Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Top 50 Sega Master System Games of All-Time (Part Four: #020-#011)

Part four of a special five-part series examining 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.

Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (1992)
Developer: Aspect
Publisher: Sega

Since this game dropped a couple of days before the Genesis iteration, technically, this game marks the first appearance of Tails in an interactive medium — just thought you autists would appreciate knowing that little tidbit of pointless trivia. Of course, this downgraded version of Sonic 2 is nowhere near as good as the timeless Genesis classic, but it’s certainly a MUCH better version of the game than the version released on the Game Gear. Not only does this one have better graphics and sound than the portable iteration, it also has SIGNIFICANTLY smoother controls and tighter gameplay; and even better, the in-game physics aren’t royally screwed, so you actually STAND a chance of getting past that dreadful robo-lobster boss that no doubt resulted in many a Game Gear launched against a wall back in the day …

Gain Ground (1991)
Developer: Sega AM1
Publisher: Sega

Part Gauntlet and part Galaga, Gain Ground is a pretty unique arcade title that probably should’ve gotten a little bit more appreciation and acknowledgement than it received back in the day. Technically a single-screen kill-em-up, it’s your job to dispatch a horde of enemies across 50 levels using damn near 20 different characters with a variety of special powers and attacks. It’s actually a surprisingly deep game, with a robust combat system that actually necessitates a little bit of cognitive skill (and not just lighting fast button presses) to advance to the next round. Throw in a great two-player mode — and even a few system-exclusive stages — and you have all the makings of an underrated gem well worth traveling off the beaten path to experience.

Alex Kidd: High-Tech World (1987)
Developer: Sega Am7
Publisher: Sega

Yes, the best Alex Kidd game on the SMS isn’t a pure platformer, but this weird, tongue-in-cheek adventure offering that plays more like Maniac Mansion than Super Mario. Granted, not all of the puzzles are all that engrossing (be warned, folks, this game includes at least one arithmetic quiz), but the weird, quirky humor and exploration-based gameplay certainly makes it stand out from the deluge of Super Mario wannabes on the system. In fact, the size and scope of High-Tech World almost makes it an 8-bit Shenmue, right down to the kooky characters you can chat with, all of the trinkets you can collect and even the occasional impromptu kung-fu battle. And for those of you that can’t stand the thought of commanding A. Kidd without some jumping, rest assured the game does have quite a number of more traditional platforming levels — and in my humblest of opinions, they’re among the best to be found on the Master System, to boot.

Rescue Mission (1988)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you what is far and away the best Light Phaser game to be found on the Sega Master System. Not only does this one stand head and shoulders above stuff like Rambo, I can’t think of a single light gun game on the NES that outdoes this one, and that includes Duck Hunt. Rather than give us yet another brain-dead blast-a-thon, Sega actually gave us a title that requires a little grey matter here, as the whole game revolves around you playing bullet-spittin’ protector of a medical convoy as it makes its way around the train tracks surrounding an unmitigated war zone. Of course, this being a Light Phaser game and all, that means ambushers galore are all over the screen, and it’s your duty to help clear the screen of any obstacles (be they breathing or otherwise) so the Red Cross can do their due diligence. With exquisitely laid out levels and some edge-of-your-seat firefights, this is definitely a gripping and engrossing little affair right here — it might not look like it, but this is definitely one of the more surprisingly addictive games to be found on the SMS.

R-Type (1988)
Developer: Compile
Publisher: Irem

Of course, this iteration is nowhere near as good as the arcade version (or the TG-16 port, for that matter), but it’s still a damned fantastic, 8-bit translation of the seminal space SHMUP. While the game isn’t devoid of flaws (whenever there’s a lot of action onscreen, it unfortunately tends to suffer from significant slowdown and flicker), on the whole there isn’t much to complain about here. The sprites look great, the animations are fantastic, the tempo is great, the controls are silky smooth and the core gameplay is undeniably satisfying. Some of the technical compromises are disappointing (all of the boss fights, for example, take place in front of static, uni-colored backdrops and some of the arcade effects, like the explosions, are omitted), but overall, this is a rock-solid genre offering that (mostly) gives you everything you could want out of an 8-bit shoot-em-up.

