Sega Master System vs. Mega Drive

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Comparing MegaDrive Versus Master System; The Ultimate 8 bit versus 16 bit clash. The Sega Mega Drive (Genesis) versus The Sega Master System, in an epic, raw and unleashed showdown to the grizzly death (I may be over egging that). Only one winner will emerge from this battle of the 80s and the 90s played out in the flesh for 2015. LET BATTLE BEGIN.

This is a strange pairing isn’t it? I mean if I’m gonna pick the Mega Drive, I should pit it against the SNES, or the NES against the Master System. But that isn’t what this video is about. If you were to compare then, the Master System has;

A Zilog Z80 CPU running at 4MHz
8KB of RAM
A 4 channel mono audio chip
16KB of Video RAM displaying 256×192 resolution with up to 32 colours from a palette of 64

Master System Components

Whilst the Mega Drive has;

A Motorola 68000 CPU at 7.6MHz
A Z80 Sub Processor
72KB of RAM
A 6 channel FM stereo sound chip
64KB of Video RAM displaying 320×224 resolution with up to 64 colours from a palette of 512

Mega Drive Components

Ok, so Blast Processing was a made up marketing phrase used in North America to keep punters away from Nintendo’s SNES. But still, clearly the Mega Drive trumps the Master System in technical stakes.

If you were to compare looks, then the Master System One looks like a boxy rectangle, the Master System 2 looks like a toy, and the Mega Drive just looks like a pure unleashed BEAST, especially when paired with the Mega CD One… it’s the pinnacle of console design… god, just look at that beauty. So another win to the Mega Drive. Incidentally the Mega Drive 2 also looks like a toy, but that’s irrelevant. No one cares about it.

Master System II

Mega Drive

Master System

Mega Drive II

So no, this isn’t about the hardware per say. This video is about the games… the game play, the similarities and the programming skill. And yes, before you say it, Yes, Mega Drive games will undoubtedly be better on the whole, but let me give you some back story.

For Christmas 1991 I received a Sega Master System (look, I even recorded it in a school project). I loved that little system, but at the same time the Mega Drive was out, and it was getting all the attention. But being the owner of the 8 bit underdog, I massively rooted for that system. I used to flick through Mean Machines Sega with pure excitement whenever they had a Master System feature as opposed to that blasted Mega Drive. For every new game which arrived, I held out absolute hope that there would be a Master System version… and when there was, boy did I compare it to the 16 bit version. I think on most occasions I managed to convince myself that the Master System version was just as good, if not better than the Mega Drive variant. After fending off the NES owners, I used to argue with my Mega Drive owning friends and come up with reason upon reason why the Master System could still compete. Now, to a 10 year old, this makes perfect sense… but in the cold daylight of 2015, and after subsequent ownership of a Mega Drive and many machines inbetween, do I still think that those Master System games can cut it with their Mega Drive counterpart?…. Well, that’s what I intend to find out.

The Games

Altered Beast

The original Mega Drive pack in title (well done Sega for changing it to Sonic); it’s a reasonable effort at an arcade port. It’s just a shame the game isn’t that good to start with.

I actually prefer the aesthetics of the Master System. There’s just something about it’s simplicity, and the variation in the main character which appeals to me. Gameplay wise, it’s about the same as it’s little brother. And I say little, because the Mega Drive was born after the Master System.



World Cup Italia 90

This is probably the first game I ever played on a Mega Drive. It was my cousins machine, and with it he received the pack-in triple pack, mega games one. I could have picked Super hang on or columns from this pack, but World cup Italia was just so damn disliked, that I couldn’t resist it. The thing is, I actually really like this game. I’m not sure if it’s because it was the first game I’d played on this amazing architecture, or whether I truly appreciated the dire gameplay, but regardless, I enjoyed it.

The Master System version is gob shite. In truth, so is the Mega Drive version. They look about the same.



Alien Syndrome

Mega Drive version. Wonderful side scroller. Great variety, great graphics, fun to play.

