The first half of the 1980’s, in Europe at least, most people played videogames on their home computers. Â This started to change when the first truly popular games consoles started to emerge from Japan. Â Whilst Nintendo ruled in the US with their Nintendo Entertainment System (NES – or Famicom as it was called in Japan) in Europe it was Sega who ruled the roost initially with their Master System, launched in the US in 1986, and in Europe the following year. Â It did appear in Japan before this, but under the name Sega Mark III.
The Master System was an odd looking beastie. Â Made of shiny black plastic that sloped up at the sides, it had a cartridge port on the top and a card slot on the front. Â Two rectangular joypads, each with a D-Pad and two buttons, could be connected. Â The card slot was used for a handful of games releases but most came on chunky black cartridges which slotted in the top of the machine.
The Master System was built around a Z80A CPU, a processor from the same family as that used in the Sinclair Spectrum. Â It could display 32 colours on screen from a palette of just 64, and had just 8K of RAM, with a further 16K devoted to the screen display. Â However, the cartridges could provide extra RAM if required, and far greater amounts of ROM which were used to store the game code, graphics and sound data.
Unusually for a cartridge based games console, the Master System even came with a built in game, initially Alex Kidd in Miracle World, a platform game in the same vein as Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. Â In later years this game was changed to the instantly recognisable Sonic the Hedgehog. Â Both these games were typical of the sort of game you could expect to play on the system, as the console was capable of doing smooth scrolling and displaying many game images (known as sprites).
There were some additional peripherals made available, but as with most add-ons for consoles weren’t very popular due to cost and lack of game support. Â There was the Light Phaser, a fairly standard light gun for use with shooting alley style games, and more interestingly the SegaScope 3D Glasses. Â There were only 8 games made to support these, although amongst them were Space Harrier and Out Run, two of Sega’s best known games. Â These glasses worked by stopping the light entering the lens of each eye alternately, whilst the game displayed slightly different images in sync with this. Â This tricked your brain into producing a 3D effect, much like that obtained when using those red and green 3D glasses sometimes used in comic books.
By the end of the 1980’s the machine had been overtaken technologically by Sega’s new machine, the Mega Drive (or Genesis as it was known in the US). Â Sega still managed to squeeze some more life out of the Master System though, by shrinking it down and bolting on a colour LCD screen to produce a hand held version of the system called the Game Gear. Â Indeed, it was clear how similar the hardware was as you could buy an adapter that allowed you to plug in Master System cartridges to play portably! Â It was also possible to convert the Game Gear into a television thanks to a TV Tuner add on.