Geekade Top Ten: Sega Master System Games

Released in North America in 1986, the Sega Master System was intended as a direct competitor to the NES. And while the system was successful in both Europe and Brazil, it ultimately sold fairly poorly in Japan and North America tallying about thirteen million units. (Which sounds good, until you realize the NES sold about sixty-two million units…) Designed to play both cartridge games and Sega cards, credit card sized game cards, the Master System library is found wanting when looking for classics of the 8-bit era despite the fact that it was actually the more technically powerful of the two systems. Nintendo however, had a strict third party license contract and the Master System suffered. That is not to say that there were no great games on the platform. On the contrary, there are a ton of great, exclusive titles that have been long underplayed. Presented here by Geekade’s Dan Ryan and Kris Randazzo, are the official Geekade top ten lists of games you must play for the Sega Master System.

Kris’s #10. Gangster Town – The Zapper might be the light gun we all remember, but the Light Phaser for the Master System had its share of awesome games, and Gangster Town is the best of the bunch. Gangster Town is a target shooting game, not far removed from games like Tin Star or more common arcade shooters like Area 51, and is the story of a town overrun by old school gangsters. You grab your Light Phaser, and shoot everyone in your path. There are destructible environments, cool bonus games, decent music, and even an awesome car chase scene. Is it a masterpiece? No. Is it fun to play? Absolutely. It may be a short game, but I think that’s to the game’s benefit. Plus, when you shoot a gangster, a gangster angel appears, giving you the opportunity to double tap them, ensuring they don’t find their way to heaven. Lousy gangsters. 

Dan’s #10. Asterix –  To be honest, tbh as the kids say, I never played many light phaser titles. As such, you will find no light phaser titles on my list. Good game though Kris and a fine opening argument. I however present to you Asterix. Based on the Franco-Belgian comic that ran from 1935 to 2010, Asterix is about as solid a side-scrolling platformer as you’ll find on any system. Great graphics, super fun gameplay, a nice bit of depth due to the potions in the game, and a phenomenal capturing of the spirit of the comic and its varied characters (Obelix ftw) all add up to the number ten game on my list and a must play platformer. 

Kris’s #9. R-Type – You know, I’ve never played Asterix. Probably why it didn’t make my list. Anyhoo, my #9 is one of the best ports of one of the most classic shooters of all time. The original R-Type was a kick-ass arcade side scrolling shooter, and this version stands as a great example of what set the Master System apart from the NES: Graphics. Visually speaking, this game maintained most of the detail and speed of the arcade original with very little in the way of sacrifice, which is a real testament to the Master System’s power. The sound might be chirpy, but from a pure gameplay perspective, R-Type is a legend for a reason, and this, especially for its time, is one of the best conversions we could have asked for. If R-Type had appeared on NES, it just wouldn’t have come close. 

Dan’s #9. Golden Axe Warrior ­- R-Type is a fabulous game that just barely missed my top ten. I love it but found a shooter or two a bit better I feel. Anyway… In putting together these lists here at Geekade, it’s hard not to be influenced by outside lists and others opinions. I look at the top ten lists we have done and while there are some similarities, I have to remind myself that this is MY top ten and it doesn’t matter that my number four doesn’t make a lot of other lists. Golden Axe Warrior is my nine for everything it is, not the things it isn’t. Looking at original reviews, Golden Axe Warrior was criticized for not being anything like Golden Axe, which… was the ENTIRE GD POINT OF THE GAME A­HOLES FROM THE PAST! Golden Axe, a side­scrolling beat ‘em up, is a lot of fun. It’s SMS counterpart, is… different. Golden Axe Warrior though, was designed for the SMS and shines because of it. It is a Zelda clone, a shameless Zelda clone through and through. You play as a young protagonist who has to traverse the land, battle through nine dungeons, collect nine crystals from nine bosses at the end of each dungeon, unlock the tenth dungeon, collect the Golden Axe, and defeat Death Adder and save the realm. (If that doesn’t sound familiar go play The Legend of Zelda right now, then play this, and man oh man will it) None of that makes it bad however. The graphics are great, the control is very good, the bosses look cool and are fun to play against, the sound/music is decent, there is a few hours worth of gameplay, and the original Golden Axe characters make cameo appearances. If you can find a copy, it is one of the most rare games on the system, it is well worth a playthrough. (you can also unlock the game on Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for PS3 and 360)