Master System… Actually, a wonderful side scroller, with great variety, great graphics and fun to play.



Road Rash

On the Mega Drive, Road Rash is a gaming delight. Fast paced, energetic, great scrolling, frame rate and graphics. It’s all there.

The Master System is pretty darn good in it’s own right. It looks almost as good as the Mega Drive. It’s fast, the frame rate is a little lower, but that’s expected. Game play is there, the energy is there, and if you gave this to someone years after they last played the Mega Drive version, they’d probably think it was the 16 bit variant.



Street Fighter II

Championship edition was an absolute blast on the Mega Drive. It was fun, and the 2 player mode made it a must have. If you had 2 6 button pads, then you were well away. All the characters from the arcade are present and the graphics are pretty spot on.

The Master System version came late in the system’s life, and in fact is a South American only TecToy release. Despite the people who base their verdicts purely on comparisons with superior hardware, it’s a damn good conversion. It lacks 2 player, which is a massive shame. It also lacks some of the characters such as Dhalsim who are probably beyond the 8 bit hardware. Also having 2 buttons is somewhat limiting, BUT, it’s still immensely playable, and looks beautiful.



Bonanza Bros.

I remember playing this game on my friends Mega Drive, on 2 player mode and falling in love with it’s simple but effective gameplay. The pseudo 3D graphics popped out of the screen in their colourful glory and I was hooked. I remember then seeing the Master System version, and in all fairness, at the time I couldn’t see much difference. The Master System version again lacked 2 player mode, but did it hold up in the Gameplay and graphics stakes… let’s take a gander.

You’ll notice that the game is now full screen, rather than the standard split screen present on the arcade release and all other ports. But that makes it a lot nicer to play solo. It probably would have been better had they made it 2 player, after all, it works on the Spectrum and Commodore 64! But graphically and gameplay wise, 1 player is splendid.



Aryton Senna’s Super Monaco Grand Prix 2

Another Mega drive classic. There were plenty of driving games on the 16 bit system, even Formula one driving games, but this was a great experience. Rear view mirrors, fast smooth action and responsive controls. It was a speed sensation all round. Let’s take a look at the Master System.

Straight away you’ll notice that we’re in third person view rather than the cockpit. Now, this does take the realism away from the game, and that was a crucial element for me in the 90s. I wanted racing realism in my bedroom. But still, it works, it’s responsive, and it’s playable. Like most of these games, the one thing which makes a clear difference is the sound. If we superimpose the Megadrive’s music and SFX over the Master System…. it transforms it. If you were lucky enough to own a Sega Mark 3, Japan’s version of the Master System, it came with an inbuilt FM sound chip and so must have felt much closer to the 16 bit experience when compared to our Western systems.



Robocop vs. Terminator

Now I consider this quite a late game even in the Mega Drive‘s life, but for it to come out on the Master System as well was an absolute mind blower to me. The Mega Drive version scrolls smoothly, it has a bucket load of on screen sprites and the backgrounds are visually detailed. There’s also a heap load of gore.

Which is actually for the part, retained on the 8 bit system. Given that this system was by now aimed at the younger player, this is immense to see. The graphics are mind blowing for a Master System and hold up well with the 16 bit counter part. The only noticeable difference really is the fluidity from the Mega drive version.



Sonic the Hedgehog

Here’s the game which defined the Mega Drive, and really, Sega as well. The little blue fella quickly became Sega’s mascot with his absolutely rapid action, his unique spin attack and his varied enemies, all balanced with a beautiful difficulty level – probably a bit easy in all fairness. The Master System version was a different kettle of fish. Coming after the Mega Drive version, it was a completely different game, designed to cater to the Master System’s hardware. It had a slower pace (which goes in the face of it’s main selling point), there were no loops and it generally required more thought. But actually it was pretty darn good. The graphics lacked a massive amount of detail compared to it’s 16 bit brother, but that didn’t really matter, because it captured the fast platforming action of the Mega Drive version, and even at a slightly slower pace, it worked.

