The time has come for me to assess the Master System games in my collection, (that I’ve actually spent enough time with to assess) and determine my own personal top 10. I know that I have some games in my collection that could be contenders (cue obligatory Marlon Brando On the Waterfront quote here) but I just haven’t had the time to play these games to find out if they are top 10 worthy. Games like Golvellius & Miracle Warriors won’t be eligible for my top 10 list as a result. Maybe by the time I pick up some additional titles and magically add 10 free hours to my week, these games will get the attention they deserve. For now, these are the 10 games I have found to be the most compelling, the most well made, the most unique and the most fun.
10. Missile Defense 3D
Sega released their own dedicated 3D peripheral, following the Vectrex’s footsteps, with the Sega Scope 3D Glasses. These were a much more physically scaled down version than the Vectrex’s 3D Imager, which when worn, practically covered your entire face and head. The Sega Scope 3D glasses were slightly bulkier than a normal pair of glasses which would then plug into the game card slot on the front of the Master System model 1. Since the model 2 Master System did not include a card slot, the 3D glasses could not be used with that version of the console. But by the time the model 2 Master System was released, the 3D game releases had dried up anyway.
The Sega Scope 3D glasses could be bought separately or bundled with certain Master Systems along with Missile Defense 3D built into the console. As for this particular title, it might be the best of the 3D bunch. Like the original Missile Defense for arcades and Atari 2600, you play as an anti-nuclear satellite armed with lasers that must destroy nuclear missiles before they can hit their targets. The missiles come towards you, providing the player with an illusion of depth that the 3D glasses enhance. I think the 3D effects are cool and most importantly, the game is fun. To stop the nuclear missiles, you must use the light phaser so this is a two peripheral required game. If you’re playing this game on original hardware, have someone take a picture or video of you all geared up blasting away at enemy missiles attempting to destroy your city. The game offers a nice variety of environments to defend, so it doesn’t get stale. Missile Defense 3D is cold war classic!
This is the smash ’em, bash ’em single screen game where you control either a gigantic wolf, ape or lizard as it breaks buildings, eats people, and in general causes mayhem and destruction on an epic scale. The concept of Rampage is appealing to just about anyone who finds enjoyment in smashing things to smithereens as a form of catharsis.
The goal of each level is to demolish each of the city-skyline buildings that the screen presents. You can gain bonus points by eating people found on the ground, in buildings as you begin your demolition rage process as well money and enemy vessels. Finding food will increase your health but if you run out of it, your monster will revert back to human form and slink away off screen, naked and ashamed. There will be hazards to avoid inside the buildings, most notably, electrical appliances but the primary hazards are the military forces out to stop you.
Rampage on the Master System is a fun game but some control issues that I noticed were difficulty lining your monster up with the sides of the buildings so you can climb up them and the process of moving from building to building without having to go all the way back down to ground level. These can all be dealt with, but I’m not going to say this is the easiest version to play. However, the graphics and sound effects are stellar for the Master System and you can play two-player cooperative, which is always the preferred way to play if you can.
I originally bought a copy of this game just so I could take it with me to a video gaming convention in St. Louis and have it’s creator, Brian Colin, sign it for me. After I had him sign it at the 2018 MoGameCon, I actually played it and I was impressed. I was a big fan of the arcade version back in the day but thought the NES version lacked. The Master System version is about as good as it gets for an 8-bit console.
This Master System exclusive, based off a Japanese cartoon of the same name, has an intricate plot involving espionage, data gathering, puzzles, and multiple paths. You control JJ, the main character from the cartoon series, in an effort to thwart the evil Norsa/Norza from turning your peaceful planetary system into a war zone.
You must find 5 floppy discs in order to enact the self destruct mode on Norza’s base. Naturally, there will be enemies, traps, power ups and the need to either grab a pad of paper or a cell phone camera to keep track of the codes needed for entry into the mainframe computer.
This advanced title even allows you to play as a different character if/when you rescue them from the enemy’s clutches. Like a lot of Master System games, I have some difficulty with the controls, as they don’t seem as tight as action/adventure platformers on the NES. Otherwise, Zillion offers a lot of potential if you’re willing to stick with it and give it good, long playthrough. The lack of save/password feature is sorely lacking, but not uncommon for games of this era.
7. Gangster Town
This is a really fun Hogan’s Alley type game where you are a member of the FBI taking out prohibition era gangsters. The game excels at offering both variety and great gameplay. Just in scene 1 alone you follow behind a car shooting at gangsters who are trying to shoot at you in return from the car windows all the while shooting down bombs dropped on you from an old biplane. Another level puts you on a city street where you must shoot at gangsters coming from the sides, sewers and building windows while also avoiding the occasional pedestrian. Later, the game will take you into a saloon, a nightclub and on a dock, all with similar gameplay to the city street level.
