biases over what games were supposed to be melted away, I found Penguin Land to be my first gaming love of the more thoughtful kind. Each stage involves a blue penguin trying to safely lower its egg without it falling too far, getting eaten by polar bears, or even squashed by its own butt. There’s actually a lot of content here, and it holds up pretty well.
Where exactly is Europa? We’re not sure, but apparently this one was more sensibly titled Outrun Europe during actual development. In any case, this is probably the least Outrun-like game with Outrun in the title. Forks in the road exist, but they’re more about you making the right choice than a choice. See, you’re a special agent or something in this one, and you’re chasing thieves or something, and so you start on a motorcycle, slamming into and punching dudes before graduating to a speedboat wherein shooting becomes more favourable. And then somebody will just happen to leave the keys in a Porsche in Spain or somewhere. How fortunate!
Apparently this was re-titled as a Rambo game in the US. Or maybe they didn’t want to pay for the license over here - whatever the story, I’m glad this one is called what it is because my mother probably would have fired it into space had it said Rambo on the box. Secret Command is a very simple and straightforward top-down shooter, and this is why it’s so good. It’s a very raw, pure offering: just advance and shoot dudes. Oh, and it’s two-player. Should probably point that out. It’s barely worth playing if you don’t have a friend handy.
As with a few games on this list, California Games isn’t exclusive to the Master System. But damn if this version isn’t one of the standouts. Not that I would know - I mostly just figured out how to game the half pipe so that I could spam the one trick and win every time. Mind you, I would end up bristling as my brother would inevitably beat me at the surfing. And the BMX. And the roller skating (mostly). And the foot bag and SERIOUSLY, WHO TAKES THE TIME TO ACTUALLY MASTER THE FOOT BAG!? I take it all back. This game can burn in a garbage fire.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Well, okay… fine. I still maintain that the Master System’s take on Sonic 2 was more interesting, generally more entertaining, and had a cooler soundtrack. By comparison, this game lifted some stages from the Mega Drive, was a little less entertaining, and I could swear that the stage music for Bridge Zone is responsible for a late 90’s Janet Jackson song.
Still, it was an accomplished effort, and it actually had bonus stages, which its sequel lacked. They were just for rings and lives, however - the emeralds themselves were hidden in the actual stages. And flinging from a ramp in its rendition of Green Hill Zone so quickly that you literally skipped half the stage was pretty cool.
I bought this game because Asterix was kind of popular at my school (even though I don’t think I had finished reading a single one of the comics at the time) and because I liked the cover - I mean, it showed actual gameplay! This was basically unheard of, and coupled with the simple cartoon art layered on top, it has aged far better than most box artwork from the era.
It is perhaps dumb luck that the game also turned out to be great. Although the advertised two-player functionality was, as with many Master System games, a case of taking turns, at least Asterix and his portly but powerful friend Obelix were palpably different characters to play as. Other Asterix games followed on the Master System, but none of those stand up as one of the best 8-bit platformers in the way that this one does.
Land of Illusion
Sequel to Castle of Illusion and also a very good game, some might argue better. They’d be wrong (but only a little bit wrong).
Alex Kidd in Shinobi World
Alex Kidd took a nosedive after Miracle World. This was the last of his games on the console, and a fortunate return to form.
Super Off Road
Somewhere in the realm of Micro Machines and Rock and Roll Racing, this wasn’t exclusive to the Master System, but was a great fit for the console.
The first game I ever wanted after looking at the back of the box that the Master System 2 came in. His punch looks oddly… suggestive, but the game is borderline synonymous with the console.
Wonder Boy in Monster Land
It took a total of two releases for Wonder Boy games to get confusing with numbers and sub-headers. This is the second one, and it’s a marked improvement on the first.
Wonder Boy in Monster World
And this is the fourth Wonder Boy game. Or maybe the fifth. It gets confusing. It’s actually a down-port of the Mega Drive game, and exclusive to PAL territories.
A strategy game on a console. A surprisingly playable one, and also easy to get to grips with to boot.
Over the course of its life, two of my Master System’s controllers had their d-pads come loose. I blame Sagia, a tough-as-nails scrolling shooter (at least for a 10-year-old) with branching paths, each one less epic than the first considering that you’re initially flying over the surface of the sun.
An arcade port that is absolutely nothing like the original and using the word port was probably a mistake, actually. A Pretty entertaining isometric motorcycle racing game.
The Lucky Dime Caper starring Donald Duck
An epic apocalyptic title about how somebody very rich entrusted a duck named Donald with tracking down the source of his riches. You accidently rescue some kids in the process.
Tecmo World Cup ‘93
Sensible Soccer stands up because of its stripped back Simplicity. Tecmo ‘93 gets points for every tackle being of the kind that should probably earn a red card.
Golden Axe Warrior
Very obviously Sega’s attempt at getting itself an early slice of Zelda pie. Not really much fun these days, but then the first Zelda isn’t either and people still go nuts over that.
In the spirit of Choplifter, you take the role of a rescue-copter that has a rope ladder so that it can rescue people. The ending brings the shocking revelation that there was actually a pilot inside.
The Master System’s answer to the likes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy was, in this case, actually pretty good. Tough enough to make Dark Souls weep, and still pretty good.
If you grew up with Alex Kidd, then you likely missed this one. The reason? It was built into the hardware of the first Master System, which kind of makes it a quintessential inclusion.
Although Sagia holds a firmer place in my heart, there’s no denying that the Master System port of R-Type was a very solid piece of work.
Another game that’s clearly not exclusive to the console, but the Master System is more like the arcade original than the NES one, for better or worse.
You could knock this one a bit for borrowing from The Legend of Zelda, but at least it’s not as shamelessly overt as Golden Axe Warrior.
It’s hard to get past how badly this game faceplants the light-footed ninja run animation that most people would now know from Naruto. Still, it’s a reasonably fun little side-scrolling action game.
Fantasy Zone 2
Surprisingly, although Fantasy Zone started life as an arcade game before getting ported to the Master System, Fantasy Zone 2 started life on the Master System and then found its way to the arcade.