It’s fitting to peg the SEGA Game Gear for the thirteenth installment of Retro(spective), as it’s probably one of the unluckiest consoles of all time. The Game Gear represented the best chance yet of dethroning Nintendo as the reigning champion of the handheld market. With a backlit, color screen, better graphics, and the promise of SEGA’s franchises appearing in portable form, the Game Gear seemed to have every advantage it needed to push forward to the head of the pack. If not for some shortsighted engineering decisions, the Game Gear could have fulfilled its great potential. Though SEGA ultimately fell short, the Game Gear still managed to cultivate a powerful legacy.
My exposure to the system came from my aunt, who had purchased the Game Gear more out of curiosity than anything else and would let me play it when I’d visit. As a kid, the system’s girth stood out to me almost as much as its beautiful screen. The Game Gear is one of the biggest handhelds you’ll ever encounter, clocking in at about eight inches wide and four inches high. Even as a grown man, the Game Gear still feels huge when I hold it! What the Game Gear lacked in pocket-friendliness, it more than made up for with its brilliant graphics and screen. Bright and vivid, the Game Gear’s visuals far surpassed anything the Game Boy had to offer. It’s d-pad and two face buttons were a little mushy, but they got the job done. Looking at all that in retrospect, it might seem strange that the Game Gear struggled as it did given how much of an evolution the system was compared to Nintendo’s. The problem, as it turned out, came from something more practical; batteries.
The Game Gear remains one of the biggest energy hogs ever brought to market. Six AA batteries powered SEGA’s portable, with a run time of roughly three to five hours. Compare that to the Game Boy’s economical nearly thirty hours of run time off of four AA batteries, and it becomes clear how huge SEGA’s blunder was. While the Game Gear was already being sold for $60 more than the Game Boy at $150, factor in the cost of replacing batteries constantly and it’s pretty obvious why so many people chose Nintendo’s portable. There was the option of using an AC adapter to extend playtime, but being tethered to an outlet severely hampered the “portability” aspect of owning a handheld versus a home console. Being big, power-hungry, and expensive all tipped fortune in Nintendo’s favor.
Negatives aside, the Game Gear was and still is home to some great titles. It feels lazy to list Sonic games on a SEGA system as the must-have titles, but it’d be a disservice to not mention them. Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and Sonic’s Triple Troubleare particularly fun. Shinobi plays solidly as well, along with Columns (a puzzle game),Mega Man, and Castle of Illusion, just to name a few. A chunk of the Game Gear’s titles are actually ports of SEGA Master System games, but they’re faithful and fun nonetheless. Unfortunately, as the Game Gear was unable to ever saturate the marketplace in any significant way, developers quickly abandoned the system to focus their efforts on the much more profitable Game Boy. Still, even if the number of great titles isn’t as large as the Game Boy’s, there are more than enough fun games to seek out and play! Keep in mind that the Game Gear is not region-locked, so you’re able to add imports from the UK and Japan to any collection.
Speaking of collecting, the Game Gear is also a nice system for new collectors on a budget. Games without packaging sell fairly inexpensively, though if you do want boxes, expect to pay a bit more in dollars and time searching. The Game Gear itself didn’t have a ton of color variations, but there are four official ones to search for. The US saw standard black and blue, while internationally the Game Gear was sold in yellow and red. Notice I said “officially” those are the four colors, because beyond those four I’ve had some trouble figuring out the rest. As far as I know, there are some Japanese exclusives that are incredibly elusive, along with legends of colors like pink, purple, clear black, and so on. The second I hear more, I’ll let you all know, but in the interim shoot for those four if you can!
There’s one more variant I forgot to mention above; the Majesco Game Gear re-release. SEGA officially stopped supporting the Game Gear in the US around 1997, but in 2000 Majesco brought it back for a second run. The differences are minor, but the most obvious one is the coloring of the Game Gear logo and buttons on the Majesco unit. The SEGA version features three, oval-like shapes on the face colored red, green, and blue, while Majesco’s is monochrome. The Majesco unit also has a purple start button and a darker casing color. Other than those alterations and a slightly better screen/battery life, the Majesco version is virtually identical to the original. It can make collecting a little tricky for people if they don’t know the difference between the two units, so keep that in mind when purchasing.
The Game Gear might not have turned as many heads back in the day, but its legacy continues to this day. Along with Majesco’s mini-revival of the system, many of the Game Gear’s titles have seen re-release on Nintendo’s eShop for the 3DS. As a bit of a bonus, unlike Nintendo’s Virtual Console re-releases, SEGA’s ports feature a host of options for playing. The four color variations I listed above are available as frames during gameplay, and you can even recreate the graphical fidelity of the Game Gear screen. The selection as of this writing isn’t huge, but in recent months Game Gear activity on the eShop has been picking up. Here’s hoping for Mega Man to make its way onto the service! The Game Gear is a must-have for true gaming enthusiasts and I encourage you to give the old system a look. Though historically viewed as a failure, I still have a lot of fun pulling out my old games, searching for gems I missed, and just reliving a fun piece of gaming history.
The Game Gear was developed and released by SEGA in 1991.