When History passes judgement, many might sum up the Sega Master System as a failure, but this would be unfair as the console was largely responsible for it serving as a stepping stone towards the success of the Mega Drive (Genesis in America). The Master System, originally named the Mark III in Japan, was released in 1985.
The system was advanced as it could play games from both cartridges (Mega-Cartridges) and cards (Sega Cards). The Sega Cards retailed for much cheaper than their cartridge counterpart however they had less capacity and many found this to lead to lower quality games. Due to this, the card feature was removed in later models.
The console competed against the NES and the Atari 7800. Although, it did not perform well against these machines due to licensing restrictions from Nintendo. The Master System also lacked 3rd party titles and therefore the system had a limited library of popular titles.
Although it was deemed a failure many years ago, the system sold around 6 – 13 million units in its prime, and is still selling today. The Master System is still proving to be a big hit in Brazil, and in 2015 it is estimated that the console was selling 150,000 units per year, matching sales of the PS4. In 2016, the master system had sold 8 million units in Brazil alone. Due to these sales, the Master System has become the longest-lived gaming console, as it has been produced for over 30 years!
Sega wanted to move out of the declining video game market in America to the ever-successful console market in Japan. They started out by releasing the SG-1000, however, this console was released the same day as the NES and had a series of hardware problems, leading Sega to create the SG-1000 II.
Knowing that they needed to produce a console of better quality, Sega released the Sega Mark III in Japan, 1985. This still did not show the console sales improving when compared to the growing success of the NES and therefore, upon release in America the system was redesigned and named the Sega Master System. When distributed in the American market, the Master System had a price tag of $200 ($432 in 2016), and included a package of games (‘Hang On’ and ‘Safari Hunt’).
Sega had hoped to sell 400,000 – 750,000 consoles within 1986, though in reality only sold 125,000. Though this did overtake sales of the Atari 7800 for that year. In an attempt to increase sales, in 1987 Sega re-released the Mark III as the redesigned Master System. Although, this did not succeed in reversing the fortunes of the console.
European launch was more successful for Sega, with the console being advertised as home arcade machine. Initially pre-orders were high, though due to the fact that Sega delayed the delivery of consoles, many retailers cancelled these. Sega struck gold because of Nintendo’s weak marketing across Europe, giving them the chance to dominate the European market. Their campaigns were effective, outselling the NES; and alongside the release of the Sega Mega Drive, dominated the European Market.
Sega acquired the marketing and distribution rights to their consoles, and after Nintendo were found guilty of violating American anti-trust laws, it looked like Sega finally had a chance to take the American market. However, the Master System was already in decline and it was dubbed too late. Sega instead used this to market the Genesis (Mega Drive) in America and was able to close the market gap between Nintendo and Sega. The production of the Master System ceased in North America in 1992. By this time, the system had sold between 1.5 – 2 million units within the USA alone.
Overall, the Master System is seen as a success throughout Europe, and primarily Brazil as it is still currently in production. In 2009, the system was named the 20th best console of all time by IGN, coming in below both its main competitors. The NES coming 1st and the Atari 7800 was 17th.