We often refer to the 3rd generation of home video game consoles as the “8-bit era”, whose crowning jewel was the NES. It absolutely blew away other consoles of its time in terms of sales and popularity, putting Nintendo at the top of the food chain. However, few remember the Sega SG-1000 which was a direct rival to the NES.
It came in 3 different versions- the Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III that acted as iterative upgrades over the previous design. The SG-1000 Mark III was released in 1986 under the “Master System” label in American stores. How did they come up with this rebrand?
Believe it or not, Sega employees literally threw darts at a board of ideas and that’s how they came up with the moniker. Nintendo of America did a similar thing, calling its Famicom the NES. Clearly, Nintendo’s marketing and popularity were much higher since their console sold nearly 62 million units as opposed to just 13 million for the Master System.
However, a lot of this also had to do with Nintendo releasing 3 years earlier. The NES launched in 1983, while the Master System (SG-1000 Mark III) arrived in 1985. Plus, Nintendo had a stringent policy for its studios and publishers.
In order to release a game on the NES, they had to promise not to develop ports for any other console. This is one of the reasons the Master System suffered since it couldn’t get a hold of many huge publishers/ games that were present on the NES. Nevertheless, there are some excellent games in the Master System’s library.
Today, I shall take a look at the 40 best Master System games of all time that you must play. Some of these are retro games you might be familiar with, such as Double Dragon or Out Run. Many others are exclusive to the Master System.
This is a proper old-school JRPG, the one with dungeons so labyrinthian and maze-like that you need a piece of paper (or several) to plot out their interiors. There’s no hand-holding or minimap to keep you aware of your immediate location and nearby objects at all times. It feels like this game is a western CRPG with anime-themed art design and JRPG storytelling.
Perhaps that’s what makes Phantasy Star stand out from other JRPGs of its era. The gameplay is varied and never makes you stick around for too long with one location or enemy type. It also blends traditional sword and sorcery elements with science fiction to create a setting that’s both immersive and unique.
A 2D-scroller that blends platforming with elements of Japanese mythology in a way that’s fun and creative. Psycho Fox is about the story of a hero chosen by his people to rid their land of an evil demon. This villain is called Madfox, he has taken over the holy shrine and is terrorizing the once peaceful land with monsters.
Like any other platformer from the 8-bit era, you spend most of your time going from the left side of the screen to the right. In the middle, there are obstacles, traps, enemies, etc. Psycho Fox is equipped with a Shinto stick that lets him morph into various creatures, and each of these transformations will grant you a special power.
Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
Many people have compared Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to Castlevania, and it’s easy to see why. Both of these games were released within a few years of each other in the 1980s, and play as action platformers. You can equip different types of weapons in both games, and have to slog it through multiple levels filled with enemies until you reach a final boss.
In Castlevania the final boss is Dracula, in Ghouls ‘n Ghosts it’s Lucifer. He has taken the soul of your princess and you need to kill him in order to restore her back to life. There are 6 levels in total, but before you meet the final boss you must play through the first 5 levels a 2nd time (with a bonus weapon).
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
This isn’t the same Sonic 2 as the Genesis version and was developed by an entirely different team. Some also call this the 8-bit Sonic 2, and it has gameplay very similar to that of the first Sonic. Graphics and sprite quality have been improved compared to the first 8-bit Sonic game.
In terms of art and level design, both the 8-bit and 16-bit versions share many similarities. But there are also several original levels in this game that you won’t find in the Genesis version of Sonic 2. This version of Sonic 2 includes gliders and minecarts to move you quickly through each level, in addition to breakable walls and vertical loops.
Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa
It’s a shoot ‘em up with really weird levels and surrealistic enemies. Fantasy Zone has often been referred to as a “cute ‘em up” because of its colorful theme. Every stage is filled with flowers, grass, clouds, and rainbows.
And you pilot Opa-Opa, a sentient spaceship designed to take down anyone who causes unrest in the Fantasy Zone. Fantasy Zone II introduces warps, which are teleportation gates that let you travel between various zones. Each level contains multiple zones and a single boss that you face after clearing every zone.
This is a game many 90s and early 2000s kids enjoyed. Road Rash is simple, yet insanely addictive. Everything from the road and environment design to the music feels like it was crafted by people who put love and dedication into their work.
No, the graphics aren’t impressive- even for a game released in the early 90s. However, the rush of adrenaline you get by slipping past rivals on a high-speed turn is quite satisfying. Oh, and it’s called Road Rash because you can kick and knock rival racers off their bikes (which is another plus for an already amazing game).
Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic was originally designed for the 16-bit Genesis. However, Sega figured they needed something to keep their Master System owners happy. After all, the Master System had been released just 5 years prior (Sonic came out in 1991).
So they made an 8-bit version of Sonic the Hedgehog which featured the same gameplay and plot as the original. Visually, it’s a tier below the Genesis version. But thematically, this game is every bit as fast-paced and exciting as its more advanced cousin.
The NewZealand Story
Man, video game development in the 1980s was something else. People were picking names by throwing darts at a whiteboard and entire game concepts could be derived from holiday trips. In fact, that’s how this game was created- one of Taito’s developers vacationed in New Zealand and decided to make a game about the country.
You play as a Kiwi (of course, it’s New Zealand) called Tiki who has to rescue his friends from a leopard seal that has kidnapped them. Each platforming level is arranged like an intricated maze, with several hazards and traps designed to kill you. There are spikes, fireballs, etc. which you must avoid.
Tiki can use different kinds of weapons ranging from arrows to bombs and even lasers. You can also ride blimps and UFOs to get across specific sections of each level.
Ys: The Vanished Omen
An adventurer has just arrived in a little town, located within a giant kingdom filled with all sorts of wondrous mysteries. He was summoned by a fortune teller who informs him of an ancient evil that’s gradually infecting the land. There are 6 objects you must collect to learn about the history of this land and its powers.
These are the Books of Ys, and they will give you everything you need to combat your enemies. The map is explored from a top-down view, and there are several dungeons across each zone. The combat system is automated and depends on which direction you’re facing in.
Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap
A sequel to Wonder Boy in Monster Land, in which our titular hero takes on the Mecha dragon within its secret lair and gets cursed. The curse turns Wonder Boy into Lizard Man, and that’s who you control in this game. Your character can shoot fireballs at enemies and gain new powers by defeating bosses.
You’ll travel across the land looking for a “Salamander Cross” which can lift your curse. Along the way, you shall face several dragons and collect their powers. There are also treasures and utility items that can be found in chests.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World
A 2D platformer in which you play Alex Kidd- the hero with a powerful punch that can break through walls and knock down enemies of all sizes. Unlike Mario or Sonic where you collect coins just for points, in Alex Kidd, you can use this money to buy vehicles. Bikes, cars, copters, etc.
Your nemesis is Janken, a supervillain with several goons under his command. Some of these act as bosses, and you play rock-paper-scissors with them at the end of each stage.
Inspired by sci-fi space movies of the 1980s, R-Type is a game in which you pilot a spaceship through waves of alien enemies. At the end of each stage, you meet a boss who acts like a giant ship. R-Type is a game where your reaction speed and dexterity don’t matter nearly as much as the ability to memorize enemy attack patterns.
Your R-9 fighter can pick up orbs called “Force” which boost both offensive and defensive capabilities. There are a total of 8 levels, after which you fight against the final boss (it resembles a Xenomorph from the Alien movie). Your ship can fire cannons, lasers, and wave blasts.
This game is a simple 2D-scroller in which you fly a helicopter while trying to rescue prisoners trapped in enemy facilities. The plot seems to have been lifted from various cold-war era movies depicting the Vietnam and Korean conflicts. Delegates from the United Nations have been trapped by a fictional evil empire who are guarding them with tanks and gun emplacements.
Your helicopter was smuggled into the country under disguise. It’s equipped with all sorts of advanced weaponry designed to take tanks and fortified structures. Friendly fire is enabled, so don’t shoot up hostages while you’re firing at enemy vehicles.
Starting out as a light gun shooter in arcades, Operation Wolf made its way into home computers and consoles. The game is about sneaking into enemy territory and extracting 5 hostages, each of whom is held in a different location. In the NES version, you’d get a meeting with the President of the United States.
You’ll be complimented or excoriated depending on your performance (how many hostages you managed to rescue). There are a total of 6 stages, regardless of which version you’re playing- comms setup, jungle, village, ammo resupply, concentration camp, and airport evacuation. If you run out of ammo, you’ll get captured.
Shinobi is a side-scrolling action game in which you play a master ninja called Musashi. He’s trying to prevent criminals from kidnapping his clan’s children. Apart from the regular hack ‘n slash stuff with swords and ninja stars, you can also use special techniques called ninjutsu. Even though this game’s level design isn’t focused on platforming, your character can jump or crouch to reach otherwise inaccessible places.
You’ll go up against various types of enemies, the most common being regular punks. Then you’ve got enemy ninjas and mercenaries who’re a little tougher. Finally, there are Mongolian swordsmen who guard hostages.
