With the announcement of the Game Gear Micro, we thought you might like to revisit our Hardware Classics feature – originally published in 2016 – on the real deal. Enjoy!
It's easy to see the thinking behind the Game Gear, the machine Sega positioned as a Game Boy-beater in the early '90s. The firm's Mega Drive / Genesis platform was doing a fine job of stealing away market share from the aging NES, and Sega no doubt assumed it could do the same in the portable arena with hardware that was more powerful that what Nintendo had to offer.
Dubbed "Project Mercury" in its early development life and based heavily on the 8-bit Master System console – Sega's domestic NES challenger – the Game Gear arrived in Japan in 1990 amid a groundswell of hype and expectation, a lot of which had to do with Sega's elevated standing in the industry at that time.
For those who were slightly disappointed with the Game Boy's unlit monochrome screen, the Game Gear – like the Atari Lynx and NEC PC Engine GT – seemed like the real deal, at least on paper. Packing a full-colour backlit display and a palette of 4096 colours (even more than the 64 colours supported by its domestic ancestor, the Master System), Sega's portable definitely had the technical edge over the Game Boy.
Also of interest was the fact that it would benefit from quick-and-easy ports from the Master System thanks to the internal architecture being almost identical (screen resolution was the biggest difference between the two). While many fans were disappointed that the "Micro Drive" rumours turned out to be false (some magazines at the time speculated that the Game Gear would be based on the Mega Drive rather than the Master System), interest in the handheld was massive – thanks in no small part to the incredible commercial success of the Game Boy, which had essentially created the handheld console market single-handedly.
Unlike its rival, the Game Gear opted for a landscape format which Sega felt would be more comfortable for prolonged play. As was the case with the Master System, the Game Gear has two action buttons, while the rolling D-Pad makes hitting diagonals very easy indeed. Unlike the Master System, the Game Gear supports stereo sound – but only when using a pair of headphones, as the console only has a single speaker for audio. A brightness dial allows you to adjust the screen backlight for the optimum viewing experience, while an "EXT" port is used to connect two consoles for multiplayer gaming, just like the Game Boy.
Initially, the Game Gear's library was made up of Master System ports which Sega was able to bring to the market quickly and with the minimum of effort. Fan-favourites like Wonder Boy, Columns and Super Monaco GP were early hits and were based on their 8-bit home console equivalents. While exclusive releases did appear, the Game Gear relied heavily on Master System ports, with big-name first-party games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Master of Darkness, Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap and Streets of Rage II all being transferred to the handheld.
While these games were excellent, seasoned Sega fans had already experienced them on the Master System and there was little reason to double-dip – outside of the ability to play on the road, of course. However, a neat consequence of the internal similarity between the two systems was the ability to play Master System carts on the Game Gear via a special adapter; while the portability of the machine was impacted negatively when using this add-on, it became a must-have accessory for all owners.
That's not to say that there aren't any decent Game Gear exclusives at all, however. The two Shinobi games are utterly fantastic and do an excellent job of capturing the brilliance of the Mega Drive Shinobi outings on a much smaller screen. Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya is another must-have game, as those who picked up the recent 3DS re-release will attest. The problem is that there simply weren't enough games of this quality to convince players that the Game Gear was a worthy alternative to Nintendo's hardware, while other exclusives – such as the disappointing Sonic Labyrinth – failed to ignite consumer interest, despite the allure of the character.
Of course, software was only part of the issue – battery life was almost certainly a more pressing concern for potential customers. While the Game Boy's meagre demands meant that it could extract as much as 30 hours of gameplay from just four AA batteries, Sega's console needed 6 AAs to offer between 3 and 5 hours. This wasn't an issue unique to Sega's machine; the Lynx and PC Engine GT both suffered from terrible stamina and this limited their potential as portable devices. Anyone who owned a Game Gear during the early '90s will recall being tethered to the wall socket in order to save money on batteries, rather defeating the object of having a portable system.
Despite this glaring problem, Sega's marketing at the time focused strongly on highlighting the technical gulf between the Game Gear and the Game Boy, the latter of which was derided as being backward and simple. Print advertisements in the US showed a dog holding a Game Boy, with the slogan "If you were colour blind and had an IQ of less than 12, then you wouldn't mind which portable you had." Commercials on North American TV – one of which starred Ethan Suplee, who would later find fame in Hollywood movies such as American History X, Without a Paddle and The Wolf of Wall Street – poked fun at the Game Boy's monochrome display, citing the screen on Sega's system as a major selling point while conveniently ignoring the fact that it dramatically impacted battery life.
In the UK, Sega's advertising campaign was less confrontational and was built around the concept of the brand being cooler than everything else on the market – an approach which would reach its zenith with the iconic "Sega Pirate TV" campaign for the Mega Drive. In the resultant commercials, the impossibly suave "Jimmy" (played by Peter Wingfield, most famous for his portrayal of the Immortal Methos in the Highlander TV series) shows off another of the Game Gear's key selling points – the optional analogue TV tuner which could transform the handheld into a television – something Nintendo's hardware could never hope to replicate, given its grayscale display. Sadly, the TV tuner is of little use today as analogue television signals are no longer used in most countries.
While the Game Gear struggled to match the phenomenal sales of the Game Boy, it did outlast its colour-screen rivals. Sega was still producing software for the console as late as 1997, and in the same year would officially discontinue the platform – not a bad lifespan for a machine which only managed to sell around 10 million units worldwide. In contrast, Atari and NEC's consoles had become little more than a distant memory by that point.
Sega would return to the handheld market with the ill-fated Nomad, which used the Mega Drive hardware as its base but was just as ravenous when it came to consuming batteries. By the time the decade was drawing to a close, the company had started its withdrawal from the portable sector by supporting rival handhelds such as the SNK Neo Geo Pocket Color and Tiger Game.com.
The Game Gear's status as a Sega system and its relatively large library of 363 games has ensured that it remains in demand with collectors today. Thankfully, it's not an expensive machine to collect for; hardware is relatively cheap, even when fully boxed and in good condition. There are a handful of titles which attract high prices – Compile's sublime Power Strike II being one notable example – but on the whole, it's possible to amass a decent selection of games for very little cash.
Of course, if you'd rather take the easy option then you'll be pleased to learn that the Game Gear is one of the many retro systems to benefit from its own Everdrive cartridge, which can be sourced from resellers like Retro Towers. These cartridges allow you to store ROMs on a MicroSD card and essentially carry around the entire Game Gear library without having to worry about swapping out cartridges.
This is actually more of a benefit than you might expect, as one of the biggest flaws with the system is that the cartridge slot is incredibly temperamental – it's often necessary to remove and insert a game several times before it loads properly.
Another hardware issue with Game Gear consoles is low audio volume and dim screens, a consequence of the ageing capacitors inside the system failing. Thankfully it's possible to have these replaced, essentially returning the console to as-new levels of performance. For the truly dedicated, screen modifications are available which replace the console's crude LCD screen with a more recent offering, drastically improving visual quality. While the Game Gear's default display was impressive for the time, by modern standards it's a bit of a mess, with blurry movement and poor viewing angles being two serious issues.
While it might have failed to prevent Nintendo from dominating the handheld arena, the Game Gear is still a classic machine that is worthy of re-investigation, as the all-too-brief flurry of 3DS Virtual Console releases proved a short time ago. If you're willing to spend a bit of additional cash, then you can potentially improve the console with a better screen and flash cart support, making it an even more appealing proposition – just make sure you have a PSU handy, or stock up on those AA batteries.
Or you could simply snap up all four of the recently-announced Game Gear Micro variants. Your call.