You will enjoy Columns.
The adjustable wrist strap is priceless these days.
RELEASED: 10/06/90 – (JP), 04/26/91 – (US), 06/24/91 – (UK), 06/1991 – (EU), 07/1991 – (BR)
PRICE: 19,800 yen – (JP), $149.95 – (US), ₤99.99 (UK), R$160,000 – (BR)
TECH SPECS: Zilog Z80 running at 3.5 Mhz, 8KB of RAM, 16KB of VRAM
Resolution/Color Palette: 160×144 pixels, can display 32 colors on screen from 4,096 colors.
Sound Processor: TI-SN76489, stereo sound via headphones.
# OF GAMES: 390 estimated (according to Sega Retro)
BATTERIES REQUIRED: Six AAs for an average of 4 hours play.
NOTABLE ACCESSORIES: Gear-to-Gear Cable, Battery Pack, Car Adaptor, Master Gear Converter, Super Wide Gear, TV Tuner
# OF UNITS SOLD: approx. 11 million units
Most gamers think that the Console Wars officially began around ’91 and ’92, with both Sega and Nintendo vying for consumers’ attention with their 16-bit consoles. Certainly, Sega was more publicly violent towards Nintendo in the early 90s with their aggressive ad campaigns. Years prior to the cutthroat marketing that dominated the 16-bit era, nearly every decision Sega’s console division made was a result of Nintendo’s unbelievable success.
A desperate cry for affection.
Sega’s first console, the SG-1000 was released on the same day as the Famicom in Japan. Woops! Thanks to poor graphics and a terrible game library, the system couldn’t compete with the Famicom’s popularity, but it still sold well enough to warrant the Mark III/Master System. The Master System, which had sharper graphics than the NES/Famicom, sold even worse than the SG-1000 in Japan, but performed decently in Europe and the States, enough to warrant the Mega Drive/Genesis. The latter was the first 16-bit console on the market, beating the Super Famicom to the Japanese market by two years. Sega hoped that Japanese consumers would be ready to leave the Famicom behind in favor of a more powerful console. But by 1990, the Mega Drive had failed to make a significant impact in Japan.
Other territories were faring better for Sega, though. The Master System was still selling great in Europe where Nintendo had less of a presence, and the Genesis was picking up steam in the US. Rather than aggressively support both home consoles and remain cautiously optimistic, they looked at Nintendo’s success with Tetris and the Game Boy and cried out “Me too! Right now!” This impatience resulted in Sega first handheld system, the Game Gear.
A harbinger of things to come.
Essentially a handheld Master System, the Game Gear contains the same CPU, the same amount of RAM and Video Ram, and the exact same sound chip. The Game Gear does feature considerably more colors – 4,096 possible colors compared to the Master System’s 64 – but otherwise, the two have identical internal components.
Major Master System flashbacks with this European box design.
The Game Gear was an absolutely gorgeous handheld for the 90s. Instead of a blurry, difficult-to-see screen with green-and-gray colors, the Game Gear had a full-color, backlit screen. Rather than resembling a white chunky brick, the Game Gear’s black rectangular shape was sleeker and more comfortable to hold.
With beautiful, vibrant color comes a great price. The Game Gear sucked through batteries, with six AAs lasting only four hours, compared to the Game Boy’s four AAs lasting anywhere from 16-30 hours. Because of the short battery life and the fact that the Game Gear was considerably larger than the Game Boy, the handheld didn’t feel nearly as portable or easy to transport as the latter.
But how could you say no to this face?
Everyone bought a Game Boy, not because the games looked pretty, but because Tetris was the most addicting game that gamers and non-gamers alike wanted to play. Sega understood this and released their own puzzle game, Columns, to launch alongside the Game Gear in every territory. The only problem? Columns just isn’t as addictive or fun as Tetris. And while the puzzle series certainly found a decent number of fans, the Game Gear had to rely on other tactics to survive next to the Game Boy.
Sonic and Mario should know that the love of money is the root of all evil.