Batman Returns (1993)
Developer: Aspect
Publisher: Sega

Yes, Aspect made a Batman Returns title on the Game Gear, but this one is nothing like it — and trust me, that’s not just a good thing, it’s a great thing. This one plays a lot like the classic Sunsoft Batman on the NES, with a little bit of Bionic Commando thrown in for good measure. The stages are huge and well-designed, with ample opportunities to monkey around with all of the most beloved Bat-gadgets (the grappling hook, the Batarangs, so on and so forth.) The controls are very smooth and the animations are certainly above average, and unlike most action-platformers on the SMS, this one actually provides a pretty stiff degree of challenge without ever becoming too frustrating. The boss fights are a little bit of a letdown, but beyond that, this is a really solid sidescroller that’s worthy of at least one or two playthroughs.

Bomber Raid (1989)
Developer: Sanritsu
Publisher: Activision

Yep, it’s the sequel to Atari 2600 classic River Raid, and even on system glutted with top-quality SHMUPs, this stands out as one of the better genre offerings on the SMS. Eschewing that whole “I have to collect a new gas can every two seconds to stay aflight” hook, this is a more straightforward shooter that looks and feels more like 1942 than Yar’s Revenge. The colors are bright, the sprites are chunky and detailed, the music is above average and the core gameplay, anchored by some damn near spot-on controls, is very satisfying. It doesn’t do a whole lot new for the shoot-em-up genre, but what it does provide is an instantly gratifying, hard-to-put-down arcade action experience so gripping, you’re unlikely to want to plow through this one only once.

Sagaia (1991)
Developer: Natsume
Publisher: Taito

The name might throw you off, but make no mistakes  — this sucker is a downright stellar port of Darius II in everything BUT formal title. Of course, this version does sacrifice a few levels from the arcade original and truncates a couple of stages, but you still get 12 action-packed “zones” to blast through, complete with some of the most enjoyable (and intimidating) SHMUP boss fights you’ll find on the console. Factor in the beautiful animations, the gorgeous visuals, the rocking soundtrack and some of the most blisteringly fast gameplay to be found on the SMS and you have all the makings of an overachieving “downgrade” any and all genre enthusiasts would be wise to check out.

Scramble Spirits (1988)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega

This shrunken down part of one of Sega’s most underrated arcade offerings of the late 1980s is easily one of the most impressive technical wonders on the SMS … and it MORE than brings the gameplay goods to complete the package. If you’ve ever played stuff like 1941 or Xexyz you know exactly what to expect here. Although this cartridge only packs about half an hour worth of content, the product is presented in such a well put-together package that I have a hard time believing anybody will want to gun through it for just one solo run. With great graphics, smooth controls and some truly challenging boss fights, this is easily one of the Master System’s best SHMUP offerings; genre fanatics owe it to themselves to track this one down.

Ninja Gaiden (1992)
Developer: Sega CS
Publisher: Sega

This game is NOTHING like the subpar Game Gear offering, thankfully. Indeed, this game looks and feels like a long-lost NES game, and in many ways could be rightfully called an unofficial Ninja Gaiden IV. The graphics are outstanding, the music is among the best you’ll find on the system and the gameplay is flat out fantastic, with controls that are easily on par with what you’d experience on Nintendo’s 8-bit home console. The stage design is tremendous, with each level sporting both distinct aesthetics and layout, and good God, are the boss fights in this one a sight to behold. This is precisely the kind of hidden gem that makes the SMS a console well worth revisiting; too bad we never got that crossover with Shinobi, a’la Battletoads & Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team, though.

Kudos my hero, leaving all the best ...


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