Is that a gaming console in your pocket? Or are you just happy to see me? Episode 2

By Ben

Though my first gaming experience was with the original NES, I truly cut my teeth on the Sega Genesis. With faster gameplay, beautiful graphics, and the very first game I ever perfected (Sonic 3 was my first-hand introduction to Super Sonic) it seemed fitting that this second entry in my continued look at portable gaming be the history of Sega’s answer to the juggernaut that was the Nintendo Game Boy, the Sega Game Gear.

Ep 2: The New Kid in Town.

Released in the US on April 26th 1991, the Game Gear was what Sega hoped would topple the Game Boy’s solid gold tower. Nintendo had dominated the handheld market and as their main home console competitor, it seemed only fitting for Sega to release a handheld dedicated to taking the Game Boy out of the running. They were looking for a system that had features that would place it on the minds of gamers, that would outshine the Game Boy in technical specifications, and that would show Nintendo they weren’t alone in this arms race. To do that, Sega would attack the Game Boy’s weakest link: They’d have a full color display.

It seems trivial in today’s market, and for any of the younger readers perhaps an unheard of caveat, but there was a day where the fact that a handheld system featured a color display was deliriously exciting. It was with this plan in mind that Sega brought to the world a portable system that could go toe to toe with not just the NES, but arguably their own home system. Sega even went so far as to create the famous 1984-esque commercial featuring a dystopian society held in oppression by the Game Boy’s boring  colorless screen. The Game Gear featured a backlit, full color 3.2” display and since it was based on the Master System home console, was able to have a huge library of popular titles released for it very quickly. With everything from stand-alone Sonic adventures to the punishingly difficult Ninja Gaiden, the Game Gear library was full of console quality games. For the first time, gamers could feel like they were taking their home consoles with them on the bus ride to school.

Following Nintendo’s brilliant marketing ploy, Sega also capitalized on the gamer’s seemingly engrained nature to collect. In time the Game Gear too was released in promotional packages. With a special blue casing accompanying World Series Baseball the Game Gear also had its share of special colors and themes. Sadly, aside from the before mentioned, nearly all of these special color schemes were Japan-only exclusives. Along with accessories that did everything from allow you to play longer, care of a giant external battery pack, to screen enlarging magnifying lenses, the Game Gear was a completionist’s dream*.

Of course, all this graphical power and technical ability came at a cost. Before the days of rechargeable batteries, the handheld gamers were tethered to pack of Duracells. Needing a whopping 6 AA batteries the Game Gear had a battery life of only 4 hours. Needless to say, if you had a school field trip, be prepared to grab some extra batteries for the ride home. This gluttonous consumption of batteries translated to a huge expense and being primarily a kids’ market (let’s face it, folks, gaming was a kid’s world once upon a time) a parent would be less likely to purchase a $190 system that blasted through batteries faster than Sonic runs through a Special Stage. It’s sad, but true. The system had a piss poor battery life and that hurt its sales numbers. Of course there was also the biggest faux pas that a game company can make with their system, a serious lack of third party partnerships. Though a solid second place in the market, the Sega Game Gear was drastically eclipsed by Nintendo’s handheld to the tune of more than 50 million units by the end of the Game Gear’s run in 1997. Not even the gorgeous display and substantial first party library could push the system to dominance above its rival. Sometimes the hot new girl in school just doesn’t have the allure of the girl next door, I suppose.

Despite the setbacks, the Game Gear was a turning point in the portable gaming market. While there had been color display portables before, the Game Gear showed the world at large that the handheld market was not relegated to monochromatic ports and offshoot games. It shaped where handhelds would go from there on, and though it took quite a few years later, even the House that Miyamoto built would go for broke on a change to their handheld that mimicked a lot of the Game Gear’s features. The portable gaming arms race had hit fully begun with the release of the Game Gear, and its explosive entry pushed the boundaries of handheld gaming by ironically making it more similar to the home consoles. The gaming world had seen what a handheld could do and got a glimpse into what Sega had in store for future portable consoles. But that story is for another day.

Good Gaming, everyone.

*Fun fact: There was even an accessory that allowed you to watch your TV on the console. Although a novel idea this accessory was short lived. The Game Gear TV Tuner can now be found on auction sites and retro gaming forums for as little as $17. If you are looking to start your Game Gear accessory collection, it’s an interesting piece to start with.

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