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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Master System Online Emulator

Master System emulationThere are apparently quite a few people that shockingly do not have access to a Master System console and, that's the worse bit, there are even more misguided souls that simply haven't downloaded the excellent MEKA SMS emulator just yet. Baffling, really. You shouldn't be working that much, you know. Anyway. Better click yourselves to the fantastic online emulator site-thingy that is It's absolutely free, ridiculously simple to use, works fine and sports a selection of some of the more iconic SMS games such as the 8-bit version of Sonic, Phantasy Star, Golden Axe Warrior, Alex Kidd in Miracle World and Strider.

Monday, January 26, 2009


MERCS is a Commando-style “run and gun” shoot-em-up from 1990, released in the arcades on Capcom’s CPS-1 hardware: the hardware behind some slightly better-known arcade hits such as Strider and Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts. It has a thoroughly ridiculous premise: a band of African terrorists (who, bizarrely, are all white, and have heavier weapons than most regular armies) have captured the former US president and are holding him hostage to facilitate their takeover of the fictional African nation of Zutula (which has a strange amount of medieval European style houses). This is a plain and simple excuse for you to wade in with your lone mercenary gunman and mount a very bloodthirsty rescue mission …

MERCS Sega Master System
MERCS was ported to many platforms, including an arcade perfect version for the Sega Saturn. Here is what the site Hardcore Gaming 101 (viewed 26/01/09) has to say of the Master System version:

“The Sega Master System version isn't bad, but it's most certainly inferior to the arcade game. The gameplay is reasonably close to accurate, but it looks pretty poor.”


Here, I feel a need to contradict …


As someone who has played through an arcade-perfect version and the SMS version, I can honestly (and obviously) state that the SMS version is significantly cut down. The highly organic and detailed backdrops have been simplified in order to fit all the levels into the reduced memory, sprite animation has been cut (the main sprite, for example, now shuffles rather than runs), and very complex and large sprite effects (such as level 4’s tank ride) are missing altogether.

Judging these as 8-bit graphics, however, and comparing them to other 8-bit versions of MERCS as well as other games in the genre (such as any version of Commando), they are still very good indeed, and preserve the original settings. Large background elements, such as the houses, planes in the airfield, and the static (but intimidating) tanks, are impressively detailed.

mercs sms 8-bitThe huge bosses are particularly impressive, and comparable in terms of graphic detail to the arcade versions, though their attacks have been simplified. This is a necessity, as they are rendered as large movable backdrops with sprites only used to represent their moving parts and weak points (A resource-saving technique also used to great effect in the SMS version of Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts). Even so, though they are easier than their arcade counterparts, they still provide a dramatic and satisfying conclusion to each level. Level 5’s “battle train”, though of questionable military value (how hard would it be to blow up the track in front of it?), is probably the highlight: an enormous, multi-screen boss that no-one would have thought possible on a 8-bit system, and with its arcade attacks very accurately depicted.

The intro and end sequences from the arcade are also present, with only small amounts of animation (and parallax effects) cut out. The detail on the cliffs at the end sequence is almost photographic, albeit repetitive (but so it was on the arcade).

In spite of the in-game animation cuts, and some rather weedy explosions, there are also some neat animation effects such as the enemy flamethrower death, the wading in the swamp, level 4’s waterfalls, the jeep and boat rides, the missile shadows in the battle with the warship, and the (slightly blocky but still satisfying) smart bomb explosion.

95% (It may seem a little extreme to some, but I can find very little fault with these, judged as 8-bit graphics. They are a triumph of resource-management, capture the essence of the arcade game, and do in fact provide some jaw-dropping moments.)


No in-game music except for a short riff before the bosses, which is an annoyance. There is title screen music, end sequence music, and a between-level fanfare. These are passable imitations of the arcade tunes, but during the game you will only get functional sound effects (and the “pop” of your standard gun is nothing special).

A few points are won back, however, for the boss sequences, which try to provide appropriate noises including a jet engine whine for the harrier and the clatter of wheels on the track for the train. Unfortunately, the tank and warship both get an undistinguished low rumble. There is also a nice (if unamazing) rushing water sound effect for the waterfalls in level 4.