Kris’s #8. Quartet – I considered having Golden Axe rather high on my list, but as I’ve only seen videos of the game and never actually played it, I decided to leave it off my list. It does look awesome though. My next game is just plain cool, and that is Quartet. Originally released as an endless arcade shooter, Quartet for Master System turned into something far greater. Much like Tecmo’s Rygar or Ninja Gaiden on NES, Sega didn’t try to simply port the arcade game, but instead opted to create a more cohesive adventure that took advantage of the home console format. The result was what I consider a much better game than its arcade counterpart (also just like Rygar or Ninja Gaiden). One of its best features was 2 player simultaneous co-op. Master System gamers who were jealous of Contra may not have been completely satisfied (Let’s face it. Contra is one of the coolest games of all time) but Quartet did an admirable job of scratching that itch. Or at least applying some ointment that reduced the sensation. It did have a sequel with better graphics, but for me the original just plays better, and that’s what it’s all about in the end. Plus, it’s got jetpacks. JETPACKS! 

Dan’s #8. Alex Kidd in Miracle World – Quartet is not a game I’ve ever played so I cannot speak to it. It sounds pretty dope though. For my number 8 I went a bit obvious. Released as an alternative to Super Mario Bros. Alex Kidd is one of Sega’s more well know franchises and for good reason. It’s a fantastic game and well deserving of a spot on anyone’s top ten list. Alex Kidd is no mere clone however (a theme that will run throughout this list) Instead of jumping on people, Alex punches fools in the face. Instead of instant powerups, you get an item management system that lets you power up when you want to and/or need to. And there were vehicles and vehicles are awesome. The graphics were good if a bit cutesy. The music was good if a bit Master Systemy… (just go with it) Most importantly, the game was just fun. And when we are talking classic platformers, fun is the name of the game.

Kris’s #7. Alex Kidd in Miracle World – I couldn’t agree more about Alex Kidd. It’s not the best platformer I’ve ever played, it doesn’t do much to showcase the Master System’s strengths, and it’s certainly no Super Mario Bros., but it’s a very solid game in its own right, and it’s filled with some charming quirks to boot. It’s bright and colorful, the music is catchy, and it’s got some pretty weird art direction. The physics leave much to be desired, and the character design for Alex Kidd looks pretty dated, but this game had the makings of a killer franchise for Sega, which instead called it quits after a few offshoots. It’s a shame, really, because I would love to see a modern take on this world with some updated character designs. Punching fools in the face is always a good time. Plus, all the bosses are beaten via rock, paper, scissors. So there’s that. 

Dan’s #7. Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa – Look at that Kris, we sort of agree on something. For my number seven I landed on Fantasy Zone II. With all due respect to R-Type, and it really does deserve a ton of respect, for my money (tbh family members money back then, i was eight) Fantasy Zone II was the more enjoyable experience. The game certainly strayed from the typical shooter setting replacing desolate space locales for brightly colored fever dreams. In the game, as with the original, you control the sentient spaceship Opa-Opa. In a very Defender-esque setup you scroll freely, left or right, and blow up bases throughout the level. Once the bases have been destroyed you warp to fight a boss. The bosses are large and silly and very much in the spirit of the game. The final level featured the first boss rush I remember playing and my little mind was blown. There were upgrades similar to other shooters of the time, fun music, interesting graphics, basically everything one could want. It is simply a joyful game (even with the blowing up and destroying stuff) There have been multiple ports and plenty of places to play the game on more modern systems. Grab a copy, you won’t regret it.

Kris’s #6. Golvellius – I love me some Fantasy Zone, but more on that in a bit. Next up fro me is Golvellius: Valley of Doom. Now, it may be true that Golden Axe is the better Zelda clone on the Master System, but since I’ve never played it, Golvellius takes the adventure pie for me. It hits all the right notes with a cool world to explore, neat monster design, and catchy music. The graphics are quite nice too. It’s not crazy detailed or anything, but it’s very colorful and clean. When it comes to games involving exploration, this kind of thing is very important, and Golvellius gets it right. It isn’t flawless, but what retro game really is? It’s just a really nice adventure game. Sadly, even though it got an iOS port back in 2009, we still haven’t seen that sequel the ending promised.

