sega master system's 30th anniversary

This week marks the Sega Master System’s 30th anniversary, or the Sega Mark III’s 30th anniversary to be more precise.

Beginnings in Japan

sega mark III box

hang on mark III cardThe Sega Mark III was released on October 20th, 1985 in Japan by Sega. The two titles available at launch were Hang-On and Teddy Boy Blues. What most people from outside of Japan don’t know is that cartridges weren’t produced for the better part of a year after the console’s launch. Instead, most early Mark III games came on Sega Cards.

Over a million Mark III units were sold in the platform’s first year, which is fairly good considering Nintendo’s shady policies with third parties keeping many popular games locked into the Famicom’s library. These policies ended up resulting in Sega publishing all of the Mark III’s games except for just two titles: Argos no Juujiken (known elsewhere as Rygar) and Solomon no Kagi: Oujo Rihita no Namida (also known as Solomon’s Key), which were published by Salio.

sega mark III console

By 1989, over 1.7 million Mark III units were sold in Japan alone. Their biggest competitor, Nintendo’s Famicom, sold a great deal more with lifetime sales reaching roughly 19.4 million units, having sold over 2 million units by the end of 1984.

The last game released for the Mark III in Japan was Bomber Raid.

Check out this pamphlet for the Sega Mark III, found at Sega Retro.

Coming to America

The Mark III was released elsewhere in the world as the Sega Master System, where it found varying degrees of success.

sega master system console

In North America, the Master System did not perform nearly as well. The marketing department consisted of just two men and Nintendo’s lock on popular third party titles were likely the biggest culprits in its poor sales.

Eventually, Sega sold the distribution rights to Tonka, a toy company, who mishandled the platform even more than Sega did itself. They made poor decisions including blocking localization of popular titles.

tonka blocking localization for popular master system games

Sega eventually purchased the rights back from Tonka in 1990 as the Genesis’ life began and released a new streamlined model, the Master System II. They also released the Power Base Converter, an adapter that allowed you to play SMS games on your Genesis.

master system II console

The last Master System game released in North America was the port of Sonic the Hedgehog, developed by Yuzo Koshiro’s Ancient.

Meanwhile, in Other Nations…

The Master System did much better in European territories under Virgin Mastertronic, after a disastrous launch across the region under several separate companies. The SMS outperformed the NES in Europe and its popularity overshadowed Sega’s own Mega Drive. The SMS ended up selling over 6.25 million consoles by the end of 1993. The Mega Drive had only managed to sell roughly 5.73 million units by that time, despite taking off and dominating the North American market early in the fourth console generation.

sega master system super compact

The platform was a very big hit in Brazil under TecToy, where support is still going strong after decades have passed since its original release. TecToy sold over 5 million Master System consoles by 2012 and still sells and markets new hardware today.

Celebrate the Sega Master System’s 30th Anniversary!

Sega Master System Sofa

The Master System wasn’t a colossal hit on the same level as the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive, but it definitely left its mark on fans around the world.

Some of Sega’s popular long-lasting franchises either got their starts or found lifelong fans on the Master System, including Phantasy Star and Wonder Boy.

The home ports of Sega’s arcade hits, while not always the most faithful, were played endlessly by fans. This writer can recall playing Space Harrier, Hang-On, Fantasy Zone, and Shinobi for hours on end.

This week, we remind you to fire up either your Master System or an emulator and play some of your favorite Sega Master System games. We’ll be bringing some more SMS coverage to the site as the week goes on.