As a twig-armed, four-eyed, socially awkward preteen boy growing up in a late-80s suburban household, over which hung the threatening storm clouds of divorce, despair, and alienation, playing video games seemed like the most beautiful and natural thing in the world.
School was full of snotty-nosed kids who teamed up to shout in my ears at lunchtime and attached the wrong color proton pack beams to their Ghostbusters action figures. It was dusty corridors, right-wing headmistresses, terrifying toilets, kiss chases, buttercups under the chin, rice pudding with the skin on, and all-out brawls for pillows in the muggy afternoons. We were pre-Pokémon, pre-Power Rangers, and teetering on the precipice of the video game console revolution.
And, regularly as clockwork, after the purgatory of school and sometimes on the weekends, I meandered thigh-high around the Superkings-reeking, jaundiced, 50 cents-a-credit, winners-don't-do-drugs arcades in the town where we lived, pestering my father for money so I could have one more rattle round in the After Burner cabinet, or work up another tense sweat trying to beat Double Dragon. Anything but disturb the ten-strong group of chain-smoking, teens jeering at Final Fight, Haggar's lariat roar piercing the smoky air.
I remember wanting that so badly. Not necessarily the stench of cigarettes, inches of yellowed local rags on the doormat, or the unapproachable bomber jacket gangs, but the games. I wanted them in my house, to myself, to enjoy whenever I liked.
And then, one frosty overcast Christmas in 1988, this turned up under the tree.
How did I feel? I'd love to be able to tell you that I flipped out N64 Kid style, or that I ran around the house screaming with ecstasy, or that I immediately blew chunks all down my Flintstones pajamas out of sheer shock and overwhelming emotion. The truth of the matter is, I wasn't entirely sure what I was looking at. I vaguely remember having seen the ads somewhere along the line, but I don't recall ever specifically wanting a Master System. All I knew was, it looked like the computer games from the arcade. And my dream might shortly be coming true.
We set the machine up that very afternoon—a perfect little mess of stiff wires, chrome analog switch boxes, polystyrene casing, and fiddly ports. Tuning our gigantic, crackly, and hopeless old slag of a Grundig television took a while, particularly after Dad had sunk a few festive pints of cider, but eventually we got it all going and the three-tone-harmonized Sega logo slid onto the screen in front of me.
The console itself, let's be honest, looked terrible. Looking back on it now, and maybe even then, it offended the eye. It was an oversized black Joe 90 command bridge of a machine, with arbitrary arrows and lights and slanted rectangles everywhere, all set against that murky deep red and a cartridge slot that was sloped upward for no reason at all. It was disconcertingly light, echoey, and cheap to the touch.
My edition of the machine came bundled with two built-in games. First to go on was Missile-Defense 3-D, which is rarely remembered as a Master System classic, and for a perfectly good reason—it sucked ass. Essentially, it was a game designed to show off the admittedly ahead-of-its time tech, inviting players to shoot down ICBMs as they hurtled toward your face and the fictional East City. Set across five stages, it was dull, brief, and impossible to finish. By the last stage, the missiles moved so fast even the old put-the-lightgun-right-up-against-the-TV trick didn't work, so it didn't get much playtime in the Beach household.
Much more enjoyable was Shooting Gallery, an overlooked and charming little Duck Hunt clone, which was light-hearted, accessible, and challenging enough to warrant some attention from Mom, who'd come up to the chintzy bedroom every so often and play with us. This, it turns out, was my first experience of multiplayer gaming. Upstairs. In a damp bedroom in Redhill. Clicking a black plastic gun at a screen with my poor old mom.
'Shooting Gallery' for the Sega Master System.
The very same winter, dad took me to Brighton for a day trip. I remember it vividly, for two reasons. First, it happened to take place in the middle of some kind of hurricane. In fact, the wind was so strong that the rides on the pier were rotating of their own accord, roofing tiles were smashing on the gray concrete in front of us, and elderly ladies clung to stone pillars to save themselves from serious injury. Secondly, it was the day that I got a copy of Wonder Boy in Monster Land.
