This Month In Retro
Hello all and welcome to This Month in Retro! Today, I am taking you back into the distant past of September 1986: a month pretty limited in terms of releases to talk about, but at the same time a month that is surprisingly impactful. That is because it birthed two franchises in Japan that I unfortunately won’t cover in terms of their first games due to their later releases in the west.
The first franchise is the Adventure Island series by Hudson Soft, making its debut on September 12th. Of course, we also know that it is technically an adaptation of the Arcade game Wonder Boy which did come out earlier, but Adventure Island did become a franchise on its own eventually, spanning four games on the NES alone. The series wouldn’t stop there either, as it would see two sequels on the SNES, one on the TurboGrafx-16, and a sort of remake for the Wii virtual console. Unfortunately though, Hudson Soft was eventually absorbed into Konami which means that the franchise is dead and unlikely to ever see the light of day again unless a miracle happens.
That also applies to the second franchise birthed this month, and one of my all-time favourites: Castlevania. I heavily considered breaking my own rules and talk about this game since it was originally released on the Famicom Disk System which we obviously never got, but the differences are too minimal for me to be able to. Next time for sure my beloved. But yeah, this series also started this month on the 26th and, as many know, was a very successful franchise with over 30 games that was even a massive influence in birthing the Metroidvania genre. I don’t think I really even have to mention how successful the franchise is, as it even has one of the better video game adaptations on Netflix. But of course, Konami does what Konami wants so I’m a sad hamster.
So what will I be talking about then if I can’t cover either of those two? Have no fear, Nepiki is here to share we also have a system release this month, being the Sega Master System in North America! Admittedly, that is also the only Western-related part I will be talking about today as the other systems didn’t really see that many releases. I had to criss-cross a lot to find some Apple II releases that were at most passable, and I’m sure the MSX had a ton of releases this month but that system’s release dates are so extremely poorly documented that I had to give up. Which is a shame because the MSX is a really cool piece of history that I would love to talk about, but it is what it is–the 80s were a different time when it comes to documentation. As always though, if you do have a source for older system release dates, please do let me know. Anyhow, you know the drill: I’ll be talking about western releases, japanese-exclusive releases, and their RetroAchievements integration if applicable. So without further ado, let’s talk some games!
The Master System
As mentioned in the introduction, most game releases this month were on the Sega Master System due to the release in North America. Although the system officially launched with just two games, a total of six were released this month and I will be covering them all. Before I do that though… what exactly is the Master System?
SEGA was known for their massive success in the Arcades, especially in Japan. Also, rest in peace SEGA arcades, you will be missed. But in 1983, SEGA decided to enter the home video game console market with the SG-1000–which, funnily enough, was released on the exact same date as when the Famicom was released by the Nintendo. The rivalry started fairly early on… though it wasn’t a fierce rivalry as the SG-1000 didn’t really do that well. It did have a few revisions, but in 1985, a final iteration would be released called the Sega Mark III. And this is also when SEGA felt confident enough releasing their console in the west under the new name: Master System.
The Master System is an 8-bit video game console, just like its predecessors but with enhanced graphical capabilities to make it even more powerful than its direct competition. For this release, Sega of America was specifically established to gain more market share in the west. Their primary goal at the time was to rebrand the Sega Mark III for a western release, with help of former Nintendo of America’s vice president of sales. And you could definitely notice how much they wanted it to succeed over the NES. Although the pick for the name was completely random and based on throwing darts, the Master System was generally seen as the most obvious choice. After all, in a competition only one can be the “Master” right? Spoilers: it wasn’t the Master System. The white grid design was also made to differentiate itself from the black NES packaging. Spoilers: that wasn’t a good idea.
It unfortunately still wasn’t as successful though, simply because of Nintendo’s licensing practices during this generation: games released for the Famicom were not allowed to release on other consoles. Their library was limited and they had to push out games under high pressure to keep a consistent release window. While SEGA has hoped to sell 400,000 to 750,000 consoles before the end of 1986, they managed to only sell 125,000–although other sources claim its 250,000. Regardless of which source is correct, they didn’t even come close to approaching the NES. Even selling the distribution rights to toy company Tonka made pretty much no difference. The latter was also unwilling to really do anything so that was a pointless endeavor in general.
