But personally I think it’s best suited to playing Outrun – with FM audio – on the Mark III!
Mark III set up and ready to rock.
To be honest it’s slightly annoying to use, because Outrun requires you to hold one of the buttons to accelerate. But it oozes 80s charm, and this was the premium ‘Sega at home’ experience of the mid 80s.
The SG1000 most likely did okay for itself all things considered, but in the wake of Nintendo’s superior (and much higher selling) Famicom offering, Sega pivoted to make their home console platform more Famicom-like.
While the eventual result was the upgraded Mark III console, the first fruits of this pivot were realised with the SG1000 II.
Essentially a repackaging of the original Sg1000, it is also a design link between the two generations of Sega consoles.
Like the Mark III (and Mega Drive) it features English text on the top of the console, explaining its purpose and function. This one is particularly cute and amusing.
Instead of the terrible SG1000 joystick, it now has Famicom-style controllers which attach at the back, and Famicom like controller docks on the side of the console (more on this in the controller rivalry article).
There were two revisions of the SG1000 II. One was a simple re-configuration of the original console, and the second featured major internal revisions – it consolidated several of the original chips (among them the ‘off-the-shelf’ Texas Instruments SN76489 sound chip and TMS9918 video chip) into one new custom Sega part. This later model is much closer to the circuit of the Mark III, and because of these changes can be modded to output an RGB signal.
Both console revisions look the same on the outside. Very late release SG1000 II consoles came with an updated controller, though it doesn’t seem this change lines up with the internal board revision changes.
The Sg1000 II is a somewhat redundant console from a collecting perspective. It lacks the ‘first Sega console’ cachet, but isn’t as useful as the upgraded, more compatible, more user-friendly Mark III.
And in terms of looks, the redesign is more modern but a bit plain. It lacks the nice simple ‘retro evolved’ vibe of the original, but doesn’t quite nail the ’80s futurism’ look that Sega perfected with the seriously stylish Mark III.
But I really like that Sega was developing their own unified design aesthetic, and so it does look pretty cool with this matching joystick.
Ninjas were everywhere in the 80s, and Japanese game developers were happy to fulfil the international demand for martial arts action. Nintendo’s console had Kung Fu, Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Turtles, The Legend of Kage, Shadow of the Ninja and many others. Sega had their Shinobi and Dragon Wang series, as well as their shortlived Ninja series.
Much like the Dragon Wang/Makai Retsudenseries, Sega’s Ninja series is a somewhat convoluted progression of the same basic game template over a couple of generations of hardware.
Ninja Princess/Sega Ninja – Arcade
Ninja Princess (released in the west as Sega Ninja) began as a Sega System 1 arcade game in 1985. It’s an overhead run-and-gun game, one of a batch released around that time, such as Capcom’s Commando and SNK’s Ikari Warriors. Swapping out a warzone and slow moving bullets for Sengoku-era Japan and throwing knives, Ninja Princess is one of the first ever examples of an action game with a female protagonist, a whole year before the highly celebrated Metroid.
The game stars titular princess Kurumi, whose castle has been overrun by bad guys. She escapes a kidnap attempt in a cute animated intro, and sets out to take back the castle with her ninja skills.
It’s a truly great example of the genre, with tight gameplay, great graphics and sounds, and some nice gimmicks. You have two fire buttons – one fires knives (or via a power-up, ninja stars) in the direction you are facing, and the other always fires directly up, no matter which way you are oriented. This innovation completely fixes the clunky feeling the genre can have, as you can actually fire at enemies while retreating. The third button activates a temporary ninja-vanish to evade enemy attacks.
On top of this, Ninja Princess mixes up the gameplay with gimmick/event stages, including a stage where you avoid falling boulders, another with stampeding horses, one set on logs floating on a river, and two stages where you climb castle walls.
The graphics are fantastic, especially for 1985, colourful, detailed and stylish, and Kurumi herself is a particularly cute and nicely designed sprite.
The original arcade version is available on the Saturn, included in the compilation package Sega Ages Memorial Selection Volume 2.
It has a slightly squashed aspect ratio to fit in the Saturn’s resolution (but with no detail loss), and the graphics have been slightly retouched, mostly for the better. But it is a great way to play the game. One of the menu options allows you to play with infinite lives, which is a godsend, as being an 80s arcade game, it’s brutally difficult in the later stages.
