The beginning of 1988 represented a crossroads of the Master System story in the United States, and I’d thought I’d set the table for the next year and a half by briefly touching on Sega’s partnership with Tonka, which was supposed to breathe new life into the SMS but didn’t quite work out the way they hoped.
By the end of 1987, Sega eventually realized they needed help to compete against the growing Nintendo juggernaut. Granted, the SMS was displayed in most of the major stores alongside the Nintendo system, and they even got an endorsement from legendary film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert when they compared the systems on a special holiday program. But while Sega had sold 100,000 consoles since its debut the previous year, Nintendo had enjoyed sales in the 2 million range and it was clear the SMS wasn’t catching on. Sega figured their main problem was marketing (especially its horrible box art) and distribution and as a result decided to take on a partner, someone to take over the American distribution. For whatever reason the help they chose was Minnesota-based Tonka Toys, figuring they would have better luck competing against Nintendo since they built an empire from selling toy trucks. Tonka signed onto the idea and the beginning 1988 would see them handle the SMS in the U.S., while Sega continued to take care of the customer service.
Granted the Tonka regime did see a couple of improvements to the Master System. Tonka’s strong toy distribution network did help get the Master System into more stores and they spent plenty of money in advertising. But it wasn’t long before it became clear that Tonka didn’t know how to handle a videogame system. Once again most of the games came from Sega themselves, with very few standouts outside their fabled arcade roster. In fact Tonka began a habit of declining to localize many best-selling titles in Europe and Japan and instead fed American gamers a diet of subpar duds like Cloudmaster and Dymanite Dux, games that stood no chance against the juggernaut of NES classics. Also third-party publishers continued to stay way from the SMS and sign with Nintendo, while only two companies, Activision and Parker Bros, chose to put out games for the SMS. Even then only a handful of titles for the Master System emerged from these two before they threw in the towel on Sega’s console.
By the fall of 1989 Sega finally realized Tonka wasn’t going to be the savior of thier 8-bit console, especially since less than a million consoles were sold in the nearly two years of their partnership. In August 1989 Sega reacquired the American rights to the Master System, even though they were also preparing to launch the 16-bit Genesis in the U.S. as well.
So we now hit the games that Tonka marketed in the States for Sega, with some Europe-only titles mixed in down the line. I’ll be honest and point out that a good portion of the Tonka-marketed titles are forgettable, but quite a few gems can also be found among the coals, some of which you might have heard of, which we will see as we make our way through 1988 and 1989.