So you think you have all the great Mega Drive/Genesis games, including all the classics for the two add ons, the Sega Mega CD and 32X? Then there is just the third add-on left, meaning the Power Base Converter, which was actually the FIRST add-on for the Mega Drive. Also known as the Master System Converter, it was made for all the Sega Master System players who bought a 16-bit Sega and still wanted to be able to play their old games without switching systems. I guess Sega didn’t want to make them feel fooled either, since the SMS was a pretty new system when their 16-bit system came. Too bad they didn’t have the same thoughts for the Mega CD and 32X buyers when releasing the Saturn…
How Does It Work?
The Master System Converter is pretty much only a device to fit the Master System cartridges – which have fewer pins than the Mega Drive ones – into the 16-bit console. The Mega Drive was designed to be fully compatible with its predecessor hardware-wise. With the converter in the system, it switches modes to let the sound processor – the Z80 – be the main processor. The Z80, along with some Texas Instrument chips, were used in not only the Mega Drive and Master System, but also in the Colecovision from 1982. Why develop new stuff with muffled PCM channels when there is good ol’ grainy PSG? There is one thing that isn’t backwards compatible, and that is the FM sound chip of the Japanese Master System. As of today, it seems like the only option for western players to hear it is to purchase a Japanese Master System. When playing with a converter on the Mega Drive, the only option is the PSG sound chip which in fact isn’t that bad at all.
Since the Master System had the same control input as the Mega Drive (and the Colecovision and Atari 2600 too), you can use your Mega Drive controller to play the 8-bit games, and you just use the B and C buttons and pause with the built in button on the converter. There are some exceptions to this rule, though. The games Great Volleyball, Shanghai, Alien Syndrome, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, Montezuma’s Revenge and Bomber Raid must be played with a regular Master System pad. Such a pad isn’t ultr@ r@re or anything, so it isn’t much of an issue. One game, F-16 Fighting Falcon, cannot be used with the PBC at all. Nobody did ever ask for a refund for the PBC when they read that in the manual.
The PBC works with most known models of the Mega Drive/Genesis. The rumoured compatibility issues are based on the simple fact that the first PBC has a shape that doesn’t fit to the second Mega Drive/Genesis model, the JVC X’Eye and the Pioneer Laseractive. However, with a saw and some careful tweaks to the PBC you can play it on all those models. If you don’t want to amputate it, you might as well just get another PBC model (with the price of not being able to use card games or 3-D glasses).
Due to cost-saving issues, the Sega Genesis Nomad and Genesis 3 were heavily scaled down. This means they can’t use the PBC at all. For the Genesis 3, it isn’t much of an issue, since everybody dislikes it and it can’t use anything anyway. For the Nomad, I have heard unconfirmed rumours that says Lik-Sang (R.I.P.) sold a converter that could be used to play Master System games on it. Even if it isn’t true, it doesn’t matter much when there is the Master Gear for the Sega Game Gear.
Versions of the Power Base Converter
Power Base Converter model 1
The original and the best! Around the same size as the 32X, the first version is perfectly shaped for a model I Mega Drive/Genesis. It was released in all regions and is very easy to find, but having a complete copy might drag the price up a bit. What makes this one my PBC of choice is the fact that it has a card slot, which was also only existing on the first model of the Master System. It was used for very crappy and small games such as My Hero, but also for the mega glorious 3-D Glasses (see section below). The cons about this model is the fact that you have to cut off its back to play it on a Mega Drive II. It will look ugly. It might fit on other rarer models of the Mega Drive, but it will still look ugly on those as well.
Master System Converter II
This one was only released in Europe (and perhaps also Australia, but Australia pretty much counts as part of Europe when it comes to Mega Drive anyway) and its key function was to make it possible for owners of the second Mega Drive model to play Master System games on their console, since the previous one doesn’t fit. With its much smaller size, it is quite similar to a Sonic & Knuckles cartridge, which has forced the sacrifice of the card slot, although the pause button is still there. This version is highly sought after by Mega Drive model II owners and quite rare, so beware that it might have a very high price when found.
Tototek’s Master System/Mark III converter
Tototek, famous for products such as the MD-Pro, the MegaCart, and working on Beggar Prince has a converter that supports both the Master System and its Japanese equivalent, the Mark III. It is probably the only brand-new converter you can buy today. They have it in four different versions, ranging from $20 to $29 where a bare PCB without Mark III support is the cheapest and one with a case (for the MD part) and Mark III support is the most expensive. It also has a pause button. It appears to be a nice product worth checking out, especially if there are Mark III games you want to play on your Mega Drive.
