Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Top 50 Sega Master System Games of All-Time (Part Two: #040-#031)

Part two 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.

Astro Warrior (1986)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega

One of the first games released on the SMS, Astro Warrior is certainly a game that shows its age. It’s preposterously short (barely 20 minutes in total), the color palette is minimal and the backdrops barely change at all from stage to stage. That said, it’s pretty hard to overlook the technical brilliance of the game, which offered a (comparatively) lightning fast SHMUP experience with virtually zero slowdown or flickering — which is something you definitely can’t say about even the best-made genre games of the like on the NES that came out half a decade later. It may not win any awards for novelty, concept, design or execution, but Astro Warrior is a game that simply aims low and more than excels at everything it sets out to do — and for that, it deserves at least some measure of recognition, don’t it?

Predator 2 (1993)
Developer: Perfect 10 Productions
Publisher: Arena

Yes … they did indeed take a nearly year-old Game Gear game (itself, based on a movie that came out two years earlier) and port it to the SMS for European-only consumption the same year Jurassic Park came out. Well, naysayers, the joke is on you because this is actually an astonishingly fun and competent shrunken down iteration of the underrated Sega Genesis game, which effectively plays out like an isometric version of Narc. The sprites are nice and detailed, the music is better than average for the SMS and the level design is shockingly good, considering the obvious hardware limitations. Granted, the control setup could’ve used some work (especially when you’re trying to shoot stuff diagonally), but on the whole? This is a surprisingly fun little curiosity piece that Danny Glover aficionados and non-Danny Glover aficionados alike can gleam at least a little bit of entertainment from.

Psycho Fox (1990)
Developer: Vic Tokai
Publisher: Sega

Hey, did you ever play Decap Attack on the Genesis? Of course you have, because you’re a good, well-rounded, erudite person. Well, the original version of that game was called Magical Hat no Buttobi Turbo! Daibouken, and this SMS title is ostensibly its eight-bit predecessor. Anybody familiar with the controls and gameplay of Decap Attack will know exactly what to expect here, and while Psycho Fox loses some cool points for its more traditional mascot (who does indeed resemble the Carfax Car Fox),  it’s nonetheless a solid platformer with outstanding sprites, huge levels and a really neat, multi-playable-character hook a’la games like Tiny Toon Adventures and Castlevania III. The later levels get a bit predictable,  however, and the floaty controls do take some time to get accustomed to; thankfully, neither of those problems are large enough to make Psycho Fox a game worth skipping.

Submarine Attack (1990)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega

After hundreds of aerial-based shoot-em-ups, somebody finally came up with the brilliant idea of forging a sidescrolling shooter that takes place underwater as opposed to in the skies. With bright, vibrant, detailed sprites and some very colorful levels, the European-exclusive Submarine Attack is certainly one of the prettier looking SHMUPs on the SMS, and thankfully its core gameplay is every bit as pleasing as its visuals. The music is a bit forgettable and the overall difficulty isn’t too challenging (indeed, you can probably beat this one in one half-hour play-through), but the controls are solid and the shooting action is just intense enough to get you to overlook some of the game’s other shortcomings. Also — this game has some AWESOME-looking bosses, I tell you damn what; how come Sega never gave us a crossover with Ecco?

Power Strike (1988)
Developer: Compile
Publisher: Sega

Yup, it’s an 8-bit Aleste game on the Sega Master System — albeit, one with some pretty significant hiccups. There’s no denying the action is extremely intense (certainly, it feels faster than a good 90 percent of the SHMUPS available on the NES), and with its constant barrage of enemies, Power Strike without question provides an insane amount of challenge. Unfortunately, the music is underwhelming and the visuals are nowhere near as detailed as they should’ve been — in fact, in a lot of stages, the backgrounds are minimalistic to the point of being lazy. Some obvious repetition problems aside, though, Power Strike is nonetheless a worthwhile investment for hardcore SHMUP fans … even though it’s far from being the best genre offering on the system, or even the best genre offering on the system made by Compile, for that matter.

Pit Pot (1985)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega

An extremely early SMS offering, this charming action/adventure/puzzler hybrid only saw the light of day in the States on a double bill re-release with Astro Warrior. Ultimately, Pit Pot plays like a strangely harmonious blend of Bomberman, Skweek and even The Legend of Zelda … which is even more remarkable, considering the fact this game came out before all three of those games were released in North America. A perfect example of “never judge a book by its cover” gaming, this seemingly mundane offering actually offers a lot of depth and nuance, with graphics that hold up WAY better than you’d imagine and core gameplay that remains surprisingly enjoyable (and addictive) more than 30 years down the road. Sorry, millennials … this is the only “shovel knight” we here at TIIIA recognize as a bona fide gaming god.

Aerial Assault (1990)
Developer: Sanritsu
Publisher: Sega

Aerial Assault made for a great portable SHMUP on the Game Gear and it makes for an even more enjoyable genre offering on the SMS. With its bright visuals, well-defined sprites and rock-solid shooting action, this is certainly one of the better shoot-em-ups to be found on the Master System. Although the stage design (especially in the latter half of the game) gets a little predictable, the challenge level is pretty high and the tempo is so fast (with a frame rate so smooth) that you’ll probably want to blast through this one a couple of times. And all these years later, I still haven’t decided if I like the wide laser or the chaser missile power-up more …

Pac-Mania (1991)
Developer: Sculptured Software
Publisher: TecMagik

This Pac-Man variation was ported to pretty much every console around in the early 1990s, and while I wouldn’t exactly say this iteration is the absolute best, it’s nonetheless a very fun (and addictive) game. On the surface, you wouldn’t exactly think a game whose hook is literally “it’s Pac-Man, except now you can JUMP over ghosts” would result in a hard-to-put-down affair, but I’ll be damned if the developers didn’t go out there and do precisely that. To be fair, the isometric camera takes some time to get used to and some may find the music a tad irritating, but there’s no denying the inherently satisfying gameplay here … and personally, I much prefer the angry look on Pac’s face here than I do his more blithe expression in Namco’s other offerings.

Dynamite Dux (1990)
Developer: Sega AM2
Publisher: Sega

I’m not even going to bother getting into the convoluted history on this one (long story short; it started off as an arcade game then got ported to every home computer system you can think of) before it arrived on the Master System, but I can save you a spiel and tell you this, straight-up: this HAS to be the single greatest beat-em-up ever made in which your avatar is an anthropomorphic duck. Yes, long before Virtua Fighter and SpikeOut, Sega was tickling our fisticuffing fancies with this surprisingly entertaining sidescroller ass-kick-a-thon, which in addition to bringing the weird in spades (among other adversaries, you’ll do battle with cherubic Native American stereotypes and wolves with what appears to be Down syndrome), also offers a shockingly robust combat system, which incorporate some ranged weapons alongside the usual melee fodder. Of course, it’s no Streets of Rage 2 or anything like that, but it’s nonetheless a genre offering that’s WAY better than it probably had any right to be.

Buggy Run (1993)
Developer: SIMS
Publisher: Sega

An isometric racer a’la R.C. Pro-Am and Micro Machines, Buggy Run is a solid arcade racer with solid visuals, decent music and very fluid controls (which, historically, is something games within the subgenre have had some struggles with.) Although some of the stages can be a little sparse, visually, and the environmental hazards are a major pain in the ass no matter which track you’re on, for a cartoony racing game Buggy Run actually does offer a pretty deep itinerary of customizable features. With more than 20 different levels to master across several difficulty modes, this one will certainly take you awhile to complete; and if that wasn’t enough, the two-player mode is a hoot and  half, too.

Kudos my hero, leaving all the best ...


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