While comparable to the NES in terms of graphics and sound, the Master System library of games was meager by comparison and its controllers sub-par. With Nintendo dominating in America, the Master System was forced to compete with Atari for the remaining fraction of the home video game market. It's worth noting however that the console performed much better on a worldwide basis, particularly in Europe and Brazil, where it found support until 1996.
Console design: B. Streamlined and attractive, the Master System is long with a slick black exterior. A curious label situation in front of the cartridge slot contains an unnecessary diagram of the various system components (cartridge, controller, TV switch), as if a quick reference guide was even necessary.
Cartridges plug straight down into the console, which is far more convenient than the NES front-loading scheme. A pause and reset button are situated in front of the cartridge slot. Placing the pause button on the console instead of the controllers was as an awful design decision. Not only is it inconvenient to use pause, but there's a good chance you'll hit reset by mistake!
Along the front of the console is a power button, two controller ports, and a "game card" slot (the system could handle cards on games in addition to cartridges). In 1990 Sega released a second version of the console, featuring a more compact design but lacking a reset button and card slot.
Console durability: A. With few moving parts there's very little that can go wrong with the Master System. Every one I've come across has functioned perfectly.
Graphics: B. The SMS graphic capabilities may have bested the Atari 7800, but the NES had a slight edge in graphic quality. Like the NES, some SMS games are subject to slow-down, break-up, and flickering, but these problems tend to be intermittent and rarely ruin the action. Sega also released a 3D glasses peripheral which works on a handful of games. I found the illusion of 3D quite convincing.
Audio: C. Like the NES, the SMS was not particularly strong in the sound department. Voice samples were incorporated into some games but they tend to be hard to understand.
Controllers: D. On the surface Master System controllers look like NES control pads with a black color scheme. In fact there are only two buttons, which is a limiting factor in some games. In addition, the directional pad has an inexact, "mushy" feel compared with the tight NES controller.
Media: C-. Compared to the NES, the boxy SMS cartridges are extremely compact. Unfortunately, their tiny labels only allow enough room for the title of the game, so they look plain. One unusual aspect of the system is how it also supports game cards. About size of a credit card, this media actually holds less than a conventional cartridge. Apparently they were designed to be a low-cost alternative to expensive cartridges. Only a few titles were released on card format and Sega eventually phased it out, re-releasing some card titles as cartridges.
Packaging: B-. Starting a welcome trend, Master System games were the first sold in the classic plastic "clam" boxes. Very durable, presentable, and easy to snap open and close, this design proved ideal and would eventually be used to package Genesis games. The "card" games came in a slimmer version of these boxes.
Unfortunately, early SMS packaging tended to be white and plain, and the minimal "artwork" displayed on the front of many games was simply pathetic. It was as if Sega was trying to repel consumers. Sega would change to a more stylish black design, but not until late in the system's lifecycle.
Packin-in Game: B. Two games were built directly into the system: Hang On and Safari Hunt. Hang On was a solid arcade-style motorcycle racer and Safari Hunt is the obligatory light-gun title.
Launch titles: No additional titles were available at time of launch.
Library: C. The Master System library is modest compared to the NES, and it lacks the cutting-edge titles. Worse yet, games that appeared on both systems were generally better on the NES. Sega especially stumbled in its "Great" sports series of games which were universally panned. Still, the SMS has more than its share of fun titles, including R-Type, Shinobi, Rastan, and the Alex Kid series (Sega's answer to Mario Bros).
More sophisticated games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Ghouls and Ghosts, and Golden Axe were released late in the system's life cycle, but mainly outside of the US. Fortunately the Master system can play games from any region and there's no problem playing PAL titles on a NTSC television.
Collectability: C+. SMS systems and controllers come relatively cheap, and most games are inexpensive. Packaged in sturdy plastic cases, the games tend to be in good condition and include instructions. Some of the later titles were not widely available in America and may require international shopping to track down.
Innovations: Pause button on console, game cards, 3D glasses accessory.
Pros and Cons:
+ Consoles durable and cheap
+ Games packaged in plastic clam-shell cases
- Mediocre controllers
- Lousy sports titles
Sega Master System Game Reviews