Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sega Master System, 1987.

In the comments to my last post I was bemoaning how and to whom I would crow about my thrift store find of a Sega Master System until I realised that I had an excuse sitting in the scan vault gathering dust.

In elementary school, due to our walks home overlapping, I found myself hidden friends with The Least Popular Kid In School, who, due to no fault of his own, found himself set upon viciously by the pack -- myself included, publicly, to avoid making myself a target. He was raised by a well-intentioned single mother, a member of the police force, and had a loving pit bull, an Apple 2 and a Sega Master System. The first point resulted in his being a little poorer than the median, an unpardonable sin in a pen of rich brats (one of whom once charitably advised me between classes that I could be cool if I only had a pair of Air Jordans, the crystal moment that made me a Marxist in Grade 4) whose parents hadn't quite divorced yet, and everything that followed resulted from that point: he had the slightly cheaper, now outmoded home computer and the slightly cheaper, tragically wrong video game console. Still, despite the irrevocable cosmic wrongness, we somehow still managed to enjoy playing Chivalry on the former and Shinobi on the latter.

Anyhow, our paths diverged -- my mother forbade me from visiting upon learning that he also had the plum wrong breed of dog at his house, and after I switched to a French Immersion school in Grade 6 I didn't see him again for many years... and I never saw a Sega Master System again in the flesh. Until the other day! The anti-bullying PSA ends here.

While I was at work my long-suffering partner texted me: There is a Sega Base Unit at the thrift store, do you want it? That could mean a lot of things, and all the likely returns already pointed to happy acquisitions gathering dust in my basement: Genesis, Sega CD, Game Gear, Saturn, Dreamcast. Of course there are still a few machines missing but given that I've never seen one in the wild, the odds are that she's found yet another Genesis -- which I have learned since the Sega CD acquisition had some whimsical accessories to engage to its base unit. So I kindly thank her and wave her off, then obsess all day over my potential collector misstep. (Once, near bankruptcy, I found a 3DO at a thrift store and couldn't rationalise coming up with the meager funds needed to acquire it. The next day I couldn't live with my mistake and my partner encouraged me to go back, only to find -- someone else had snapped it up! What are the odds there are two of me in one city? Jen was playing a joke on me -- she had bought it, revealing her trick at Christmas. We still don't have any games for it. To be fair, I did once pass up a TI-99/4A in a Value Village basement which, to my astonishment, some assuredly disappointed bargain-hunter had inadvertently acquired by the time I had second thoughts about it and re-investigated.) So the first thing I did when I got home is show Jen a picture of a SMS and ask her if that was what she saw. With the affirmative, I headed out again before I even got my shoes off to beat the clock and become the first adult on my block to own a Sega Master System. For which I also have no games. (Opening a whole other can of worms: what were the Master System's killer apps, its must-haves?) Bizarrely, the whole thing was not only in its original box, but all the components in their original baggies -- apparently unopened! (Casualties of The Most Disappointing Christmas Ever, reconciliation never achieved in 25 years?) The only missing element I could detect was the Hang-On cartridge, but my recollection and understand is that SMS units had a small game included in their BIOS so you could always have something to play. We'll see.

Video Games That'll
Blow You Away!

Space Harrier
[Shoo]ting [Gall]ery

The Sega Master System
The Challenge Will Always Be There

RAMBO: First Blood Part Two
World Grand Prix
Great Football
Hang On & Safari Hunt
[Sh]ooting [Ga]llery
Pro Wrestling
My Hero
F-16 Fighter
Great Baseball
Marksman Sho[oting & Trap Shooting]
Action [Fighter]
Teddy Boy
Black [Belt]
Great [Golf]
[Fant]asy [Zone]
[Sh]oo[ting Gallery]
[A]cti[on Fighter]
[P]ow[er Strike]
[Shadow D]anc[er]
Hit [?]
Pow[er Strike]
[C]apt[ain Silver]
Go[lden Axe]
ap [?]

Now SEGA explodes into your own home! With more games than ever. More levels of play. More responsive controls. Plus, SEGA has digital sound, and graphics that are so real, you'll swear you can smell the burning rubber.
Just imagine, -- the ultimate in arcade excitement loose in your living room.
SEGA's gonna blow you away!

What this ad offers is, of course, an unusual rear view of Hitachi Maxell's "Blown Away Guy" usually seen from the side:
"The challenge will always be there." You know what games never had a reputation for being unchallenging? The phrase "Nintendo hard" exists for a reason. This suggests that Sega was competing with Atari, whose formulaic games could be learned and mastered -- but Atari had already lost the industry race by '89, and so Sega was in the running for second-last.

Sega's iconography was simple but consistent: the grid figured prominently, all over the ad, all over box art, and all over the box for the unit! Buying a SMS is a mistake a well-intentioned parent could easily make, as Sega was of course a renowned name in a video arcade context, with breakthrough immersive hits like Afterburner and Outrun, which one presumes is depicted (and whose implied smell is referenced) in this ad.

It may have more games than ever, but third-party development remained on the scanty side, as a consequence of which this ad repeats some of the same game names. (Will a system ever feature fewer games than ever? Maybe after Nintendo quashed Tengen. The App Store could use such curation: Now we've cut the crap! Only one fart button!)

I've filled in SMS game names based on letters seen on the boxes, but as mentioned there are some repeats, some projections of future releases perhaps not envisioned in '89, and also some character combinations not conforming to any known title released for the platform -- perhaps the artist had a list of working titles?

Copyright Tonka corporation? As no major retailer wanted to deal with video game companies in the wake of the industry crash of '83, much as Nintendo used Worlds of Wonder (of "Lazer Tag" and "Teddy Ruxpin" fame, staffed with former Atarians) to get in the back door of American department stores, Sega buddied up with Tonka, to underwhelming results. By the time they got their American marketing and sales back under their own control, the SMS was in competition with Sega's own Genesis, which would be a much stronger competitor.

Related (to the blog's theme, if not to this particular post): a website looking at the evocative box artwork of Atari 2600 games, which had to hold the players' hands to the imaginary middle ground between what the box promised and what the screen delivered.