50% (Definitely the weakest aspect.)


The game is fast-paced, driven by a tight (but fair) time limit and with a constant stream of enemies that gives you limited time to stop and think. Even so, if you know the arcade game you will inevitably notice that many of the enemy types are missing from this version, including the motorbikes, enemy jeeps, sniper towers, rocket launcher soldiers, frogmen, and the soldiers who slide down the slopes in level 4. That still leaves the tanks and APCs, (they don’t move, but it makes little difference as they weren’t very mobile in the arcade version); gun emplacements; torpedo boats; mines; force fields; planes; and all of the bosses; but the bulk of attacking duties are handled by the standard enemy soldier. However, they do at least retain their grenade-throwing abilities.

Variety has, however, been preserved by sticking to the essential level designs (minus level 5’s tank ride, which would probably not have worked too well). The jeep ride and boat ride sequences provide nice distractions, and dodging artillery fire, navigating the deadly force fields (in level 6), and fighting the bosses, means that in spite of being an easier game than the arcade, it is not possible to wade through it without occasionally considering your strategy.

The arcade game, in fact, was extremely difficult, throwing so much flak at the player that it required vast amounts of continues in order to have a realistic chance of seeing the end. There are no continues in the Master System version, but it is eminently possible to finish the game on the one life given: perhaps a little too possible, but it is rather pleasing to have a version of this game that is winnable without “cheating”, and in which a single stray rocket or electrical blast does not mean instant (and very frustrating) death.

There is, sadly, no two-player mode, though this would probably have worked the game beyond the sprite capabilities of the SMS and led to unacceptable slowdown and flicker (not that this stopped Double Dragon or Bubble Bobble … ). There is, however, the full selection of weapons from the arcade, and all have their different merits (though I would recommend the green spread shot, as it takes a lot of stress out of aiming). The fact that the game is easier also means you can consider just upgrading the power of your normal rifle rather than replacing it with the flashier alternatives: not a risk worth taking in the arcade version (in which the best hope of survival was to get the flamethrower and hold onto it like grim death).

This is also one of the few versions of MERCS to use the whole of the playing area, rather than cluttering it up with score panels and displays. Your time, energy, and smart bombs are unobtrusively shown at the edges of the screen. Your score isn’t shown at all, for some reason (but if you should get a high-score, you’ll find out at victory or death).

80% (Very noticeable cuts, but still manages to be among the most adventurous and impressive run-and-gun games for an 8-bit system, easily beating its C64 counterpart or the much-loved but horribly frustrating Ikari Warriors. All criticisms aside, I actually quite like the fact that this game doesn’t make you sweat too hard to see the end sequence, while still managing to feel pretty tense and exciting. All in all, it doesn't compromise much more than the Amiga version does, and even does a few things - such as the jeep ride - rather better.)



Points off for having too few enemy types (if C64 Commando could handle a few motorcycles, surely this could have done) and no in-game music. But this is still an impressive conversion to 8-bit, and shows – along with Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts – how the Master System could handle these seemingly impossible ports from the CPS-1 hardware. I only wish the same conversion team had been given the task of making the SMS version of Strider …

Friday, January 23, 2009

Batman Returns

I recently picked up two new games for my Master System – MERCS and Batman Returns – and have decided to get the bad news out of the way first …

The Master System has many excellent platform games: a fact that drew me to the system in the first place, as they are my favourite genre, and the likes of Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Sonic the Hedgehog, Asterix, and Master of Darkness were ideal fare to satisfy my cravings … which is just as well, as Batman Returns is well below their high standard.


