It's funny what was once considered portable.
My little brother and I got a Sega Game Gear for Christmas in 1991. At the time, we thought it was the coolest thing ever, despite only having the pack-in game Columns at first. It was the promise of the Game Gear that excited us so much. Sure, our friends with Game Boys had all kinds of great games to choose from, but soon we'd be able to play Sonic the Hedgehog in full color … in the dark!
Sega's Game Gear was supposed to be the platform that challenged Nintendo's mighty Game Boy for portable gaming supremacy, and in the end it really never came close. You can't blame Sega for trying. After all, there was no other real competition out there. Atari's Lynx and NEC's TurboExpress, though vastly superior in terms of processing power, were expensive, didn't have enough good games and were poorly marketed.
Even though Game Gear was priced more than $50 higher than Game Boy, there was definitely room there for Sega to grab of piece of Nintendo's dominance in the handheld arena. In retrospect though, it's easy to see why Game Gear—a noble effort to be sure—never quite caught on.
First of all, the thing is a beast. Game Gear is easily twice the size as the original Game Boy, which itself seems oddly large and bulky compared to the tiny versions released later. But even the old Game Boy could be stuffed into your jacket pocket. A Game Gear might fit into a jacket pocket, if forced, and provided you're fine with half of it hanging out.
The original Game Boy was well-known for its lousy, pea-soup tinted, two-color screen, but it could be powered for about 10 hours on four AA batteries. By contrast, Game Gear lasted a measly TWO hours on SIX AA batteries! Maybe that was by design though, because a Game Gear loaded with batteries is a heavy bastard to play for more than two hours.
Game Gear also had several unique accessories available—none of which did anything to enhance the portable aspect of the platform. There was the TV Tuner, which allowed you to watch color TV on your Game Gear; the Super Wide Gear, a magnifying glass that fit over Game Gear's screen; a large rechargeable battery pack that was laughably almost as big as the Game Gear itself; and my favorite, the Master Gear Converter—the only Game Gear accessory I own—a large component that attaches to the back of the Game Gear and allows you to play Sega Master System games (very few of which are actually worth playing unfortunately).
In the end however, it came back to the quality of the games available, and Game Gear simply didn't have enough of them. Many of the first games from Sega had a rushed-to-market feel, while second-rate publishers like U.S. Gold and Flying Edge released mostly garbage when the platform should have been hitting its stride. Sega did do a good job of porting over its key franchises to the Game Gear, as there were several games released from the Sonic the Hedgehog, Shinobi and Streets of Rage series, though RPG fans were hung out to dry as Sega choose not to release two titles from its popular Phantasy Star series in North America.
By the end its life cycle, there were several good games in the Game Gear library, but I had since lost interest in the platform and never got around to playing them. I missed out on games like Vampire: Master Of Darkness, Jurassic Park, Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi and Shining Force: The Sword Of Hajya. While I could probably track those games down at my local used game store, sadly, my Game Gear seems to be on its last legs, so I wanted to revisit the platform and the games I have for it while I still can. So without any further delay…
Columns (Sega, 1991)
Sega's obvious answer to Tetris, Columns was the pack-in game when the Game Gear launched in 1991, just as Tetris came with every Game Boy when it launched a couple years prior. Unfortunately, Columns isn't a very captivating puzzle game and can't hang with a masterpiece like Tetris. Rows of connected jewels drop down into a well just like in Tetris, but instead of wiping out lines of blocks, the job is to create space by matching up three or more jewels of the same color. Columns is indeed an impressive showcase for Game Gear's color screen, but for some reason the game doesn't progress past level nine, and there's no reward for setting high scores. Back in the day, Columns was pretty and mildly entertaining, but playing it today feels like wasting time. Perhaps the game's most lasting legacy: Capcom borrowed some of the basic gameplay from Columns to make their brilliant puzzle game, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, which was released for a variety of platforms and is now available on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade.
