Mark III/Master System

During the third generation of video games Sega released a console known as the Master System (Sega Master System/SMS), the console hit the market in Japan during 1985, the U.S. during 1986, Europe during 1987, and finally Brazil during 1989. The first version of the Master System was capable of playing both cartridges as well as Sega Cards which were about the size of a credit card and were less expensive to purchase in comparison to the cartridges due to a lower storage capacity. The Master System also had several peripheral attachments which were released including a light gun and 3D glasses which used with specific specially coded games. Sega released the Mark 3/Master System as a competitor to the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System and technically speaking the Master System was vastly superior to the NES which had been released a little less than a year before. However despite being a more powerful superior machine the Sega Master System was unable to take control of the major share of the American and Japanese video game markets like it was able to do in both Europe and Brazil. In Europe and Brazil the Master System was far more easily available and was released prior to the NES allowing it to seize the market and live a successful and profitable life of about a decade. In Western Europe the console managed to sell 6.25 million units by the time 1993 approached. During its decade of life the Master System underwent several redesigns including one by Tectoy in Brazil and another when the Game Gear was released since the Game Gear was basically a handheld version of the console. During 2009 the Master System was ranked the 20th best video game console of all time by IGN and it was given this fairly low rank due to its small game library and long spans of time between game releases.

Master System History:

The system from Sega that came prior to the Master System was the SG-1000 which was a cartridge based console designed by Hideki Soto and released in Japan during 1983. The next step in Sega’s evolution toward the Master System was the SG-1000 2 which was not too radically different from the previous release and neither system proved to be very popular with the general public.


In 1985 Sega released the Sega Mark 3 which was designed in order to compete with Nintendo’s console the Family Computer. This console release was capable of playing two different types of game formats, ROM cartridges which were comparable to the competitions game platforms and Sega Game Cards which only held a quarter of the memory capacity available in cartridges making them considerably cheaper to manufacture and therefore were sold for lower costs to consumers. The Sega Mark 3 also came with several games which embedded into the BIOS of the console. The games which were embedded into the consoles varied between the different models that were released, and in addition to the embedded games the console also featured backwards compatibility with games from the SG-1000. In 1987 the Mark 3 would undergo a redesign and would be renamed the Master System which included several components which had before been separate accessories including a built in Yamaha YM2413 FM sound chip, a rapid fire unit, and 3D glasses. During the first year of the consoles release in Japan it came out strong selling approximately one million units however neither the Mark 3 nor the Master System would ever truly succeed in providing competition to Nintendo’s domination of the Japanese video game market. The final title which was officially licensed and released in the Japanese market was Bomber Raid during 1989.

North America:

After the Sega Mark 3 was released in Japan the console was redesigned by Soto for release in North America and other markets. The changes to the system were primarily cosmetic with the hardware remaining basically the same with the only real changes between the Mark 3 and the Master System being a change in the pinout on the cartridge port causing the need for an adapter to allow backwards compatibility between the old model and the new. The newly redesigned Sega Master System was released into the U.S. in 1986 about a year behind the U.S. release of the Nintendo Entertainment System. The launch price of the Sega Master System was set at $200 which was competitive with the other consoles pricing at that time. Due in part to the later release of the Sega Master System and the excellent licensing deals Nintendo struck with game developers to prevent any game on the NES being released for another console for two years by 1983 the NES had captured approximately 80% of the American video game market. With the dominance of the NES established Sega contracted Tonka to market the Master System in the U.S. to avoid going directly up against Nintendo. The problem with this strategy was Tonka’s lack of experience in the video game field and their marketing attempts were fairly poor in execution. The licensing agreements held by Nintendo also served to weaken the Master System in the U.S. by depriving it of tons of popular arcade games leaving only Sega, Activision, and Parker Brothers to produce games for the Master  System with the third party developers pulling their support of the console during 1989 after each company had released fewer than five titles. Also during 1989 Sega was preparing to release the Master System 2 which was a 16 bit gaming machine in the U.S. under their own control after Tonka’s disaster marketing the original Master System. The Master System 2 was actually a lower cost model of the previous console due to some features like the Sega Card Slot being removed to reduce the price. Despite lofty attempts to market the Master System 2 more successfully than the original by Sega the system sold poorly in the North American marketplace. Sega however would get a break in 1991 when Nintendo was deemed guilty in violating U.S. antitrust laws forcing the company to abandon some of its valuable licensing agreements that had allowed it to assert such dominance over the other consoles during this period. Although Nintendo lost some of their licensing rights the death blow had already been struck to the Master System in 1992 after selling about 2 million units and production was ceased. The final official title released for the console in the United States was Sonic the Hedgehog during 1991.