Just when you thought this game already had a lot of variety, there are bonus stages and in one you have to shoot the bricks away from walls until you find a key. You start the game with a certain number of hearts and your difficulty level is based on how well you did in the opening practice round. If all of your hearts are depleted during a level, then your game is over.
I love how Gangster Town looks as well as plays. The graphics are stellar and the details are fabulous. Each gangster you shoot turns into a transparent angel that floats up into the sky. You can also shoot your environment such as the tires on the escape car, bottles in the saloon, the hats off the heads of the gangsters during an indirect hit, and even little mice that scurry across the floor. This is the best light phaser/gun game I’ve played on either the NES or the Master System. It’s just that fun.
Taito’s Rastan first made a name for itself in the arcades when it was released in ’87. Shortly after that initial arcade success, the game was ported for various home computers before receiving a Master System console port in 1988.
You control a Conan the Barbarian-esque character named Rastan, attempting to slay enemies & defeat the dragon that is terrorizing the land of Semia and has kidnapped the local Princess (naturally). Many of the enemies you fight on your way to save the Princess are inspired by mythical creatures of lore.
Your primary direction of movement is from left to right, but there will be opportunities to descend into underground caverns or climb ropes and ascend into the tree line. You can adjust the height and distance of your jump by pressing the up/direction (left or right) on the d-pad along with the jump button to really get some distance on your jumps. Otherwise, simply using the jump button will result in a pathetic attempt at leaping.
There are 7 total rounds to play, with 3 scenes per round. Your character has a life meter that gets depleted when coming into contact with enemies or falling into water (not an instant death thankfully) or coming into contact with other hazards such as spikes or lava. Advancing further into the game increases the length of your life meter in an effort to help you move through the game. If you lose all of your lives, you have an opportunity to continue you game several more times at the beginning of the last scene you played.
The game offers a variety of offensive and defensive weapons, which unfortunately only last for a temporary amount of time, and special items which are either used immediately (medicine) or temporary (point total doubler ring, necklace that increases time for Rastan’s offensive items, etc). One of the keys to success is learning how to attack from above, jumping over enemies and striking by pressing down and attack simulatenously. It takes practice and timing but is very effective.
The Rastan arcade experience was a fun, mindless hack n’ slash action title with great music, great controls, and great graphics. As expected, the Master System port is a step down in all aspects (especially the controls), but if you’re looking for a suitable side scroller that doesn’t star a weird boy-monkey hybrid, then give it a shot.
5. Alex Kidd in Shinobi World
Alex Kidd in Shinobi World is often cited as the best game in the Alex Kidd series, but that begs the question. Why? Some might argue that by 1990, the year of this game’s release, developers had maximized their abilities with the Master System’s hardware. Meaning that the gameplay mechanics, graphics and sound may be at their 8-bit peak. Also, Shinobi World is the most straightforward and, “least weird” Alex Kidd game in the franchise.
In this entry, Alex has been granted the powers of a ninja master in order to fight enemies that have stolen his girlfriend on the plant Shinobi. All of this back story is unimportant overall, as the key to most games is the gameplay & controls.
This entry has the tightest controls of any Alex Kidd game, in my opinion and while the different aspects of the previous 3 games in the series are appreciated, there is something that can be said for a simple hack & slash platformer. In this regard, this game excels.
Alex is given a variety of powers beyond just running and slashing enemies with his sword. He can swing on poles and fence posts to turn himself into a fireball, which can clear away blocks and take him places he cannot normally go. There are also power-ups that can be obtained throughout the game which allow him to turn into a tornado or throw darts.
My least favorite special move is the wall-jump, which can be difficult to pull off in rapid succession, but that is a common gripe for any game that requires you to wall-jump to reach areas of the levels that cannot be reached otherwise (cough*Super Metroid*cough). The variety of levels, weapons/powers and overall playability of Shinobi World is what makes this game a notch ahead of the other games in the series. Sega figured out what to do with Alex Kidd, for at least 1 game, before retiring their 8-bit console.
4. Golden Axe Warrior
Besides its status as one of the more expensive titles in the Master System library, largely due to its release late in the console’s lifespan (1991), it is also well known for being a Legend of Zelda rip-off/clone. Is this accurate? Is this fair? Uh, yeah, it is.
Not to say that Golden Axe Warrior isn’t fun, because it definitely is, but it is a blatant LoZ rip-off in many respects. The graphics (typical 8-bit sprites), the music in the overworld vs. underworld/dungeons, the world map, the gameplay, the quests, the hidden secrets, it’s all there. The items & magic your character, who doesn’t have a name besides the one you give it at the beginning, utilizes are probably where the two games differ the most.
