Sega master system

Master System
Manufacturer Sega
Type Video game console
Generation Third generation
Release date
Retail availability 1986-1998
Introductory price $200.00[4]
Units sold Worldwide: 10-14.8 million[5][6]
Japan: 1 million (as of 1986)[7]
United States: 2 million[8] (as of 1993)[9]
Western Europe: 6.8 million (estimated as of December 1993)[10]
Brazil: 5 million (as of 2012)[11]
Media ROM cartridge
Storage capacity Sega Card
Memory 64 kbits (8 KB)[12][13]
Display NTSC / PAL based on the TMS9918 video chip
Sound Texas Instruments SN76489
Yamaha YM2413
Controller input 2 controller ports[14][14]
1 expansion slot[14]
Best-selling game Alex Kidd in Miracle World[15]
Predecessor Sega Mark III
Successor Sega Genesis

The Master System (マスターシステム Masutā Shisutemu?), often called the Sega Master System (セガ・マスターシステム Sega Masutā Shisutemu?) or SMS, is a third-generation video game console that was manufactured by Sega. It is a redesign of the Sega Mark III released in 1986 in North America, 1987 in Europe (and later in Japan with an FM synthesizer) and 1989 in Brazil.

The Master System could play both cartridges and the credit card-sized "Sega Cards," which retailed for cheaper prices than cartridges but had lower storage capacity. The Master System also featured accessories such as a light gun and 3D glasses which were designed to work with a range of specially coded games.

The Master System was released as a direct competitor to the Nintendo Entertainment System in the third videogame generation in North America. The Master System was technically superior to the NES, which predated its release by nine months in North America,[16] but failed to overturn Nintendo's significant market share advantage in Japan and North America.[17]

In the European, Brazilian and Oceanic markets, this console allowed Sega to outsell Nintendo, due to its wider availability. It enjoyed over a decade of life in those territories[18] and was supported in Europe up until 1996.[19] Up until 1994, it was the console with the largest active installed user base in Western Europe, peaking at 6.25 million units in 1993.[10][20]

The console was redesigned several times both for marketing purposes and to add features, most notably in Brazil by Tectoy. The later Game Gear is effectively a hand-held Master System, with a few enhancements.[18]

In 2009, the Master System was named the 20th best video game console of all time (out of 25) by the video gaming website IGN, behind both its competitors, the Atari 7800 (ranked 17th best) and the Nintendo Entertainment System (1st). They cited the Master System's small games library, coupled with the highly uneven quality of the few games that were released: "Months could go by between major releases and that made a dud on the Master System feel even more painful."[21]


North America

The Mark III was redesigned by Hideki Sato for release in other markets. This was mainly a cosmetic revamp and the internal components of the console remained largely the same, although the cartridge port on the Master System has a different pinout than the Mark III and games cannot be exchanged between the two without an adapter.

It was released in the United States in June 1986 now branded as the Master System, hitting the market less than a year after the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was first test-marketed and pre-dating the re-branded Japanese release. The console sold for $200.

By 1988, Nintendo commanded 83% of the North American video game market share.[22] Sega did not want to risk challenging Nintendo directly and instead contracted Tonka to market the Master System in North America. However, as a toy manufacturer, Tonka had no experience or knowledge of electronic games and their marketing skills proved extremely poor.[23] Unlike Nintendo, Sega did not allow third-party developers until Mediagenic in late summer 1988, so the Sega library grew much more slowly than Nintendo's; Computer Gaming World compared new Sega titles to "drops of water in the desert".[24] One of Nintendo's policies was that its third-party licensees could not release any video game on competing consoles. Mediagenic and Parker Brothers were the only two third-party companies publishing for the Master System in North America, but both companies withdrew their support in 1989 and neither company had released more than five video game titles for the platform.

