Toys with buttons and silicon hearts
#1: Sega Master System
Being British, I could write forever about the Sega Master System. The rest of the world is either ignorant of, or apathetic to, the machine. The yanks were playing their “Any Esses”, whatever they are, and our friends in Japan were playing Hudson’s PC Engine or Nintendo’s Famicom.
However, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain (and the Federal Republic of Brazil) it was very popular. Maybe it’s because we were a nation of cheapskates. Maybe it’s because the machine came in awesome Uncle Clive black. Or maybe we are but the pawns of a higher being. Either way, rival machines from Nintendo and Amstrad fell by the wayside and “The Sega” found its way into our homes and hearts.
That’s what we all called it back then. “The Sega”. There was no reason not to; it was their first and only console. Unless you were Japanese, which you probably weren’t.
It was a neat little thing. The games were bright and colourful, it sounded great, and the controllers were futuristic and reasonably ergonomic (unlike Nintendo’s, which felt like someone had glued two Parma Violets onto a bit of two-by-four). The Mk.I even had a CARD slot which you could plug 3D GLASSES into! I saw that and literally thought I’d get a hovercar and silver jumpsuit for my next birthday.
The Mk.I was followed by the Master System II a few years later. The machine was redesigned; it was smaller and fatter, and had lost the card slot. Some might say it was a step backwards, but it had a cool sliding door on the front, and a huge “Pause” button – still located on the console itself, which made playing certain games a chore. It was also an irresistible target for little brothers and cousins, who would delight in slamming their fist down on the button at a critical moment in your game. It might as well have been painted as a bulls-eye.
The Mk.II is incredibly pervasive on the secondary market, owing to the fact it sold in such great numbers. This is a little odd considering the Sega Mega Drive was out at the time, but never let it be said the Brits won’t eschew a superior product in the name of saving a few pennies.
The Master System started out with a lot of arcade ports, but by the time of the Mk.II these had given way to 8-bit versions of popular Mega Drive games. My friend had a Mega Drive, and took much pleasure in reciting to me a litany of ways in which his machine was better than mine. The smug bastard may have been right, but there’s one game in particular that outshines its Mega Drive counterpart – Sonic the Hedgehog.
Let’s take a look at this game, and a few other Master System classics.
Sonic the Hedgehog
For many, the Mega Drive version of this game is the one, true Sonic that started it all. That may be so, but even if you see the MS version as a pretender to the throne, I’m here to tell you that it is undeniably the better game.
The visuals are bright and clear, the soundtrack more upbeat, and the gameplay a little more varied. They added a map screen – a cheeky little Robotnik would pop up and taunt you on every third act – and the Special Stage was an insane ride through a system of bumpers, springs and giant Twister lollies. You wanted to finish a Zone with fifty rings just to play it. Speaking of Zones, the Master System game had three exclusive levels (which Sega has steadfastly refused to acknowledge ever existed). These are:
Jungle Zone, a lush green jungle (duhhh!) with ramps made of vines that Sonic could roll down and deep water that could be traversed by rolling on a log. The soundtrack was bouncy and the level itself has a colour and texture that reminds me of the inside of a Dime bar. I had plenty of time to practice all the new swear words I was learning at school when falling off the waterfall for the millionth time.
Sky Base Zone. This was pretty extreme. The final Zone, it wiped the floor with the Mega Drive’s creatively-named “Final Zone” by refusing to just copy Scrap Brain and take Sonic to the skies… Where he was immediately electrocuted by lightning and blown apart by giant cannons. If you managed to complete this level and defeat Robotnik on your first try, Yuji Naka came to your house in a Sonic costume and personally spit on every Mega Drive owner in your neighbourhood.
Bridge Zone. Perhaps a little too much like Green Hill, naysayers would claim. I concede that (and only that!), but I can tell you that the music on this level will burn itself into your brain. I hear it all the time. In my happiest moments, through my despair and melancholy. When I get married, I will hear this song. It will drown out the squalling of my children, and manifest itself as a mental illness when I’m in a care home.
It also sounds very much like Janet Jackson’s Together Again. Coincidence? Yes. Yes it is.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World / Shinobi World
In the Before Times, a period when there was no Sonic, and Mario had never even said “mama mia!” (thanks, Charles Martinet), Sega’s mascot was Alex Kidd. He was a kid, by all appearances, and he wore a boxing glove which somehow enabled him to punch through solid rock without breaking his hand. Miracle World was a world of miracles, as its name suggests, and is indelibly embedded in the brains of a generation of gamers. It was the Sega fan’s version of Super Mario. But better. Mario couldn’t shoot fire, wear dungarees, or rescue the princess from the castle. Right?
Shinobi World brought Alex Kidd into the setting of Sega’s arcade hit Shinobi, and somehow managed to be a better game. Not much more can be said about it – if you’ve never played, or indeed, if you have played the “real” Shinobi, give this game a try. The moon has a smiley face, and Alex can turn into a whirling tornado of death to smite his enemies.
Is that politically correct? Can we say that…? There wasn’t really much ‘psycho’ about Psycho Fox, anyway. He was perfectly in control.
We Brits had to suffer through the PAL conversion of this game – it was like playing in a time warp. Clocks ran backwards, butterflies became caterpillars. But still we played. The game itself is a clone of a clone of a game released only in Japan, or something. If you’ve played Decap Attack or any of its ilk, you’ve played this.
However, Psycho Fox remains my favourite of the myriad versions. It’s so bright and colourful, you’ll burn the phosphor of the TV. That’s not a metaphor or anything, you actually will. I had to explain to my mum why there was this scorched, purple patch in the top left of Coronation Street.
Anyway, Psycho Fox can turn into many different animals (such as tigers, hippos and monkeys), just like a real fox. He can also punch enemies in the face, and hatch bird eggs to turn chicks into ballistic weapons. Again, just like a real fox.
I shall stop there, as much more information on Master System and its best games is available on the Interwebs. I just wanted to offer my humble opinion on one of my most treasured playthings. Why not share a gaming memory in the comments?
SPECIAL THANKS: Yuji Naka, Shinobu Hayashi, Yuzo Koshiro… And You.