Ninja Princess (忍者プリンセス) – SG1000
Sega’s first contemporary home port was for the SG1000 in 1986. As you’d expect, the graphics have taken a fairly big hit, and with only two buttons the ‘ninja vanish’ function has been mapped to hitting both action buttons at once, but it’s otherwise as faithful a port as could really be possible on the hardware.
The event stages are gone, but otherwise pretty much the entire game is intact, including the climbing stages. It’s actually quite fun to see some of the set-pieces from the arcade re-created in a more primitive form, and while the enemy ninjas are mostly single colour sprites in this version, their single colour often matches the primary colour of that enemy type in the arcade – you can see the designers of the port really tried to make it resemble the original.
The dinky SG1000 graphics have their own charm, and assuming you’re using a decent controller it plays really well for an SG1000 game. In an attempt to prolong the life of the title for home gamers, it introduces a ‘secret scroll’ system, and you have to collect all the secret scrolls to access the last level. They’re basically randomly located in the levels, so this is probably the most frustrating part.
While it had no chance of living up to the arcade original, it’s still very fun, and is one of the best games for the SG1000.
Ninja Princess 1 Mega Han (忍者プリンセス１メガ版) – Mark III
When Ninja Princess finally made it to hardware that could do it full justice – in the form of Sega’s newer Mark III console – it was ostensibly in the form of a sequel. Ninja Princess 1 Mega Han.
In what was assumedly an attempt to make the game more ‘serious’ (and perhaps appeal to console gaming’s primarily young male audience), the graphical style has been changed completely, removing any hint of the original game’s cutesyness. And instead of starring Kurumi the Ninja Princess, it stars a goofy looking dude named Kazamaru, who now must save the princess.
Despite the long-winded title on the box, the title screen shows simply ‘The Ninja’.
It’s set up as a sequel story-wise, but is actually another, more faithful, port of the arcade game. All the arcade event stages are back (in re-drawn form), including the falling boulders, stampeding horses, and river. Controls are identical and the scroll system is back from Ninja Princess SG1000, so you have to collect all five scrolls, then perform a particular task at a particular place to access the secret basement level and rescue the princess. There is also a new speed power up scroll.
It plays about as well as the arcade, but the new graphics are kind of badly drawn (especially the main sprites, including Kazamaru who looks as awkward in-game as he does on the cover), and the limited cartridge space meant there is much less detail and animation than the arcade game. Apart from the odd nicely drawn section, it’s not a particularly good looking Mark III game. There are more musical tracks, but they’re pretty bland, especially when your knives are powered up to ninja stars and you hear the same tune over and over.
The Ninja – Master System
Ninja Princess 1 Mega Han was released in the west under its title screen name The Ninja. While many Mark III/Master System games contain a universal ROM with both English and Japanese versions of the game onboard, The Ninja was actually ‘upgraded’ for its release outside of Japan. The western release gets a scrolling text intro, a new title screen, and an extra image on the splash screen when you collect all the scrolls.
Unfortunately the entire second level is missing, no doubt sacrificed to make space for the above. Which is a shame because it’s actually one of the better looking levels. Two of the secret scrolls have also changed location, one in particular makes a heck of a lot more sense in its Mark III location.
And here the Ninja series ended. One fantastic arcade game, a very good SG1000 game, and a decent-but-nothing-special Mark III game. They’re worth a play through, but probably the best experience of the series is to be had on the Saturn port of the arcade game.
It was in 1983 that this website’s co-namesake entered the home video game market, with their first machine, the Sega SG-1000.
Released the same month as the Famicom (some sources claim the same day), it was a generation behind it in technology and design, featuring performance equivalent to the ColecoVision and first generation MSX. Sega couldn’t have predicted hurricane Famicom was about to redefine video games.
It plays Atari-style tall cassettes (cartridges), and features and Atari style joystick which is tethered to the left of the console.
The back features a port to attach a keyboard. ‘Home computer’ versions of the hardware with the keyboard integrated were released as the Sega SC-3000.
