Master System – fantasy games retrospective
The action fantasy genre has been popular since the early days of video games and the Master System has some excellent examples. We are looking back at some of these to see how they play today and their significance to the genre. But the story starts a few years before the Master System’s release.
The fantasy genre was starting to find its feet during the 1980’s. Films such as Conan the Barbarian and Willow were popular with audiences and well received by critics. Similarly, fantasy role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons, were at their peak and getting a lot of attention. Fantasy was at an all time high and had not been so popular since the release of Lord of the Rings in 1954. Game designers took note and found inspiration in the stories and artwork synonymous with the genre.
It was easy for developers to convert these books, films and tabletop games into video game concepts. Early examples are almost always role-playing in nature. Games such as Rouge and Akalabeth rely heavily on story or character development with little action. By the mid-1980’s fantasy games had started to branch out into action games. Fantasy and video games were both big business and bringing the two together made a lot sense. It is no surprise that developers took the genre seriously and started to produce high quality titles.
Many of these releases found their way to Sega’s Master System and some of its best games fall into the fantasy category. Let’s take a look at four of these games and how they stack up today.
Rastan – Taito – 1988
Rastan was first released in arcades in 1987 and was ported to the Master System the following year. Players take control of the barbarian warrior Rastan who is on a quest to slay a dragon. There are some further story elements in the Japanese arcade version but this is the usual hero against an evil foe affair. Rastan is heavily based on Conan the Barbarian with only fur shorts and a bandana for clothing. He has weapons such as axes and maces that increase his reach or power and picking up items increase his armour or bonus points. All weapons and items last for a set amount of time before Rastan reverts back to his normal state.
Attacks and jumps are aimed with the d-pad and having the ability to attack upwards and downwards is a welcome feature. Controls are precise and any mistakes are down to player error more than poor programming. The platforming is basic but varied with jumps, ropes and hazards to navigate. The world of Rastan is easy to get drawn into and it has a great fantasy setting.
Rastan’s presentation is crisp with bold sprites and colourful levels. There is enough variety of enemies to keep things fresh and the music suits the game’s style. But it is the playability that stands out and you learn how to pass each section by getting better with each playthrough. The action is fast and never lets up as you battle through the six distinct levels. It is a difficult game but every death is down to the player and not because the game is too tough. Rastan is a great port and worth picking up due to its great controls and decent challenge. It is as playable today as it was on release and is a fine example of the fantasy action genre.
Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap – Sega – 1989
Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap was developed by Westone for Sega and is sometimes confused with Wonder Boy III: Monster’s Lair. The Dragon’s Trap is actually the fourth game in the series but the title was mistranslated when the game was localised in North America and Europe. It begins at the end of Wonder Boy in Monster Land with our titular hero taking on the final boss. He is cursed during the battle and is transformed into a fire spitting lizard. The real quest to find the cure begins at this point.
Wonder Boy acquires different transformations as the game progresses. They all have different abilities and grant access to certain areas depending on which one is being used. This mixes up the gameplay and gives extra depth compared to previous games in the series. Each area has basic platforming sections that require good timing and there are a few puzzle-like mazes. The controls are tight and there is just enough challenge to stop the game becoming easy. Enemies drop coins that can be used to buy items and chests containing hearts give Wonder Boy more health.
The game is beautiful with bright colours and a distinctive art style. Players will feel immersed as the world unfolds and different enemies start appearing. Animations are smooth and the collision detection is good. However, sound effects are generally poor in places and the music is forgettable although nothing feels out of place here. It is a shame because the rest of the game is a magical experience. The fantasy setting is genuinely unique in Wonder Boy. It leaves a lasting impression and provides enough challenge to warrant a second playthrough. This is a standout title for the Master System and a must for action RPG fans.
Lord of the Sword – Sega – 1988
Lord of the Sword is an action RPG and at first glance it seems similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Landau is on a quest to rid the world of an evil being that has killed the king. He has a sword and bow to attack enemies and speaks with other characters to uncover the story and gain access to new areas. However, this is where the similarities with the NES classic end. Landau often needs to speak with characters multiple times before unlocking the next path. This is fine until you realise the character you need to unlock a castle is in another part of the world and there is no over-world map to get back quickly.
The constant backtracking is not the games only issue as the controls and gameplay are weak in places. Pushing up on the d-pad is meant to make Landau jump but this often fails to happen. This leaves him susceptible to cheap attacks from enemies that adds to the already frustrating experience. Sword attacks often have poor collision detection and it seems easier to avoid enemies than engage them in battle. Defeating bosses grants equipment upgrades but these do not help to improve the gameplay and are basically redundant. There are some good points in the range of level design and interesting creature movement. But any good work is instantly undone when the frustrating controls lead another cheap death.
Lord of the Sword is saved by its graphics. Sprites are decent and there is good use of the Master System’s colour palette. The games animations are adequate and there is a variety of enemies to face. It is difficult but this is down to the problems with the controls and gameplay more than anything. If you’re a fan of action RPGs there might be something here to enjoy. The story is deep, if confusing, and there is plenty of challenge. But casual players of the genre can happily skip this one.
Golden Axe – Sega – 1990
Originally released in arcades in 1989, Golden Axe is better known for its port to the Mega Drive shortly after. The Master System version does a great job of bringing the beat-em-up classic to life, even on its older hardware. The game has the same story but centres on Tarik who is the same character as Ax Battler in the original game. Death Adder has captured the king and his daughter as well as finding the Golden Axe. Tarik must battle his way through hordes of enemies to save the day and stop Death Adders evil plot.
Only Tarik is selectable in this game instead of the three available in the original. This does detract from the depth or replayability but this is made up for in other ways. The multiplayer has also been removed and there are less enemies on screen. These cutbacks are mainly due to the Master System’s smaller memory but also because the cartridge size. However, all the levels remain in tact and Tarik can use all three types of magic. The controls work surprisingly well and are responsive. Even the charge move and mountable creatures have made it over to this game. Using the creatures adds some depth to the gameplay and choosing when use your magic is critical.
The game is challenging towards the end but it should not take long to clear all the stages. It is all about fantasy fighting fun and this title delivers just that. The graphics are a little washed out and there is limited colours on show. But sprites are large for a Master System game and the sound is decent. Golden Axe is a true classic and gamers from any generation will enjoy having hacking and slashing through the hordes. If you own a Master System this is a must play.
The Master System is home to some great, and not so great, fantasy games. These examples show how powerful the system was when handling action games. Let us know what your favourite fantasy games are in the comments.