I’ve seen worse, but there is nothing that really stands out. Especially given the 1992 copyright date. The sprites are small and lacking in character, though adequately animated. The backgrounds have a reasonable amount of detail, but the colours are garish, and the generic city settings do little to recreate the gothic atmosphere of the film. They feel more like levels from a mediocre Shinobi spin-off than Gotham City. There are a few nice effects, such as the animated waterfall in a later level, and the girders in the foreground that Batman can walk behind, but nothing to rival similar (and better) graphics in such games as 8-bit Sonic. Presentation is minimal: there are no comic book style panels (as in Spiderman for the Master System) or cut-scenes. There is a branching level selection screen, as in Asterix, but more on that later, as it’s really a gameplay issue (and a nasty one at that). Bosses are, on the whole, very so-so. Some of them are fought against a black backdrop, which I wouldn’t mind if they were as big and impressive as the bosses in Altered Beast and R-Type (but they aren’t). Possibly the worst aspect, though, is the Batarang weapon you use throughout the game: a plain, white, vaguely boomerang-shaped sprite with a mere two frames of animation. Compare that to the fully-animated boomerang in Master of Darkness … and that was only a bonus weapon.



Generic tunes that, again, would not sound out of place in a Shinobi game. On the plus side, they vary from level to level, and are not irritating (Not compared to the gameplay, anyway). Sound effects are undistinguished, but no worse than in most Master System games. Nothing terrible here (with the exception of the title screen music) but nothing to write home about.



The game works like a sort of poor man’s Bionic Commando, being a basic walk-and-kill platform game with the aim to reach the end of the level, and the ability to use an extendable grappling hook to reach high platforms, swing to otherwise unreachable ones, and swing over hazards and pitfalls. It is awkward to use, and the cause of many cheap deaths. Cheap deaths, in fact, are this game’s speciality, as it uses a one-hit-kill policy (which, incidentally, the SMS version of Shinobi very wisely removed in favour of an energy bar). Extra lives are fairly plentiful, and restart points are mercifully-arranged, but it remains a frustrating experience. Especially when the deaths occur for stupid reasons, such as a chandelier dropping from the ceiling and spreading lava everywhere (???), or when you walk into a static streetcar (which, for some mysterious reason, proves fatal to the touch). You can also glide (fall at a reduced rate) with your cape, although this is not advisable until you know the levels well, as you will tend to glide straight into some unseen pitfall or enemy. There are no weapons other than your Batarang, though it can be upgraded for speed and distance of throw. Forget about the Batmobile, the Batboat (which would come in very handy in the especially annoying pitfall-ridden sewer levels), or the hand-to-hand combat of the film. The levels make some effort to liven up the dull, repetitive gameplay, with such hazards as conveyor belts, opening doors (for enemies to ambush you), crumbling platforms, and descending platforms, but nothing that hasn’t been seen elsewhere, or done better. Sonic has all of those (and considerably more besides).

There is, as I mentioned, a branching level system that allows you to choose from an easy or hard route, with even more cheap deaths, if that is your thing …




If you want a comic-book style game with multiple routes, pick Asterix. If you want a grim, gothic, atmospheric platform game, pick Master of Darkness. Just leave this one well alone …

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Review: Strider

I wrote before about being impressed with the quality of SMS arcade conversions when I first discovered the system, having been accustomed to some truly lousy arcade conversions on the C64. I should, perhaps, have added that SMS owners had a right to expect better quality conversions than were found on home computer versions, as they were paying considerably more for their games than a C64 or Spectrum owner were paying for even full price games (Often over £20 more). This explains why I have a particular bone to pick with this game …

Sega Strider SMS boxThe title screen of this game states that it was reprogrammed for the system by Sega themselves, though curiously it bears little resemblance to the great Genesis version, even though other Capcom ports (Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts, MERCS, Forgotten Worlds) seemed to be scaled-down from the Genesis version rather than copied directly from the arcade. Would that Sega had taken the same approach with Strider. If you want to know where the true inspiration for SMS Strider came from, load up any home computer version from C64 to Amiga, and prepare to be less than impressed …

The infamous Tiertex home computer versions of Strider drastically altered the game for the worse, focusing their efforts on copying the arcade’s graphics, but giving up when it came to gameplay, removing all of the best moments (such as the snow hill, shuttle ride, gravity switching, and – shockingly – the final guardian), and cutting down the many musical themes to one tune that played throughout, completely ruining what atmosphere or tension even such a hacked-down version might have had.

