Sound + Vision – Sega Master System

The kindness given to art or pop culture through a historical perspective can vary wildly. Some art that was misunderstood, widely ignored or even ridiculed can blossom into unrequited genius in the subsequent years and decades after its creation. Art that was hailed as brilliant, popular and universally praised can be thrown into a metaphorical bargain bin time capsule after a period of reflection. Sometimes art can be looked at as dull, uninspired and incompetent one day and the next time you look, it’s being treated as an important pop culture moment for no other reason than it allows people to revel in its awfulness. In many respects, I consider the artwork used for the Sega Master System cartridge boxes as something akin to this phenomenon. Maybe they don’t have the cult following that truly ridiculously awful films like The Room or Troll 2 might possess, but Master System artwork apologists want us to look at these works of “art” through a different lens than we might have for the box covers used for Atari 2600, Sega Genesis or the SNES.

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Actually Phoenix on the 2600 is still pretty fun even if it looks nothing like this.

Where as Atari game boxes were elaborately designed to distract consumers from the fact that the graphics of the games found inside the corrugate were basic and dull (for the most part), Master System game boxes took a minimalist approach to selling their game carts. We’ve all seen them and shrugged or shook our heads. White boxes with a gray grid pattern in the background. The title of the game across the top with the word “Sega” printed over it in blue. In the upper left corner, a one word description of the style of game found within (e.g. action, family, sports, etc). Apparently it was very important for game companies to try to direct consumers and hold their hands whenever possible to ensure they made informed purchasing decisions in the a post North American video game crash environment. While Master System cases get high marks for being distinctive and uniform, they lose marks for the style and professionalism of their look.

Less is more? Let the debate begin!

What Sega used for the graphic design aspect for these early release Master System titles remains a confusing and speculated about decision to this day. Or maybe it’s just me. Even if it is, I like to think that the people tasked with coming up with graphical representations for games like Pro Wrestling, Black Belt and Wonder Boy, wanted to downplay the artwork on the fronts of the cases. Possibly in an effort to encourage interested buyers to flip the games cases over and gaze at the actual game screens used, similar to what Nintendo did for their NES boxes. Or maybe this was Sega’s misguided attempt at copying, and in their mind, improving on the formula Nintendo went with for the Black Box releases. The Black Box releases were designed to provide an accurate representation of what the in game graphics looked like by taking the pixelated look of the 8-bit era and blowing it up for all to see. Sega deviated so far down the “less is more” path that they essentially came back with drawings that appeared as if they were commissioned to an 8th grade art student. If the intent was to turn off potential buyers, they might have succeeded.

Thankfully, only the first batch of Master System games suffered from this nightmarishly amateur artwork style. Future titles came with artwork that was much more suited for a game that was meant to be purchased as opposed to fan-made. Games like Ghouls and Ghosts, Mickey’s Castle of Illusion and Phantasy Star had drawings on the cover that were not ridicule worthy. First impressions are hard to shake, however. By the time these titles were released, the Master System had already lost the 8-bit wars to Nintendo and recovery was not an option.

Too little, too late. These are great covers, but the Master System had already lost the battle by this time.

As for the music contained within these 8-bit cartridges, the Master System doesn’t get the love that the NES and its millions and millions of fans get. You don’t hear songs from the Alex Kidd or Wonder Boy series used as ringtones in the same way that Super Mario Bros or the Legend of Zelda can be heard. Yeah, I get it. The Master System may have sold 10+ million consoles worldwide but that pales in comparison to the nearly 62 million NES consoles sold. A large percentage of those Master System consoles were sold in Brazil so maybe they are using Master System chip tunes as ringtones, I don’t know. I hope so.

Some of my favorite Master System music includes:

Phantasy Star

Golden Axe Warrior

Space Harrier


Wonder Boy 3



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