When most gamers think of Wonder Boy, they typically refer wistfully to the twee, stripped-down, side-scrolling arcade original, or its successor, the sprawling Metroidvania RPG The Dragon's Trap—both great games, but it's the second one that tugs my 30-year-old heartstrings today. It had a superb line-up of bosses, including the Kraken, Medusa, and, brilliantly, a riddling Sphinx for whom you had to correctly answer multiple-choice questions or face his jumpy, overpowered wrath. It perfectly balanced the linearity of the first game with the delicate RPG elements of the third, and featured a final level so devilish, so baffling, so infuriatingly obtuse, that to this day I still have no idea how you complete it. I never killed the dragon, and I still wake up in night sweats about it. Luckily for me, Sega was developing plenty more strange, melancholy, and magical worlds for me to explore.
'Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse', full Master System playthrough.
Like Castle of Illusion, for example. Arguably the definitive version of the level-boss-level-boss Mickey Mouse platformer, the Master System version is probably my favorite game in the console's entire library. Bouncing juggling clowns chucking chocolate chunks across the screen, navigating the interior of a ticking grandfather clock—it was shoes off and leg-it-upstairs every afternoon for a good month, poking my delighted nose into every nook and cranny. I'd sit there humming the game's wonderful selection of tunes in my school uniform for hours, just me, Mickey, and the Master System. Sure, the Mega Drive version looked a bit nicer, but it was sluggish and floaty in comparison and lacked the pure joy of the 8-bit version.
Or what about Psycho Fox, the Master System's spiritual prequel to Magical Hat Flying Turbo Adventure/Decap Attack? A surreal side-scroller with four playable animals, each with its own special powers. A homing blackbird that you can use to attack enemies. A range of steampunk-style bosses and lengthy levels with a giddying sense of verticality. A bona-fide Master System classic.
How did I find out about these games? Sega Power magazine. Every month, Sega Power's Hard Line feature would tell me which games were worth my pocket money and which were "pants." Lad culture, Oasis, The Word, and Loaded magazine were looming large, and my favorite mag got swearier and swearier as time went by. Everything I knew about the Master System came from that magazine. A frequently brilliant and sarcastic mess of toilet humor, acerbic wit, and non-criticism (LOOK AT THE GRAPHICS. MY PANTS ARE WET), Sega Power made me feel part of a bigger culture for the first time in my life.
And the games kept coming. From weirdo one-off rentals like Basketball Nightmare, taste-breakers like Phantasy Star, twinkling psychedelic shoot 'em ups like Fantasy Zone, same-thing-different-skin titles like Asterix and Lucky Dime Caper, even 8-bit ports of gruntier games like Golden Axe and Sonic the Hedgehog. I either traded games or swapped them on the playground with friends, tucking the cartridges into my hot little pockets, my library contracting and expanding accordingly across the white metal shelf in the upstairs bedroom. It was a great time to be into games, and the crunchy sound design and neon-splashed worlds created by Sega and their developers made life as a kid a lot easier to bear.
It was a sad and strange day when I upgraded to a Mega Drive a few Christmases later. I remember looking at the covers of my Master System games with their childlike innocence, awkward copy, and optimistic imagery. I looked fondly at the impossibly square controllers and my old 3D glasses, now with a cack-handed Sellotape repair job and in a bit of a sorry state. I remembered the jaunty sound of the Jungle Zone, Alex Kidd's scale-defying fist, and those early days shooting balloons out of the sky with mom. And eventually, it got packed away, confined to the dusty airing cupboard, its 16-bit successor taking pride of place under the wheezing Grundig.
But wherever you are now, Master System, know this. Those years spent with you were the most glorious of my entire gaming career. And I'll never, ever forget you.
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