Pac-Mania (Sega Master System)

When first seeing Pac-Man in pseudo-3D, there is a certain level of excitement at the promise of a new Pac experience. However, this soon fades, as the somewhat pedestrian pace of the game and frustrating controls prevent this game from achieving its potential. It isn’t that Pac-Mania is a bad game, but it certainly does not provide the level of enjoyment that can be had with many of its 2-D predecessors.

Coming up with new ideas for extending the Pac-Man franchise had to be challenging. I mean, what does one do after changing the titular character into a woman, a child, a baby, and a professor? The character had even been made super. What is left?

Apparently, that character goes manic 🙂

Following the tired practice of quoting from Webster’s, “mania” is defined as “1: excitement manifested by by mental and physical hyperactivity, disorganization of behavior, and elevation of mood” or as “2: excessive or unreasonable enthusiasm.” So, our question becomes, which of these applies to Pac-Mania for the Sega Master System?

Let’s start with a cursory examination of the game. Unlike the sequels I recently reviewed, Pac-Mania once again places the user in control of Pac-Man. To distinguish this game from Pac-Man’s previous incarnations, this game is presented in an isometric view. This not only allows to provide dimension to the characters, but it also permits movement in a third plane, which Pac-Man accomplishes by jumping (the “elevation” referred to in the Webster’s definition? Nah, I think not). Pac-Man now appears spherical as opposed to flat and circular. Pac-Man and the ghosts all look fine; however, the game is certainly not as attractive as the arcade original.

The game moves along at an okay, but none-too-fast pace (so . . . no hyperactivity). The game is not as plodding as the Atari 2600 Pac-Man, but you won’t experience the more frantic action of, say, Jr. Pac-Man. I don’t know how this compares with the arcade original, as I never had an opportunity to play it, so I am curious as to whether this is a design choice or if the Sega Master System was just unable to handle this game running at a faster speed.

As mentioned previously, Pac-Man now has the ability to jump, we he can use to vault over ghosts or even power pellets in order to save them. Later, though, the ghosts get this ability as well (at least I was warned that they do prior to Sand Box Land, though I never saw one actually jump) to help even the score. Also, more ghosts wander the maze of Pac-Mania than in the previous games I reviewed; however, the mazes are so large and the ghosts rarely seem to work together (disorganization of behavior?), so their bolstered ranks do little to place Pac in peril.

One issue I had with this game was the control. As with all Pac-Man games, a good controller is paramount, as it is too easy to do an about-face into a ghost when attempting to quickly take a side path to evade him (or her). I think an arcade-style joystick is ideal, but unfortunately, I did not have one for my Master System, so I was stuck using a three-button Genesis pad (because the Master System pads I have are atrocious). The problem with a control pad is that it is too easy to hit a diagonal unintentionally and to not be able to more accurately. This is compounded when the game does not seem to read inputs as it should. If you watch the gameplay video, you can see that I occasionally move back and forth in front of a side passage. This is not due to indecision on my part—I could not get Pac to move that way, even though I was pressing the control pad in the right direction. Hmm, that disorganization of behavior seems to be more and more applicable . . .

Or, perhaps, the most suitable justification for the “mania” in the title lies with the definition “excessive or unreasonable enthusiasm.” When first seeing Pac-Man in pseudo-3D, there is a certain level of excitement at the promise of a new Pac experience. However, this soon fades, as the somewhat pedestrian pace of the game and frustrating controls prevent this game from achieving its potential. It isn’t that Pac-Mania is a bad game, but it certainly does not provide the level of enjoyment that can be had with many of its 2-D predecessors.

Not recommended

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Rastan

Among the limited Master System library, Rastan stands out as one of the best action titles available. It brings together good graphics, fun gameplay, and for the Conan fans among us, an ending that is very appropriate for a Conan-inspired character.

When I think of the 1980s, I am immediately reminded of G.I. Joe cartoons, hair bands, Mr. T cereal, Saturday Supercade, Mary Lou Retton, and John Rambo—all of which make that decade distinct in my mind. Perhaps the most significant reminder of the 1980s for me, though, is the rise of the sword and sorcery genre, brought forth primarily due to the popularity (and controversy) of Dungeons & Dragons, but given continued attention through a slew of movies released during the time. These movies ranged from Boorman’s often eerie retelling of Arthurian legend in Excalibur to the only non-musical Disney animated feature at the time in The Black Cauldron to the guilty pleasure of Hawk the Slayer to the dreadfully awful Deathstalker movies. Arguably the most influential of these movies was Conan the Barbarian, starring then rising star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The fascination with Conan and the barbarian hero archetype he made famous can be witnessed in several video games during the ’80s—Ax-Battler from Golden Axe, Gogan from The Legendary Axe, Thor from Gauntlet, and even Conan himself appeared in a forgettable game or two of his own during this era. In my opinion, though, the best rendering of the Conan character was accomplished in Rastan, a game produced by Taito for the arcade and later ported to the Sega Master System.

Rastan is a hack-and-slash platformer in which you traverse seven levels of the land of Semia in order to rescue a princess. No, Rastan is not innovative in its storytelling, but that really doesn’t matter. Rastan is about cutting down skeletons, harpies, wizards, chimeras, and medusae as you make your way to the boss at the end of each level. As you slay your enemies, you will occasionally be rewarded with potions, shields, and armor, but your enemies will also leave behind vials of poison which will deplete your health. In addition to these items, you’ll find weapons that will increase your reach and damage, including the fire sword which launches fireballs with every swing.