Golden Axe Warrior
Death Adder is a tyrannical monster who invades villages and kills their people, enslaving the survivors. One day, he kills the parents of our hero and sets him on a path of vengeance. Your character will travel through 10 separate dungeons to collect crystals that once belonged to his kingdom’s royal family.
These crystals are vital to defeating Death Adder since they subdue his powers. Along your journey, you’ll learn various elemental spells belonging to the Thunder, Fire, Earth, and Water disciplines. In the end, you enter Death Adder’s lair where you find the Golden Axe and slay him.
Released extremely late into the Master System’s lifespan, Sonic Chaos is a 2D platformer featuring Sonic and his sidekick Tails (who was introduced in Sonic 2). You’re on a quest to retrieve the chaos emeralds from Dr. Robotnik. If you don’t get them back on time, you’ll endanger the entire world because the evil doctor plans to use these emeralds for his nuclear weapons.
Chaos was released on both the Game Gear and Master System. It’s designed from the ground up to be played on a handheld interface, and the first Sonic game to be made with these requirements. There are a total of 8 worlds, each comprised of 3 sublevels and a boss fight.
We’ve seen plenty of action platformers featuring ninjas, how about one where you play as a samurai instead? Kenseiden tells the story of Hayato, a samurai who specializes in killing demons and other evil spirits. It’s set in 16th century Japan, right during the Sengoku era.
For some reason, the Japanese version of this game features a blonde Hayato, which is weird for a feudal-era samurai warrior. Thankfully, the American version features a more realistic portrayal of the samurai warrior. The design of each level in this game is inspired by old Japanese provinces.
Land of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse
One of the most innovative platformer games ever created. Land of Illusion features Disney’s most popular character- Mickey Mouse, as its protagonist. It has some cool animated cutscenes that elevate it above the basic “bad guy kidnapped your girl” storyline found in most 8-bit platformers.
The game starts with Mickey falling asleep after reading a book of fairy tales. Later, he wakes up to the call of a girl who resembles Daisy Duck. She informs him of an evil spirit who has stolen a magical crystal and sucked out all happiness from her village.
Mickey then sets out on a quest to find this evil wizard and retrieve the magical crystal. He can throw objects at enemies or jump on them, Mario-style. You also get items that help you cross difficult areas (shrink drinks, ropes, bombs, etc.).
There are two playable characters in this game called Asterix and Obelix (it’s based on a comic book of the same name). Gameplay is similar to that of any other 2-D side scroller, except you don’t always have a boss fight at the end of levels. Sometimes, you just need to make it past the guards and traps to get a key that will open up the next level.
You go through a total of 8 zones, each divided into a number of sublevels. Every time you beat a boss, your max health increases by one heart (you start with 3).
Asterix is smaller in size and can fit places where Obelix can’t go. Obelix can punch walls to destroy them whereas Asterix needs to collect exploding potions that can be thrown at walls.
Space Harrier 3-D
Yes, this is a game enjoyed in 3D. But you need the SegaScope 3D glasses for that. These are quite hard to come by nowadays, and they use an active shutter system to simulate 3D effects.
Space Harrier 3D is one of the few Master System games designed with these glasses in mind. It’s a sequel to the first Space Harrier in which you control a hero with a jet backpack. You get a 3rd-person camera, and the entire show moves along on rails.
The Lucky Dime Caper Starring Donald Duck
Land of Illusion has Mickey Mouse, while The Lucky Dime Caper features Donald Duck as its protagonist. The game is similar to its predecessor- The Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse. Which is a 16-bit game that was released before Land of Illusion (the two aren’t connected).
In Castle of Illusion, Mickey couldn’t attack his enemies directly. But Donald can in The Lucky Dime Caper. He can hit foes with a hammer or throw disks at them.
Prince of Persia
One of the most beautiful platforming games ever created, Prince of Persia is well-known for its use of rotoscoping. It is a technique in which animators trace over frames of videos by hand to create motion that looks realistic and free-flowing. The game’s designer Jordan Mechner used video footage of his young brother performing various actions like running, swinging, etc. while wearing white robes.
Prince of Persia doesn’t feature an actual prince, but a warrior hero who fights his way through dungeons filled with enemies and traps. In the end, you’ll meet Jaffar who’s an evil vizier. He has kidnapped the Sultan’s daughter and is holding her captive.
Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine
A falling block puzzler based on Puyo Puyo. Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine features art design and characters from the 1993 animated Sonic TV series. The evil doctor has designed a machine to transform bean-like creatures who live on the planet of Mobius.
Beans of different colors fall from the top into your pit, and you have to align 4 of them next to each other. This will cause the beans to disappear.