You still utilize magic and items/weapons, but Sega was wise not to make it the same old boomerang, bombs, fire magic, style items and weapon upgrades that were used in LoZ. Although that brings me to my biggest gripe about Golden Axe Warrior, a suitable way to attack enemies from a distance without having to use magic.
Your primary attack is to either use a sword or an axe (naturally), but neither of them can be used to attack enemies from a safe distance like you can if you are attacking enemies with your sword with full heart power in LoZ. Normally this wouldn’t be a big issue, but the Master System’s D-pad isn’t as precise in your movements as the NES D-pad. This means you will be accidentally bumping into enemies when trying to get close enough to them to attack. It’s an inevitability and an inherent flaw in the controls of this game. Thankfully enemies will drop enough bread and meat, not hearts, to help full up your life meter.
Overall, I can think of worse games to try and emulate when creating a new game from scratch, so Golden Axe Warrior is still a very fun game to play today. Like the original LoZ, you can take two approaches, play as if you were back in 1991 and had no access to walkthroughs or the internet, and explore, slash, and fail time and again until you figure out all of the game’s secrets OR you can play using a walkthrough and save yourself frustration and time. Either way, I still think you’ll have fun.
This wasn’t one of the first games released for the Sega Master System but it surely is one of the more recognizable franchises to originate from the console. Released in 1988, Shinobi is a port of one of Sega’s arcade titles, which made up a decent chunk of available games for the SMS in the first couple years of it’s existence. Sega needed to rely on the strength of their own arcade ports in order to compete with the NES and Shinobi was part of that plan. It would precede Nintendo’s Ninja Gaiden by a few months in the battle for 2D ninja platforming supremacy and would go on to find minor success on the NES and then further with sequels on the Genesis.
The gameplay itself is basic 8-bit action platformer. You play the game as master ninja Joe Musashi, who’s mission is to stop the terrorist organization the Ring of Five. They have kidnapped children of the world’s leaders and you must rescue them while using stealth techniques learned over the course of your entire life. You have weapons such as throwing stars aka shuriken, swords, nunchucks and other long distance weapons such as bombs, knives and guns. You also have your fists and legs to deliver lethal blows, if necessary. Each larger level has sublevels you must complete before meeting up with one of five bosses in the game. Between certain levels, depending on the success you have with rescuing the kidnapped children, you are provided an opportunity, via a bonus level, to achieve additional magic skills. Hopefully you’ll be better at these than I am. I can only achieve the requirement to earn the magic spell a tiny fraction of the overall times I attempt these bonus rounds. Luckily, these magic skills are not mandatory for completing the game, but certainly may make passages in the game easier to complete.
For me, this title is a quintessential 8-bit action platformer. The graphics are good and the controls are easy to master. Your ninja character can jump up and down different levels on the screen by first pressing the direction on the controller then the jump button. Which is a bit different than typically pressing up and jump simultaneously as found in other platformers of the time. This was the first hurdle I had to overcome in the controls department as it was not something I was familiar with or ever had to do on a platformer before. Once I got the hang of that, I found Shinobi to be a top notch title for the Sega Master System that has a near perfect balance between challenge and fun. I just wish there was a continue option!
2. Phantasy Star
Phantasy Star is a sci-fi fantasy role playing game from Sega that made it’s debut on the Japanese Sega Mark III in ’87 the brought over to North America in ’88. This was about the time that the Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy series were gaining traction in Japan but had not yet made their way to the NES. What that means is Phantasy Star pre-dated both of the aforementioned RPG series in North America by a whole calendar year!
Unfortunately, because the Master System was such a (relative) flop in the U.S., Phantasy Star will never get the credit it deserves and is rarely cited as being N.A. gamers first RPG experience. Yes, there were RPG elements in Zelda 1 & 2 but those were not the same type of RPG and the style of gameplay is significantly different.
Phantasy Star is notable for a couple reasons beyond it being the premier RPG for the Master System. First, the dungeons you explore in the game are rendered in a first person 3D perspective, which was unique for the time and quite challenging. Challenging in the way that you weren’t allowed to see what was ultimately in front of you until about 2 screens before the item/monster you were about to encounter. This meant that you’d really have to be ready for just about anything but also you’d likely waste time going down empty hallways because you couldn’t see far enough in front of you to determine there was nothing there. Additionally, there were no dungeon maps to guide you on your quest. Like most RPGs of the era, there were overworld maps to help you determine where to go and where you’ve been but the dungeons were confusing labyrinths that almost demanded a player to graph them out in order to avoid repeating mistakes. These days, there are maps available online that will save gamers countless hours of wandering and exploring but that isn’t the same experience players had at the time, for better or worse.
