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Thread: The power gap between the NES and Master System, and how it didn’t mean anything in the real world

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    Default The power gap between the NES and Master System, and how it didn’t mean anything in the real world

    1986. The NES and Master System both hit American shores, or at least see a wide release. Out of the box, the Master System is more powerful. 1 megabit cartridges instead of 320 kilobit. A faster CPU, more colors on screen, and all that jazz. And technically speaking, Alex Kidd in Miracle World looked better than Super Mario Bros 1.

    I know NES carts were loaded with enhancement chips, but as far as the common consumer would know in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the NES was equal to or beating the Master System technically.

    Find me a Master System game that outperforms Super Mario 3 technically. Mario 3 looks closer to a typical Genesis game than a Master System game. What about Kirby’s Adventure? That thing came on a 6 megabit cart (the Master System topped out at 4 megabit IIRC) and looks like an early Genesis game. I don’t think the Master System has anything in its arsenal that can beat it.

    Is there anything that came out on Master System that can match Mario 3 and Kirby’s Adventure technically?
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    I would say no. Many of our favorite games on either system were not technically superior anyway. Part of the issue for SMS was that it wasn't sophisticated enough, so that when SEGA's arcade titles needed to be ported to the home, they often came out like piles of trash.
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    I don't hate the SMS but I get why it was less popular here. First with the hardware, the controllers were just bad on the first release, the cords came out of the side right where you want to hold the controller. The D-pad was pretty bad as well, terrible with games that needed quick responses. Plus the pause button was on the actual console instead of the controller, really one of the greatest breakthroughs the NES developed as every console afterwards copied that feature.

    Combine that with the marketing, the worst most bland box art possible.

    Then there's the games. Most SMS games just weren't that interesting or just played poorly. Keep in mind that many early games got released on those cards instead of cartridges to save on cost and were really basic to play. Jumping in games didn't feel as good compared to the Mario games on the NES. Later SMS games got better but by that point the NES got a better market share, the better games getting released on the SMS were just too rare to find. This is what kept the system from being as collectible for many years later while NES collecting started taking off, the common SMS games people could find were mostly just bad and anything decent was mostly rare or unavailable in this region. The exception was in Europe where the better games got released on the SMS and hardly any good NES games got released there.

    I still want to collect the SMS but it's really hard to find the good games unless I just break down and pay full price online, which I really don't want to do.

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    Quote Originally Posted by WelcomeToTheNextLevel View Post
    1986. The NES and Master System both hit American shores, or at least see a wide release. Out of the box, the Master System is more powerful. 1 megabit cartridges instead of 320 kilobit. A faster CPU, more colors on screen, and all that jazz. And technically speaking, Alex Kidd in Miracle World looked better than Super Mario Bros 1.

    I know NES carts were loaded with enhancement chips, but as far as the common consumer would know in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the NES was equal to or beating the Master System technically.

    Find me a Master System game that outperforms Super Mario 3 technically. Mario 3 looks closer to a typical Genesis game than a Master System game. What about Kirby’s Adventure? That thing came on a 6 megabit cart (the Master System topped out at 4 megabit IIRC) and looks like an early Genesis game. I don’t think the Master System has anything in its arsenal that can beat it.

    Is there anything that came out on Master System that can match Mario 3 and Kirby’s Adventure technically?
    Road Rash
    Shadow Dancer
    Jang Pung 3
    Street Fighter 2 and MK series
    Chuck Rock 2
    New Zealand Story
    Robocop vs Terminator
    R-Type
    Sagaia
    Fantasy Zone 2
    Power Strike 2
    Asterix and the Great Rescue
    Illusion series, Aladdin, Wonder Boy 3 and Alex Kidd in Shinobi World besides the lack of multidirectional scrolling
    Lemmings
    Cheese Cat-astrophe
    Alien 3
    Daffy Duck in Hollywood
    Battlemaniacs
    Desert Speedtrap
    Dynamite Headdy
    Cool Spot and Deep Duck Trouble besides the lower framerate
    etc.