The worst offender was the laughably poor C64 version, and the SMS version is at least nowhere near that wretched. It does, at least, retain the huge arcade guardians, although they are rendered as animated backdrops rather than sprites. This technique works well in many SMS games, but not so well here, as they are not shown against a plain screen (as in Fantasy World, MERCS, Shinobi, etc) and thus they have very limited movement: in some cases, none at all. On the other hand, the SMS does at least throw in the final boss (the Master), making it the only Tiertex-style version of Strider to actually include the arcade’s main villain. Even the Amiga version skimps on that …

Strider Master SystemUnfortunately, it also includes the cheating Tiertex end sequence, which tells you the whole game was a “training simulator” and sends you back to level 1 (and don’t bother playing through again, as you’ll get the same “reward” for your pains).

The sound is dreadful: the same constant, repetitive tune as in all of the home computer versions (minus the Spectrum, which is mercifully silent), but rendered even more vile by the limited instrumentation of the Z80 chip. The sound effects are sparse, and nothing to write home about.

The gameplay is nothing like the arcade or Genesis versions: the collision detection is merciless, the control sluggish, and the harsh time limit literally forces you, on occasion, to march right into harm’s way in order to get through an area. Enemies are pared down to the minimum: the standard soldier is all you will be seeing for much of the game. The final level, absurdly, is the easiest, having been simplified to the extent that it roughly mirrors the arcade map, but with vast empty sections you can walk through without encountering any opposition.

Finally, I should address the obvious objection: could an 8-bit machine have handled a better version of Strider? For the answer, I would point to the 8-bit wonder that is the Game Gear version of Shinobi: on a system almost equivalent to the SMS, there is a ninja game that includes huge (and mobile) guardians, multi-stage levels with interactive music, smooth and fast action (including spinning jumps and climbing), and dramatic set-pieces around every corner. It is a shame that game never actually made it to SMS, but at least it gives some idea of what might have been achieved with the hardware, had Sega’s programmers bothered to design their own 8-bit Strider rather than drawing inspiration from the dismal Tiertex version.

I would also point to the 8-bit version of Sonic the Hedgehog, which blatantly, amusingly, and very adeptly rips off levels 2 and 3 of Strider in the Sky Base Zone: the sparking electrodes, shuttle rides, and Robotnik’s airship are all inspired by / stolen from Capcom’s game. 8-bit Sonic also shows the Sega 8-bit to be perfectly capable of a fast, smooth, detailed, and atmospheric platform game, as 8-bit Strider ought to have been, but that matter is best left for another, happier review.

50% (Marginally better than the home computer versions that inspired it, nowhere near as good as it ought to have been.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

SMS Golden Axe - A defence

I am writing this in response to the mini-review of this game on the Hardcore Gaming 101 site, which is less than complimentary …

The Sega Master System version is more or less a tragedy. You can only play as Ax Battler, renamed here as Tarik. The only reminder of the other two heroes is that you can choose to use their magic attacks during the game. Pretty much everything is pathetic - it has ugly graphics, terribly choppy animation, and awful control. It does have a new intro and ending not found in any other version, at least. It also removes the two player option.

( as of 10/01/09)

Golden Axe SMS cover
The most bizarre thing I considered about this review was that the author had also seen the other 8-bit versions of this game – the Spectrum and Amstrad, with severely compromised graphics, and the Commodore 64, with well-designed graphics but butchered gameplay (as I shall refer to presently) – and thus must have realised that, as an 8-bit game, the Master System version fares very well in comparison. Perhaps in this age of high-powered consoles that can bring arcade quality games to the home we have become less forgiving of the valiant efforts of earlier programmers to squeeze coin-op experiences onto home consoles with a tiny fraction of the power … which is exactly what the SMS version of Golden Axe amounts to, and should be judged on those grounds. However successful it is or is not, I think it would be hard to deny that it was a sincere effort to bring as much of the arcade game onto the Sega 8-bit as it could possibly cope with. So how well did it cope?