The second unique aspect of Phantasy Star that comes to mind is your female protagonist, Alis, Alis witnesses her brother’s death at the beginning of the game and she must avenge him while taking down the evil rule of King Lassic. Female protagonists were few and far between in ’80s video games and especially rare in a fantasy role playing game with fighting, magic and weaponry. Before everyone gets too bent out of shape about Samus Aran being a female protagonist in 1986’s (Japanese release date) Metroid, keep in mind that most players never knew they were playing as a female the entire game unless they earned at least a good ending. The Metroid manual perpetuates the ruse by calling Samus a “he” in order to avoid spoiling the surprise ending. In Phantasy Star, there is no similar ruse to fool young, often male gamers into thinking they were playing as a man or boy. Alis is featured right on the front cover, feminine facial and body features unobscured for all to see.
Phantasy Star’s gameplay is exactly what you’d expect from an ’80s JRPG. You wander around the overworld visit villages and talk to townsfolk to gather clues as to where your quest will lead you. You will grind for experience points by fighting enemies that gradually will make you stronger and stronger. Alis meets additional characters on her journey that will ultimately join her to assist in her quest. These are all pretty standard tropes of RPGs that have since been done better but at the time of Phantasy Star’s release, were fresh and original. Despite it selling poorly at the time, Sega thankfully didn’t abandon the franchise. There were 3 additional high quality Phantasy Star titles released for the Genesis/Mega Drive and the series would be revived in a MMO format on the Dreamcast as Phantasy Star Online.
Phantasy Star is a landmark title for the Master System and a must own, plain and simple. It’s not a perfect game (grinding…..so much grinding) and a player today has a much better chance of enjoying it with a little online help for some of the most obscure clues and demanding dungeons. The cartridge features a battery back-up, which was a serious bonus if you didn’t enjoy entering in long passwords. If you want to play a genuinely good game with a good story and interesting characters, this game truly is for you.
1. Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap
Wonder Boy didn’t have an overly auspicious start on the Master System. The original title was a port of a fairly forgettable arcade game and it’s more commonly known as Hudson’s Adventure Island for the NES. Sega gave the Wonder Boy franchise another go with the sequel, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, and this was a step in the direction that would ultimately lead Sega to the develop the third game in the series and its masterpiece, Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap.
WB3 is an action adventure platformer that fits into the “Metroidvania” mold of games. This style of game requires a combination of platforming and non-linear play while also rewarding a player for exploring and collecting money, items and weapons. It also requires the player to back track to areas of the game that are not immediately accessible once they gain a certain ability or item which is another common trait of the “Metroidvania” style games. This is probably my favorite style of video game so automatically, I’m likely going to be into playing Wonder Boy 3 as long as it didn’t suck.
No worries there. Wonder Boy 3 takes place immediately after the events of Wonder Boy 2. You play as Wonder Boy (naturally), fully powered up and nearly indestructible as you take on the Mecha Dragon, your primary antagonist from the second game. Once you defeat Mecha Dragon, it curses Wonder Boy and turns him into a lizard while effectively removing all of his strength. At this point, the game becomes non-linear and you’re attempting to figure out what happened to you, how to remove the curse and where you need to go to accomplish this. The beginning of the game may have been an influence on Castlevania Symphony of the Night which also starts you at your strongest only to be stripped of your powers early on in the game.
Like many “Metroidvania” style games, you must gather clues from townfolk and other characters you meet during the course of the game. What sets this game apart is a unique plot device that turns your character not only into a lizard but additional creatures as the game progresses. With each dragon you defeat throughout the course of the game, Wonder Boy gets cursed over and over and will take on forms of a mouse, lion, piranha and hawk. I enjoy this aspect of the game as honestly, Wonder Boy always looks like a total dork to me so playing as him in a different form is welcome change.
In all, Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap is a brilliant game for the Master System and you’ll be hard pressed to find many other games on the console that equal some of the best of the action adventure games that the NES has to offer. Since it was exclusively released for the Master System under the Wonder Boy name (it was released as Dragon’s Curse on the Turbografx-16), I was unaware of this title during its 1989 release. I only became aware of how great this game is well after I bought my Master System in the early 2000s and added it to my collection. I wanted to try out a game in one of the Master System’s signature franchises, with Alex Kidd being the other one, and this seemed like the most interesting of the 3 available. Once you get past the lame box art, which is a Master System curse, as well as the misdirection of the opening scene, Wonder Boy 3 quickly becomes one of those games you can’t stop playing. It’s easily one of the best, if not THE best game on the console.