About that SJ-200 joystick – it’s pretty awful. Very similar in responsiveness to an original Atari VCS joystick, but with a worse design. Both the joystick and buttons are stiff and unresponsive, even in a perfectly working controller. Inside it uses a primitive bending metal ‘leaf connector’ system, which was cheap but no substitute for the microswitches in arcade joysticks, or the innovative rubber membrane system Nintendo utilised in its Game & Watch series and brought to the Famicom.
On the right of the console there’s a standard Sega controller connector plug, which unfortunately is only for player 2. Sega actually released an adapter that allowed you to open the console and replace the player 1 SJ-200 with another controller port, but it’s apparently impossible to find. I might try and make up a home-made one to use Mark III controllers.
Size-wise it’s comparable to a Mark III, and deceptively flat.
Output is RF-only, which means a classic fuzzy picture, if you can even tune it in (depending on where you live).
It’s a pretty cool collector piece, but due to the joystick and RF-only output is not the best choice to actually play on. The Mark III is fully backward compatible with SG-1000 games, has the card slot built in, and (with a bit of ingenuity) has very nice RGB graphics output.
Sega were king of the arcade for most of the coin-op format’s history, and their console efforts often attempted to leverage their arcade success into home success. While this would eventually lead them to release one of their arcade boards as a console (the Mega Drive is basically a cut-down Sega-16 board), on their first two consoles it meant ports.
And so we have the Mark III release of Shinobi.
Shinobi is a basic 2D side scrolling action game, which was already a fairly recognisable format by 1987. It stars Joe Musashi, on a mission to stop bad guys who are kidnapping children from his ninja clan.
You move along the stage, attacking bad guys with swords and ninja stars while freeing the kidnapped kids. The game’s gimmick is multiple ‘planes’ of action, and at certain points in stages you can switch between planes with a giant ninja jump. Luckily the bad guys are nice enough to pause and wait for your jump to complete (it’s really supposed to be a sort of ninja movie slow-motion effect I think). Otherwise controls are decent, solid but standard.
It’s broken into five missions of three or four stages each, with a boss at the end of each mission. Along the way you can power up your life bar and weapons, swapping out ninja stars for bombs and a knife, and your sword for nunchucks and eventually what appears to be a Castlevania-style chain whip.
Some later stages can get quite frustrating, introducing bottomless pits and annoying enemy placements. Enemies get weirder and more supernatural as you progress, including some zombie-ninjas and demons.
Bosses are quite good, and largely rely on you working out attack patterns and counter-attacking. With one exception – a giant wall of hindu (Vishnu?) statues. After a million attempts I finally worked out the only solution was to spam it with knives, which worked. Frustrating.
There’s also a very difficult bonus stage once a mission, where you throw ninja stars at two planes of ninjas, shooting gallery style.
Graphically it’s decent, but nothing special. Pretty middle of the road for the Mark III. Some incredibly strange palette choices make some parts, especially the first stage, look quite garish, but other stages are fine.
The Mark III version is a reasonable interpretation of the arcade game. The arcade game is a much faster, more fluid experience, whearas the home version is a slower and more methodical. There are less enemies, but despite the very different feel, the levels have been recreated quite faithfully.
The graphics have also taken a hit from the 16-bit arcade game, but the bright Mark III colours arguably make it more appealing in parts than the drab original.
One disappointing element is a common one for Mark III games – small cartridge size. The Mark III had some design flaws that meant it got less graphical tiles from the same amount of ROM than most consoles, and on top of that Sega often chose cheap small cart sizes. What this means is only a couple of tunes for the whole game (much like Makai Retsuden). And what happens when you beat the final boss, the Masked Ninja?
You get this amazing ending:
The tunes at least have FM instrument support, and sound pretty cool if you have an FM Unit.
Overall it’s a pretty nice early ninja game, and pretty fun, even if incredibly difficult at points.
Alex Kidd – Sega’s most direct answer to the popularity of Mario
Much has been written about Sega’s history of creating ‘answers’ to Nintendo’s ideas. The reality is almost everyone in the space has copied Nintendo to some extent and in some capacity, it’s just that Sega was the closest similar competitor for longer than anyone else, so the examples pile up higher.
Which brings us to Alex Kidd in Miracle World, released a year into the life of the Mark III, and in the wake of Super Mario Bros. explosive popularity. Miracle World is such a straightforward answer to Super Mario Bros. nobody ever tried to deny it.