In North America, the console only managed to have a meager 115 games; an extremely small library by today’s standards. That’s not to say it lacked quality of course, as this console birthed franchises such as Phantasy Star and of course Alex Kidd. And while Nintendo didn’t allow games to be released on other consoles, ports were the loophole that made it possible with releases such as Ghouls N’ Ghosts and the first two games in the Ys series. Wonder Boy saw a good amount of coverage on this console as well with titles such as the amazing Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap, and there were a bunch of original titles too like Psycho Fox. And of course, the system was advertised as an “Arcade at home”, so many 8-bit ports of such games were brought over as well, like Fantasy Zone and Hang On. So while the library was certainly small, it did still have some quality games on there.
…But that’s not where the story ends. While I am only looking at the less-than-stellar North-American release of the Master System, there is more to this story–namely Europe and especially Brazil. I’m not going to go too much in-depth about either for today, but whereas the console didn’t come close to SEGA’s expectations in North America, it had a much bigger success in the before-mentioned regions. PAL alone saw a total of 267 releases, easily doubling what was seen in North America. As a surprising twist to the story, the Master System did actually compete with the NES in Europe, even outselling it during multiple months. The NES was still slightly more successful in the end as the difference in sales is still estimated to be a total of 1 million, but the rivalry over here was actually pretty fierce.
And then there’s Brazil. Brazil’s video game industry in general is quite interesting since Nintendo didn’t have any foothold there until 1993, where it failed to compete since the market was dominated with NES clones. The Master System arrived earlier due to Tectoy reaching out to SEGA, and despite their hesitance due to Tonka’s disgraceful performance, it was a massive success that lead to Tectoy claiming 80% of the Brazilian video game market. Brazil ended up with several exclusive games like Game Gear ports of Sonic Blast and Legend of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, and even more impressive feats like Dynamite Heady and Street Fighter 2. But perhaps the most well-known fact is that thanks to Tectoy, the Master System is still being kept alive to this day. I’m not kidding here; the system has been alive in Brazil since 1989, and has never been discontinued since then. This makes the Master System one of, if not the longest living gaming console in the entire history of video games. Quite interesting how a North-American and Japanese failure ended up so impactful in other regions huh?
The Master System Launch Games
Officially, there were only two launch games for the North American release. However, there were four more games released in the same month so I’m just going to include them here as well. It’s definitely not as grand a launch as we would see from… well, pretty much any other major manufacturer system, but this was still during the 80s after all. I will be going through them in a random order today, from games that have achievements to games without. I was planning to go from worst critically acclaimed to best, but reviews are very unreliable before the 2000s and my only source was MobyGames so I scratched that idea. Sales are also completely unknown so I scrapped both of them for this edition. So first up, let’s go over some Arcade ports!
|Fantasy Zone (Master System)|
|Release dates||JP: June 15, 1986
NA: September ??, 1986
PAL: August ??, 1987
First up we have everyone’s favourite sentient spaceship and one of the origins behind the Cute ‘em Up subgenre, Fantasy Zone. This game was released in Arcades in March of the same year in Japan-only, making the Master System game Opa-Opa’s first appearance in the west. And this certainly has been an influential game for not just the genre, but video games as a whole. Though other games are more famous for it, Fantasy Zone is often seen as the game for popularizing the concept of a boss rush! But it also was a Shoot ‘em Up where, instead of going through a stage in one direction, Opa-Opa could go either left- or right while the stage loops endlessly. Destroy all bases and pick up a few handy-dandy weapons from the shop that appears after having enough money from destroying enemies, and then kill the boss at the end to move on to the next stage. The original arcade release was highly successful, and the Master System release was highly praised as well (ignoring the critic score from MobyGames). Fans overall agree, although the difficulty was unwelcome for some so that’s something to keep in mind. Funnily enough though, despite being a first-party SEGA game, it ended up being released on a serious amount of other systems at the time–including the NES! After all, it was very beloved and also resulted in various sequels during the late 80s and early 90s. Unfortunately Opa-Opa wouldn’t really see its own games anymore after that, though its legacy lives on in the Yakuza Arcades and as a racer in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
The achievement set firstly covers all of the levels, and all of the weapons brought from the shop. While beating the game is already going to be tough enough, almost every other achievement will certainly test your Cute ‘em Up skills, like never turning left, not ever entering the shop and a super high score on the second loop. You should definitely be prepared for a hard mastery here. Super Fantasy Zone is currently the only other game in the series with a set, so if you would like to see more, check out the [Series - Fantasy Zone] Hub!