Dan’s #6. Ninja Gaiden – Golvellius is awesome and might pop up in a few. By the time 1992 rolled around, the Sega Master System was all but dead in both Japan and North America. The NES had killed it and support for the console was minimal at best. And that’s really a shame as there were plenty of awesome games that the North American market missed out on. Ninja Gaiden is one of those. Released in PAL territories, where the Master System and MSX were kings, this version of Ninja Gaiden was developed by SEGA internally and features the same characters as the NES series with a slightly altered story. (to be honest the only thing the NES version has over this game is the story) While the movements of main character Ryu Hayabusa are relatively the same in both versions, it feels better in this one. Ryu even has the wall jump ability that would later make its way to the late 2000’s home console releases. The graphics are superior as well. The music is on par with the NES version if a bit inferior. Overall, this is a game that would have sold well in America had it been released. Alas, in order to play it now you would have to hunt down a PAL Master System and copy of the game and the required converters. Which is a pain in the ass. If only there was some way to, I don’t know… emulate the experience. I promise it’s worth it. 

Kris’s #5. Penguin Land – I can’t say that I agree with you on some of your points, but I can respect that Ninja Gaiden on SMS is a damn good action game. Speaking of violent action games, My #5 is the charming puzzle platformer Penguin Land. If you’ve ever played Toki Tori, then you know what you’re getting into here. You play as a cute little penguin who is trying to get its egg to the bottom of an obstacle-filled maze. Your movements are fairly limited though. Your penguin is a far cry from Mario or Sonic. Let’s just say your vertical leap leaves something to be desired. You can fall like a champ though! That said, since your egg is inherently breakable, it can only fall so far without cracking, so you have to plan your strategy very carefully. Really, this game hits all the right notes for a retro puzzler. It’s cute, clever, and tons of fun. With a little practice, you’ll be avoiding enemies, pitfalls, and other dangers like a pro in no time. There aren’t many games like this on the SMS, so Penguin Land makes a fantastic addition to any Master System collection. It’s even got a level editor, so the fun never ends!

Dan’s #5 – Land of Illusion – Ah yes, Penguin Land, another game I’ve never played. (I’m starting to think we had very different Master System experiences) Anywhoo, for my number five I landed on a sequel to one of the best platformers of the 8-bit era Castle of Illusion, seriosuly check out the remake that came out last year… dope AF, Land of Illusion. The Illusion series of games, Castle/Land/World/Legend, are one of the few times I’ve counted myself amongst the legion of Mousekateers. My general dislike for Mickey as a character was completely forgotten when playing these games, especially Land of Illusion. While being a sequel in name only, this game took everything great about Castle of Illusion and did it better. The graphics stand out as some of, if not the, best on the system. The gameplay is perfectly tuned across all fourteen levels and the game scales in difficuty from “oh, really?” to “oh shit!” very nicely. Add in the new items such as the shrinking potion and rope and you’ve got yourself a fantastic platformer. The only real gripe here is with the music which is fine but only just. Nothing really stands out to me anyway. Regardless, this is a game you need to play if you fancy yourself a fan of platformers. It, like its predecessor, is begging for a modern remake.

Kris’s #4. Sonic the Hedgehog – Ah yes, Land of Illusion, another game I’ve never played. (Yes, we did have very different Master System experiences.) Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis was a smash hit, and that’s putting it lightly. The blue blur has had his share of flops lately, but there’s no disputing how big he was in his prime, and back then Sega decided to get their new mascot on as many pltforms as possible, including the Master System. Now, they could have just made a crappy port of the Genesis game, but instead, Sega made an entirely new platformer that played to the Master System’s strengths. This version introduces cool stuff like ramps that shoot you high into the sky (only if you’re rolling) and deviously hidden Chaos Emeralds tucked away right in the stages (no weird bonus levels here). But I couldn’t mention this game without talking about its incredible soundtrack. This is some of the most wonderful music the MS has to offer. It’s catchy, fun, and the perfect example of sunny afternoon gaming. There were sequels on MS and Game Gear that were technically superior, but none of them had the same soul as this one. At every turn you can tell this game was made by people who gave a crap, which is something the Sonic franchise needs desperately today.

