Hidden Gems of the Sega Master System: How Deep Can an 8-Bit Game Get?


I wouldn’t really consider this an obscure console except in North America. In Europe it was just as big as NES, and in Brazil it was widely played until the mid 2000s thanks to Tek Toy keeping it on life support.

If anybody here recognizes it, it’s probably as “that weird off brand 8 bit console Mordecai and Rigby had in Regular Show.” Indeed it makes several appearances, unfortunately cementing it as a “hipster console”:

There’s honestly a lot to recommend it, though. Even outside of the demakes of popular Genesis games like Sonic, Ecco and so on. Some of the best games were overlooked because they were part of a long running series well known and popular in Japan, but totally new and unfamiliar to the US audience.

One if these was Wonder Boy. An odd series that’s all over the place, the various iterations in the series are of many different genres. The first is a straight up Adventure Island clone. Then one of them is a forced scrolling arcade style platformer/shooter.

But the titles in this series which won the most well deserved acclaim played something like Metroid, in that there was a huge contiguous game world to explore. Not a series of levels you play in a linear sequence, instead the only thing holding you back is upgrades you need to reach areas you can see right away, but not access yet.

I became acquainted with arguably the best game in this series, Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap, by playing the recent remake for basically every platform in existence. I got the Switch version. They all let you switch back and forth at any time during gameplay between the new HD graphics/music and the old 8 bit ones.

What really makes this game unique is that the upgrades which allow you to access new parts of the game world aren’t items, they’re transformations. There are six dragon bosses in the game, one for each themed area. Each one you beat casts a final curse upon you as it dies, transforming you into a different animal form:

Each animal form has its own special characteristics. The dragon (your initial form) is basically useless, but the next form, mouse man, can fit through one block high openings. He can also walk up walls/along ceilings. Pirahna man can swim properly in water instead of just walking along the bottom. Lion man can break blocks and swings his sword in a large arc, good for defending against enemies that attack from above, or breaking blocks underneath you. Finally, hawk man can fly, but is hurt by immersion in water.

On top of all that, you can buy better and better swords, armors and shields from shops all over the game world, and they all have different stats depending on which animal form you’re in when you wear them. A particular sword might be very powerful when used by Lion man for example, but very weak when used by Hawk man.

They also have special traits in some cases. For example there’s an armor which makes you impervious to lava, though it has low defense points so you should switch to it only when crossing lots of lava pits, then switch back to a better armor. One sword lets you switch between the beast modes you’ve so far unlocked at will, instead of needing to find hidden transformation rooms.

The graphics in some places are garish, but in other areas you can really see how the Master System benefited from coming out 2 years after the Famicom. It has graphics more rich and lush than seen in most NES games:

But that’s enough love heaped on one game. The next one I want to single out for praise is Golden Axe Warrior. You’d expect it to be a beatemup like every other game in the Golden Axe series, but as the Wonder Boy series shows, you could never count on genre consistency across a series with Sega games. They were always trying something different, for better or worse.

Golden Axe Warrior was basically Sega’s answer to the Zelda titles. It plays pretty much identically to Zelda for NES, but it’s set in the Golden Axe world, which has surprisingly deep lore. The graphics, once again, are a little bit richer than anything seen on NES at the time:

Sega’s willingness to try lots of different things is often faulted for ruining fan beloved series, like the Sonic games. But on the other hand, Sega was also often highly derivative. Golden Axe Warrior was just a “me too” imitator of Zelda. Likewise, Zillion was their version of Metroid and Alex Kidd was their answer to Mario.

Their first breakout success, Sonic the Hedgehog, was such a big hit because it got fully away from trying to do whatever Nintendo was doing and instead tried its own thing; a high speed kinetic platformer with pinball physics. Sadly the years after that would prove that Sega did not realize the source of their success.

Now, Gunstar Heroes is a game I never, ever expected to even be attempted on Master System because of how chaotic and hectic it was, with all those sprites onscreen at once. But they did it, and even managed to capture the action mostly intact:

Gunstar Heroes on an 8-bit console. There you have it. Above and beyond the average run and gun shooter of the day because of the polished gameplay and neat gimmicky set pieces. Normally those are tiresome but there’s so many in Gunstar Heroes, and none of them overstay their welcome.

There’s a stage for example where you roll some huge dice and move around on a game board, with whatever space you land on determining the type of battle you’re then thrown into. If you survive, you throw the dice again, continuing until you reach the end. But you must reach the end before player two or the AI enemy, naturally.

I picked out these games not for their graphics, not out of personal preference for these genres, but because of their depth. Any amount of depth in an 8-bit game, especially when they were ported to Game Gear, was unexpected and refreshing.

So the complexity of Gunstar Heroes, the sheer scope of Wonder Boy 3’s sprawling game world you must constantly backtrack through while buying better weapons and armor, and the Zelda-like breadth of dungeons and items found in Golden Axe Warrior were really something special for their day. It makes them engrossing to play even in the modern era, imo.

There are some more surprisingly deep, complex Master System games out there which I didn’t see fit to try to cram into this article, but will probably come back to cover at some point in the future.

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