We begin our odyssey by looking at the original pack-in title for the Master System when it was released in October 1986. Keep in mind that Nintendo’s primary bundle at the time included two games: Super Mario Bros., one of thier most popular platformers, and Duck Hunt, the showpiece for the Zapper light gun. Sega noticed it too and decided to follow suit with a dual package of their own, including both games on one cart. In their case Sega decided to go with a port of one of their popular arcade titles and a game to show off their light gun accessory (which every game console in the late 1980s was seemingly required to have in the wake of Duck Hunt’s success). Let’s see how Sega’s pack-in duo matches up against Nintendo’s bundle.
Up first is Hang-On, a port of Yu Suzuki’s 1985 motocycle arcade game that was also combed with Astro Warrior and released as a stand-alone card. If you remember the original arcade game had you racing down a motocross track while controlling the action on what looked like a real motorcycle, plus it was one of Sega’s first console games to use it’s ‘super scaler’ technology for some cool 3D graphics. Not surprisingly, quite a bit was sacrificed to bring the action to the Master System, a problem they would run into many times trying to port their other arcade titles to the home console.
In any case the idea is simple, you race a motorcycle down a stretch of highway containing five different types of scenery and try to go as far as you can before the game timer runs out, just like most other racing games at the time. As you navigate the twists and turns of the road other motorbikers on the road try to impede your progress so you have to weave around them while trying not to collide with them or the obstacles lining the shoulders; if you do crash you’ll lose time getting back in the race. Reaching certain checkpoints will give you additional time to complete the course but the game ends if time expires before you reach the finish line. Although you don’t control the action by riding a morotcycle as in the arcade version, the gamepad does a solid job of steering your bike, and shifting gears is no problem either. The graphics are a mixed bag as the backgrounds seem a little plain while the 3D scrolling and effects are pretty smooth and give you a nice sense of speed. The sounds effects are decent as the other bikes zoom past you but sadly the cool background music from the coin-op is missing, and as a result the action gets a little monotonous since it varies very little. Plus if you complete the course the game just starts over with the same course, only harder, so there’s not much replay to be found.
The other half of the pack-in combo cart (which was never released as a stand-alone title) is essentially Sega’s version of Duck Hunt which, like it’s Nintendo counterpart, was the showcase cart for their Light Phaser gun. But while Safari Hunt isn’t that different from Duck Hunt it does outdo it in several aspects. Basically you’re a game hunter out to bag some targets in three different areas of a forest. Like its Nintendo counterpart a certain group of critters fly, crawl or hop onto the screen and you need to zap them with the light gun before they get away. Each target is worth a specific amount of points and you have to accumulate a big enough score to match the qualifying mark before you use up all your ammo. The level ends once you exhaust your bullets and if you’ve scored enough points you move on to the next area, otherwise the game ends. It’s nice to have a variety of targets to shoot at and the graphics are pretty nice with some good animatons for the critters (especially after they’ve been blasted) and decent stage layouts. There’s also no background music during the action and the only real sound effects are odd-sounding thuds when you score a hit. Also while the game is fun and addicting, in the end you just cycle through the same three levels endlessly, though the margin of error gets smaller the father you go. Plus the real difficulty is affected by how far you’re sitting and aiming the gun from the television set. And it would have been nice if Sega included some actual safari animals, like rhinos or elephants or even alligators like the title screen promised. Shooting stuff like fish or spiders or bats doesn’t quite have the same zing to it.
Overall Hang On & Safari Hunt is a decent pairing, the former being a solid racing game and the latter providing some nice light gun fun. But the sad reality is there was no way this pack-in bundle could stand a chance when compared to Nintendo’s duo. While Safari Hunt is a better game than Duck Hunt, there’s no way a simple arcade motorcycle game was going to unseat a platformer with seemingly infinite playability (and amazingly still does over 25 years later). So right from the beginning Sega was behind the 8-ball and would be playing catch-up for much of the system’s life in the U.S.