Though Rastan does not have a time limit for each level, it does employ a penalty if you move at a leisurely pace. After a certain amount of time passes, night begins to set in, and you suddenly find yourself besieged by bats that will plague you for the remainder of the level. While the bats don’t appear during the boss levels, the game once again finds a way to ensure you dispatch your foes quickly. The manual implies that the air in the boss chambers is poisonous to Rastan, and your health will deplete slowly for the duration of the battle.

Speaking of the bosses, Rastan has some of the best looking I can recall on the Sega Master System. Though most of the enemies you encounter during a level will not be very detailed (though the graphics are still good for the Master System), the bosses are often large and relatively well defined, especially the three dragons you will confront before the game’s end.

The music in the game is also very good for a Master System game, and you may find the tunes running through your head long after finishing the game.

The only real complaints I have about this game are the ease with which some of the bosses can be defeated and the overall length. The first boss, Kentorous the centaur, can be defeated with only a few downward thrusts of your sword, and the third boss, the wizard Shukumas, will stand in one spot for several seconds before teleporting, allowing you to do heavy damage by merely standing in front of him and repeatedly swiping him with your sword. As for the game length, you can expect to play Rastan from beginning to end in 20-25 minutes, though they will be 20-25 minutes of some of the best hack-and-slash gaming to be found on the Master System.

Among the limited Master System library, Rastan stands out as one of the best action titles available. It brings together good graphics, fun gameplay, and for the Conan fans among us, an ending that is very appropriate for a Conan-inspired character. I consider Rastan one of my favorite titles in my Master System library, and after comparing it with the arcade original, I think the Master System port comes out on top. Certainly, the graphics cannot compare with the coin-op, but where the original was created to be a quarter-muncher, the Master System version feels like a more balanced game.

A quick tip for those of you who find that the three continues are not adequate to get you through the game—before turning on your Master System, hold down the both buttons and the D-pad to the lower left. Continue to hold until the Rastan title screen appears. If the title is blue instead of gold, you have unlocked unlimited continues. Now you may play as recklessly as you like.

Highly recommended

Phantasy Star

In my opinion, this is the best game that was released for the Sega Master System, and a necessary addition to any Sega Master System roleplayer’s library.

It wasn’t easy being a Sega fanboy back in the days of the Master System. Though it had a better color palette than the NES and the hardware was technically superior, the Master System suffered because of a lack of games. It wasn’t until the Genesis that Sega was finally able to get much third party support (the result of the often-discussed policy Nintendo had in place preventing third-party developers from supporting other systems), and the Master System’s limited library just didn’t have a lot of really good games. Certainly, there were enjoyable titles, but the gameplay of the Nintendo games generally seemed more advanced. So, the loyal Sega supporters like myself waited patiently for more good games to arrive for our underappreciated system.

Fortunately, there were some great games that were finally released for the Master System—games that could not be bought for the NES or any other console. One of these games was the now-classic Phantasy Star, which introduced me to the world of RPGs and had perhaps the best graphics on the Master System (maybe on any 8 bit system).

One of the biggest complaints I had during the 8 bit era was that I finished games too quickly. Most were action titles that could be mastered within a couple of days, and I often didn’t feel like revisiting them after one or two playthroughs. It seemed like I really wasn’t getting my money’s worth. Phantasy Star changed all that for me. Here was a game that I couldn’t play through in one sitting. It required a time investment, and I had time in abundance. Finally reaching the end and defeating Lassic, as well as vanquishing the unexpected foe Darkfalz, was extremely satisfying. Unlike most titles, Phantasy Star felt epic, with its progression from a lone girl trying to avenge her brother to a party of trained warriors overthrowing an evil tyrant.

Recently, I played through Phantasy Star again to see if it still holds up after all these years. I can say, with a few reservations, that it does.

The graphics in Phantasy Star still look nice, with large, well-designed enemies. Some of these are mythological, such as centaurs and dragons, while some seem to have been borrowed from more contemporary sources (for example, an obvious Star Wars influence can be discerned in some of the designs). What is great is that each creature is animated, which is an improvement over a game such as Miracle Warriors, in which the enemies are more static and less interesting. Unfortunately, the overhead graphics while traveling are not very impressive, but players will spend so much time in dungeons and fighting random battles that they can be easily forgotten.

For anyone familiar with roleplaying games, Phantasy Star plays very much as you would expect it to. Battles are run through menus in which you can choose to attack, use items, use spells, talk, or run. The only real problem I had with the interface is that I was not allowed to choose which character would attack which enemy, so I was often annoyed when my characters would attack a healthy enemy instead of finishing off one who was low on hit points and removing that enemy from battle. Phantasy Star is an early RPG, though, so I am able to accept that the game lacks this feature, no matter how frustrating my character’s choice of targets could be.

Phantasy Star is not as long as a contemporary RPG gamer might expect. If you know the game’s secrets, an avid gamer can actually finish it in a day or two. Still, it is a lengthy quest for the time, and after finishing it again, I felt that the length was adequate.

Aside from the few small issues I’ve mentioned, there is a lot to like about Phantasy Star. Heck, I even like the music in the game. In my opinion, this is the best game that was released for the Sega Master System, and a necessary addition to any Sega Master System roleplayer’s library.

Recommended (highly recommended for Sega Master System or RPG fans)