There is good and bad, but mainly good. 8-bit machines, from the Atari 7800 to the ZX Spectrum, C64, and NES, are not the ideal platform for large, colourful, or high-resolution sprites. A compromise generally has to be made: large and blocky, monochrome, or small and detailed, in order to get the game to run. The SMS programmers of Golden Axe ignored those rules: the sprites are not arcade perfect, but all are clearly recognisable, detailed, shaded, and generally well animated. There is a price to pay, in that they don’t run too smoothly: the game always seems either too fast or too slow, and invariably choppy (though that is more of a gameplay issue). The backgrounds are simplified from the arcade, but still pretty well detailed for an 8-bit game, and recognisable as the arcade locations. Some incidental animations have been left out (fleeing villagers, snakes, etc), but the arcade map interlude screens have been recreated very well indeed, and the magic effects – give or take a few frames of animations – are all present, correct, and very spectacular. The new presentation graphics – the intro and end screens – are a very stylish bonus: not animated, but beautifully detailed. I fail to see how this could have looked better without actually sticking a new graphics chip in the cart …



The limitations on the Z80 chip are far more severe than the SMS’s graphics limitations, and the sound effects in Golden Axe are, alas, merely functional. No sampled cries of pain: just generic crunches and bleeps. The music fares better, in spite of the PC-speaker quality sound: a testimony to the greatness of the original tunes (and I base my score on the fact that the programmers managed to make them recognisable on such inferior hardware).



The biggest gameplay issue is the choppiness caused by the over-ambitious graphics, which makes precise control awkward (which matters quite a bit, when there are two or more enemies on your case). Smaller, less detailed sprites (such as in Double Dragon or Renegade) might have improved this, although it would have meant the loss of some of the best-looking graphics ever seen on the system, IMO. Other negatives include the loss of the two-player mode (though, given the performance as it is, it could hardly have coped with that) and the fact that only the barbarian character is selectable. Many have questioned that choice, although he is the logical one to retain (as he is the mid-range fighter). All three magic options from the arcade remain selectable, so the actual difference is slight.

I turn briefly to the C64 version: also only one-player, but it did keep all three characters. On the other hand, it made no attempt to copy the arcade attack waves, with only one type of enemy per level, not including the boss. Not that this mattered as such, since all of the enemies on the C64 (bosses included) shared the same attack pattern, none of them could jump, dash, ride the beasts (which were useless, in any case, and best ignored), and they could only appear on screen one at a time, making a thorough mockery of the dual boss attacks and turning the whole game into a yawn-fest of identical (and painfully easy) one-on-one battles.

The Master System – a machine very close in power to the C64 – delivers attack waves very close to the arcade version, enemies that can attack in groups, jump, dash, ride the beasts (some of them, anyway), beasts that were actually useful, and nearly a full range of moves (only missing out the sword-pommel attack). Even Death Adder (the final boss) is well depicted, and retains his magical attack. The between level “camping” stages (in which you attack elves for extra magic) are included, and magic itself is an important factor in gameplay (unlike in the C64 version, where it was basically eye candy).

In short, not a perfect copy of the arcade gameplay, but a highly commendable effort (and by no means the worst seen on an 8-bit machine).



If you assume this should be arcade perfect, or as good even as the Genesis version, you will be disappointed (albeit rather deluded in your expectations). However, bearing in mind the quality of 8-bit arcade conversions at the time – many of which bore hardly any resemblance to their coin-op parent (Cisco Heat, anyone? Or any 8-bit version of Strider you care to name … ) – it would be grossly unfair to label this game as anything other than a top-drawer effort, and a mostly successful one at that.

90% (not an average)

The Growing Junkyard

Yes, the Sega Master System Junkyard hasn't been the liveliest of places lately. I know, Father Krishna knows, you know, we all know. Hopefully though, that will soon change, no less because Anthony, an eloquent and wise Sega connoisseur, has just joined us. Welcome Anthony!