The Launch of the Sega Master System (1986)

Episode 43 – The launch of the Sega Master System in 1986. This episode includes the history of Sega up through the Master System’s launch.

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Sega was originally founded in the late 40’s as “Service Games”, known in Japan as Nihon Goraku Bussan. In the mid 1960’s, they merged with David Rosen’s company “Rosen Enterprises”, becoming Sega Enterprises, Ltd. Sega first entered the home video game market with the “SG-1000” in 1983. This console was redesigned, creating the “Mark II” in 1984, and the Mark III was released in 1985. The Mark III was completely (cosmetically) redesigned and released in North America in 1986 as the “Sega System”, later known as the “Master System”. Depending on which bundle you bought, the system came packaged with Hang on and either Astro Warrior or Safari Hunt, the latter bundle also including the Sega Light Phaser. Five additional games were available for purchase at launch, including Choplifter, Fantasy Zone, World Grand Prix, Transbot, and Ghost House.

In 1987, the Master System was released in Great Britain by the massively-popular budget software publisher Mastertronic, who up to that point had been focused on releasing low-cost games for British 8-bit home computers like the ZX Spectrum. Mastertronic was purchased by Richard Branson and folded into the Virgin Group, becoming “Virgin Mastertronic”. With little competition from other home console makers, most-notably Nintendo, while the aforementioned 8-bit home computers were beginning to show their age, the Master System went on to capture the lion’s share of the market. The Master System was much more successful in Europe than in the United States, selling more than 3 times as many consoles there. So successful were Virgin Mastertronic at marketing the Master System, that the company was bought out by Sega in 1991, becoming Sega of Europe.

In 1989, the Master System was released in Brazil by Tectoy. Brazil’s population was almost as large as the United States, and they had just as much interest in video games, but the country had also been largely ignored by Nintendo. Arcade games were quite popular; so popular in fact that Taito had a dedicated Brazilian division of the company. The Atari 2600 had been released there and achieved success, as well. The Master System was a massive success in Brazil, selling 5 million units which accounts for almost half of total worldwide sales.

While the Sega Genesis was ultimately a massive hit in the United States, it was an uphill battle thanks to the relative failure of the Master System here. But the trail blazed by Sega’s 8-bit system in Europe and Brazil made the Mega Drive a much easier sell, and once again Sega beat Nintendo in those territories.

Special thanks to the Peter J. Shields Library and the Northern Regional Library Facility.

Show Notes:

– I only said “weekend rental” once in this episode.

– I made sure to add accurate closed captions, bearing in mind that Eric may be hard for some people to understand due to his Brazilian accent. These will also make it easier for non-English speakers to watch the show with translated captions, which I am hoping will make it more accessible to the Brazilian audience.

– The original Sega Master System launch lineup has been confirmed by two independent period-published periodicals; the Milwaukee Journal and the “Computer Entertainer” newsletter.

– This episode marks the first time that I have had guests on my show.

– This episode marks the first time that I have covered the launch of a true 8-bit system (TG-16 doesn’t count!)

– This episode is, to date, the longest launch episode that I have produced.

– Most of the gameplay footage in this episode was created using a Genesis console that has been modified for optimal RGB video quality. Because the Genesis is not backwards-compatible with SG-1000 games, an unmodified Master System console was used, which is why those games show noticeable “jail bars”.

– The footage demonstrating Double Dragon with FM sound was generated using a “Power Base Mini FM”, which is an adapter that allows you to play Master System games on your Genesis while adding FM functionality. I bought it specifically to use in this episode. I was also a little bit drunk, which generally makes me loosey-goosey with the CGQ corporate card.

– Speaking of buying stuff for the show, I bought the boxed copies of Hang On/Astro Warrior and Hang On/Safari Hunt just so that I could use them to take the pictures used in this episode. And I overpaid so that I would get copies in pristine condition.

Music courtesy of Kevin MacLeod (­ncompetech)