PAL (Europe/Oceania):

While the Sega Master System did not prove to be successful in competing with the NES in the Japanese and North American video game markets the opposite was true in Europe and Oceania where the Master System proved to be dominant over the NES. In fact the NES was not even available in several of the countries in these regions in which the Master System was quite successful. Some of the success the Sega Master System achieved was due to the fact that it was released in these areas before NES allowing it to capture the market before the competition even appeared on the scene. In Europe the PAL was produced by Mattel and was the equivalent of the NES however much like Tonka Mattel failed to adequately market the product in order to compete against the Master System. In these areas the Master System also received extensive third party development assistance with software which had been sorely lacking in the regions which the NES dominated and this software was not released in the Japanese or North American markets.

In Germany the Master System was distributed by Ariolasoft starting in 1987, in France it was distributed by Mastertronic France also in 1987 and then by Virgin Loisirs from 1988 till 1991 when Sega assumed distribution under Sega France. In the UK Mastertronic was also the distributer until it merged with Virgin Group, and in Italy Giochi Prezioso took the lead in distribution. The early period following the release of the console proved to be less successful for the Master System as it competed with the Atari ST, and the Amiga 500 personal computers and the NES  which proved to be moderately successful in these regions as well following the release of the Sega Mega Drive and Nintendo’s break from it unsuccessful marketing partnership with Mattel however over time the Master System would dominate the market and production in these areas lasted much longer than in the U.S. and Japan. Due to the excellent reception of the Master System in these areas Sega decided to open a Sega Europe Division which continued to help in sales and marketing. During 1990 Sega released the Master System 2 like it had in America including the same games Alex Kidd in Miracle World which was followed by Sonic the Hedgehog as built in games and this model was a huge success in countries such as Australia.

When 1993 came about the Master System was still outselling the Sega Mega Drive with 6.25 million units sold compare to 5.73 million. Sega easily held the lion’s share of the market at this time and the UK with 1.35 million units sold and France with 1.6 million units sold where the leading regions in sales for the console. The last game licensed and sold in Europe was The Smurfs: Travel the World in 1996. The Mega Drive and Sega Game Gear both proved successful in these regions as well though they would eventually be discontinued when Sega began to focus on the Sega Saturn.


Despite large success in Europe the most fruitful market for the Master System was Brazil where Tectoy released five different versions between 1989 and 1995 with many of the games being translated into Portuguese as well as a number of games produced in Brazil. By 1996 Tectoy had managed to sell two million Master Systems and Mega Drives and by 2012 the number of Master Systems had reached five million units sold. Driven by the success and sales Tectoy continued to produce Brazilian re-editions of games with the library reaching around 70 during the 90’s. The most interesting version of the Master System produced by Tectoy was the Master System Compact which was a cordless console and it transmitted A/V through RF eliminating cable connections and it was produced between 1994 till 1997. The most recent edition was released in 2009 and was called Master System Evolution and came with 132 built in games.


Game Controllers:

  • Controller 3: 2 buttons, hole to screw in joysticks
  • Controller 4: 6 buttons, similar to Mega Drives 6 direction pad (released only in Brazil)
  • Control Stick: 2 buttons, stick similar to gear shift with buttons located on the right for left controller and left on the right controller
  • Light Phaser: Light Gun, incompatible with Mega Drive
  • Sega Remote Control System: remote control
  • Sega Sports Pad: trackball controller
  • Sega Handle Controller: steering wheel for car/airplane games
  • SG Commander: standard controller with built in rapidfire

Standard Controllers:

The basic controller has only two buttons one of which is used for the start button while the pause button is on the console itself. The early models of the controller had cords which connected to the side but after 1987 it was switch to a top emerging cord. Some controllers offered screw in slot for joysticks however not all of them. Most late model Mega Drive controllers are also compatible with the console, however some cause errors.

Light Phaser:

This was a light gun designed for the Master System, it was heavier than the NES equivalent and considered to be more accurate as well as having a superior trigger sensitivity. When first released they appeared close enough to real guns to cause parents to concern and changes in color were used to distinguish the game from reality.

Sega Scope 3D Glasses:

These LCD shutter glasses work by rapidly switching between the left and right eye being opaque while two different images would flash on the screen creating a natural stereoscopic effect. This addition was attached through the card slot on the system while the game was attached to the cartridge port.

Remote Control System:

The remoteler was a joypad that used a built in infrared system for receiver signals and was not an officially licensed Sega Product because it was produced by WKK Industries.


Mark III:

This model was built similar to the SG-1000 with increased RAM capabilities as well as improved video hardware. This variant was also backwards compatible with SG-1000 software and the expansion slot used for Sega My Cards. Consoles released in Japan were not compatible with those in North America due to changes in the shape of the ports.

Master System II: 

Released in 1990 after the success of the Sega Genesis Sega reclaimed distribution rights from Tonka and released this lower cost model of the Master System by removing some of the previous components like the reset button and card slot which made it incompatible with the 3D glasses peripheral.

Master System III:

This was a newer version of the Master System II which was released in Brazil with a new black design and the highlights done in blue. Though it did not appear much different this model did receive upgrades allowing it to deal with 8 megabit games.

Master System Evolution:

This was released in 2009 in Brazil and came with 132 built in games. This model was designed by Tectoy and ships with two 6 button controllers as well as being available in two different colors.




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