    The list is long, and no SMB3 does not look like a 16-bit game. The lack of color and sprite sizes are obvious.
    But since the NES games used enhancement chips after 1985 or so, it becomes tricky to compare them. No idea why this wasn't done on SMS but I guess it was seen as not needed and/or too expensive.

    Anyway, what mattered was the lack of third party support, which was due to Nintendo's business practices. No Konami, Capcom, Tecmo, etc.
    Last edited by Alianger; 08-10-2021 at 07:40 AM.

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    I would say SMB3 could pass for an early (pre Sonic 1) Genesis game when they were still learning the hardware. Anyway, Alianger, that’s quite a list and I’d agree with much of it, though I’d still say there was nothing that came out stateside that could beat Kirbys Adventure technically. As far as the USA market is concerned, I would say 1 to 3 late release (1989-1991) Master System games could outperform SMB3 technically.

    That being said, the vast majority of the games you released were Europe and/or Brazil exclusives. In Europe, the Master System peaked in 1993 or something like that, I think they were still developing games until 1996 in Europe and 1998 in Brazil. In addition, the Master System had good third party support in those areas. These factors meant they milked every last bit of horsepower out of the system, also they wanted to make the games a viable option against the 16 bit systems which were readily available during the Master System’s peak years in those territories.
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    Well I agree to an extent as it's a large and varied game with a lot of secrets and neat little extras, there's more attention to detail and a larger scope than a lot of games even from later eras. But it clearly looks and sounds like the NES based on the aforementioned things, the little stripe with loading tiles near the screen edge when the screen scrolls, the 4-5 channel PSG+lo-fi samples sound, etc.
    Top tier NES and 8-bit gen though for sure. Kirby's Adventure also comes close to its level overall, has more animation and background detail, and that rotating tower level which was a cool effect. Off the top of my head I don't know a SMS game with that effect but considering the game Nebulus/Castellan was on NES and various 80s PCs I think it was doable on SMS too.

    Limiting it to US SMS releases that does shrink the list a fair bit, yeah, and you're right. It actually had the most releases in a year in 1993 which is kind of crazy! Of course most of those were pretty straightforward "demake" ports from the 16-bit consoles and few games were great.

    I'm northern european myself though I had mostly moved on to the MD by 1991 or so and so I discovered some of the games I mentioned later on. While it had good third party support here, we can't understate the effect of the lack of those companies mentioned, along with others like Hudson, Namco for the most part, Sunsoft, SNK, Square and Enix (though the last two were more relevant in JP at the time), and also the licenses these held at the time such as various Disney cartoons, TMNT, and some movies.

    The most prolific 80s-90s developers besides Sega and Nintendo were Konami, Capcom, Namco, Taito, Hudson, Compile, Data East, Tose, Falcom, Technos and Tecmo, looking at how many well regarded games they made back then.

    Edit: The US did get Sonic 1 SMS which I think beats those two, check out the jungle level for example.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQPvA0OvR24&t=16m10s
    Last edited by Alianger; 08-11-2021 at 10:48 AM.

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    Guys, the difference was marketing, pure and simple. Read up on it, Sega of America had like nobody in their advertising department. The games largely stunk, they were primitive and boring. The NES had Super Mario Bros. which alone was the most fun/popular game in 1986, with plenty more to follow. After a disastrous '86 holiday season, SEGA sold the rights to Tonka, who did even worse. They blocked localizing games, and refused to pay for EEPROMS on bigger carts. When SEGA took the license back, it was too late, Nintendo were kings. In fact, the SMS probably had its best sales after the release of the Genesis, which ported a lot of games to it, and was a cheap alternative.

    SMS later on had some really impressive technical games; however, they were rarely better than the NES games. For one, even technically superior games on SMS often had a blank background. SMS did not have Konami or Capcom producing games for them. Sega's first party games were decent, but anyone who played SMB series and then tried to play Alex Kidd games knew which were better.

