Feature: The Life and Times of SEGA's Game Gear

Black beauty

Ask any gamer of a certain age which handheld they grew up with and the overwhelming response will be "Game Boy". Long before the Pokémon explosion of the late 90s, Nintendo's portable dominated the competition — not even closest competitor SEGA could upset the balance with the release of its Game Gear in the early part of the decade. As SEGA's portable has joined the 3DS Virtual Console this week, it's time to take a look at this unique piece of gaming history.

While the incumbent Game Boy was affordable and modestly powerful, SEGA went for the technical high ground, packing a back-lit colour screen into the Game Gear's chunky dimensions. Indeed, most of SEGA's marketing — such as this advert featuring Ethan Suplee — focused on the colour screen, just as some of its Mega Drive/Genesis adverts had focused on 'Blast Processing'. Game Gear wasn't the first colour portable — NEC's TurboExpress and the Atari Lynx both got there before — but it failed to improve on the major problem of its predecessors: battery consumption. While the dinky Game Boy would happily run for hours on four AAs, Game Gear rattled through six AA batteries in a fraction of the time. The extra power consumption also made the console bulky; the two factors combined meant many players kept their so-called portable game consoles tethered to the plug socket with AC adaptors.

Hardware aside, Game Gear had plenty to offer on the games front: essentially a portable Master System, it was easy for developers to port home console games, though the smaller resolution meant some games were changed in the translation. To help fight off Nintendo's ever-powerful Tetris and Super Mario Land series, SEGA brought across Columns and created several original Sonic games of varying quality: Sonic the Hedgehog Triple Trouble is fondly remembered, Sonic Labyrinth less so.

Despite a library of over 350 games, Game Gear never had the 'killer app' to make it a must-buy over Game Boy; with Game Gear more expensive than its more established rival, it needed a truly great game that simply never materialised. Add that to its well documented hardware problems and it's astonishing to believe it lasted until April 1997, when SEGA dropped support in favour of its new — and equally battery-hungry — portable, the Nomad.

Now that the fated portable has landed on the 3DS Virtual Console it can finally escape its problems of faulty capacitors and dodgy battery life, with its first three titles — Shinobi, Dragon Crystal and Sonic: Triple Trouble — a fairly good selection of what the system has to offer. We've already waxed lyrical on the Game Gear games we need on 3DS Virtual ConsoleMega Man, anyone? — so here's hoping SEGA finally manages to give its portable the home it deserves, ironically, on Nintendo's latest handheld console.