Master Mega Converter
Released in Australia only, by the famous HES. It is pretty much a clone of the MSC Mark II, but less good-looking. It might be an alternative for people living down there.
Something you definitely can’t find for whatever other Sega system you may have is the SMS exclusive 3D-glasses. As said, this can only be used if you have the first Power Base Converter. The glasses use some flickering effect which gives the illusion of 3D, which is very original. Together with darkness and the space background of Zaxxon 3-D, you get a unique experience. Space Harrier 3-D and the Light Phaser-compatible Missile Defence 3D are also popular choices for buyers of this accessory.
Before Sonic The Hedgehog came, Alex Kidd was more or less Sega’s mascot, in wait for someone better fit. Having that said, it doesn’t mean the Alex’s games are bad, it’s just that an ugly boy with the Beatles haircut and monkey face doesn’t have the charm to be a mascot (like a blue hedgehog or a fat Italian plumber). His games are very varied. The most popular one must be Alex Kidd in Miracle World, which was built into one version of the Master System and also had the most true sequel on the 16-bitter, Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle. The game lets you shop items such as the motorcycle and the helicopter and play Janken (rock-paper-scissors). These segments made the game fairly unique, even though it is pretty much a standard platformer.
Fantasy Zone series
A cute-’em-up franchise which also had an installment on the Mega Drive. In a pretty-coloured world, you fly around as Opa-Opa to destroy ten bases on each level. With money you upgrade yourself with new weapons and equipment. The spin-off Fantasy Zone: The Maze is different and not as popular.
Light Phaser games
If there was one thing both the Master System and the Entertainment System did better than their 16-bit counterparts, it was the light gun games. With a relatively big and varied library of games, there is plenty of fun to be had with the Light Phaser. I recommend Marksman Shooting/Trap Shooting / Safari Hunt (a 3-in-1 cartridge) which came bundled with the gun in Europe, and Gangster Town, which can be played by two players. (Ed. note: Don’t forget the incredible Rescue Mission, perhaps the best one of all!).
You should already have Phantasy Star II, III and IV as a part of your Mega Drive/Genesis collection. Without Sega’s 8-bitter you can’t complete this tetralogy, unless you know Japanese. The original Phantasy Star introduces many of the classic elements that lived on in the series on the Mega Drive (hmm, maybe not in the third one) for example the three planets, the futuristic design, manga cutscenes, party members with claws as their weapons and lots of other things. In this game you follow the heroine Alis on her quest to avenge her brother Nero. He was killed when he tried to stop the evil Lassic, a once good king who has turned to the Dark side, by some mysterious Force… In 3D dungeons similar to the ones in Shining in the Darkness, you fight and search for items needed to continue you journey. This makes the original in one way harder than the three sequels, where the story simply forbids the player to think for him/herself where to go next. There have been some rumours about not being able to save Phantasy Star when using a PBC. I have a Mega Drive 1 and a PBC 1, and the saving works perfectly for me.
Sonic The Hedgehog series
The Sonic games on the Sega Master System play totally different from the 16-bit versions. The zones are in most cases not the same and there are quite a few features here that you won’t find in the 16-bit versions, for example rocket shoes, runaway rail carts and hang gliders. They are also, at least in my opinion, a bit harder, much due to the complicated level design. You won’t be able to speed through the zones like you may be used to. For 8-bit games, the graphics and music are very good, even compared to some Mega Drive games. Sonic The Hedgehog was the last SMS title released in North America, but getting and playing the better Sonic The Hedgehog 2 and Sonic The Hedgehog Chaos shouldn’t be a problem for any Genesis owner.
Wonder Boy/Monster World series
Monster World is to Wonder Boy what Shining Force is to the Shining franchise – a sub-series that plays very differently from the original. In Monster World (of which there are three installments on the SMS: Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap and Wonder Boy in Monster World) a lot of adventure and RPG-like elements are added to a typical platform game. A recommendation is to first buy Monster Land and beat it in one sitting, then continue with Dragon’s Trap, which continues right after. It is considered one of the absolute best games on the console. Then skip Monster World and play the Mega Drive version instead, and finish it with Monster World IV on the same console.
Aren’t there any more good games than those? Yes there are, this is just the tip of the iceberg. But no matter how many you mention, there will always be some whining such as “Waaah! Why isn’t MY favourite game listed?” from people.
The Sega Master System is perhaps one of the most underrated consoles of all time, but that is just good for the players of today. It is also one of the cheapest consoles to collect for, with a library of many great exclusive games. With a Power Base Converter/Master System Converter on your Genesis/Mega Drive, you can expand your Sega glory with dozens of atmospheric and original 8-bit games. If you like the NES and the Mega Drive, there is no reason to leave out Sega’s 8-bit wonder.