Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Top 50 Sega Master System Games of All-Time (Part One: #050-#041)

Part one of a special five-part series exploring the best Sega's 8-bit home console had to offer!

By: Jimbo X

HEY! Looking for the series in its entirety? You can check out all of the installments in the countdown in the links below:
PART ONE (#010 - #001)
PART TWO (#020 - #011)
PART THREE (#030 - #021)
PART FOUR (#040 - #031)
PART FIVE (#050 - #041)

A lot of people, to this day, tend to overlook the Sega Master System. Considering the NES outsold it like, 250-to-1 in the North American market, though, it’s certainly understandable — however unfortunate.

While Sega’s Genesis forebear didn’t get anywhere close to realizing the lofty heights of its 16-bit older brother, that’s not to say the SMS was devoid of quality 8-bit titles. In fact, the Master System had a ton of solid-to-very-good-to-downright-excellent titles in its library, which is usually lost in the shuffle because a.) relatively few people in the States ever played that many games on the console to begin with and b.) most of the really good, top-tier SMS games never made it to the U.S., and we’re only released in Europe and Japan. Thankfully, the advent of emulation has broken the 30-year-old regional divide, and now all of us can play the breadth of the SMS library anytime we want … if not fit the whole dadgum software pantheon on a single 2GB thumb-drive.

Having spent about a year or two playing every single game released on the SMS, I decided to take it upon myself to drum up a list of the top 50 games to ever make an appearance on the Master System. If this sounds like something we’ve done before, it’s probably because we’ve been doing this shit every year since 2012, covering everything from the Dreamcast, the Sega CD and the Game Gear to the TG-16, the Neo-Geo and the Atari freakin’ Lynx. So yeah, the same old song and dance applies here, I suppose. But before we get to the list itself, a few housekeeping notes:

Rule numero uno: only officially licensed game released in the U.S., Europe and Japan were eligible for consideration. So that means no homebrews or those weird-ass TecToy ports from Brazil were included in the running.

Rule numero dos: when applicable, all of the games included on the countdown are the U.S. versions of the games. And if it’s a game that was only released in Europe or Japan, I vouched for the European iteration of the game over its Nippon counterpart.

Rule numero tres: only games that were completed and went to retail are eligible, so no unreleased games or tech demos were eligible neither.

Rule numero cuatro: and lastly, as a subjective countdown, your list is sure to differ and you’ll probably disagree with the bulk of my selections. So if you’re mad that I didn’t put enough Alex Kidd games on this thing, feel free to create your own top 50 list and make it more entertaining to read than mine. And if that’s something you’re unable to do, well, I reckon I just plain don’t give a shit what you think, homey.

Alright, with all of those pleasantries out of the way, who's ready to get this list rollin'? That’s right … literally everybody on the planet, ever.

Zillion (1987)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega

Part Impossible Mission, part Metroid and part Rolling Thunder, the somewhat clunkily title Zillion (I hear it’s based on an anime or something) is a game that offers rudimentary (but still fairly satisfying) action-platforming. On a console glutted with super-linear genre offerings, Zillion stands out with both its exploration-based gameplay and incorporation of puzzle elements. Granted, it’s not a terribly challenging game and the backdrops do tend to get repetitive, but overall it’s a perfectly decent, no-frills blast-fest that requires a little bit more grey matter than its contemporaries. The graphics and sound are really nothing special, but the controls are great and, at about two hours in length, it serves up a little more meat than most action titles on the SMS.

Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
Developer: Ancient
Publisher: Sega

By no means a perfect adaptation of the 16-bit juggernaut, this scaled-back SMS hand-me-down is nonetheless a pretty good “port” of the Genesis system-seller. The graphics (especially the sprites) are really good, and the music isn’t too shabby, either. The controls are considerably slippier than they are on the Genny, but that’s pretty much to be expected, I suppose. Indeed, it doesn’t really become a nuisance until you get to the underwater stage, which is about as much fun as getting a tonsillectomy. Speaking of levels, there’s only a handful included and they do seem to get a tad repetitive. And considering you can beat this one in less than an hour, whatever you do, don’t expect to get too much replay value out of this one.

Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin (1991)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega

Considering the hardware limitations, this is really impressive title that shears surprisingly little from its Sega Genesis big brother. Alas, despite doing a great job technically of imitating the 16-bit game, Spidey takes quite a few lumps in some other categories, most significantly when it comes to the controls. Web-slinging, in particular, is a lot harder in this one, and — although it should go without saying — the levels are nowhere near as large or as much fun to explore. Still, despite the unexpected downgrade in visuals and presentation, it’s still a fun action-platformer with a ton of nostalgia appeal … although said nostalgia appeal does take a hit when you’re having to wrestle with the control pad to simply move the character from point A to point B.

Blade Eagle 3-D (1988)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega

You know, I’ve always thought that was a really dumb title — every time I look at it, I automatically read it as Bald Eagle 3-D, which honestly, is a much better name for a video game. Even without those snazzy 3D glasses, though, this is still a fairly fun rail shooter from the early days of the Master System, although the core gameplay is a little bit too formulaic for the normies and far too easy for hardcore genre fans. The graphics and sound are pretty underwhelming, but at least the stages are pretty diverse, which is something you couldn’t often say about the bulk of SHMUPs on the Genesis, let alone the SMS. It’s an absurdly short experience (even mediocre players can beat the whole thing in 30 minutes), but it’s nonetheless an entertaining, no-thought-required, instant gratification arcade blast-a-thon while it lasts.