Dan’s #4 – Golvellius – As not a Sonic fan, I did not play Sonic on the Master System so I’ll take your word for it. For my number four, I went with a game that Kris mentioned a few spots up. I hit on one adventure game with Golden Axe Warrior but Golvellius is so good it needs to be on this list. Kris nailed it when he said there were better Zelda clones as Golvellius is more than just a Zelda clone. It has the overworld exploration sure but instead of an open world you get seven sections that you visit in order (though you can go back after you have gained new abilities and discover some previosuly unreachable secrets). It also has some side scrolling bits of gameplay reminiscent of Zelda II. Each dungeon has a sub-boss and a main boss effectively doubling the content. But, maybe my favorite bit of quirk in Golvellius is the bible. Bibles are an item you acquire throughout the game. They do not give  you magic or health but the capacity for more money. That is hilarious to us non-believers and should be funny to the rest of you. If you’ve never played, grab a copy for iOS at the very least. It’s a wonderful game that deserves a spot in aan adventure gamers library.

Kris’s #3. Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa – Well said, Dan. Now, on to my #3, which is the sublime shooter Fantasy Zone II. You had mentioned this one earlier, and you were right about it being colorful. This game, perhaps above any other I’ve seen, showcases the graphics capabilities of the SMS in the sheer color department. It’s simply gorgeous, and filled past brimming with animation and spritework that rivals the best the NES has to offer. It’s fun as heck, but more importantly, it’s tough as nails. It may fall into downright unfair territory from time to time, but for my money it never stops being fun. Plus, the sheer creativity pouring out of this game is out of control. The original Fantasy Zone will always hold a place in my heart (it does have the superior soundtrack, after all) but Fantasy Zone II is incredible, and the #1 reason I wanted to own a Master System as a kid. 

Dan’s #3. Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap –­ I’m going to keep this one relatively short because while I recognize its greatness, I promise Kris will write a much more gushing review than I. What I will say is that Wonder Boy III may technically be the best game on the system. It is not my favorite, obviously, but it is a wonderfully realized adventure with fantastic music, great graphics, a charming story, and tight controls. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up.

Kris’s #2. Phantasy Star – Spoiler alert: Dan’s keeps his promises. Anyway, the NES had Dragon Warrior, Shadowgate, Ultima, and Final Fantasy. It was THE place to go for RPGs from both sides of the globe. But the master system? It had Phantasy Star, and it was legendary. For fans of the RPG genre back in the day, the NES was the clear system of choice. However, once those fans got wind of Phantasy Star, they were hard pressed to not want a Master System just a little. Much like other RPGs of the era, Phantasy Star hasn’t aged as gracefully as one would hope, but like the original Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior, there’s something about the original that will always stand the test of time. I mean, what doesn’t this game get right? The music is stellar. The visuals are vastly superior to any NES RPG. The cutscenes are top notch. The cool sci-fi setting is a refreshing change of pace. The battle system is simple and effective. There’s even a cool yellow cat thing that follows you around. And don’t get me started on how impressive those first person dungeon segments were for their time. Phantasy Star had plenty going on before the Dreamcast’s Phantasy Star Online became what the franchise was known for, and even if it is flawed by today’s standards, it’s still absolutely worth playing, especially if you’re a fan of RPGs. 

Dan’s #2. Master of Darkness -­ The problem with most of the SMS catalogue is that a ton of great games were released in Europe or Brazil but not North America. Such is the case with my number two. Now to get the obvious out of the way, yes, this is a Castlevania clone in every sense. However, that does nothing to detract from the overall quality, and in some cases superiority, of Master of Darkness. You play as Dr. Social, a psychologist in a very gothic looking Victorian England. Your mission is to destroy Dracula and his minions (including Jack the Ripper so that explains that I suppose). The game takes you through a bunch of different locations including yes a castle but also a house of wax, a cemetery, a laboratory, and a few others. Each stage ends with a boss fight that is based on pattern recognition as were most of the games from this time period. These fights can be tough depending on your main/sub weapon combo, with the right combo they are a breeze, but are never unpassable. The music is really awesome the first time through the track but gets a bit repetitive as you progress through the level. It does create great atmosphere though and did a lot with the SMS sound chip. The level design is fun and interesting, the graphics are some of the very best on the system, and the variety of weapons (I’m a sword and bombs guy myself) let you play through in your style. Overall, Master of Darkness is an amazing example of what was possible on the SMS and is not to be missed.