Starring a red-jumpsuited monkey boy clearly designed to evoke ‘young Mario’
It’s quite typical of the platfomers released on Super Mario’s wake.
It has the destroyable blocks with money and power ups in them, plus land based platforming and swimming levels. Its efforts to differentiate itself from Mario include vertically scrolling levels and stores in which to buy power-ups.
It also has its own combat method (punching), and jump and attack are reversed from Mario’s rapidly-growing standard layout. You get used to it, and it can actually be advantageous depending on how you hold the pad, but it’s jarring to start with. In a later western release of the game, the buttons are reversed to the Mario standard in a full admission of defeat.
Jumps are a bit floaty, and movement a bit mushy overall, but the controls are decent. Moving carefully you can make your way through the game fairly easily, punching away at enemies with relative success.
It seems likely the game was developed by the same team as Ghost House, since the controls and graphics, and even main character, are quite similar.
What Alex Kidd has going for it are a variety of environments and gameplay styles. As mentioned, just like Mario there are swimming levels, but Alex has a few vehicles available as well. The motorcycle is an optional power-up, purchasable using the in-game cash at stores in some levels. It works somewhat like the skateboard in Wonder Boy, in that you career headfirst at a super fast pace until you hit a hard object and the bike evaporates. There’s also the Ballon Fight like helicopter levels and a water based motorcycle equivalent in the speedboat.
While the game is otherwise mostly a standard meandering platformer with fairly mediocre level design, some later levels resemble action puzzlers, such as Utopia’s Montezuma’s Revenge, or Konami’s Goonies, except much more basic. Overall it’s fairly boring from a gameplay perspective, even with the gimmicks.
Boss battles are the worst feature of the game. Instead of any kind of action, in most cases the battles are largely decided by a paper scissors rock game. It’s like you leave action-game land and enter a casino where your opponent can view your moves. Following the ‘Janken’ match, most bosses then attack physically in a limited fashion, usually by throwing their disembodied head around the screen in a random pattern.
It’s a pretty good game graphically for 1986. Nicely dawn characters with lots of detail, and colourful worlds to explore.
The music isn’t that great. While the tunes are catchy, they’re no Mario theme, and like SMB there are only a few pieces that repeat throughout the adventure. The Mark III has worse sound hardware than the Famicom, and unfortunately there’s no FM soundtrack.
Alex Kidd’s first adventure also unfortunately remains his best. A bunch of what were essentially spin-offs followed, none of which were much good. The only actual sequel was a 1988 Mega Drive launch game, known as The Enchanted Castle in the west, and while it’s easily the second best ‘Kidd, it’s pretty janky.
Alex Kidd in Miracle World didn’t set the world on fire in Japan, but is a fondly remembered game in many PAL territories due to it being built-in game of the majority of Master System consoles released. But while the original game isn’t exactly a classic, it’s surprising Sega never did a revival.
The Segamaku had a pretty short life, but lots of wacky stuff was released in that time, including some pretty nice 3D glasses.
Unbelievably, the active glasses are pretty much the same tech as used by most 3D TVs today! They use the same left-right alternating shutter technology, and even use the same 1.5mm stereo plug as current corded glasses. You can actually plug them into a TV or laptop that supports active 3D and they work. Alternatively, you can use modern 3D glasses on your Mark III or Master System.
The Mark III needed an adapter to use them. This adapter was built into the later Master System, which was somewhat of a waste, since the glasses came packaged with the adapter anyway.
I was introduced to Kung Fu Kid when my family rented a Sega when I was young. It wasn’t the first console game I ever played, but it was the first one I ever played in my own house (i.e. the first game I played for hours and hours in a single night).
It’s a fun little ‘Kawaii’ rendition of the classic Kung Fu Master template (kick waves of bad guys and move up levels) starring a Chinese kung fu master called Wang. It adds in a dash of platformer with a much higher jump, more variety to the settings (not just a tower) and quite nice colourful graphics.
Years later I found out it was actually called Makai Retsuden (Demon World Story) in Japan and was a sequel to an SG1000 game called Dragon Wang(!). Thanks to eBay and Yahoo Auctions I now have my own copies of both, and it’s time for a write-up.