    Lastly, on marketing. Okay, so go back in time with me thirty some odd years. By 1987-88, Nintendo had a fan club magazine, trading cards, and eventually some cartoons. By 1989 you had The Wizard. They'd one upped Atari on those routes. As a kid, pre-internet, you had to rely on what you could get your hands on. 3rd party mags like EGM hadn't even started yet. Nintendo was ubiquitous. You got early screenshots of games, you wanted them!! They would preview their big releases up the wazoo, making you desire them even more. It was consumerism 101, and Nintendo of America were the best at it. When big time arcade games came out from Japan, you'd play them for a few weeks and the next month's Nintendo Power had a surprise, an announcement (albeit usually a 9 months to a year early) of a port coming to the NES! You'd check every month to look for updates. Sega did none of this, not until Kalinske got there with Sonic and whatnot.

    But to specifically answer the OP's inquiry, no, the SMS really never got anything as sophisticated and well designed as SMB 3 or Kirby. They just got 16-bit down ports which were done pretty badly. A few looked pretty nice, and played okay, including the Sonic games, or Disney stuff, but they had truly terrific versions on the Genesis so there was no reason to buy them. Even some of the BAD NES games that we all grew up with were preferable to SMS games back then. They were licensed from massive hits like Karate Kid, Back to the Future, Batman, Double Dare, Dick Tracy, TMNT, not to mention NES had all the Marvel/DC stuff. As a kid, if you were a fan of this stuff, you wanted to have the games. Even if they stunk, it was similar to collecting trading cards or the action figures.
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    That was also a factor but not the only one as you also admit, and far from the most important in my opinion since the quality of the software ultimately decides if the system will succeed in the long run even if people might get burned once or even several times because of marketing.

    Regarding the games I disagree and prefer various SMS equivalents to the earlier so-called NES classics but that's another discussion. The NES just has many more good games thanks to, again, better third party support and those devs not being allowed to make games for other consoles. They also had to limit their yearly published output for the NES itself (see Ultra Games).

    The question was about technical achievement so that's what I based my answer on, not showing games that are better than SMB3. Kirby's Adventure I didn't find nearly as good due to some control and slowdown issues, and the level design just being a bit bland to me overall. Mario made better use of its power ups and balanced them better.

    Regarding blank backgrounds, while they perhaps tended to be relatively lacking in detail and/or animation (IIRC thanks to no hardware support for tile mirroring (?) and I guess the lack of enhancement chips) that's pretty hyperbolic. This thread over at sega-16 shows off various detailed backgrounds which also feature parallax scrolling. There's about 65 games in there and maybe half are good:
    https://www.sega-16.com/forum/showth...crolling/page3

    "It uses codemasters mapper. Codemasters used addicional resources from new 315-5246 VDP. Therefore, codemasters games only will run in european SMS2 or later. Maybe, it work with Everdrive."
    Oh, apparently there was something akin to the NES enhancement chips in some games. The quote is from that thread.
    Last edited by Alianger; 08-11-2021 at 03:05 PM.

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    Ehhhh, the marketing was the biggest thing back then. Buyers were frequently duped into buying horrible games on NES! They promoted Fester's Quest to no end, the game was terrible! But people bought it. NES games were just better made, more complete. The Japanese designers in particular, who produced magnificent titles with easter eggs and whatnot. However, 3rd party or not, Nintendo's first party slate blew everyone else away, in the first few years alone. Super Mario Bros., Zelda, Punch-Out, Metroid, RC Pro-Am, and then Super Mario 2 were enough on their own. All fantastic games, with nothing comparable really on the SMS. At least, nothing we knew about back then. Like I said, I lived it, Nintendo was all we saw, in most every store, magazine, TV commercial, whatever. They were inescapable, and each new game was the talk of the town.

    Anyway, like I said a lot of them came out well into the console's life span, after the 16-bit consoles had already debuted. In hindsight, many look fine, but again, back then, nobody was buying those games. That said, Crisis Force, a Japanese release from Konami, is still the best 8-bit vertical shooter I've ever played, and that was on NES/Famicom granted in like 1992. The NES/Fami's inferior hardware didn't matter that much, because they had far and away the more talented designers with actual budgets. That being said, again to the OP's point, I would say that SMB3 was technically superior to what the SMS had to offer. Perhaps the color depth was less and whatnot, but clearly the programming that went into that game was superior. There's more to technical quality than just graphics. Playability is greatly tied to technical prowess, and that game was the most fun 8-bit game to play I've ever experience.
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    That didn't happen much at a massive scale though it seems.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_o...em_video_games

    Well OK, Top Gun apparently sold 2 mil, so there's that. TMNT1 wasn't a bad game for its time (nor considered one generally), just rough compared to later TMNT games and the top tier games that gen.
    But in general this seems to show that the games needed to be good as well as include a popular license to sell really well, not just the latter.