From one beloved Arcade game into the next, SEGA has even more up their sleeves. Next up, it’s time for some arcade racing with Hang-On!
|Hang-On (Master System)|
|Release dates||JP: October 20, 1985
NA: September ??, 1986
PAL: October ??, 1987
Hang-On was yet another influential games to arcades, being one of the first Arcade games ever to use 16-bit graphics as well as a special Arcade System Board to simulate 3D effects. This Arcade cabinet did actually release outside of Japan, and was even the highest-grossing arcade game of 1985 AND 1986 in North America. Having it ported to the Master System was a no-brainer, even being a pack-in title for the console. The conversion to 8-bit was overall very faithful, with some minor understandable exclusions. The player has to race against time and other bikers to beat the clock, after which the time extends. Keep going as long as possible and a winner is you. The port was score positively by critics and beloved by fans at the same time. Nowadays it’s not really talked much about anymore though, and that’s for a very simple reason: Super Hang-On exists, which is an Arcade conversion of the sequel to the original Arcade game. When anything from the franchise is ever re-released, be it in a compilation or a Yakuza Arcade cabinet, it’s almost guaranteed to be the original Arcade version or the Genesis version. Still, if you want to see the origins of the (small) franchise but in 8-bit, you can’t go wrong with the Master System version.
The achievement set is overall pretty simple and shouldn’t pose too much trouble if you can get a feel for the game: Beat stages on difficulties, complete courses, and do it again but with specific conditions. And since it is an Arcade game, points are obviously relevant here as well. Every base here is covered though, so have at it!
Alright, one final Arcade port and then we’ll be moving on to some original games. Released on pretty much every system imaginable at the time, we have Choplifter!
|Choplifter (Master System)|
|Release dates||NA: September ??, 1986
PAL: August ??, 1987
A port of an arcade remake of a console game. That doesn’t happen too often now does it? Choplifter was originally designed for the Apple II in 1982, after which SEGA released an Arcade remake in 1985. This version was then ported to the Master System and… the Famicom? WHAT ARE YOU DOING SEGA?? Regardless, the original version of Choplifter and the re-releases were very positively received, so SEGA saw an opportunity here. Must say that it worked out well for them given how both the Arcade version and the Master System version also received positive critique! The player controls a helicopter in a side-scrolling action game, where they have to destroy enemy tanks and aircraft while the player tries to rescue hostages. Rescue 16 per stages and its on to the next one. The helicopter’s direction is very important here, as not every direction can take care of every obstacle. It’s a fairly simple- yet effective game, and fans overall agree with it as well. SEGA themselves would also make a few spiritual successors to the IP without the brand, namely Air Rescue. As for the original franchise itself, it did see some sequels on various Nintendo platforms and a HD remake for digital storefronts, but that’s where the story ends.
But the story doesn’t end on RetroAchievements! I know I know, very smooth transition, thank you. The Master System version has a challenging achievement set with multiple 50-pointers, like beating the game without dying, rescuing a high amount of hostages on any round, and of course, points! Points points points, gotta love Arcade games. There are also multiple fun Easter Eggs to be found, and normal progression achievements are to be found here too of course. The set has been up for a while with very few masters, so if you think you’re up for the challenge, now is the time!