Dragon Wang (ドラゴン-ワン)
It turns out Sega were quite accurate in their translations, and the original game was named after Wang.
The title of Kung Fu Kid now makes more sense, as Dragon Wang is very much a straightforward clone of Irem’s Kung Fu Master, with a tower to climb, full of bad guys to kick. This format was itself based on the unfinished Bruce Lee movie Game of Death, hence ’Dragon’ in the title. As with most action games on the primitive SG1000 hardware, the graphics are quite simple, the scrolling is choppy, and it is very difficult to progress.
You fight through waves of regular bad guys, and on each level you pick a fight against a couple of bosses, like nunchucks guy here.
It’s pretty limited and clunky, but it has a nice rhythm in the way bad guys attack, and can be fun in shorter bursts.
Makai Retsuden (魔界列伝)
While the original game was a pretty straightforward kung fu romp, For the Mark III sequel, Sega got weird, and it’s a ghost/zombie martial arts game. After saving the day in the first game, Wang could afford to relax and put a shirt on. But an ancient evil named Mandala has awoken and brought with him an undead army.
Instead of nunchuck guys, you now fight various Chinese-themed ghosts and zombies and possessed creatures. As a kid I missed all this and just thought it was standard Japanese weirdness, like a Mario game. The game was released in the wake of Mario, and you can see Nintendo’s influence here – jumping is now a much bigger part of the game. Wang has one of the highest jumps in 8-bit games.
The first two levels are straight left to right affairs, but after that it returns mostly to the more claustrophobic ’tower climb’ structure of the first game.
The graphics are great, the music catchy, the mechanics solid and fun, and like most Sega games of this era it’s a mean challenge. Overall a top Mark III effort.
It does have RGB out, using the same pinout as the Master System and Mega Drive.
Unfortunately, unlike later Sega consoles, it’s an unamplified signal. So while Master System and Mega Drive RGB cables fit, the picture comes out far too dark.
I didn’t grab a picture of the native RGB output, but it looks something like this:
Rather than tamper with the console internally, I had a theory I could use the 5V and ground pins of the output to power an external RGB amplifier. I grabbed a cheap RGB cable and did a quick and dirty splice in of a THS7314 based amplifier circuit (commonly used to RGB mod Nintendo 64s), powered and grounded by the console.
The only issue was that like many older Sega consoles, it has a weak sync signal, and on my XRGB Mini some sync dropouts occurred. I needed to boost the sync as well. I was feeling lazy so rather than do this myself, I ordered a Mega Drive RGB cable with boosted sync built into the scart plug. It is also powered by the 5V output of the console, but I’ll wire my amp in parallel and there should be plenty of current available.
An additional complication is that when using the FM unit, you only get composite video. You route video through the FM unit, which mixes in the FM audio when appropriate and outputs both video and audio from its own AV out. But it’s only a 5 pin din, so no RGB.
I did some quick tests, and due to the way the circuit of the FM unit is designed, you can tap the FM audio from both the input and the output. So I’ll be able to use the existing cable of the FM unit as my FM sound source.
Works perfectly! But doesn’t look too nice like that…
So now I have to get the whole thing into a little project box. I drilled the holes and sliced up my new (nicely shielded) RGB cable. In this pic you can see I’ve added a 5-pin DIN socket to one side, with four of the output pins removed. This is where I’ll splice in the FM audio.
So many wires to fit in. Red, blue, green, sync, 5V, audio… luckily most of the rest are ground, so I can just solder them together and connect them with a single wire. I could just leave them disconnected, but I want good grounding to prevent possible interference, which is common for poorly grounded scart cables.
With the video circuit working, I also lined up the wires and glued them in place, so nothing can be pulled out by the inevitable cord-trip that will happen sometime in the future.
Disaster struck just before I finished – the picture was too bright! It turned out my new scart cable was wired differently, and was missing some 25 ohm resistors on the RGB lines. So I pulled them from the old one and spliced them in carefully, in series with the 75 ohm resistors already built into my amp circuit. Now what was once a halfway neat job became a mess again, oh well.
I also completed the audio circuit, spliced in the FM audio pin of the din socket, and closed up the box.
It connects like so. I have oriented it toward the right of the console, because the power cable connects on the left.
And the results, all through an XRGB Mini to my Panasonic Plasma: