Updated: Mar 22, 2018
I grew up as an Atari freak; the 2600 was my first love. There has never been a computer cooler in my eyes than the Atari ST. All the best classic arcade games came from Atari in my opinion, and even E.T. for the 2600 wasn't so bad. I had read about the pending savior for Atari gaming since 1984 in assorted gaming magazines of the time, the mighty 7800 was coming. The 5200 (which I never owned) was a flop... crappy joysticks... too large... and a buggy TV converter box. Even as a kid I heard parents bitch and moan about how the 5200 wouldn't play any of the 2600 games they had already spent a fortune on at Toys R Us. The 7800 would solve all these problems. 7800 was a beautiful looking console with built in backward compatibility, more power, expansion for a keyboard, and could run circles around the at time king of the mountain Colecovision.
As has been documented a million other places, the 7800 did come out eventually. Unfortunately it was 2 years later, which anyone would tell you is an eternity in consumer electronics. Especially in the fast changing 80's, when tech was running and being developed at a fever pace. In 1986 it became a three horse race for home video game systems. The late-to-the-party Atari 7800, the powerful but poorly marketed Sega Master System, and the would-be heavy weight champ Nintendo Entertainment System. I owed two of these systems, but neither could play Castlevania or connect to a plastic robot.
I bought the 7800 with my own money at Kay Bee toys in Fairfax, VA the first day I saw it. Games were few (I think I bought Joust and Food Fight with the system), and many of the advanced features that were promised in the 1984 magazines (keyboard... expandable items) were strangely covered up by a giant sticker on the back. The expansion port was indeed on the side of my system ready for that keyboard. But when I would go to by a replacement system (after my first one met a death by Cherry Coke) the expansion input was covered by an obviously haphazard attempt at redesigning the case. The first 10 games would slowly show up in stores. All of them solid versions of arcade classics, with nothing too far stretching from the typical Atari offerings: Asteroids, Dig Dug, Galaga, and others. These games were obviously intended for the original 1984 release date. They kept me remotely entertained while my friends raved about two plumbers and a plastic add on robot that would stack plastic disks. While everyone else was eating magic mushrooms and rescuing princesses, I was firming up my skills on Robotron and Xevious. Soon a new plastic fantastic would enter my life that Christmas, and in my humble opinion it is without a doubt the king of the 8-bit cool... with its sexy black lines, bright green LED power on indicator, and downright amazing but uneven game line up.
Much like Ralph in the holiday film classic "A Christmas Story", the Sega Master System would be the greatest Christmas present I would ever receive. At the time I was obsessed with the arcade version of the Apple II game of Choplifter. And Sega had a pretty good conversion for its Master System. I also remember finding Black Belt, Ghost House, and Alex Kidd under the tree that year. The games came in cool white clam shell packages with minimal cover art. This was obviously a more mature gaming system for a more civilized time, no? To me the Master System was the anti-NES, cool and collected. Unfortunately for Sega, Nintendo quickly became the home gaming giant and school yard favorite. Within a year or two the Mario backpacks, Nintendo Power magazines, and Zelda T-Shirts seemed to be everywhere. Sega couldn't compete with overnight machine that had become Nintendo marketing. The Master System continued to plod along as a second banana, always with the less dominant shelf space. But while my friends raved about Zelda, I was head over heels in love with Phantasy Star. It was possibly the greatest 8-Bit RPG ever made; it was certainly the most sophisticated with its complex storyline and 3-D dungeons. Sega's arcade catalog fairly ran deep, and Space Harrier, Out Run, Alien Syndrome, and Shinobi all would find a home in my Master System. Not that I wasn't green with envy with sometimes... I coveted my neighbors the Castlevania and Mega Man greatly. I knew Sega's Great Hockey was a poor version of the sport compared to the excellent Blades of Steel on NES. Although I don't think anyone who was locking into NES culture will understand the joys of Zillion or Wonder Boy III. NES had Sega on the pure amount of games available, thanks to the Nintendo policy of somewhat tying the hands of third party game developers. Even Sega would eventually allow Tengen to make adaptations of its arcade games like Shinobi for the NES.
Meanwhile my 7800 wasn't exactly collecting dust, but was definitely somewhat near the bottom of the pecking order behind the new shiny Atari ST computer I had and my Sega Master System. The one big thing the 7800 games had going for them was they were cheap. Almost immediately relegated to the bargain bin at the local toy store, I could easily pick up 2-3 7800 games for the price of one Master System title. Most of 7800 offerings came as second rate translations of computer titles from years ago. Crappy translations of Summer Games, Touchdown Football, Aces of Aces, and Fight Night. Some lusted-after titles such as Sky Fox never saw the light of day, and even after all these years prototypes of unreleased games are few and far between. The 7800 just wasn't designed to play the side scrolling beat-em-ups popular in the mid 80's. The 7800's version of Double Dragon is a sad testimony to its lack of power. Although its versions of Ikari Warriors, Commando, and Rampage are outstanding. Toward the end of its life, the 7800 was the home to strange and unusual titles like the RPG Midnight Mutants and side beat-em-up Ninja Golf. These titles were fun in their own way, but lacked the polish of most of the offerings of the NES or Master Systems. It was obvious Atari with the release of its ill-thought-out XE system (simply a retooled Atari 8-bit computer posing as a game system) that Atari wasn't taking the home game market seriously anymore. Or they were just throwing anything into stores they could repackage and hoping something would sell. This would change somewhat in late 1989 with the release of its amazing portable Atari Lynx system. That much like the 7800, would suffer from a lack of quality software despite its brilliant hardware.
The Master System would roll on however, not that all the games were winners. Aztec Adventure is still one I would love my money back for. In late 1989 I would spot the Kay Bee Toy salesperson un-boxing the new Sega offering, the Genesis. With birthday money in my pocket I went home that night to have my mind blown by Altered Beast and Space Harrier II. I felt like my loyalty to the Master System had paid off.
The Genesis was a no-excuses powerhouse of the system, that blew the doors off the NES. And Nintendo would take a while to get into the 16-bit game with the Super Nintendo. Sega's Genesis would go on to be their most successful home console. To this day, M.U.S.H.A for the Genesis is maybe the most fun I have ever had playing a video game. I would end up giving the Master System to my younger cousins, a decision I regret. Did they really understand how cool the Master System was? Hours of adventures and action I just gave away... although I was still firmly in team Sega, it just wasn't the same. The Master System was like my secret garden in a way. Game titles few of my friends knew or cared about. I was to get that feeling again with the Genesis. Especially when soon with the arrival of Sonic, the Genesis became the system to have. Who were these bandwagon Sega fans? Where were they when I was enjoying Alex Kidd or dungeon crawling in Phantasy Star? For me the secret garden was closed, although I understand the Master System was much more popular outside the USA. The Master System would also become the tech basis for Sega's handheld Game Gear. For me having the Master System and 7800 side by side attached to my 13 inch TV was important. It was like listening to the Smiths instead of Bon Jovi... driving a VW Thing instead of a Corolla. I was declaring my gaming independence at a young age. It made it ok to play not only "vintage" games when the term had little meaning yet... but to play games on systems not loved by the public at large. Now many years later I can enjoy the nostalgia of the NES, and even admit a lot of the games are great (a good number of them are also terrible). But the NES will never have a spot in my heart like that sexy black Master System, or the underdog 7800 does. I guess that secret garden will always be open in a way.