In 1989, Sega was preparing to release the new 16-bit Sega Genesis in North America. Displeased with Tonka, Sega took over marketing duties itself. It designed the Master System II, a low-cost Master System that lacked several of the original's features (including the card slot). In an effort to counter Nintendo's Super Mario Bros., the new system included Alex Kidd in Miracle World playable without any cartridges; hence replacing the built-in Snail Maze and Hang-On/Safari Hunt of the original system. Sega marketed the Master System II heavily; nevertheless, the unit sold poorly in North America, especially since it had already been superseded by the Genesis. In 1991, Nintendo was found guilty of violating United States antitrust law and forced to abandon some of its licensing practices, but the Master System had already been eclipsed long ago with no signs of ever recovering. By early 1992, the Master System's sales were virtually nonexistent in North America and production ceased. The Master System had sold 2 million units in the United States.[9]

The last licensed release in the United States was Sonic the Hedgehog, released by Sega on October 25, 1991. Some European games were released in Canada for some time after.[25]


In sharp contrast to its performance in Japan and North America, the Master System was very successful in PAL regions such as Europe and Oceania. Sega marketed this console in many European/Oceanic countries, including several in which Nintendo did not sell its consoles. Part of the success can be attributed to a Nintendo being in a similar situation in these regions to Sega's North American situation. Their PAL version of the Nintendo Entertainment System was branded, manufactured and marketed by Mattel (the company more famous for making Barbie), which gave Sega an unexpected advantage. Although Mattel had previously made the Intellivision, their enthusiasm for another companies product proved to be sorely lacking, especially in comparison to Sega's enthusiasm for its own product, resulting in Nintendo being unhappy with the situation and taking a more direct approach with the Gameboy.

The Master System enjoyed strong third party support in the continent, including from American video game publishers that had not released titles for the platform in North America. It had some success in Germany, where it was distributed by Ariolasoft beginning in winter 1987. In France, the console was distributed in 1987 by Mastertronic France, from September 1988 until September 1991 by Virgin Loisirs, and then from September 1991 onwards by Sega France.

In the United Kingdom, it was distributed by Mastertronic (which later merged with the Virgin Group), and in Italy it was distributed by Giochi Preziosi. In its first years it overshadowed the Nintendo Entertainment System but wasn't as successful as the Atari ST and Amiga 500 Personal Computers, which were mostly used as gaming machines. The NES only gained a good market share in these territories later in its lifespan, after the release of the Sega Mega Drive, and after Nintendo began to break away from its unsuccessful business deal with Mattel. The console was produced far longer in Europe than in Japan and North America. It was eventually a major success in Europe, where it outsold the NES by a considerable margin.[10][20] Because of the success in Europe, Sega decided to open its Sega Europe division.

As in North America, Sega launched the redesigned Master System II in 1990. This system included Alex Kidd in Miracle World, and later Sonic the Hedgehog, as a built-in game. This version of the system was a major success in Oceanic countries like Australia.

As late as 1993, the Master System's active installed user base in Western Europe was 6.25 million units, larger than that of the Sega Mega Drive's 5.73 million base that year.[10] The Master System thus accounted for nearly half of the active installed base for consoles in Western Europe in 1993 (13.51 million), and combined with the Mega Drive, Sega represented the majority of the console user base in Western Europe that year.[20] The Master System's largest markets in the region were France and the United Kingdom, which had active user bases of 1.6 million and 1.35 million, respectively, in 1993. The combined total for the peak active user bases in all Western European markets (600,000 for Belgium in 1991, 400,000 for Italy in 1992, and 5.8 million combined for the other markets in 1993) add up to 6.8 million units in Western Europe between 1991 and 1993.[10]

The last licensed release in Europe was The Smurfs: Travel the World, released by Infogrames in 1996. Its successor, the Mega Drive, was also successful in the PAL regions, and was supported up until this time as well. The handheld console, Sega Game Gear was quite successful also, despite being strongly outsold by Gameboy. It had a cheap portable TV attachment(when dedicated portable TVs were somewhat rare and expensive), was compatible with the Master System A/C adaptor and also has a converter that made it compatible with Master System games. However, all three were discontinued so that Sega could concentrate on the Sega Saturn.[26]


In 1987 a redesigned version of the Sega Mark III, using the "Master System" name, was released and featured the addition of a built-in Yamaha YM2413 FM sound chip, a rapid fire unit and 3-D glasses; all of which had been separate accessories for the Mark III. As with the Mark III, the Master System was also backwards compatible with SG-1000 games.

