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Inside the success and failure of SEGA’s contradictory console

SEGA’s Master System occupies a peculiar corner in gaming’s past, existing both as an iconic touchpoint of retro gaming – and as something of an underdog eclipsed by the machines that came before and after it.

That sounds more than a little contradictory, and it is. By any conventional count the Master System was a success, selling an estimated 10-to-13 million units worldwide while doing significant work in defining gaming’s journey into mainstream culture.

Part of the third generation of consoles that also included Nintendo’s NES and the Atari 7800, the 8-bit machine was a champion of a movement that saw home gaming begin to more meaningfully decouple itself from the conventions and influence of arcade, while finally leaving behind the badlands of the 1970s that saw dozens of highly similar consoles compete for attention. Put another way, the Master System was part of the generation that established a fundamental ecosystem that still essentially frames games as a medium, industry and popular pursuit to this day.

And yet SEGA’s console never quite enjoyed the popularity that it hoped for, and sometimes felt like it existed in a perpetual state of back footedness with regard to technical muscle and software library. And looking at the broader retro gaming scene today, the Master System enjoys a good deal less attention than many other consoles from the past.

The NES, for example, dwarves the Master Systems’ sales achievement with very close to 62 million global sales. More than that, Nintendo’s iconic machine remains part of the tapestry of the contemporary landscape of popular culture. In 2021 there are lavish NES LEGO sets available at great cost, and NES t-shirts sold in very mainstream high street fashion stores that predominantly serve youngsters too youthful to have been around when the original console was cutting edge. The product design masterpiece that was the NES controller continues to be a common motif across a dizzying range of merchandise, fashion and foodstuffs, almost competing with the presence of the Space Invader. The NES itself, ultimately, transcended gaming to become a true and lasting cultural phenomenon.

The Master System’s own follow up, the Mega Drive – or Genesis in the US – may not quite rival the impact of the NES, but it too has left a considerable legacy, shifting around three times as many units as its forebearer, and continuing to be celebrated as one of the most significant games consoles ever delivered.

So why did the Master System live that double life, particularly in the US, where just 2 million units were shifted over the six or so years following its release? It comes down to a few factors, but most have a connection with Nintendo’s snowballing dominance of the home gaming market as the third console generation gathered pace. Ultimately, the Master System was born as part of a series of rapid attempts to update older hardware to compete with the NES.

When Nintendo first released the NES in Japan as the Famicom on July 15th, 1983, SEGA also launched a new machine that very same day – its first home console, the SG-1000. For a brief period the SG-1000 outperformed the Famicom, thanks to a product recall on the latter, which also carried a more limited early game library. Soon though, Nintendo’s offering began to gain momentum, delivering a more capable, welcoming option backed by bigger name ports and follow ups from the realm of the arcade.

As Nintendo began to build an increasing roster of exclusivity deals with numerous publishers and development studios, SEGA was focussed on revising the SG-1000 hardware in an effort to compete with the Famicom’s physical functionality, mass appeal and internal specs. The SG-1000 II came just a year after the original, before the machine was revised once more as the SEGA Mark III, available in 1985 and effectively presenting the earliest example of the Master System. The following year, the Master System proper launched in the US as a reworked Mark III, making it to Europe and back to Japan in 1987.

That somewhat eccentric schedule gave Nintendo an effective five-year lead in establishing itself as the dominant force of the third generation, and in the US in particular, the Master System got left in the dust – largely thanks to having its software library stifled by all those exclusivity deals secured by its greatest rival. In Europe things fared a little better, where a greater range and diversity of titles came out. Equally, the Master System thrived in Brazil, in no small part thanks to a complete absence by Nintendo in the country until 1993, and an abundance of SEGA titles specific to the local region.

But by the mid-1990s, Master System had all but wound down internationally. As an interesting aside on that point, the machine has never really ceased production in Brazil – sort of. There its distributor Tectoy followed up the machine with various official revised, plug-and-play and compact variants, later models of which remain available new to-date.

That somewhat covers the Master System’s struggle through the third-generation and into the fourth. Which in turn explains why it might have less presence within retro gaming today. But there’s something else. Something that saw the Master System’s greatest achievement celebrated under another name – the Mega Drive.

The Master System’s intricate development history over the course of several home gaming platforms gave SEGA’s teams a great many lessons in building hardware for the living room, porting arcade titles meaningfully, and building console games from scratch. It went on to become the foundation for the Game Game from a hardware perspective, and ultimately guided the design and creation of the Mega Drive.

The Mega Drive proved a plucky rival to Nintendo’s own fourth generation endeavour, the SNES, and played home to many of the most celebrated and treasured games of all time. It marked SEGA’s true arrival as a home gaming company, and let the outfit begin to throw heavyweight punches as marketeers concocted the ‘console wars’ narrative in an effort to sell ever more units.

Today the Mega Drive has joined Nintendo’s classic consoles in standing as a very relevant part of contemporary popular culture. Many of those that worked on games for the machine developed their craft and went on to contribute to establishing the modern industry. There’s little doubt modern game production conventions have a little of the Mega Drive’s DNA within, and it’s success and impact in the past can be felt through the entirety of games and more besides today.

It turns out, then, that the Master System’s true legacy is that of the Mega Drive. And that is a remarkable gift to leave gaming.

If you'd like to find out more about the Master System, check-out SEGA® Master System: a visual compendium, which pays tribute to the amazing pixel art, product design and graphic design associated with this seminal 8-bit system. The book is officially licensed by SEGA and is the first of its kind to be released for the Master System.