The Sega Master System (SMS) was released in 1986 to compete with the explosively successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). It had been known as the Mark III in Japan where it had been introduced a year and a half earlier. The SMS initially retailed for $200 and like the NES, featured a pack-in game cartridge (Hang On/Safari Hunt) and a light gun. In its first four months of release, Sega sold 125,000 units in North America.
The SMS is unique to other systems in that it featured ports for two different types of media. It is capable of reading programming from both a game cartridge and a card about the size of a driver's license. A cartridge is able to hold 1048K bits of game code, the card 256K. The card was cheaper to manufacture and retailed for about $5 less than the cartridge. Seven SMS games were released on the card, the best include: Spy vs. Spy and Trans-Bot
Another feature that was unique to the SMS at the time was upon the activation of the power switch, the word "Sega" slid across the screen with its own theme song. If no software is inserted after the music ends a screen with operating instructions appears.
In 1987, Sega introduced the SegaScope 3-D glasses for the SMS. The glasses are attached to a game card by a chord. The card inserts into the slot on the console. Inside the lenses, high-speed LCD shutters open and close over opposite eyes in synchronization. This rapid flickering produces the illusion of a three-dimensional image on-screen.
Sega's 3D glasses drew a positive response from critics. Unlike 3D accessories for other systems, the SegaScope glasses are comfortable and can be worn for hours of play without a headache. Eight 3D games were released for the Master System, they include: Missile Defense 3-D, Zaxxon 3-D and Maze Hunter 3-D.
The Sega Light Phaser was another peripheral released for the Master System. It was a black futuristic-looking pistol that plugged directly into the joystick port. Seven games were released for the Phaser, the best include: Safari Hunt and Rescue Mission
Since its introduction to the American market Sega found itself caught in a continuous uphill battle against Nintendo. Even though the SMS arrived just a few months later than the NES, most of the major third party software developers were already tied up by Nintendo for exclusive game licensing rights. Companies that were designing games for the NES contractually could not do likewise for any rival platform. Because of this, the number of titles available for the SMS were always limited.
In August 1987, Tonka, a toy manufacturer, purchased the American distribution rights to the SMS. Sega's belief was that because of their name and reputation, Tonka would be able to get the SMS on more American store shelves. With the product more readily available, the SMS could compete more equally with the NES. Sega of America reacquired the rights from Tonka in 1990 after three years of only modest U.S. sales.
In Europe and Australia the Sega Master System thrived. Third party developers were not bound by any Nintendo exclusivity agreements and supported the SMS with diverse, high-quality games. American third party supporters of the SMS include: Activision (Rampage) and Parker Brothers (Montezuma's Revenge).
In 1990, one year after they had released the 16-bit Genesis system, Sega introduced the Sega Master System II -- a smaller, sleeker version of the original. The premise behind its release was to downscale several features on the SMS to make the console affordable to more consumers. Features not included on the Master System II were: a card port, power light, reset button, expansion port and logo or music upon activation of the system. Though the Master System II was more affordable, it was doomed by the lack of third party software support and all but disappeared from the American market by 1992.
Over 100 American titles were released for the Sega Master System.
The best games for the SMS include: Y's: The Vanished Omens, Phantasy Star, Wonderboy III: The Dragon's Trap, Golden Axe Warrior, Rampage and R-Type. ~ Dave Beuscher, All Game Guide