Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Top 50 Sega Master System Games of All-Time (Part One: #010-#001)

The final installment of a special five-part series examining the best Sega's 8-bit home console had to offer ... with the number one SMS game of all-time, at long last, REVEALED!

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.

Master of Darkness (1993)
Developer: SIMS
Publisher: Sega

Those of you who recall our Game Gear countdown from a few years back no doubt remember how much we sang the praises of this one, and ultimately, the home console iteration is every bit as good as its portable kindred — if not even better. While an unabashed Castlevania clone, it’s undoubtedly one of the best Castlevania imitators ever, and, in some facets, can even be said to best Konami’s venerable series at its own game. With its almost Hammer horror-like atmosphere, there’s no denying Master of Darkness brings the ambiance, and the long, intricately designed stages definitely gives the game a bit more replay value than its genre contemporaries on the SMS. And come on — like anybody could ever not enjoy a game where you get to wack wax monsters with boomerangs …

Bubble Bobble (1991)
Developer: Taito
Publisher: Sega

Now this is a rare SMS game that not only outdoes its counterpart on the NES, but positively outclasses it in every way. Not only does this iteration of Taito’s classic kill-em-up have better visuals than the one in the Ninny, it also packs in almost twice as much content; whereas the NES iteration had a relatively paltry 112 levels, the SMS version offers a whopping 200 stages! This is a much truer to the coin-op experience, without question, with slicker controls and a more energetic sense of speed. Factor in a phenomenal two-player mode and you have what is pretty much the Criterion Collection version of the beloved single-screener right here.

Ghouls ‘N Ghosts (1988)
Developer: Sega R&D2
Publisher: Sega

This is definitely one of the best-looking games on the SMS … and thankfully, it has the gameplay chops to match its aesthetics. While it’s not quite the breathtaking technical marvel that its Genesis big brother was, this is still a very admirable port of the arcade classic, with great animations, tremendous controls and — of course — a lot of button-grinding challenge that’ll test the mettle of even the most hardcore action platformer enthusiasts. Sure, the boss fights might be a little minimalist in terms of presentation, but on the whole this is a very impressive “downgrade” that looks, feels and plays much better than it probably had any right to. And if nothing else, it absolutely kicks the crap out of the iteration NES owners received … and it’s not even debatable.

Walter Payton Football (1989)
Developer: Sega R&D2
Publisher: Sega

Up until Tecmo Super Bowl, this was easily the best American football game released on a home console. Of course, it’s sans the NFL license, so you won’t be able to play as any “real” players, save Sweetness himself. But even then the game gives you a good 25 different teams to choose from, each of which have their own (moderately) different playbooks. And for its time, this game gave you an insanely complex football system, complete with a good 30 or so offensive and defensive plays and the option to run reverses and counters. With its proto-Madden vertical P.O.V., you might have a few blind throws every now and then, but there’s no denying how much fun running the ball and playing D is. And to this day, this game might just have the best “kicking” system I’ve ever played in a pigskin sim; for hardcore virtual football fans, that facet of the title alone is probably worth going out of your way to experience.

Bonanza Bros. (1991)
Developer: Sega C.S., I.T.L.
Publisher: Sega

A decade before the first Grand Theft Auto game was released, this absurdly fun Sega original allowed children of all ages to experience the joys of committing virtual felonies. Remember that one episode of The Simpsons where Bart played Larry the Looter, an arcade game where he took on the role of an armed burglar? Well, that’s LITERALLY what Bonanza Bros. is, and even now I’m not sure how this one escaped the wrath of Tipper Gore and pals back in the day. Granted, losing the two-player mode sucks, but the core gameplay here is just so fun (and unexpectedly great) that even as a solo affair only it’s still a hoot and a half. The level layout is outstanding and the proto-stealth action gameplay is astonishingly intense; indeed, this might just be one of the most nerve-racking games you’ll ever play in 8-bit form. All in all, Sega did a bang-up job porting this one to the SMS; multiplayer or no-multiplayer, this is still an immensely enjoyable, incredibly unique action-platformer you owe it to yourself to play if you haven’t, for whatever stupid-ass reason.

Battle Outrun (1989)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega

There’s been a lot of Outrun games over the years, and this fairly obscure SMS offering is easily one of the best entries in the long-running franchise. In fact, I’d go as far as to call this SMS “exclusive” the greatest version of Chase H.Q. ever made. Eschewing the usual fanciful and carefree aesthetics and attitude of the beloved, vaporwave-inspiring series, Battle Outrun is a more intense, action-oriented, pseudo vehicular combat offering in which you drive all over America trying to takedown all sorts of varied villains and criminal elements … all while avoiding swapping paint with innocent bystanders or crashing into a parade of barrels somebody just left there in the middle of the freakin’ interstate. Owing more to Spy Hunter than its canonical predecessors, in a way Battle Outrun feels like an 8-bit precursor to Burnout, complete with some ultra-gratifying, white knuckle thrills and chills as you narrowly avert yet another automotive disaster. With superb controls and a ton of replay value, this isn’t just one of the best racing games on the Master System … indeed, it’s one of the best 8-bit console racers ever.