Neither variant posed a serious challenge to Nintendo.[7]

The last licensed title in Japan for this system as well was Bomber Raid.


Brazil was the most successful market for the Master System. Tectoy, Sega's distributor in Brazil, was responsible for marketing, sales and producing games for the domestic market. Both the Master System I and II have slight differences in the external appearance of the console, but are still extremely similar to the Master System outside of Brazil.

At least five versions of the console were released between 1989 to 1995 and several games had been translated into Portuguese. Phantasy Star was the first game completely translated to Brazilian Portuguese. Brazil also produced many original games, like Sítio do Picapau Amarelo (based on the children's book series), Castelo Rá-Tim-Bum (based on TV Cultura series) and TV Colosso (based on Rede Globo series). Tectoy also retooled games to resemble Brazilian comic book characters, like Wonder Boy in Monster Land, which became Mônica no Castelo do Dragão.

By 1996, Tec Toy had sold 2 million Master System and Mega Drive units.[27] In Brazil, the Master System had a larger install base than the Mega Drive and outsold later consoles up until the 2000s.[28] By 2012, the Master System had sold 5 million units in Brazil.[11]

In 2002, Tectoy, motivated by the success of the Master System in the Brazilian market, decided to continue producing more games. By the end of the 1990s, there were well over 70 Brazilian variants of the original Master System games. The system was re-released again by changing the color of the console to a white hue. A number of games were exclusively released in the Brazilian market for the Master System.[29] Later, Game Gear games were ported to the Master System and several original Brazilian titles were made for the system. Tec Toy also produced a licensed version of the fighting game Street Fighter II for Master System, only available in Brazil. The console production was familiar to Brazilians, which explains the success in that market.

One of the more notable Master System consoles in Brazil was the cordless Master System Compact developed by Tectoy. The console transmits the A/V signal through RF, dispensing cable connections. It was produced from 1994 to 1997 and is still a target for console collectors. A similar version, called Master System Girl, was also released in an attempt to attract female consumers. The only difference in this version is a strong pink casing and pastel buttons. In 2009, Master System Evolution (a new version) was released in Brazil, a successor to the Master System 3, including 132 built-in games.

Technical specifications

  • The Master System's CPU is an 8-bit Zilog Z80.[30] The maximum addressable memory is 64 kB.
  • Graphics: VDP (Video Display Processor) derived from Texas Instruments TMS9918A
    • Up to 32 simultaneous colors available (one 16-color palette for sprites or background, an additional 16-color palette for background only) from a palette of 64 (can also show 64 simultaneous colors using programming tricks)
    • Screen resolutions 256×192 and 256×224. PAL/SECAM also supports 256×240
    • 8×8 pixel characters, max 463 (due to VRAM space limitation)
    • 8×8 or 8×16 pixel sprites, max 64
    • Horizontal, vertical, and partial screen scrolling
  • Sound (PSG): Texas Instruments SN76489 (note that the Master System, Game Gear, and Mega Drive used a slightly altered clone of the newer SN76489A, while the older SG-series used the original SN76489)
    • 4 channel mono sound (3 square wave, 10-octave tone generators plus 1 variable-period white noise generator)
  • Sound (FM): Yamaha YM2413
    • Mono FM synthesis
    • Switchable between 9 tone channels or 6 tone channels + 5 percussion channels
    • Included as a built-in "accessory" with the Japanese Master System (1987)
    • Supported by certain games only
Onboard RAM
  • Boot ROM: 64 kbit (8 KB) to 2048 kbit (256 KB), depending on built-in game
  • Main RAM: 64 kbit (8 KB), can be supplemented by game cartridges
  • Video RAM: 128 kbit (16 KB)
  • Game Card slot (not available in the Master System II)
  • Game Cartridge slot (not included on newer Brazilian models, as these have built-in games)
    • Japanese and South Korean consoles used 44-pin cartridges, the same shape as SG-1000 cartridges
    • All other consoles use 50-pin cartridges[31] with a wider shape
    • The difference in cartridge style is a form of regional lockout
  • Expansion slot
    • Unused, pinout compatible with 50-pin cartridges (but opposite gender) in all regions
  • Width: 365 mm
  • Depth: 170 mm
  • Height: 69 mm:[32]

Media input

One of the most unusual features of the Master System is its dual media inputs: one cartridge slot and one card slot. The card slot accepted small cards about the size of a credit card, much like the later TurboGrafx-16.

The cards and cartridges both serve the purpose of holding software. However, the cartridges had a much higher capacity, while the cards were much smaller (holding a maximum of 32k). Sega used the cards for budget games, priced lower than the typical game.

Almost all cards are games, but the 3-D glasses card served an entirely different purpose. The 3-D glasses plug into the console via the card slot, and allow 3-D visual effects for specially designed cartridge games. In this fashion, both media inputs worked in tandem.

The card slot was removed in the redesigned Master System II, providing support for only cartridges. This helped to reduce the cost of manufacturing the console since the cards were unpopular and few card-based games were made. Most of the card games were later re-released as cartridges.

A floppy disk drive add-on for the original Master System was developed but was never released.


Game controllers

  • Controller 3: 2 buttons, hole for screw-in thumb stick
  • Controller 4: 6 buttons, very similar to the Mega Drive's 6 button pad; released in Brazil only.
  • Control Stick: 2 buttons and a stick similar to a gear stick, but on the right side and the buttons are on the left side.
  • Light Phaser: Light gun, not compatible with Mega Drive light gun games.
  • Sega Remote Control System: remote controller
  • Sega Sports Pad: trackball controller
  • Sega Handle Controller: (Steering Wheel controller for driving-/airplane games)
  • SG Commander: a standard controller with built-in rapid fire.

Standard controllers

The Master System controller has only 2 buttons, one of which additionally performs the function of the traditional "Start" button; the pause button is on the game console itself. The original controllers, like Sega's previous systems, has the cord emerging from the side; in 1987 the design was changed to the now-typical top emerging cord. Some controllers also include a screw-in thumb stick for the D-pad.

The controller uses the prevailing de facto standard Atari-style 9-pin connector and can be connected without modification to all other machines compatible with that standard, including the Atari 2600, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum with Kempston Interface or similar.

When Street Fighter II was released (in Brazil only), a new six-button controller similar to the Mega Drive/Genesis controller was also released. The current Brazilian Master System consoles come with two six-button controllers.

The later Mega Drive controllers generally work fine on the Master System, with buttons B and C corresponding to 1 and 2 respectively and the other buttons not doing anything. A few Master System games, such as Alien Syndrome will not function properly with these controllers unless a modification is performed on the Mega Drive controller,[33] even on a Mega Drive equipped with a Power Base Converter.

Light Phaser

The Light Phaser was a light gun created for the Master System, modeled after the Zillion gun from the Japanese anime series of the same name. The phaser was heavier than its Nintendo counterpart, the Nintendo Zapper, but considered by some to have a more responsive trigger and more accurate targeting. As with the Japanese-market Nintendo Zapper, the Light Phaser looked realistic enough to warrant parental pressure to alter the device so that police would not confuse it with a real gun. Altered Light Phasers are distinguished by a hand-painted neon orange tip and are much rarer than their solid color counterparts. Tectoy also released a blue Light Phaser in Brazil.