Kris’s #1. Wonder Boy III The Dragon’s Trap – Another game I’m unfamiliar with, but I suppose I’ll have to look into it. On to Wonder Boy III. If you know me, this game’s placement should’t surprise you. This game is amazing. I discovered it late in life, having never even heard of it until long after the Master System was dead, and even still, this game is amazing. From the moment I started playing, I was enthralled by the weird world I found myself in. Within minutes, I had explored a castle, killed ogres, found a spaceship, fought a mechanical dragon, been turned into a dragon myself, and made a daring escape. And that’s all before the game hits you with its title screen. This incredible adventure takes you through awesome locales, pits you against challenging and creatively designed bosses, gives your character awesome transformations, and hits your ears with phenomenal music. I could go on and on about how incredible this game is ( in fact, I have on the Stone age Gamer and WaveBack) but don’t listen to me, go play this game. It doesn’t matter how, find a way and make it happen. It’s not just the best Master System games, it’s one of the best games of that generation, and that’s pitting it against the likes of Mega Man, Mario, Castlevania, and Zelda. It’s that good. 

Dan’s #1. Phantasy Star – I know that Kris will argue Wonder Boy III but really, could the number one game on the Master System be anything but Phantasy Star? It is the identifiable title, the one everyone knows and for good reason. Released in 1988, Phantasy Star was the standard bearer for RPG’s on Sega platforms basically until the death of Sega platforms. This game helped lay the groundwork for what would become a juggernaut, Phantasy Star Online, all while introducing Western gamers to RPGs and the massive stories they contained. The game itself features some of the most impressive graphics of the era including some 3D perspective tricks that no one else was doing quite as well. (overworld=top down, dungeons=1st person 3D) The characters had life and animation, which is more than can be said for most RPGs at the time. The sound design squeezed everything it could from the SMS sound chip and produced some great music. The story itself is one of the first RPGs to break from traditional Sword & Sorcery tropes and venture into the realm of Sci­Fi. I loved that fact as a kid and appreciate it even more now as an adult gamer who would like a lot more variety in his games. Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about this game though, especially now, is that it was brave enough to feature a female protagonist who was out to avenge her family, not out for love or money. It is a rare character to find today and was rare then as well. Alis is a benchmark for well written female characters though and should be used as a template for young game designers. Not much more can be said about Phantasy Star. If you have never played it, it can be completed in about two or three hours and is more than worth your time. It is not just one of the best RPGs of all time, but is the best SMS game.

Kris’s final thoughts – Look, the Master System library is full of great games I left off this list. It’s just a matter of my not having played them all, and their relative obscurity here in the states. No matter what, I think we can all agree that the SMS was a great system, and while it couldn’t really compete with the NES’s legendary library, the amazing games on display here show that it had plenty to offer on its own. Now, I have a few things to say about Ninja Gaiden. 1. SMS Ninja Gaiden plays like Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom, which sucked, and plays nowhere near as tight as the first 2 NES games. 2. Wall jumping has always been a major part of Ninja Gaiden. It’s animated here more like the modern games, but its core functionality is essentially the same as the first NES game. 3. The cinematics, while still cool, are not nearly as dynamic as the NES titles (no camera panning, same music for every cutscene, same size shot every time, etc). In short, you cray cray. In the end, Dan and I don’t agree on much, but when it comes to the Master System being awesome, I believe we have common ground.

Dan’s final thoughts – I loved my Master System right up until the day I blew the power chip by plugging the wrong wattage and or volatile adapter into it. A hard lesson to learn to be sure. I later replaced it and found a whole new batch of titles I had missed the first time around. There were plenty of games I wanted to include here but just couldn’t reasonably place on a top ten, mine or otherwise. Games like My Hero, Black Belt and Action Fighter, Shinobi, After Burner and Ys would be on my list somewhere because I loved them but objectively they have issues. And while Kris and I disagree on things like Ninja Gaiden (it’s dope go play it), we absolutely agree that the Master Sysem is truly awesome. This list is a great introduction to the system for the uninitiated and a reminder to go and play some great games for those who may have forgotten.  