    "but clearly the programming that went into that game was superior. "
    I listed various platform games with multidirectional scrolling that play as smoothly or close to it, that's part of the technical and programming discussion. Whether you like the game mechanics and level design or not is a different discussion.
    Graphically there are some 4 color sprites but SMS games had 15 color sprites and its palette was bigger as well (though not by that much and there are pros and cons here). They start flickering when there's 4+ on screen in SMB3, but this seems common on SMS too, and otherwise you generally got slowdown instead.
    The overall level of detail in a level isn't top tier for NES and possibly below average for SMS, but to be fair the game makes up for this with a lot of variety between different levels.

    The game by game preference discussion will just derail the thread, let's agree to disagree. I grew up playing both and there were certainly enough good games on SMS for it to be worthwhile at the time and now as well. I will say some later games were clearly not simple down ports, such as the Illusion games, Jurassic Park or Asterix and the Great Rescue, and to me those actually play better on SMS.
    Last edited by Alianger; 08-11-2021 at 05:05 PM.

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    Well I don't see the point of labeling a game "technically superior" or impressive, whatever, if it wreaks. I'll give an example from your list, Daffy Duck in Hollywood. The sprites are large and highly detailed in this game, but once again the backgrounds are plain, the character animation is blocky. There again, if you take the Genesis version, it's full of massive sprites that are draw exactly as a Looney Tunes cartoon would be. While I'm not a fan of that style, clearly the art design team was told to "port" the design from 16 to 8-bits. The result is not very appealing visually, and anyone who might have compared the two versions back then would have seen that immediately.

    There's no Daffy game on NES, but just in terms of ducks, you cannot honestly compare that to a fantastic work of art from Capcom, Darkwing Duck? A game with better music, character animation, control, backgrounds, and just all around more sophisticated art design. I guess I'm not sure what outperforming even means? I rarely recall SMS games with tons of sprites on screen, whereas sprites and backgrounds were the norm on NES.

    PS: On the hardware subject, SMS also suffers from having one of the worst sound processors of that error, the PSG. Good grief were the music/effects terrible! Even good compositions suffered by that muffled, clangy mess. The Yamaha FM was an improvement but not available in US systems.
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    OK dude. That was still the question.
    I would say the animation (of the player sprite) in the Daffy game is rather varied and impressively done for any 8-bit game, on par with Kirby and better than in SMB3. There's even like 5 different idle animations, check out the end of the longplay video on YT.
    Why bring up the genesis version when we're comparing NES and SMS specifically? It should look better, the system is much more capable.

    Darkwing Duck on NES does not have better animation than Daffy at all. It clearly has fewer frames per animation, fewer individual animations and the animations are stiffer too. The backgrounds are a bit more varied however. Control and art design, gameplay etc. are again a different discussion (I think it's a poor man's Mega Man pretty much but not a bad game).
    I listed several SMS games with tons of sprites on screen or in some cases fewer but very large sprites.

    Wouldn't say SMS is muffled sounding compared to NES, but both seem to have pretty noisy sound when quiet (noise floor?). No disagreement about the PSG sound chip being weak though.
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    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7PeCR_EcbU

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    Honest question: did anything contemporary at the time claim that the SMS was more powerful?

    I never saw any press or advertising from Sega/Tonka that said it did. Sure, carts were labeled as "the mega cartridge" or "two-mega cartridge" but those were just buzzwords with no meaning to people. Might as well say "low calorie" or "high energy". I never really heard even the press mention megabit size until Strider came along.

    Although I didn't read PC mags, console mags like GamePro and EGM never touted the SMS as more powerful than the NES. Screenshots might have looked a bit more colorful but even that wasn't capitalized on as a system selling point. As far as I can recall, nobody really knew or cared about exact system specs until the next generation of systems came out and suddenly thrust a whole new terminology and hardware accentuation on customers.