Rainbow Islands: The Story of Bubble Bobble 2 (1993)
Developer: I.T.L.
Publisher: Taito

One look at Rainbow Islands is enough to turn off just about any seasoned gamer. But as the old saying goes, you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, because this game — despite its nauseatingly saccharine visuals — is actually one of the most addictive and engaging titles on the SMS. Really, it all begins with the game’s brilliant control scheme, which makes “rainbow hopping” one of the most satisfying mechanics you’ll experience in any 8-bit platformer. You know how Iceman skates around on frozen bridges in the old comics and cartoons? Well, this game gives us what is probably the best interactive representation of that in any medium, and you will have yourself a hoot and a half just slipping and sliding all over the game’s pastel-hued levels. Yes, the audiovisual component may not be the best on the SMS, but there is no denying the intrinsic greatness of the gameplay here. Factor in hours worth of gameplay and some ingeniously designed stages — plus one of the best two-player experiences to be found on the Master System — and you undoubtedly have a winner on your hands with this one, no matter which genre of gameplay is your familiar bread and butter.

Sonic Chaos (1993)
Developer: Aspect
Publisher: Sega

The greatest Sonic handheld game of all-time translates to the SMS just fine, and I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of folks out there who’ll think this one plays even better with the Master System control pad. The music is a bit bland, but the graphics and animation are top-tier, and holy hell, does this one bring the pure platforming bliss in buckets. Sticking tightly to the traditional (read: winning) Sonic formula, the gameplay revolves around huge, spacious levels comprised of multiple branching paths, so while it is fun as all hell blasting through the stages at top speed, if you want to explore the level and really soak up everything it has to offer, you’ll definitely have to play this one two or three times before you uncover everything the designers left in there for you to find. While Chaos might not rival the Genesis classics in terms of overall quality, you’re still getting a tremendous little package right here — if for some some stupid reason you missed out on this one back in the day, now’s the perfect time to atone for your 8-bit era sins.

Sensible Soccer European Champions (1993)
Developer: Eurocom
Publisher: Sony Imagesoft

Pretty much every console ever in history has received some permutation of Sensible Soccer at some point, and the version on the Master System is every bit as good as it is on the Genesis, the SNES and the Game Gear. Neophytes to the venerable footy series may not take the micro-sized sprites series at first glance, but even newbz are guaranteed to be awestruck by the staggering amount of content this game delivers, including some team and play-editing features that even by today’s standards would be considered quite in-depth. Of course, the real draw of Sensible Soccer, however, is it’s instantly accessible and immediately engrossing soccer action, and once you get the hang of the control setup, you’ll be hooked for life. What NHL ‘94 and Tecmo Super Bowl are to hockey and football games, respectively, Sensible Soccer is to the World’s Game; this isn’t just the best sports game on the SMS by a far margin, one could argue that it’s the one game on the system that will give you the most replay bang for your buck, as well.

Power Strike II (1993)
Developer: Compile
Publisher: Sega

How about that — the very same game that  (almost) topped my list of the 50 best Game Gear games of all-time also tops my list of the top 50 SMS games of all-time. What are the odds? Whereas the original Power Strike on the Master System could be considered a slight disappointment considering Compile’s pedigree, its PAL-only sequel more than makes up for it. For starters, the visuals in this game are flatout gorgeous, with some of the most detailed sprites and eye-pleasing backgrounds of any game on the system. But where this game truly shines is in its gameplay. Simply put, I can’t fathom how the Master System was able to technologically contain the sheer amount of action going on-screen throughout this game. Yes, there is some flicker here and there, but by and large the frame rate on this sucker barely dips at all, which is quite the programming feat considering all of the nonstop explosions and projectiles flying across the screen at seemingly every conceivable second. Of course, me being a huge SHMUP fan and all, I can’t say that all gamers will enjoy this one as much as I did, but if you have a knack for old-school, arcade shoot-em-up fun, this is easily the best investment you could possibly make for your SMS. Simply put, if you’ve got a Master System, you NEED to have this cartridge in your library … and preferably, quite close to the entry slot, because I assure you, you will be playing this one frequently.

Kudos my hero, leaving all the best ...

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