The Master System remains a gorgeous console with a messy library. Its glossy black finish and sleek design beat the NES’ dull, gray VCR box into the ground, and the console’s sharp graphics were much richer than anything the NES produced. Despite these two positives, the lack of third-party support meant Sega had to pick up all the slack. And there was a lot of slack. Sega published and developed over 95% of the console’s library between 1985 and 1989. No one company should have to keep their system alive like that. While Sega did the best they could, some average-to-bad games naturally fell through the cracks.
That being said, amidst the Action Fighters, Thunder Blades, and “Great Sports” line were some genuinely good games. My UK associate Sam and I already covered our top 10 Master System games from 1985-1989 on Episode 34 of the SegaDoes podcast. Rather than roll through our favorites again ad nauseum, I’d like to highlight some personal favorites that don’t get discussed as often. These are the better-than-average games that lent the Master System some much needed flavor in the first half of its lifespan. They are…
THE TOP 10 UNDERRATED MASTER SYSTEM GAMES, 1985-1989
Gangster Town is Chicago during the Prohibition era. Bullet-riddled car chases, speakeasy shootouts, lots of blood, too much booze, and rescuing the occasional dame. From the initial car chase to the climactic Harbor shootout, Gangster Town‘s pace is unrelenting, and the Master System holds it all together with a silky smooth framerate. This Light Phaser timepiece might just be the best light gun game ever made for an 8-bit console.
Penguin Land is as magical as its moniker suggests. You guide a penguin down through 50 caverns with an egg by your side. The caverns are filled with polar bears, moving platforms, and large drops. The penguin has no weapon, but he can break through blocks of ice to gently guide the egg downwards. Reach the bottom with your egg and you move on to the next cavern. Break the egg and Penguin Land will be closed indefinitely. Nobody likes spoiled yolks.
Adventure Island might have the inimitable Master Higgins and Wonder Boy DNA, but Wonder Boy is the original jungle gangsta. The slippery platforming, dangerous skateboarding, and aggressive tomahawk throwing are brilliantly executed and a joy to play some three decades later. Just stay away from the grotesque SG-1000 version and the unnecessary Game Gear port.
From the review: “Megumi Rescue takes the grim, depressing work of firefighting and turns it into a happy, colorful romp, filled with cat rescues, helicopter rides, and chipper music.” Buildings are on fire and you and your firefighter buddies have to save both people and the building from ultimate destruction. Unfortunately, both Megumi Rescue and the Paddle Control needed to play the game are Japan-only. Emulate with caution.
ANCIENT Ys VANISHED OMENS
Forget about the complicated nightmare that is the Ys series and enjoy the long, grinding road that is the first Ys on the Master System. Upon first glance, Ys resembles any other ancient late 80s JRPG, but try and fight a few enemies and you may notice a lack of turn-based, menu-driven combat. To fight your enemies, you run into them with your main character. Also, your health replenishes automatically. Also, the soundtrack is gorgeous. There are better RPGs on the Master System, but Ys is still pretty alright.
WONDER BOY IN MONSTER LAND
Wonder Boy loses his native threads and dons a suit of armor in this surprising action/adventure sequel. Wonder Boy in Monster Land eschews the frantic pace of the original for an experience closer to Zelda II. You’ll still hop and bop over platforms, but Monster Land is for exploring, not skateboarding. Monster Land is indeed a mature experience. By the time the game’s finished, you’ll be a Wonder Man.
SpellCaster is one of Sega’s “we don’t know what to do with this source material” manga-to-game adaptations (see also: Sukeban Deka, Tensai Bakabon). There’s side-scrolling action, light RPG elements, bits of adventure. None of these genres are fleshed-out to perfection, but their interweaving is both unusual and amusing enough to see you through to the end. Plus, the main character is a Buddhist monk who’s 1/3 the reincarnation of Satan. Can’t make this stuff up.
Shanghai looks like a confusing mahjong variant, but it’s actually just solitaire with mahjong tiles. There’s 144 tiles, all arranged in a Dragon Formation. You clear matching pairs of tiles, one at a time, until all the tiles are cleared. The only caveat: the tiles must not be touching other tiles on their side or on their top. This might sound like just another afternoon with Grandma, but Shanghai‘s exotic flair distinguishes it from your standard Bicycle deck fling.
SOLOMON NO KAGI
The Master System version of Solomon’s Key is another Japanese exclusive, but if you can find a way to play this port, please do so. You control Dana the wizard through fifty brain-melting, block-building levels. Dana creates blocks to navigate around the level to retrieve the key to unlock the door to move to the next level, and so on. He’s not the strongest wizard, but beneath that floppy hat lies a brain the size of a watermelon.
Basketball Nightmare‘s busted gameplay and monster teams are worth the price of admission. Fair warning: this is not a good basketball game. Sometimes the AI sucks, sometimes they’ll clobber you. Sometimes you suck, sometimes you’ll get three-pointer after three-pointer. Each game’s outcome seems to be based on luck, not skill. But when you want to play a broken game of basketball against old witches, Basketball Nightmare is pretty much your only option.