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    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lGpee6mEq0

    That first ad immediately goes into tech stuff though I'm not sure how accurate it is. As a kid I didn't know any of that but the visual difference was obvious.
    I also didn't get into arguments over which system was better with friends, we just played and enjoyed the games mostly. Innocent times.

    03:00 "The realistic sound you've been craving"
    Well there you have it, SMS has better sound too.
    Last edited by Alianger; 08-13-2021 at 05:27 AM.

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    The one thing SMS definitely does not have is better sound.

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    Seeing those ads was a bit weird as I've never seen them before. It is true that the SMS had 3D games which would technically be better graphically than any NES games, even the few NES games that had 3D didn't use the same type of 3D.

    The SMS really is a good example of why we can go back to or outright prefer classic games over whatever current games are out on the latest hardware available. Gameplay is far more important than pure technical specifications.

    That said I still prefer SMS games to the N64 or Dreamcast.

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    I think graphically and game play-wise, SMS Castle of Illusion (which is quite different from the Genesis) compares well with the best of NES platformers. It's really good.

    Quote Originally Posted by Greg2600 View Post
    Well I don't see the point of labeling a game "technically superior" or impressive, whatever, if it wreaks.
    I have a great example for this: Double Dragon. SMS DD looks amazing... in screen shots. But when you play it's a flickering poorly controlling mess. Despite being single player, NES Double Dragon actually plays better, and looks fine given the era in which it was released.
    Last edited by Gentlegamer; 08-15-2021 at 06:18 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Az View Post
    Honest question: did anything contemporary at the time claim that the SMS was more powerful?

    I never saw any press or advertising from Sega/Tonka that said it did. Sure, carts were labeled as "the mega cartridge" or "two-mega cartridge" but those were just buzzwords with no meaning to people. Might as well say "low calorie" or "high energy". I never really heard even the press mention megabit size until Strider came along.

    Although I didn't read PC mags, console mags like GamePro and EGM never touted the SMS as more powerful than the NES. Screenshots might have looked a bit more colorful but even that wasn't capitalized on as a system selling point. As far as I can recall, nobody really knew or cared about exact system specs until the next generation of systems came out and suddenly thrust a whole new terminology and hardware accentuation on customers.
    Well you're asking a marketing question, because that's all something like that is. The whole "power" angle was something that SEGA began to push big time with the Genesis. Does it really mean anything? Probably not. What those commercials showed was what they were pushing at the time for SMS, which was partly licenses, but also the features of the console. I loved those old CGI-style SegaScope 3D ads, for instance. But as I said, going all the way back to George Plimpton, the advertisements were usually simply look and compare. Being "more powerful" did not start up big time until Genesis, and then ever system was claiming their specs were better, which really meant zip if the games stunk.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Greg2600 View Post
    Well you're asking a marketing question, because that's all something like that is. The whole "power" angle was something that SEGA began to push big time with the Genesis.
    I totally get that, but I was more directing that question in response to the original topic subject line. Nobody, or at least nobody I ever spoke with at the time, was even aware of console tech specs. The "power gap" between the SMS and NES didn't mean anything in the real world to the average customer because they were blissfully unaware of it even existing. Games that were critically panned were just chalked up to being dud games, not good games held back by hardware limitations.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gentlegamer View Post
    I think graphically and game play-wise, SMS Castle of Illusion (which is quite different from the Genesis) compares well with the best of NES platformers. It's really good.
    I've heard that a lot of SMS games are ports of Game Gear versions, I'm not sure if that applies to Castle of Illusion or not. If I ever come across a copy locally for cheap I'll try it out.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gentlegamer View Post
    I have a great example for this: Double Dragon. SMS DD looks amazing... in screen shots. But when you play it's a flickering poorly controlling mess. Despite being single player, NES Double Dragon actually plays better, and looks fine given the era in which it was released.
    Thank you, that's pretty much my experience with SMS Double Dragon as well. So many people say that the SMS version is better because it's closer to the arcade version and there's no control issues, but I just find it plays badly. I'm not sure if it's due to the controller or if it's actually the game though, I find the SMS controller pretty bad to control in general.

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