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Sega Game Gear — great, but not quite great enough

By: 21 January 2011 One Comment

Yes, Sonic was a favorite character on the Game Gear, too.

You’ve got to give the folks at Sega credit — the company made an honorable attempt to compete toe-to-toe with Nintendo with the Game Gear.

The company just came up a bit short for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the Sega Game Gear featured the same Achille’s heel that crippled the Atari Lynx — terrible battery life. Yes, a Game Gear can suck the juice out of 6 “AA” batteries in five to six hours, and that’s downright pitiful compared to the original Game Boy, which went easy on those batteries.

Of course, it didn’t help that Sega’s main competition was a company full of game designers who could create hit titles in their sleep. Sega’s marketing campaign took direct aim at Nintendo and called fans of the Game Boy everything from stupid to unrefined rubes who were happy with monochrome graphics, but it was hard in the early 1990s to compete against a company that made great games and understood how to market its products.

That’s not to say, of course, that the Game Gear lacked marketing dollars and solid franchises. Atari lacked both of those, leaving Sega as Nintendo’s closes competitor in the portable gaming market when the Game Gear was released in 1991. The Game Gear was the portable system to get to play popular Sega franchises such as titles in the Sonic the Hedgehog series and there were a lot of other top-selling titles as well — Disney’s Aladdin and Mortal Kombat, to name but two.

The Game Gear had a lot going for it, indeed. The system is, for all intents a purposes, a Sega Master System jammed into a smaller package. The Master System was nothing to sneeze at, and the folks at Sega must have thought a similar system with upgraded capabilities that was jammed into a tiny package would be a winner.

And they were half right in that regard. Thanks to the availability of some “big name” games and Sega’s marketing muscle, the Game gear fared well against the technically superior Lynx. The system features stereo sound through headphones (the internal speaker handled mono), color graphics and a backlit 3.2″ screen and the system can display up to 4,096 colors (32 at a time). The color display is sharp and bright and, interestingly enough, maxes out at the same resolution of the Game Boy. Just think of those crisp, clean Game Boy graphics in color and you get the idea.

The Game Gear is powered by an 8-bit Zilog Z80 CPU that keeps sprites humming along on the screen well enough. I’ve not noticed much of a problem with lag when there’s a lot of action on the screen, at least. It’s worth mentioning that the Lynx bought 16-bit color graphics to the party, but it couldn’t keep up with the 8-bit Game Boy and Game Gear in terms of sales and third-party support.

And that third-party support was a key reason the Game Boy fared so well against its competitors. Sega did drum up a fairly impressive amount of third-party support, but it couldn’t match the number of outside companies producing cartridges for the Game Boy. We’ve seen it time and time again in the video game industry, the software is what matters and Nintendo simply crushed its competition in that regard. Bear in mind that the Game Boy line is still alive and well, whereas Sega pulled the plug on the Game Gear in 1997 and the Lynx faded before that.

It would be ridiculous to credit the Game Boy’s success only to battery life, of course. While the Game Boy clearly had an advantage in that regard, it also hit the market a couple of years before the Game Gear. By the time Sega jumped into the portable gaming market, Nintendo was already established and had a slew of fans. Sega, then, had a hard row to hoe.

Another strike against Sega was the same thing that hampered the Lynx — a somewhat high entry price. When the Game Gear was released, it sold for about $150 while the Game Boy cost about $90. In other words, Sega came to a market that was dominated by a system that was wildly popular, had more exclusive titles than you can shake a stick at, was backed by a company that had marketing dollars to burn and cost less than $100. When viewed that way, it’s no wonder the Game Gear beat out the Lynx but couldn’t top the Game Boy.

That said, the Game Gear is a great portable system for a number of reasons. First of all, you can pick up a system for just a few bucks and games for it are dirt cheap, too. The variety of games is impressive, meaning most people interested in games from the 1990s will find something fun for the system (click here to head to the MobyGames Game Gear section to have a look at reviews and description of games for the system).

Second, the system is a bit large, but the ergonomic case fits well in your hands. The directional pad is responsive and the action buttons have a nice “feel” to them.

Another advantage is that a converter is available for about $25 (or less) on eBay that allows the Game Gear to run Master System games. The Master System, while it was crushed in the marketplace by the Nintendo Entertainment System, was a fine console. A portable unit that handles those games is a nice thing, indeed.

While the Game Gear couldn’t keep up with the Game Boy in terms of fan support and sales, it’s still a fine system with plenty of appeal to collectors and people who just enjoy gaming. Anyone who picks up one of these things will likely want to get an AC adapter and either a Sega PowerBack or good aftermarket rechargeable battery pack.

By the way, if you’re a Sega fan and want to have fun on the go without worrying about battery life, you might take a look at the RetroGen by Innex. What is a RetroGen? It’s a new, portable system that costs about $40, features a rechargeable battery and plays Sega Genesis game. It emulates the Genesis quite well and there’s something to be said for the ability to play 16-bit games on the road. The RetroGen is one of those Chinese-made emulators that have been flooding the market lately, but the system is surprisingly well built.

Here’s something to keep in mind if shopping for a Game Gear — a company called Majesco reissued the system as a Sega-branded machine in about 2001. While some people complain about the fact that system doesn’t support the TV tuner (a moot point these days, I think), I actually prefer the Majesco system. The build quality is good and both the speaker and display are a bit improved over the original (the piece of plastic covering the screen is still too easy to scratch). The system was licensed by Sega and it is as solid as one might expect.

Stay tuned — more reviews to come in the “retrogaming” category here at First Arkansas News.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

One Comment »

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