Sega Master System
Sega went through two home consoles in Japan before releasing the SG1000 Mark III, which, rebranded and redesigned, would launch in the US and Europe as the Sega Master System in 1986 and 1987, respectively. Technically, the Master System was a stronger console than the NES. Its 3.54MHz Z80 CPU, 8KB of RAM and custom TI video processor - with 16KB of VRAM - could only handle 16 onscreen sprites, but these could be larger and use 16 colours from a palette of 64.
In a lot of ways the Master System was a â€˜me too' product. The controller was clearly modelled on Nintendo's (though the square d-pad took getting used to), and it had its own line of accessories, including a light-gun and some bizarre 3D glasses. Games came on cartridges but also on smaller credit-card sized cards. Games on these were limited to a pitiful 32KB capacity.
The Master System became a worthy competitor to the NES, particularly in Europe and Japan. However, with hindsight you can see that the software line-up never quite scaled the same heights. Bar a few classic original series such as Phantasy Star or the Mario-influenced Alex Kidd games, the Master System mainly became a host for arcade conversions and licensed titles. Some of these were very good - notably Sega's line of Disney star platformers - but an awful lot weren't. Later on the Master System also took on downgraded versions of Sega's MegaDrive hits. The best -including Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic 2 - were excellent titles in their own right.
Unfortunately, barring emulators our options for playing Master System games have been hamstrung by Nintendo's decision not to include the system in the Wii Virtual Console line-up over here. Hopefully this will change.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World
Bundled with the revised Master System II, this was basically a Mario knock-off featuring a weird-looking, jug-eared monkey boy in a horrible red suit. It's more a historical curiosity than a genuine all-time great, but the game remains memorable for its â€˜rock, paper, scissors' boss battles and its high-speed motorcycle sequences. Alex Kidd made a few more outings on the Master System plus one on the Mega-Drive, but faded into obscurity with the success of Sonic the Hedgehog. However, to show that you can't keep even the most obscure video-game hero down, he's due to put in a guest appearance in Sega Superstar Tennis later this month.
Wonderboy III: The Dragon's Trap
Designed by HudsonSoft as a caveman alternative to Mario, Wonderboy soon evolved from a basic scrolling platform game to more sophisticated arcade/adventures. Clearly influenced by the likes of Metroid, Zelda and Kid Icarus, Wonderboy III saw our hero - now a heroic knight - transformed by an evil dragon into a lizard-man. Travelling in and around the dragon's castle, he develops the ability to transform into other semi-human forms, including a mouse, piranha, lion and hawk man, each time gaining access to new areas of the game world. Packed with monsters to defeat and arms and armour to battle on with, Wonderboy III is one of the finest examples of the classic arcade/adventure game ever made, with the sort of smart design and depth that you normally expect from Nintendo. Best of all, while the original Master System version isn't available on the European Virtual Console service, the updated and rebranded PC Engine version, known as Dragon's Curse, is.
The Lucky Dime Caper starring Donald Duck
It's arguable whether this or Mickey Mouse: Land of Illusion is the apogee of Sega's Disney platform adventures, but we'd say that a combination of clever design and sheer attitude puts the duck on top. This is the Master System at its technical best, with the coolest cartoon graphics on the system. And while the gameplay is indebted to Mario, the nephew-saving plot and the range of locations give it a feel all its own.
Admittedly, this one is a bit of a personal choice. Spellcaster was a weird combination of side-scrolling platform shooter and text-based RPG, distinguished by decent Master System graphics and some hideously difficult levels towards the end. The Japanese fantasy plot seemed exotic for the time; the translation rather less so, thanks to some weird foibles like the substitution of spaghetti for the original version's noodles as the health-raising pick-me-up of choice. Spellcaster is no Metroid or Wonderboy III, but it's an interesting curio all the same.