If you cause a chain reaction, you are given special “refugee” beans that can be sent into your opponent’s pit. These refugee beans have no matching color except for other refugee beans.
You control the Opa-Opa, which is a sentient fighter aircraft designed to repel invading forces from the cheerful Fantasy Zone. This is a place filled with colorful creatures, joy, and happiness. The zone contains several planets, each functioning as a different stage within the game.
Once you destroy all enemy bases in a stage, you go up against the final boss. There is also a boss rush stage where you have to defeat previous bosses in quick succession. Your aircraft can fire its regular cannons or throw bombs.
An action strategy game that was originally released on arcades in 1988. The arcade version contains 40 levels, but the Master System and Genesis ports are equipped with 50 levels each. You control 3 characters at the start of the game, taking one at a time to hostage points scattered around the map.
These points contain hostages who must be escorted to the exit. If your character falls, they will be reincarnated as a hostage. Then you select another character from your party until you run out of characters (each playable character has unique weapons and attacks).
Hey, do you like tower defense games? Well, you can thank Rampart for establishing several key elements that are now essential to the genre. Rampart combined shoot ‘em up, strategy, and puzzle elements to create a unique formula that many developers attempted to copy in the subsequent decades.
Your goal is to defend a walled space that contains castles and other defensive emplacements (like guns). You are surrounded by oceans and will be attacked by enemy ships. If you successfully defend your base within the given time limit, you can execute the ship commander by walking him off a plank.
You play a super-spy, tasked with infiltrating enemy bases and hacking their computers. An evil professor has tampered with national security systems, using them to carry out his own nefarious world-domination plot. To stop him, you must enter his base and decrypt passwords to access his control room.
The professor will send robots armed with lasers to stop you. Each room contains movable platform sections hiding pieces of the password, and you have a time limit.
Master of Darkness
Sega wanted a game to compete with Nintendo’s hit action platformer, Castlevania. So they came up with their own vampire fantasy called Master of Darkness in which you control a hero trying to defeat Dracula. Vampire hunters and Dracula aren’t particularly original concepts, so this was a neat way for Sega to create a dark fantasy similar to Castlevania without infringing upon copyrights.
You play Dr. Ferdinand who’s an expert psychologist and tinkers with Ouija boards. The game takes place in Victorian England, with a series of murders being perpetrated by a serial killer. Jack the Ripper is doing all these killings to collect bodies for a sacrificial ritual that will resurrect Dracula.
Don’t confuse this game with Shinobi, even though both are side-scrolling action platformers featuring ninjas. It’s part of the series featuring protagonist Ryu Hayabusa which started on the NES. However, this game’s storyline isn’t connected with any of the older NES versions.
It was developed by Sega under license from Tecmo and retains gameplay elements from Nintendo Gaiden games. In this Ninja Gaiden, Ryu is trying to recover the powerful dragon scroll which was stolen by the Shogun of Darkness. Ryu will face various enemies, ranging from Yakuza to Sumo wrestlers.
Golvellius: Valley of Doom
Originally developed by Compile for the MSX home computer system, Golvellius was later upgraded by Sega who improved the graphics and added new dungeons. This upgraded version is called Valley of Doom, and it features the same plot as its predecessors. There is a tyrant called Golvellius who is terrorizing the people of a peaceful land.
Your hero is a knight called Kelesis who vows to destroy Golvellius and rescue princess Rena who is being held captive by him. Before you can get to Golvellius, you’ll have to defeat 7 of his henchmen who are all powerful demons. Along the journey, you’ll also find random caves filled with treasures.
Sega designed After Burner by taking inspiration from their previous arcade successes such as OutRun, Hang-On, and Space Harrier. It was initially coded to take advantage of the X-board arcade hardware which featured excellent sprite rotation and scaling capabilities. These functions allowed for pseudo-3D graphics (still 2D, but they just have a sense of depth you don’t get in traditional 2D games of that era).
In After Burner, you control an F-14 fighter jet operated by the US Navy. The game’s aesthetic and mission layout is clearly inspired by Top Gun, which is one of the reasons it became so popular in arcades. You fight enemy jet aircraft, using your autocannons and heat-seeking missiles to destroy them.
Ayrton Senna’s Super Monaco GP 2
Ayrton Senna is widely regarded among the motorsports and F1 community as one of the greatest drivers ever. He dominated the F1 scene, winning 3 driver championships in 1988, 1990, and 1991. And he became a bit of a household name with several appearances on TV shows.
Many games used Ayrton Senna’s feedback and advice to create detailed simulation-style environments. One of those is Super Monaco GP 2, for which Ayrton himself provided technical input. The tracks in this game don’t exist in real life, but they are designed based on Ayrton’s recommendations.