And that’s it for the games that have an achievement set on RetroAchievements. I’m also really tired of Arcade ports so let’s talk about one that isn’t. Kinda. Next up, Ghost House!
|Ghost House (Master System)|
|Release dates||JP: April 21, 1986
NA: September ??, 1986
PAL: August ??, 1987
It is very loosely based on an Arcade game called Monster Bash, but very loosely is not completely so we have an original game here! Ghost House is a side-scrolling horror-action video game developed and published by SEGA, starring Mick the non-Belmont vampire hunter! Mick travels through a mansion and has to punch or jump on enemies to defeat them, and destroy five vampires at the end of each level to proceed on to the next. On his quest to slay the evil, elements of the mansion can be interacted with, like touching lights to freeze every enemy, as well as arrows that fly through the screen that Mick can jump on for extra points. Ghost House was a game that was fairly well received on release; not oustanding, but also not too bad. Over the years though, both critics- and players instead view the game as a below-average game, having never seen any re-release and also never any follow-ups. I guess Mick wasn’t popular enough to create a family of vampire hunters to hunt down Dracula, too bad.
And there goes my break of Arcade ports. It was fun while it lasted. For the final two games, we have two more conversions. First up is My Hero!
|My Hero (Master System)|
|Release dates||JP: January 31, 1986
NA: September ??, 1986
PAL: August ??, 1987
Released in 1985 for Arcades, My Hero is a side-scrolling Beat ‘em Up. Given that it predates many of the more famous games in the genre, this game’s progress is a little bit different than what we’re used to, namely that the game is an endless loop of three levels until the player runs out of lives. The story on the other hand is very familiar though: gang runs off with main protagonist’s girlfriend, main protagonist gives chase and gives them a whopping. The differences between the Arcade version and home release are pretty minimal, but the latter does have less space so the ninja and ape/human enemies are omitted in favour of just the street gang. Which is a shame since the second- and third level are also based around said enemies, with the second being Edo-themed while the latter is loosely based on Planet of the Apes, but you can’t have everything. Similarly to Ghost House however, the game was originally well received but is now pretty much slammed upon by both critics- and players. I guess Takeshi… Steven… whatever his name is wasn’t popular enough to keep beating up street gangs to save his girlfriend, too bad.
Two examples of games that were harmless on release but not canned. Probably a good explanation for why they don’t have a RetroAchievements set yet. Will the final game of today follow the same fate? Let’s find out!
|Teddy Boy (Master System)|
|Release dates||JP: 20 October, 1985
NA: September ??, 1986
PAL: November ??, 1987
Based on the Japan-exclusive Arcade game Teddy Boy Blues - Yohko Ishino from 1985, Teddy Boy is a platform game set in 50 distinct levels that functions as an infinitely-repeating maze. The unnamed main protagonist has a gun to shrink monsters, after which he picks them up to collect all of them, but before time runs out otherwise a life is lost, just as what happens when a monster is touched. So yeah, that description probably already perfectly described it as a typical score game you would see in Arcades, and you wouldn’t be wrong there. The console conversion is pretty much one-to-one, but it misses part of the Arcade title. The game is based around a song title by the Japanese popstar Yohko Ishino, “Teddy Boy Blues”, but all references are gone from the console port. I am so sorry fans of Yohko Ishino. At the time in Arcade it had decent success, but yet again like the previous two titles, the passing of time has not been kind to this game. “Generic” and “Repetitive” are the two most common words you see when this game is being talked about, and it’s not hard to see why. I guess Teddy wasn’t popular enough to… actually, I have no idea how to keep this running joke going so I’ll just give up.
