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Growing Up Gaming - Part 2

Last time on Growing Up Gaming I wrote about my first home computer, the Sinclair Spectrum 128K +3. In this part, I shall write about two revisions of SEGA's 8-bit console, the Master System.


One day, my middle brother came back from a friend's house with this. The Master System I, a cartridge and card taking console with controllers (as opposed to the joysticks we'd been used to with the Sinclair Spectrum) and a selection of games. I have never seen a card-based game in the UK, but in Japan they were used for budget games, the cards only having up to 32kb of storage space.

The Master System box art designer sure loved grids.

As he was the one borrowing it, I simply sat back and watched him try out each game cartridge. The main one I can recall him playing was Space Harrier. And it was awesome! The Speccy had nothing on the running/flying shooter. He played that for hours, getting better and better with each retry, and further and further into the game.

One memory sticks out above all others for Space Harrier. The power cable was a little temperamental on that Master System. A slight knock or shift of the cable would cut the power. As I came bounding into his room to see how he was doing, my toe caught the cable running from socket to system, and the screen went to static snow.


Never had I, or have I since, heard him scream so loud. I bolted from his room the fastest I could to find somewhere to hide from his wrath.

Still, that taste of console gaming was enough for him. That Christmas he got the Master System II, a revision of the original hardware with a game built in, and control pads that had the cable coming out of the top, instead of the side.


Alex Kidd in Miracle World was the in-built game, SEGA's first challenger to Mario before they settled on a different mascot. Alex Kidd was a colourful game, with varied action and catchy music. It was also rather difficult. While I still enjoy the game now, playing rock-paper-scissors to defeat bosses has to be my least favourite method of battling ever.


Having a game built into the system was a neat idea, though in later hardware revisions Alex Kidd was replaced by a game featuring SEGA's new mascot.

There was a record shop in one of the nearby towns that also had games, so in the days after Christmas we went there to pick up some second hand games. They were arranged on a wall, with price grades from A to E, the A grades being the most expensive. We would come to visit that record shop many times in the following years, buying all sorts of titles for the Master System we shared.


A lot of the games we played were SEGA staples. Afterburner, Outrun, Vampire: Master of Darkness (the system's answer to Castlevania), Golden Axe, GP Rider, Hang-On and G-LOC: Air Battle. It being in my brothers' room, there were also an abundance of sports titles, mainly football, but with the odd American football game there too.

And then there was Sonic, the character that usurped Alex Kidd. Sonic the Hedgehog got an 8-bit release, with music by the great Yuzo Koshiro. That was the genesis for a franchise that I love today despite its ups and downs. It was faster than any game I had played to that point. When the character almost goes off screen as they're going so fast? That blew my mind.


The 8-bit Sonic games would be the titles I played most on the Master System. Following Sonic the Hedgehog was Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and Sonic Chaos (called Sonic and Tails in Japan) after that providing hours of amusement and frustration. While the first Sonic game was similar to its 16-bit brother, Sonic 2 departed quickly from that, having you ride mine carts and hang gliders, as well as float in giant bubbles. Sonic Chaos was the first game to feature Tails with usable flight, he wouldn't get that in the 16-bit series until Sonic 3.

Sonic the Hedgehog would be the first console game I played in colour, and after seeing it in monochrome for so long it was something special to behold.


I should take a moment to explain some that. It was the early 90's, so while we had a colour TV (with Teletext!) in the lounge and a smaller colour TV in the sitting room, upstairs was the domain of black and white units. Being able to bring a console downstairs to play on the TV was a big thing. Mum was always worried that somehow it might mess it up even though the Spectrum never did. The Master System's graphics were so smooth, detailed and vibrant compared to the Speccy's.

Some of you may be wondering why I haven't mentioned the NES at all. The truth is, the NES was rare in the UK and the rest of Europe. Out of everyone I knew as a kid, only one person had a NES. That was due to Nintendo's partnership with Mattel for European distribution, which they weren't very enthusiastic about. The Master System was massive in the UK, everyone had one it seemed. The same went for the Mega Drive. In my neck of the woods, Nintendo wasn't really associated with consoles until the N64. The Game Boy was their cash cow.


So while the system wasn't popular in America or Japan (where it was known as the SEGA Mark III, following on from their earlier SG-1000 console and its Mark II revision), it did very well in Europe, being supported up until 1996. And in Brazil? Well, TecToy still makes Master System revisions to this day, and it even got a port of Street Fighter II. That's a success story for another time.

There are games that I later came to enjoy on the console through the wonders of emulation, such as both Fantasy Zone games, the 8-bit epic RPG Phantasy Star, and one of the games I mentioned earlier that just saw a 3DS VC release, Vampire: Master of Darkness (albeit in its Game Gear form). Various Master System titles got a Wii Virtual Console release, so if you're thinking of checking some out, that may be a good place to start.


As for the system itself? It was more reliable than the Spectrum, and it loaded so fast compared to it. The control pad wasn't the greatest, having issues such as no dedicated pause button (with the Master System I having the pause button on the actual console) but it's definitely an overlooked and under-appreciated system. The sound was better on the SEGA Mark III, due to it containing an FM Synth chip, the Yamaha YM2413. Phantasy Star is one of the titles that benefits from that chip.

The console certainly stuck around the household for a while. I was still playing it on occasion in 1998, even after getting the SEGA Saturn. Like many of our earlier consoles and computers though, it eventually went to a charity shop to be sold on. I recently came across a boxed one for £39.99 in the window of a second-hand shop, and I was tempted by it, if only for a fleeting moment. I hope whoever got our old system got some enjoyment out of it. We certainly did.


The Master System would pave the way for the Mega Drive, but next time I'll be covering Commodore's 8-bit juggernaut, the Commodore 64. A tape-loading, cartridge-taking, BASIC-using bread box that contained audio gold inside it: the MOS Technologies 6851 Sound Interface Device (SID) chip, something that would become a big part of the European demo and chiptune scenes.

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