Special Criminal Investigation
This is a sequel to Chase H.Q. which I’ve reviewed later down the list (it’s number 40). In the last game you drove a Porsche 928, but this time you’re driving a Nissan 300ZX Turbo with a T-top. The car had been introduced just a few years before this game’s release and was praised for its combination of sporty performance with luxury features.
Tony and Raymond are also back from the first game, with their positions being switched. Now, Tony is the gunner while Raymond is the driver.
The Lion King
Based on the 1994 movie, The Lion King takes you through an interactive journey in which you play a young Simba. Starting out as a cub, you watch your father get betrayed by Scar who leaves him to die in a wildebeest stampede. Simba has a roar that can stun enemies, setting you up for a jump.
There are also puzzles and collectible items hidden between platforming sections. As you get bigger, new abilities like the claw scratch and maul are unlocked. Certain bonus stages let you play as Timon and Pumbaa.
A game based on the 1990 Gulf War; Desert Strike lets you play as the pilot of an Apache Gunship. In the game’s fictional narrative, there is a middle eastern dictator who threatens the United States with long-range missiles. You invade his bases and destroy weapon caches, tanks, aircraft, etc.
Unlike many other shooters of this era, Desert Strike places more emphasis on strategy rather than aim or reflexes. It’s shown from an isometric angle, and there are large levels that let you move around freely in any direction. During missions, you’re helped by a copilot who you can choose during the preparation phase.
One of the most underrated football games from the early 90s, Sensible Soccer still has an active community of fans to this day. This game was created by the developers of MicroProse Soccer, as a spiritual successor. While soccer games of that time featured a side camera or close view, Sensible Soccer pulls the camera further away and positions it at the top.
This lets you get a strategic view of the entire field which helps with positioning and planning. Some of the moves you can pull off in this game are unrealistic, but fun to execute.
If you like Road Rash, you’ll definitely want to check out this one. Hang-On is another Yu Suzuki masterpiece, and it’s based on Moto GP racing. The camera gives you a zoomed-out 3rd person view from behind the bike.
In the arcade version of this game, you actually had to lean and swerve in order to turn the bike. The 16-bit version of this game on Genesis uses sprite scaling techniques to achieve a pseudo-3D effect.
James Pond 2: Codename Robocod
Well, I wonder what this game is referencing with its name. Makes me think of a British super-spy who drives fast cars and defeats supervillains with his cool gadgets. And “Robocod” is a reference to Robocop- the cyborg super cop from Detroit.
This game is an action platformer in which you don’t get any weapons. Sounds weird, but James Pond can stretch himself like Mr. Fantastic to reach really high ceilings and platforms. Once you’re on a ceiling, you can drop upon unsuspecting enemies and knock them out immediately.
A game that’s inspired by Buddy Cop movies of the 1980s, such as Lethal Weapon. You’re playing Tony Gibson, a member of the special investigation department that looks into drugs and organized crime activities. As one part of a 2-man team, you’ll chase criminals in your Porsche 928 with your partner Raymond Broady who shoots enemies.
Both the SG-1000 and Famicom were released on the same day in Japan (July 15, 1983). Surprisingly, the SG-1000’s larger launch collection of games helped it pull ahead in sales for a bit. That was until Nintendo’s 1st-party exclusives built up steam.
Sega had nothing to compete with juggernauts such as Donkey Kong and Mario. That’s one of the lessons they learned and implemented with their successor to the Master System. Sonic was to the Genesis what Mario was to the NES/ SNES.
The SG-1000 Mark II featured detachable controllers instead of a hardwired joystick and accepted Sega My Card games. Then came the Mark III with a more advanced video processing chip and RAM. These upgrades were needed to compete with the NES which could display more colorful sprites and do smoother scrolling.
Sega’s SG-1000 Mark III served as the basis for their Master System. Its controller featured a more intuitive D-pad design compared to older SG-1000 versions. Despite the improved controller and GPU, this console struggled in sales due to Sega’s problems with 3rd-party developers.
They didn’t want to offer their console to the same rivals that they were competing with in arcades. Plus, Nintendo had already cornered a considerable chunk of the 3rd party studios who were signed to develop exclusives for the NES. Despite its shortcomings, the Master System (and SG-1000 series) help Sega learn about the home console business.
Eventually, they would release the Genesis which is arguably Sega’s most impressive console release ever. It was also the first time anyone dethroned Nintendo from its throne. Genesis vs SNES is the original console war, and this rivalry helped both companies make millions of dollars in sales.