You thought I only had a few games to talk about on the Western side? I hate to burst your bubble, but the Japanese side had it even worse–though mostly for the reason that most games released this month would eventually see an English release, like Castlevania and Adventure Island. I have an extremely small amount of games to talk about today, with none of them having an achievement set either. Soo… quick round for today, starting with…
|Release date||JP: September 8, 1986|
Ooooooh Bananaaaaaa. Banana is a puzzle video game released exclusively for the Famicom in Japan, based on the Mole Mole games released a year prior for all common PCs at the time. The game stars a mole which digs through dirt to collection fruits and vegetables. And today I’ve learned that the Banana is canonically the best fruit ever made since it is the only one that give benefits to the player in the form of power-ups. I didn’t make the rules. Since it is a puzzle game, the fruit and vegetables have to be collected in a specific order, and the mole’s daughter-in-law needs to be retrieved as well before the mole can leave. While it sounds simple on paper, this game is surprisingly impressive. There are 105 stages in total and if that wasn’t enough, players can even design their own levels which can be stored on specially formatted cassette tapes to share it with other people. Remember, this was in 1986. The Mole Mole games had a level editor too, but I still find it impressive so I will mention it. Did the critics and players find it impressive too? I have no idea. The game is very unknown and barely has any opinions floating around on the internet. Maybe a set on RetroAchievements can change that? Can you truly say you are living without having played a game literally called Banana after all? I rest my case.
I liked talking about Banana, what a cute little hidden gem. And it looks like I’ll be talking about cute little hidden gems in general today as the next one is only slightly more well-known, mostly due to it having a similar theme and gameplay to another popular game released only a month prior. Also… it’s the final game for today.
|Space Hunter (NES)|
|Release date||JP: September 25, 1986|
Space Hunter is an action-adventure game set in, you guessed it, space. The player has to go through seven maze-like asteroids to explore each one, find power-ups and weapons, defeat the boss and then move on to the next one. The similarities to a small series like Metroid are a bit obvious, but due to it only being released a month later, this looks to be a funny coincidence rather than intentional inspiration. The female protagonist definitely wasn’t inspired by Metroid since that was something that wasn’t even advertised right from the get-go. Also, she’s a robot so there’s that. Apparently in 2199 AD there was a robotic revolt that caused a global nuclear war, where humans left to space. Which means that Star Ocean is a rip-off of Space Hunter and you can’t tell me otherwise. Regardless, space wasn’t any less dangerous so humanity’s thread of life was the main protagonist. It all sounds very solid, but Space Hunter didn’t really get the reputation it hoped to get. Even by 1986 its graphics were very outdated, and the explanation given by the game itself is very lacking, almost making a FAQ necessary. Though fortunately, it is game that is generous with its difficulty, having no true game-overs and also a password system. Players are mixed on the game overall, but it is still an interesting piece of history that predates many games that influenced the exploration genre as a whole.
I think this edition of This Month in Retro is a good demonstration of why making editions for years prior to the 90s is a tough thing to do. The documentation is extremely bad, and the video game industry was still slowly recovering from the crash of ‘83. Sure, Atari was doing whatever Atari did, but outside of the lesser-known PCs, only Sega and Nintendo were really active during this time, followed by NEC near the end of the 80s. So yeah, for next time I’ll definitely have to be a bit more thoughtful about whether picking a year from before the 90s is a good decision or not. There were a few more Japanese games I could have talked about, but one was just an education game for knitting while the other was about a girl fleeing from a rapist. I think you can understand why I didn’t talk about either.
As for how this month went: it may have not looked too impressive, but you have to remember that both Castlevania and Adventure Island were born this month, alongside a few other games I couldn’t talk about due to their eventual release in the west. And the Master System, even if it wasn’t too successful, was still an impactful system to the history of video games as well as the history of SEGA. It’s tough to say what game I talked about today was the most well received due to reviews being unreliable, but I’d like to say either Hang-On or Fantasy Zone. As for least successful, just pick either of the three, or the literal commercial failure I didn’t talk about today due to a western release, Super Xevious: Gump no Nazo.
Next month we have the official launch of the PlayStation 2, and very conveniently for me, it launched in October… at least, in North America again. I’m sorry my European fellows, I’m hurt just as much as you are. But this is the literal perfect moment to be talking about that launch so next month, join me as we go back to October 2000! I know I also talked about the year 2000 in August, but this is simply the perfect coincidence. We’re almost there achievers!
Unless stated otherwise, the following sites have been used to create this article: