Hello retro folks,
Did you enjoy the 10 best Sega Saturn games? I told you we would be looking over the greats across all of Sega’s hardware, and here we are again! The Sega Master System is often overshadowed by Sega’s more graphically powerful systems, but it would be a mistake to ignore this bad boy. It is an important piece of gaming history, and I want to shine a light on it, so this system can bring retro gaming goodness to as many people as possible.
Oh, before you wonder, as usual, I limited this list to one title per series, that is why you will not see the likes of Sonic Chaos or Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. But enough preamble: without further ado, below are the 10 best Sega Master System games!
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10. Psycho Fox (developed by Vic Tokay, published by Sega in 1989)
Psycho Fox is a classic bright and colorful side-scrolling action game. It is your job to take on the evil Madfox, who has usurped the Fox god’s power and has unleashed monsters on the land. Psycho Fox has the power to transform to help you navigate the levels, and meet your ultimate goal.
You can become a hippo, a monkey, and a tiger, so you can traverse the stages and explore the levels. It is a classic and if you are a platforming aficionado, you need to play this game.
9. New Zealand Story (developed and published by Taito in 1988)
You play as Tiki, the Kiwi, and you are on a mission. The mission is running through a gauntlet of traps and monsters to get to one of your friends and save them from their cage. The big mission, however, is to save your girlfriend from a blue leopard seal. This game was created by Taito for arcades, and the port on the Master System is one of the best available.
While the level designs are not 1 to 1 with the arcade, the graphics and responsive controls are everything you would want for a hardcore retro platforming game like this one. And again, while the art style is cute and cuddly, the challenge of this game is most certainly not.
One hit and you lose a life, and you WILL get hit. It has got everything a retro gamer loves, steep challenge, satisfying level design, and white knuckle twitchy action.
8. Impossible Mission (developed and published by Epyx in 1988)
You are a secret agent, tasked with thwarting the evil machinations of Professor Elvin Atombender. You must assemble 36 files to get a password to open up the Professor’s sanctum, and allow you to put the smackdown on him. The gameplay itself is a hybrid of Roguelike RNG, adventure games, and platforming. You are on a ticking timer, and if you die you lose ten minutes. It ratches up the tension right off the bat.
If you manage to beat the robot guards, find all 36 files and stop the professor, you are treated to a great set of cut scenes that offer an excellent window into the past, and what was a bundle of pop culture references. If Quentin Tarantino was a game developer, this is something that he would probably come up with or at least use as a reference.
7. California Games (developed and published by Epyx in 1987)
California Games is an interesting animal. The game is a set of minigames involving sports that were wildly popular at the time and includes skateboarding, BMX biking, frisbee throwing, rollerskating, and hacky sack. Each sport has its time to shine and while top scores are difficult, the games themselves are not hard to come to grips with.
There is a sense of humor injected into the proceedings as well, so if you are looking for a chill time this is a fun way to get it. The hacky sack minigame is hilarious as well, with obstacles coming along as you try not to let the bag touch the ground. Just beware of the seagulls, because if you do not, you will receive a massive dose of avian guilt.
6. R-type (developed and published by Irem in 1988)
R-Type is a critically acclaimed sidescrolling shooter and has the distinction of one of Nintendo’s last arcade cabinets ever made. The port for the SMS is one of the best out there, especially since the Master System was trying to make a port of cutting edge arcade cabinet hardware at the time. The game has some of the most difficult bosses of any franchise, and there is probably a huge pile of broken Master System controllers somewhere just because of the challenge this game has.
If you want some bragging rights, go for beating this game, and you will get a boost to your gamer cred. For the time, it was the Dark Souls of shooters, and if you like overcoming a good challenge, you will find this game wonderfully addictive.
5. Sonic the Hedgehog (developed and published by Ancient in 1991)
Yup, its THAT Sonic, but trimmed down to fit on the 8-Bit Master System. Do not be fooled into thinking it is just a port, though. It has all the Sonic platforming goodness that you expect, plus different levels and a more explorative focus in the design. It pushes the Master System to its limits and has the level of polish that only the 90s era Sonic Team could pull off. It has something for every die-hard Sonic fan, and if you own the original cartridge in the USA, you have a sought-after collectible.
4. Land of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (developed and published by Sega; Europe 1993, Brazil 1994)
Land of Illusion is a side-scrolling platformer with the stunning graphics and refined gameplay that set Disney games apart from other licensed titles. The sprite work is excellent and well animated for an 8-bit title. With 14 levels to explore, find items that give you special powers, and the ability to revisit the levels to use those same powers to find hidden things, there is a lot to do in this game.
With simple gameplay and a fun world to look at, it is easy to sink a ton of hours into it. Oh, and The Game Gear version did not disappoint either: I ranked it third on my list of the 5 best GG games.