For the Master System there were a lot of games in development that specifically can be played with the Light Phaser, among others the following:[34]

  1. Marksman Shooting
  2. Trap Shooting
  3. Safari Hunt
  4. Shooting Gallery
  5. Gangster Town
  6. Missile Defense 3-D
  7. Rescue Mission
  8. Rambo III
  9. Wanted
  10. Operation: Wolf
  11. Assault City
  12. Laser Ghost
  13. Space Gun

There are two versions of Assault City; the other version can also be played with a gamepad.[35]

Computer Gaming World approved of the Light Phaser and its games, stating that they took videogame shooting "to undreamed-of height. Each entertainment offers a unique variation on marksmanship with state-of-the-art sound and visuals".[36]

SegaScope 3-D Glasses

The LCD shutter glasses rapidly alternate between the left and right lenses being opaque, used in tandem with two different alternating images flashed from the TV synchronized with the switching of the 3-D Glasses to create a natural stereoscopic 3D effect. The Master System glasses can only be used in the original Master System, since it hooks up directly to the card port not found in the Master System II. This system allows 3-D graphics in full color. The technology takes advantage of the interlaced video output of contemporary CRT televisions, displaying the left image in the top field and the right image in the bottom field. A similar unit was produced for the Nintendo Famicom, called the Famicom 3D System. Only eight Master System games are 3-D compatible.

  • Blade Eagle 3-D
  • Line of Fire (hold buttons 1 and 2 while switching the system on for 3-D mode)
  • Maze Hunter 3-D
  • Missile Defense 3-D (also requires the Light Phaser gun)
  • OutRun 3-D (playable in 2-D via the console pause button)
  • Poseidon Wars 3-D (can also be played in 2-D mode without glasses)
  • Space Harrier 3-D (can also be played in 2-D mode without glasses by entering THREE as your initials on the high score screen)
  • Zaxxon 3-D (playable in 2-D via the console pause button)

With the use of the Power Base Converter, all peripherals are fully compatible with the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis).

Remote Control System

The remoteler is a joypad with a built infrared system and a receiver for the signals. Manufactured by WKK Industries, it is not an official product from Sega and was distributed only in small quantities.


During its lifespan, the Master System was built in several variations.

Sega Mark III

The Sega Mark III was built similarly to the SG-1000 II, with the addition of improved video hardware and an increased amount of RAM.

The system was backwards compatible with earlier SG-1000 titles. As well as the standard cartridge slot, it had a built-in slot, formerly known as expansion slot for Sega My Cards, which were physically identical to the cards for the Sega SG-1000 "Card Catcher" add-on. While in Japan there were many titles in this format published for both the SG-1000 and Mark III, only a few were published in the West.

Master System game cartridges released outside Japan had a different shape and pin configuration from the Japanese Master System/Mark III cartridges. This may be seen as a form of regional lockout.

Master System II

In 1990, Sega was having success in North America with its Sega Genesis and as a result took back the rights from Tonka for the Master System. It designed the Master System II, a low-cost Master System that lacked the reset button, expansion port (which was never used), and card slot of the original. Since the card slot was used as a connector to synchronize the 3D glasses with the original Master System, the Master System II couldn't use the 3D glasses.

Master System III

A newer variant of the Master System II was released by Sega's Brazilian distributor Tectoy. Named the Master System III in Brazil this new version is mostly identical to the previous Master System II builds, except that the color scheme was changed from the traditional dark color scheme predominantly Black/Grey from the older releases, to a lighter blue and white scheme, the Master System control pads were replaced with the Mega Drive 6-button pads, and now the console has 74 or 105 built-in games.[37][38]

Master System 3

The "Master System 3" was a completely different unit to the "Master System III". The "3" had a brand new modern black design, with details in blue. Even with the visual changes, it was not renamed, save switching the roman number in the name to a decimal number. Although outwardly similar to the Master System II, the Master System 3 featured internal changes that allowed it to handle cartridges up to 8 megabits (1024 kilobytes) in size.

