A history of videogame hardware: Sega Master System

master system

Year: October 1985 Manufacturer: Sega Original Cost: ¥15,500

With the Famicom achieving huge profits in the home video game market, Sega was just one of a number of companies eager to try its hand at launching an alternative, and wrestling some of Nintendo’s 90 per cent market share back. The company established an internal division, which was known as Sega Away Team, headed by Hideki Sato, tasked with developing Sega’s home consoles. Sato’s first hardware release was the Sega-1000, released in 1983 to disastrous response. However, lessons learned were used to design the Mark III, the system that would later be renamed the Sega Master System. The hardware featured a Zilog Z-80 processing chip and boasted 128 kilobits (a kilobit is one eighth of the size of a kilobyte) of memory, nearly twice that of the Famicom. Despite being more powerful than its rival, Sega lacked the software to make any impact on Nintendo’s market share in its homeland, and so began looking to the West in the hope of success, where the Famicom, redubbed Nintendo Entertainment System, had only just been released.

Sega rebranded the Mark III as the Sega Master System, redesigning its futuristic white plastic casing for a black and red rectangular design, more in keeping with Western fashions of the time.

While Nintendo had been steadily pulling away from its arcade business in favour of the home market, Sega emphasized its strong arcade presence. To attract consumers, the company bundled a home version of Yu Suzuki’s Hang On, its most popular arcade game of the time, with the Master System. However, without the handlebars used to control the arcade version, the home version seemed a little plain by comparison.

With a tiny marketing department run by just two men, Bruce Lowry and Bob Harris, out of a small room in the back of the company’s coin-op games offices, Sega lacked the advertising clout that was necessary to rival Nintendo’s spread across America. Without a recognizable mascot to set against Mario, the Master System floundered in America and Europe, in the same way that it had in Japan, leaving Sato and his team to return to the console drawing board once more.

  • Ken Horowitz

    I think even a decent advertising budget wouldn’t have helped against Nintendo’s monopolistic licensing policies and retailer bullying. There still would have been inconveniently-timed “chip shortages” and reduced orders by Nintendo to those companies that opted for developing for the Master System.