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Image: Nintendo Life

During the early '90s Sega's hardware department effectively went crazy. Flushed with the success of the Genesis / Mega Drive in North America and Europe, the company produced a series of commercial duds in an attempt to buttress its 16-bit business in the face of stiff competition from rival Nintendo. The first endeavour was the Mega CD, a project which was arguably ahead of its time and found some critical appreciation, despite its limitations. As the 32-bit era dawned Sega would bankroll the stillborn 32X, a plug-in adapter which aimed to give Genesis players the chance to upgrade their ageing systems and maintain a degree of parity with the forthcoming Saturn and PlayStation. Consumers ignored the product, and within a year it was being sold off much only a fraction of its original retail price.

Such disasters arguably eroded some of the goodwill Sega had built up with players during the start of the decade, and contributed to the company's dismal commercial performance in the 32-bit era. However, it could be said that neither the Mega CD or 32X quality as the firm's most serious misstep during this turbulent period; that accolade surely has to go to the Sega Genesis Nomad, a system which bombed so badly at retail that many weren't even aware it existed at the time. Despite its terrible sales performance — like the 32X, it was discounted almost as soon as it hit stores shelves — this is actually a highly desirable system for retro collectors, and one of the best ways to experience Sega's vibrant 16-bit back catalogue.

Sega's previous handheld, the Game Gear, had proved to be a modest success in the face of the almost totally dominant Nintendo Game Boy, selling a reasonable 11 million units worldwide. Based on the company's 8-bit Master System hardware, the console was hamstrung by a blurry LCD screen and a ravenous appetite for batteries. Even so, it did well enough for Sega to attempt the same trick twice — the Nomad is effectively a portable Genesis. It even uses the exact same cartridges as the home console, a trick which was also employed by NEC with its PC Engine GT portable.

The significance of this feature cannot be understated; the Nomad was a new system, but it had access to an established library of successful games. Existing Genesis owners could simply take the games they already owned and play them right away on the new portable, which was certainly a unique selling point at the time. Another plus is that the colour LCD screen was a vast improvement over the one on the Game Gear; while it was still prone to motion blur, the impact was less pronounced, bringing the Nomad closer in visual quality to the aforementioned PC Engine GT.

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Image: Nintendo Life

Control-wise, the superb rolling D-pad was in the same league as the one seen on the Mega Drive / Genesis 6-button controller and the Japanese Sega Saturn pad; it was a joy to use and was complimented by 6 buttons which meant the console was suitable for titles like Super Street Fighter II and Streets of Rage 3. Finally, it's worth noting that the Nomad was sold as an all-in-one entertainment system — because it included a TV-out port and a second controller socket, you could effectively use it as your main home system as well as your portable one.

For all of the things that the Nomad got right, it was held back by some particularly catastrophic problems, the most obvious of which was its demand for power. Back in 1995 rechargeable batteries inside handheld consoles were the stuff of a madman's dream and the challenge of powering a mobile home console on anything except traditional AAs was yet to be overcome. Because the Nomad was such a cutting-edge proposition, the unit was bulky and there was no room inside for a battery compartment — as a result, batteries had to be placed inside a bolt-on pod which came with the console, further adding to its size and drastically diminishing its portability. To make matters worse, the required six AA batteries provided a paltry two hours of play, and this meant that most owners rarely left their homes with the console. In fact, most Nomad players would become familiar with the concept of sitting next to a wall socket and powering the console via a standard AC adapter.

It is estimated that around a million Nomads were sold, and the console was exclusive to North America — Japan and Europe never got the machine, although 1994's Japan-only (and screenless) Mega Jet is seen as its forerunner. The unit is therefore region-locked and will only play North American Genesis cartridges — although Sega only employed region locking in the first few years of the console's life, so it's still possible to play some early European and Japanese carts. However, the latter require either a converter or widening of the cartridge slot, due to the different cart design. As with so many classic systems, it is possible to modify the unit to remove region-locking, but there's an even more exciting hack available — the advance in modern LCD technology means that it's possible to replace the original screen with a superior offering. Companies such as Rose Colored Gaming offer such a service (in fact, the very same firm fitted an improved screen to the Nomad you see in these photos) and are even prepping the ultimate mod — the Nomad X, which not only has a better screen and different case design, but will also include an internal rechargeable battery, making the console truly portable for the first time.

Not so long ago the Nomad was available relatively cheaply, but in recent years its price has crept up and you can now expect to spend well over £100 / $160 to get a unit in decent condition. Given that the Nomad is incompatible with many Genesis add-ons — including the Power Base Converter, Mega CD and 32X — it might be wiser for newcomers to invest in the original console rather than this semi-portable curio. Having said that, a unit refurbished with a new screen and multi-region support is one of the most appealing retro offerings you're likely to encounter, and despite its lack of out-of-the-home gaming potential, there's something to be said for being able to play anywhere in the house — provided there's a wall socket within arm's reach, of course.