Kris Randazzo

Kris is the Content Supervisor of Geekade. As an avid consumer of all things video game, Kris spent his formative years collecting cartridges, CDs, discs, and assorted paraphernalia in an effort to amass a video game collection large enough to kill an elephant. He works with Stone Age Gamer, writing for their blog and hosting the Stone Age Gamer Podcast right here at Geekade. He's also the host of the WaveBack Podcast, co-host of This Week's Episode, and can occasionally be found in the pages of Nintendo Force Magazine.

7 thoughts on “Geekade Top Ten: Sega Master System Games

  • October 8, 2015 at 11:37 am

    I can’t believe there were 20 slots on this list and I only owned 2 of the games mentioned (Sonic and Fantasy Zone). My sister and I were at the mercy of our dad and whatever he picked out, which is how, I suppose, we ended up with duds like Golf and Monopoly. We did also have Double Dragon, which I would argue belongs on one of these lists, if I had played any of the other games and therefore had a leg to stand on. But perhaps if I had been exposed to any more of these cool games, I would have become a more serious gamer sooner.

  • October 8, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    No Zillion??!!
    Article SHMARTICLE!! 🙂

    • October 9, 2015 at 1:10 pm

      Totally going to have to write a shmarticle now.

  • April 9, 2016 at 10:09 pm

    Great lists. If you haven’t played them yet, check out Ultima IV (by far the best version of the game, even considering my nostalgia for the Apple II original) and Psycho Fox. These two plus Wonder Boy III round out my top three. Phantasy Star comes in at fourth.

    Also: Choplifter, Alex Kidd in Shinobi World, Spellcaster, Dynamite Dux and Double Dragon.

  • July 7, 2016 at 11:13 pm

    In fact, Master System was the number one in Soth Korea, Australia, Europe and Brazil among other. Only in 1991, Nintendo was found guilty of violating United States antitrust law and forced to abandon some of its licensing practices, but at that time Sega Genesis era has already begun. Unfortunately only a half of the SMS library was launched in the US. Perhaps because of that you forgot to mention great games like Space Harrier 3-D, Rocky , California Games, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, Moonwalker, Castle of Illusion, Dynamite Headdy, Sonic 2, Deep Duck Trouble, Outrun, Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, Legend of Illusion, Shadow Dancer, Wonder Boy in Monster World, Desert Strike, Road Rash, Prince of Persia, Shadow of the Beast, Rambo III, Wanted!, Assault City, Shooting Gallery, Psycho Fox, After Burner, James Pond 2, Cool Spot, Krusty’s Fun House, Kenseiden, Black Belt, Double Dragon, Aladdin, Asterix 2, World Class Leader Board, Vigilante, The Jungle Book, Chuck Rock 2, Altered Beast, Masters of Combat, Global Gladiators, Miracle Warriors, Ren & Stimpy, Y’s, Alien 3, Lemmings, Ecco: The Tides of Time, Earthworm Jim, Zillion II, Olympic Gold, Mortal Kombat II, Bonanza Bros, Alex Kidd in Shinobi World, SpellCaster, X-Men, R.C. Grand Prix, Impossible Mission and many others.

    • March 7, 2017 at 11:20 am

      Sorry it took so long to respond to this! We certainly didn’t forget any of those games you listed. I just wouldn’t put any of them above the ones we did. Not to say those aren’t wonderful games, but they definitely don’t make my top ten on the system.

  • July 10, 2016 at 1:49 am

    In all countries of the world outside Japan and the US, the Sega Master System was the number one 8-bit console reaching 80% market share in the world outside Japan and USA. This two countries remained in a kind of parallel universe thanks to the fierce and illegal marketing strategy used by Nintendo. Besides getting 80% of these markets against the nes, the Sega Master System later became the main Mega Drive competitor in all these markets for most of the 16-bit era, preventing the snes from obtain the second position after the dominant Mega Drive.


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