Much like the Genesis ads were targeted towards teenagers in the States, Sega also marketed the Game Gear as the “mature” handheld, compared to Nintendo’s childish Game Boy. Sega’s main reason for doing so was, of course, the color screen – as if choosing a color screen over a monochromatic one indicated that you were a wise, rational adult. Sega also used highly provocative ads to sell the Game Gear in Europe, one of which involves a cartoon man with his back turned, masturbating. The headline reads “Something to Do With Your Hands that Won’t Make You Go Blind.” I know Europe’s more sexually open than the States, but what demographic was Sega trying to appeal to with that one?
A less disgusting Game Gear ad.
The quality of the Game Gear’s library ranges from decent to underwhelming. But are the games any better or worse than the Game Boy’s? The Game Boy had two enormous games – Tetris and Pokemon – that contributed to the bulk of the handheld’s sales. In between those two worldwide hits were some decent titles and a whole lotta mediocrity. Still, Tetris and Pokemon. Those two games were more than enough for most folks to splurge on the Game Boy. The Game Gear lacked a truly must-have title. Unless you’re a huge Sonic fan who had to collect every new game, or you really wanted to play a portable version of Shining Force or Mortal Kombat II, the system’s library just wasn’t that desirable to the average consumer.
He’s no Pocket Monster, that’s for sure…
In addition to the lack of a breakout title, the Game Gear’s high price tag ($149.99 compared to the Game Boy’s $89.95), poor battery life, and inadequate support from Sega hindered its ability to compete with the Game Boy. By the time Sega discontinued the system in 1997, the Game Gear only sold about 11 million units worldwide. Compare this to the Game Boy’s 118 million and, well… there is no comparison. The clunky, unattractive Game Boy absolutely destroyed the sexy, fashionable Game Gear.
One of the sexiest Game Gears, only in Japan.
While Sega did release several different colors and bundles for the Game Gear (more in Japan than the U.S.), they never revised the Game Gear like they did with the Genesis, Master System, and SG-1000. Majesco did release a “newer” version of the Game Gear in 1999. It has a darker plastic, a purple Start button, and a slightly sharper screen, but is otherwise the same internally. Priced at a reasonable $30, the system was supposedly only available at Toys ‘R Us and is of a better quality than Sega’s models.
Majesco Game Gear, complete with constipated Sonic.
The peripherals for the system range from necessary – like the AC Adapter and Battery Pack – to lavish. The Master Gear Converter allowed Master System games to be played on the Game Gear, and was a great way to expand the handheld’s library for a reasonable price. The TV Tuner cost over $100 upon release, but it did let you watch beautiful 90s television from the palm of your hand. The Gear-to-Gear Cable is necessary for multiplayer, but only works if you have two Game Gears and two copies of the same game.
Unnecessary, but nifty!
Unless you’re a purist who only plays games on their original hardware, or you have some fondness/nostalgia for the Game Gear, there is absolutely no reason to pick one up now. Capacitor problems are rampant, so finding one without audio/visual issues is very difficult. Using six AA batteries for only four hours of life was ridiculous back in the 90s, and it’s even more so today. The backlit color screen is a blurry mess compared to the PSP, 3DS, Vita, and pretty much all mobile phones. The 3DS Virtual Console does have a limited selection of Game Gear games available – mostly Sonic titles – but if you’re looking for one in particular, you’ll have to, um, find it in the wild.
Despite the Game Gear being Sega’s third highest-selling console behind the Genesis and the Master System, it still feels like a footnote in the company’s history. While the Master System, the Saturn and the Dreamcast are routinely hailed as underrated by the retro gaming community, the Game Gear is hardly mentioned. Is it because the systems are hard to find in good working order today? Is it the bias that consoles are superior to handhelds? Whatever the reason, the Game Gear seems to have just come and gone. Its legacy is tenuous, ethereal even, and this makes it difficult to judge its place in gaming history.
*Images courtesy of SegaRetro, ArsTechnica, DigitalSpy, ElHype, and MobyGames.