The mega drive version is a classic. I don’t need to talk about it here.



Pit Fighter

Here, the classic arcade fighter was brought to home systems, and on the whole, wasn’t received well. The Mega Drive version is actually a pretty good attempt at capturing the arcade magic, including the digitised sprites and backgrounds, but lacking the zooming action which the arcade was famous for.

Now I remember seeing the Master System version is Computer & Video Games magazine and thinking, yeah that looks pretty good. Not much different to the Mega Drive…..

God god. What happened. This isn’t even the same game is it? Where are the sprites…. oh, I can see them. Why are they so frickin’ small? Where’s the background? Where’s the gameplay?

This is clearly a game which my 10 year old mind twisted to fit my mental needs. I even tried to support this game to my friends, praising it, arguing how good the graphics were compared to the arcade. WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING??!



Fantasy Zone

Ahhhh, you thought that was the Mega Drive version… right?… No? Maybe… Well, this is an early Master System game, but one which it did very well. Looking colourful as hell, and featuring awesome gameplay.

So this time, let compare it to the Mega Drive version, which came after this original.

It’s colourful, it’s playable, but for some reason, I yearn for the Master System’s Crispness.



Mortal Kombat

I loved Mortal Kombat. I loved it more than Street Fighter 2. I still do. For many, the second game is far superior, but I love the original just for it’s originality, for it’s first step into the world of gore and for it’s sheer brass gloatedness. The 16 bit variant captures the arcade nicely. It doesn’t have quite the same splatter of gore, and it required a “secret” code, but it’ll do nicely.

The Master System also has gore if you enter a code, although it lacks some of the finishing moves (including the spiked pit) and it lacks the number of buttons to make a fighting game truly playable, but GOD DAMN IT. It’s another good conversion. I got hooked whilst trying this version out, even if it does only have 2 background locations.



Streets of Rage 2

A legendary Mega Drive Game. Designed to compete with Final Fight which had been released onto Nintendo’s Super Console. And it did, admirably. Many would say it even beat it (pun intended). Great game-play, frantic 2 player action and a perfect difficulty curve.

Over in the 8 bit corner… things are a bit smaller. Namely the sprites. The gameplay is also a lot less satisfying. It might be the simpler, quieter sound effects which do it, or it might be the unpolishedness of the experience. But this is one game, which although isn’t terrible, doesn’t hold up in gameplay stakes to it’s 16 bit counterpart.




Now it’s obvious that there are a lot of mega drive games which never made it to the master system. This is especially true of North American releases, where the master system was no where near as popular. It’s also true of releases which came after the master system was deemed done for. However, it’s also worth noting that there were various master system releases which never made it to the Mega drive. This includes Sonic Chaos which was an awesome sonic release and probably a bit of an apology for the lack lustre master system release of sonic 2. There’s also Master of Darkness, and wonder boy in monster land which is arguably one of the best games on any sega system. So master system owners didn’t have it all bad, even when the 16 bit machines were hot on the block.

So there we go. All in all the little 8 bit Master System doesn’t hold up too bad. For a system from the mid 80’s, I think it performs remarkably well compared to what is essentially a 90s 16 bit behemoth. Some of my memories and younger arguments may have been twisted, but isn’t that what being 10 is all about. Arguing your corner, loving what you own, whilst having a disdain for others. This is where life skills are learnt, where personalities are sculpted, and I’m pretty darn sure that these arguments helped to form a massive part of my character, and I for one, am not one bit sorry about that. I’m sure when the Super Nintendo was out, NES owners felt the exact same emotions. So, I’m glad that I received a Master System for Christmas ’91 instead of a Mega Drive, because frankly, most people I know who had a Mega Drive from day 1 are dicks… they were dicks then, and they’ll remain dicks for the rest of their lives.

Hail the underdog!

The Winner!


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