The Master System 3 came with 131 games built in, including games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Alex Kidd and Golden Axe.

Master System Evolution

The latest version, released in 2009 by Tectoy, is the "Master System Evolution", as a successor to "Master System 3". It is a "console on a chip", a similar design to its antecessor but with 1 more game, a total of 132 built-in Sega Master System games. It ships with two six button controllers and two different colors of the console exist.


The Master System was re-released in a smaller handheld form factor in late 2006. This small handheld device is powered by 3 AAA batteries, has a brighter active matrix screen, and contained 20 Game Gear and Master System games. It was released under several brands including Coleco[39] and PlayPal.[40]

Several games were also re-released via the Wii's Virtual Console service.

Game Gear

Main article: Game Gear

Sega's third generation system layout was also used in the portable Game Gear, which was based on the technology found in the Master System, and released at about the same time as the Master System II, with a matching casing style. Due to its architectural similarity to the Game Gear, software companies were easily able to make versions of their games for both the Master System and Game Gear. In fact, many Game Gear titles that were released in North America and Japan, were released alongside Master System versions of those games in Europe.


The Mark III was backwards compatible with earlier SG-1000 titles. As well as the standard cartridge slot, it had a built-in slot, formerly known as expansion slot for Sega My Cards, which were physically identical to the cards for the Sega SG-1000 "Card Catcher" add-on.

The Mega Drive is backward compatible with the Master System, despite having a differently shaped cartridge slot. Sega developed a pass-through device for the Mega Drive, allowing Master System cartridges to be played on the newer system. It was called the Power Base Converter in the US, the Mega Adapter in Japan and the Master System Converter in Europe. The somewhat large device plugs into the Mega Drive's cartridge slot, covering the entire circular top of the system. Master System cartridges and cards can then be inserted into the device and played on the Mega Drive using Mega Drive controllers. Due to its size and shape, the converter will not fit properly with the Mega Drive II, necessitating the use of the Europe-only Master System Converter II, or a third-party converter cartridge.


On the original release of the Master System, a hidden game known as Snail Maze is built in the console, which was a number of labyrinth puzzles with a time limit. This game can be accessed from the system BIOS by starting the system without a game cartridge inserted and holding Up and buttons 1 and 2 simultaneously.[41]

Astro Warrior is integrated into one version of the console (the Sega Base System, which was slightly less expensive and lacked the Light Phaser). Hang-On and Safari Hunt are also integrated into another version of the console. Additionally, the original North American release of the console (which included the built-in Snail Maze) came bundled with a cartridge containing both Hang On and Safari Hunt. Some versions only had Hang-On built in. Alex Kidd in Miracle World is integrated into Master System II consoles in North America, Australia and Europe. Sonic the Hedgehog is integrated into newer PAL Master System II consoles. It was later ported to the Game Gear.

A marketing agreement between Sega and the producers of the anime Zillion resulted in a game based on the anime series in which the protagonists use a pistol which is nearly identical to the Light Phaser, including the cable.

A number of Master System games are available for download on Nintendo's Wii Virtual Console in North America, PAL territories and Japan. The first game released for this service was Fist of the North Star, on February 26, 2008, and later, Fantasy Zone, released on March 11. Both were released in Japan, at a standard cost of 500 Wii Points (though Fist of the North Star costs 600 points, due to the game's source license). In North America, Wonder Boy was the first Master System game released for the service on March 31, 2008.[42] Fantasy Zone was also announced, but its release date was on April 14, 2008.[43] In Europe, both Fantasy Zone and Wonder Boy were released on the same day.[44] The option to switch to FM audio, for the handful of games that used it, is available for all regions.[45]

See also

Sega portal


External links

  • DMOZ
  • Sega of Japan) (in Japanese)
  • Sega Master System at SegaFans
  • Master System Museum
  • Master System Console Database
  • SMS Power - Unreleased games discussion/exhibition.
  1. REDIRECT Template:Video game consoles