Back during the 90s, there was one portable gaming king. This was the big N. Their Gameboy console ruled the landscape and there was nothing anyone had could seem to do to dethrone them in taking that coveted crown away. Nintendo had the market cornered for lack of a better word.
There were a few people who tried to step up to the plate during the Gameboy and it’s rule. One popular example would have to be the Atari Lynx. The Atari Lynx released around the same time frame as the Gameboy and on paper, had every tool to blow it out of the water! A backlit screen and impressive 16-bit graphics built into a fantastically portable hand-held made the Lynx seem like a dream come true.
However it would not come to pass as high price point, lack of third party support and Atari’s bad reputation seemed to dampen the Lynx to a point that it could not recover from in any capacity sadly. It’s a very unfortunate situation that we’ll be seeing played over very shortly.
The player to take the stage? The Sega Game Gear.
The Game Gear was developed under the name ‘Project Mercury’ which is about as cool as project names get. (Looking at you, NX recently turned Switch.) It was launched around Q4 1990 in Japan, whereas the US and PAL regions got the console in 91. It released for £99 pounds in Europe and 149.99 in the US. Fitted with an impressive library of games out of the bat, even being bundled with the popular ‘Columns’ game.
The Game Gear launched with multiple colours, as the later Gameboys did. A lot of these were Japanese exclusives as well. It’s an interesting fact as this was done during a time before doing different colour and version bundles became common place in the games industry. To see the pink and white versions of your favourite consoles wasn’t a huge thing as it is now a days.
The Game Gear also boasted the very same back lit screen that the Lynx did and amazing 8-bit graphics. The shape was made after complaints surfaced that the Gameboy was uncomfortable to hold, being modelled after a classic Megadrive controller. Rounded and compact, albiet a bit bulky, it was made with the user in mind to give the best experience possible. It wasn’t easy to put your pocket however!
The Game Gear launched with a solid number of strong points and seemed to have all of the inner workings to be able to defeat the Gameboy was relative ease. At least that was the core concept behind the little hand-held that could. But that would prove to not be the case in the end…
The Game Gear launched on April 26, 1991 for everyone in the US and UK at the price of 150 dollars and 100 pounds respectively between the US and UK. It launched to a good deal of fanfare as it went on to sell a substantial amount of units out of the gate for SEGA and plenty of consumers reported glowing reviews for the new console, praising the backlit screen, feeling of the handheld and more. So the winning formula seemed to be poised for SEGA to crack down on. however there were a few problems that soon came to light in regards to the little handheld that could…
The following advert ended up causing SEGA some bad publicity due the implication of Gameboy players being obese and anti social.
The biggest was SEGA and it’s lack of focus. The problem was that they were doing far too much all at once. They had the Genesis doing quite well and had a good number of resources being poured into it, combine that with the Sega CD, 32X, and newly launched Sega Saturn? You had a bunch of SEGA going on with little help to each project, they were simply doing too much. The issue was that the Game Boy was a simple sell. It was the Gameboy and that was it. Where as you had a number of SEGA choices, from the consoles, the add ons, everything just sort of piled together and often left parents scratching their heads on what to go with for their children. That price tag didn’t help either with this choice.
So while the Game Gear tricked along after release, it didn’t have the support it needed to thrive in the dog eat dog world of the handheld gaming scene. Another big reason for that is the lack of Third Party support. SEGA simply couldn’t get people to jump onto their project and help make quality games for the Game Gear. This was done in part due to one of the biggest downsides of the Game Gear that pretty much tarnished it’s reputation with developers and consumers alike.
The battery life. The Game Gear took a whopping 6 batteries that didn’t last long at all. This console was a power destroyer for lack of a better term. You’d be lucky to have a full 4 hours of gameplay out of the Game Gear, and due to this, it pretty much brought the system and it’s credibility down to the ground. Despite the fact that you could plug it into the wall and play while it charged, but it’s a portable system. Meant to be… well portable. Combine all of these tiny facts together and you suddenly have a much bigger issue on your hand which pretty much led to the end of the Game Gear.
In the end, the Game Gear was a valiant effort. It had an idea should of worked on paper. But a number of weights brought down the appeal, especially in already crowded market of competitors that were all aiming for the top of the ladder when it came to the gaming landscape. The games were nothing short of excellent most of the time, and when you did have the unit powered up and playing away, it was a dream come true.
I recall taking my Game Gear with me on a long bike ride and playing Sonic in bursts as I wanted to rest, taking the weighty unit from my backpack just to enjoy a quick 10 to 20 minutes of fun. The sun was bright, and the wind was flowing. But nothing could get between me and the fun of being able to take a treasured SEGA title with me on my adventure as a young boy. This was looking past all of the flaws, because a child, I didn’t really see much of that. Sure, I got mad when it died. But I didn’t think back to what manufactuer choices could of been made better or go looking on Google for the clues. I just huffed and went along with my day, charged it back up, and went back to my favourite games!
The landscape isn’t harsh for the Game Gear collector either, most of the games are quite cheap to pick up now and you should have little issue when it comes to sorting even more obscure titles. Even amassing a complete collection shouldn’t be too heavy of a task if you look hard enough as there isn’t a massive library for the Game Gear. Given the lots of sales you often find online from places like Ebay and Retro collect, it’s quite easy to be able start that Game Gear collection in no time. You might even find some rather fun unknown gems on the system! Now is as good a time as any to start collecting for the system.
But the best way to play a Game Gear title isn’t some sort of fancy new 2.0 version of it or anything. It’s a very simple solution. Emulation. Emulating Game Gear games are very easy to do and to have the pixel perfect gameplay on something like the GPD XD, which you purchase here. It’s a dream come true for playing Game Gear. The best part is with emulation is that you can use hardware that isn’t going to die on you after 3 hours if you decide to go with something like the GPD XD or Blaze Tab. Backlit and fully functional. I highly recommend grabbing something that can emulate Game Gear titles and taking them on the go with you for the best out of the highly loved handheld.
That’s our brief look back on SEGA and it’s Game Gear handheld, do you guys have a particular favourite memory with the system? What could SEGA have done better to market the handheld? Let us know!