3. Alex Kidd in Miracle World (developed and published by Sega; Japan 1986, North America and Europe 1987)
Any Sega faithful from back in the day will get a little misty-eyed at the mention of Alex Kidd. Alex, the coverall wearing martial artist, is on a quest to rescue a prince and princess from the clutches of Janken the Great. It is time to punch bad guys and take on Janken’s henchmen in a rousing game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
This is Master System gold, and you cannot try this console and NOT play it. For some kids, it was Super Mario Bros, and for a lucky few Alex Kidd inspired a lifelong love of video games. It takes a special kind of awesome to inspire nostalgia this strong, and Alex Kidd is exactly that.
2. Phantasy Star (developed by Sega and Sonic Team, published by Sega in 1987)
Phantasy Star is one of the progenitors of JRPGs on home consoles. The story and universe design were inspired by Star Wars, Dragon Quest, and the Ultima series. The star system of Algol is in the grip of the tyrannical ruler, King Lassic. Small resistance groups have sprung up to free the system, but are mostly ineffective against the king’s superior forces.
You play Alis, the daughter of a slain rebel leader. She vows revenge and along with her party trek across three different planets to become powerful enough to overthrow King Lassic and bring peace to the system. With its interesting blend of Sci-fi and medieval fantasy, the game is both beautiful and engaging. Know your roots, and find out why this title helped launch an entire genre.
You know, with a system that propelled Sega into home console legend status, it is hard to narrow a list down to JUST 10 games. I would be remiss if I did not include the 3 that just barely missed being on this list. Here are the honorable mentions:
Streets of Rage (developed and published by Sega in 1993)
The city is under the thumb of a criminal syndicate and the streets are thick with violent thugs and crooked cops. Three former police officers, sick at the sight of the corruption, have decided to take the law into their own hands, and deliver justice to the mastermind behind it all. Streets of Rage is a side-scrolling beat‘em up style game.
Play as one of three players and serve knuckle sandwiches to street thugs. Each character has a unique move set and gets to call in backup from a police cruiser. While the Master System has its limitations, it has a boss fight that is exclusive to that version. Brawlers are a good way to spend a few hours, and who does not like to dispense vigilante justice digitally, once in a while?
Penguin Land (developed and published by Sega in 1987)
This little charmer stars the one and only Penguin Mission Commander Overbite. It is his job to push a fragile penguin egg down to the bottom of a hostile alien cave and get them on the spaceship that will take them home. It seems like a simple task at first, but if the egg drops too far, or gets stuck it will break.
If the environment itself is not enough, there are also aliens dead set on cracking the egg, and you as well. It is downright deceptive in its simplicity, like any amazing game, and the loop is addictive. Just one more level, just one more try, just one more penguin! You want to help cute penguins escape from an alien world, of course, you do.
Space Harrier (developed and published by Sega in 1985)
It is surprising that a game so graphically intense could be ported to the Sega Master System, but the mad lads at Sega managed to not only do that, but developed their first 2 Megabit cartridge to bring the Arcade money maker to their home console. The game was also redesigned for the console version to make it easier for all of it to fit.
They also added a console exclusive boss, Haya Oh, a giant twin bodied fire breathing dragon. Space Harrier is well-known among arcade faithful and has been featured as a minigame in other Sega games. The Master System version is one of a kind, however, and that alone makes it worth a look.
1. Wonder Boy in Monster Land (developed and published by Sega in 1988)
Wonder Boy in Monster Land follows the titular Wonder Boy on a new adventure through Wonderland. His job is to retake Wonderland from the evil fire breathing MEKA dragon. The dragon has taken control of Wonderland by force and has sent his army of monsters to plunder and suppress the population. You are Wonderland’s best and last hope.
With just a sword and a potion, you must venture out into the world, get stronger, and buy equipment so you can face the dragon and save the land. The game’s port from the arcade version is one of the best ports ever, and critics at the time agree. With gorgeously rendered sprites and excellent controls, this game was a huge hit, and well worth playing today. The game is huge considering the file size limitations of early cartridges, and other than being a marvel of design and efficient programming, it is a blast to play.
I personally LOVED Wonder Boy in Monster Land. I cannot tell you how many times I beat the game in both the Arcade cabinet and the Master System. I loved the tight controls and the equipment system, always something new to uncover, another way to polish my strategy, another unique turn in the mechanics that made me want to play again and again. For me, the top spot was easy to pick, and I want everyone to get a taste of this game’s wonderful world. It is easily one of the best games ever designed, let alone the best on the Master System.
Thank you for coming with me down the list of the 10 best Sega Master System Games. Each one of these games and the honorable mentions has to be played. It is an important window into video game history, and frankly a fun time all around.
If you want to know more about retro gaming and have a deep love of the history of our favorite hobby, come back at any time. Check back often for new lists, or check out the old ones in case you have not read any of those yet. Also, you are more than welcome to leave a comment and share the love of one of the greatest eras in video games!
Till next retro post!