Cloud Master (1989)
Developer: Opera House
Publisher: Sega

Now this is a weird one. As the name implies, in this colorful shoot-em-up players control Mike Chen, a Chinese kid riding what appears to be a cumulus who is tasked with blasting the ever-loving crap out of everything that moves, including such oddball enemies as sentient cups of noodles, giant roosters and bipedal tigers carrying what appear to be grilling lids capable of producing energy projection blasts. The sprites look tremendous and the gameplay is fast and furious; alas, there’s not a whole lot of challenge, unfortunately, and despite the detailed, pastel scenery, the overall layout of each level doesn’t seem to change that much from stage to stage. Still, it’s a fun ride for the most part, even if most gamers will easily chew through this one in less than an hour.

Double Dragon (1988)
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Sega

It’s not as good as the NES version (one of the few arcade ports of the 8-bit era that actually outclasses its coin-munching inspiration, by the way), but this is still a beat-em-up worth going out of your way to experience. Long story short, this is a far more visceral game than the Nintendo incarnation, with a combat engine that feels exponentially more hard-hitting. The sprites are more pastel than in the NES game, and the characters feature slight redesigns from what players on the Nintendo are used to — I don’t want to use the term “chibi-style,” per se, but it’s certainly more cartoony-looking than that other 8-bit iteration of the game. On the whole, I’d say the audio in this one is a pretty big downgrade from the NES iteration, as are the animations; furthermore the controls here are considerably slippier, with the jumping mechanics WAY wonkier than they are on the Nintendo. Still, it’s a game worth going out of your way to experience, if only to feel the sheer brutality of its virtual fisticuffing.

Running Battle (1992)
Developer: Opera House
Publisher: Sega

Part Ninja Gaiden, part Kickmaster and part Project: Vice, this action-sidescroller feels like about half a dozen different NES standards pureed in a blender; and, needless to say, the end result is definitely a fun and frothy frappe. Yeah, the graphics haven’t exactly aged well, and the music is absolute hot trash, but on the plus side the controls are really good and the combat feels silky smooth. Furthermore, it actually packs a pretty hefty challenge, complete with some of the most (enjoyably) difficult boss fights you’ll find in any Master System sidescroller. Of course, its insanely short length — a meager half hour — definitely hurts it in the replay department, but for a one-and-done affair, you could certainly find worse cartridges yo squander your freetime on. Oh, and if you Yanks are wondering why you’ve never heard of this one before, it’s because it was only released WAY late into the SMS lifespan — 1992 — and only in Europe.

Putt & Putter (1992)
Developer: SIMS
Publisher: Sega

It’s no secret that the Game Gear was largely an avenue for Sega to recycle old Master System games, but here’s a rare example of the inverse. This European-only release is a slightly churched-up port of the game of the same name that was released on the GG back in ‘91, and while the lack of graphical or aural upgrades might miff a few folks, you really can’t complain about the gameplay contained herein. Essentially a physics-driven mini-golf simulator, the controls in this one feel remarkably intuitive, and although there’s only about 18 or so courses, it’s such a hoot messing around with the various tables that it’s unlikely you’ll want to churn through this one only once. Yes, it is a shameless, bare bones port, but when the core experience is so much fun, who has the time to bitch and bellyache?

Rastan (1989)
Developer: Taito
Publisher: Taito

The greatest unauthorized Conan The Barbarian game not called The Legendary Axe, this port of Taito’s arcade favorite is a very well-done offering with solid controls, satisfying gameplay and (mostly) impressive animations. Yes, the music and the graphics aren’t the best the system has to offer, and the level design does tend to get a little formulaic heading down the stretch, but overall Rastan is an enjoyable hack-a-thon with lite exploration themes and some very, very challenging boss battles … which, really, dangle on the verge of being aggravating. And as an added bonus, they even managed to throw in some hilariously mangled Engrish at you in the game’s concluding cutscene as a final “reward!”

Slap Shot (1990)
Developer: SIMS
Publisher: Sega

OK, so NHL ‘94 this game may not be. Hell, it’s not even a Blades of Steel, for that matter, or maybe even an Ice Hockey. Still, this is a much better arcade sports game than you’d probably imagine, with tight controls, super fast action and even a teeny, tiny bit of wiggle room to employ actual strategy every now and then. It’s by no means a perfect game — the goaltending, in particular, is pretty ho-hum — and the audiovisuals leave a lot to be desired. Even so, the on-ice mechanics are still quite fun, and it’s not like there’s a surfeit of quality, two-player sports games to be found on the Master System as it is. Oh, and two more things — the fighting in this game positively rules and unless I am sadly mistaken, this remains the only video game ever made that allows players to pit the national ice hockey team of North Korea up against the one from that NHL factory powerhouse … Australia?

Kudos my hero, leaving all the best ...


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