Ninja Gaiden (Sega, 1991)
Sega already had a version of their own ninja action game, Shinobi, on the Game Gear, but you can never have enough ninja games, so a reprogrammed version of Tecmo's blockbuster Ninja Gaiden was also available at launch. Sadly, this Game Gear version—while doing its best to mimic the action of Ninja Gaiden on the Nintendo Entertainment System and featuring some nice graphics here and there—kind of sucks. You control the lead character, Ryu, in a new adventure that departs from the storyline in the NES games. The story is told in animated cut scenes similar to the NES games, but they're very poorly written and rendered and don't do much to compliment the mediocre action. Ninja Gaiden on Game Gear isn't very difficult either. I think I remember completing the game less than a day after buying it, and it wasn't long after that I regretted not giving Shinobi a try instead.
G-LOC: Air Battle (Sega, 1991)
Another Game Gear launch title, G-LOC: Air Battle is a port of a little-known Sega arcade game, which itself was a successor to Sega's popular, high-octane, air combat game, Afterburner. G-LOC puts you in the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat and allows you to select from missions such as "SHOOT DOWN 40 FIGHTERS" or "DESTROY 15 WARSHIPS." The action itself isn't half bad. You're equipped with a vulcan cannon and missiles and can see incoming enemies on a handy radar display at the bottom of the screen. You can also accumulate points after every mission that allow you to upgrade weapons, fuel capacity and armor—a feature exclusive to the Game Gear version that does give the gameplay some needed depth. However, there's literally no variety in the mission objectives—it's always about shooting down fighters and destroying warships—and there's even less variety in the scenery you fly over (mountains or water). As monotonous as that seems, thankfully G-LOC isn't a very long affair, even on the "Expert" setting, so just as a simple air combat game, G-LOC is a solid but very unspectacular addition to the Game Gear library.
Dragon Crystal (Sega, 1991)
Dragon Crystal is a strange little game, intended, I think, to satisfy any role-playing gamers who bought a Game Gear at launch and had nothing to play. As I write this, I struggle to find the words to describe this game. A port of a Sega Master System title of the same name, Dragon Crystal puts you in control of a little hero as you navigate your way through a seemingly endless number of labyrinths. An egg follows you wherever you go, out of which a little dragon eventually hatches and grows as you gain levels. In all the times I've played Dragon Crystal, I've never seen the dragon do anything but follow you around, but then again, it's been many years since I've given the game very much of my time, so maybe the dragon contributes more to the game, and I've merely forgotten. In any case, the gameplay consists of walking through mazes, picking up objects, weapons and armor and fighting little monsters—not unlike Diablo only somehow a lot less fun (and, truth be told, I'm not much of a Diablo fan). Dragon Crystal apparently falls into an RPG subgenre called "roguelike," which I had never heard of before, but according to Wikipedia is "characterized by randomization for replayability, permanent death, and turn-based movement." So maybe fans of roguelike games will want to track down a copy of Dragon Crystal. My thoughts after buying this game and playing it for the first time: "People who have Game Boys get to play Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. I sort of wish I had a Game Boy right now."
Sonic The Hedgehog (Sega, 1991)
It was right around the time Sonic The Hedgehog was released on Game Gear that things began to look up for the handheld platform. Finally, Game Gear had a showcase platformer featuring Sega's iconic mascot. I managed to get a free copy of the game as soon as it came out through some kind of promotion Sega was doing to get people to buy Game Gears, and after enduring the never-ending mediocrity of Game Gear's library up to that point, much to my relief, the game was actually really good!
Sonic The Hedgehog on Game Gear captures much of what made the original Genesis game so fun. The levels aren't as large so there's not as much exploring to do, and sadly there are no loops to traverse or walls to break through, but everything else is just about perfect. The game really benefits from sky-high production values across the board, something previously unseen on Game Gear. Even the music is good. There are new zones to explore, bonus stages and Chaos Emeralds hidden throughout the zones. This was the first of nine Sonic titles released on Game Gear and one of the few Game Gear titles worth playing.
Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (Sega, 1992)
Electronic Gaming Monthly apparently named Sonic The Hedgehog 2 for Game Gear the best portable game of 1992. I'm sure the folks at Sega really appreciated that free bit of publicity, because Sonic 2 is nowhere near as fun as its predecessor. Sure, the levels are bigger; Sonic can now smash through walls and collect rings he's dropped; and his pal Tails is featured in the game, but make no mistake, this game is a big letdown considering how good the first Sonic The Hedgehog was. Clearly, this game was made by a different developer than the first. Gone are the vibrant colors and crisp visuals from the first game. In their place are muddy colors, smudgy sprites and ugly environments. Also, Sonic 2 has some of the worst music and sound design I've ever heard in a Sonic game. The game is just brutal on the senses, and I see no reason for it other than the decision by Sega to hand the franchise over to another developer because, again, the first Sonic The Hedgehog had high-quality graphics and sound. The gameplay will still satisfy Sonic fans, and the game is definitely more challenging than the first, but to me, this is a clear step down in quality. Especially disappointing when you consider how good Sonic The Hedgehog 2 on the Sega Genesis is.
Defenders Of Oasis (Sega, 1992)
With the release of Defenders Of Oasis, Game Gear loyalists finally had a real role-playing game to call their own. Thankfully, it also happened to be very good—easily one of the top 10 games for the platform. An epic, turn-based RPG adventure in the same vein as the old Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy games on the NES, Oasis puts you in a setting not often explored by other games in the genre: ancient Mesopotamia and its mythology. As in Dragon Warrior II & III on the NES, other warriors join your party throughout the game, including, awesomely enough, the famous Genie (of the lamp). This is as well-made a game as any RPG of the day, and though the storytelling is sometimes hampered by childish writing and suspect translation (a hallmark of RPGs back then), it's refreshing to be fighting in the desert against Ali Baba and his thieves using a jambiya as opposed to the standard RPG fare (say, for instance, fighting in a dungeon against a legendary dragoon with a bastard sword). Had Defenders Of Oasis been released on the NES, it would have been remembered as a classic. Those of us lucky enough to have actually played it will have to settle for recognizing it as one of the few great Game Gear titles.
Batman Returns (Sega, 1992)
Before Acclaim took over video game adaptations of the Batman movies in the mid-1990s and nearly ruined the Batman brand name in the process, there were actually some really fun Batman games available for the various platforms, and Game Gear was no exception. Batman Returns is an action-platformer similar to Sunsoft's great Batman for the NES. Using the various locales from the film as backdrops, Batman fights mostly with his batarang, but can also punch; signal the Batmobile for reinforcements; jump and swing using his grappling gun; and float around using his cape. The graphics and sound are top-notch, the gameplay is smooth, and I like how you can choose between two routes before each stage. Working in game development for over five years now, I know how easy it can be to sleepwalk through the making of a licensed game, so I appreciate the ones that have high production quality and are fun to boot. Batman Returns is a pleasant surprise in the Game Gear library.
World Cup USA '94 (U.S. Gold, 1993)
The 1994 World Cup in the United States is still known as one of the most successful and exciting World Cups in history, but wow, what a mess of a soccer game this is. I don't know anyone who loves the sport of soccer more than me, and I take offense at this game because it's an insult to the sport. In a laughable attempt to make the game accessible to people of many languages, the game's many menus are filled with icons of the USA '94 doggie mascot doing various things that for the life of me I cannot decipher. These menus are the worst I've ever seen in a video game and are an affront to humanity. If you can actually plow through the menu system and get a game going, it doesn't get much better. From an overhead view, tiny players scamper about like fleas on a gigantic field knocking the ball around. The action moves so fast you can hardly tell which player has the ball, and the crowd noise is mind-numbingly repetitive and annoying. None of the team rosters feature actual player names, so there isn't much authenticity to the proceedings. British publisher U.S. Gold put a lot of terrible games into the world in the mid-1990s, and World Cup USA '94 is certainly one of those games.
Mortal Kombat (Acclaim, 1993)
Let’s face it. Mortal Kombat was more than just a video game—it was a cultural phenomenon. I honestly always preferred Street Fighter II, but there’s no denying Mortal Kombat’s impact on the game industry and pop culture, and Game Gear can lay claim to having the best portable version of the infamous violent fighting game. It runs a bit slow compared to its Sega Genesis counterpart; the controls are sluggish; there are only two stages in which to fight; and the “Test Your Might” bonus levels are missing. However, the digitized characters look great, and even though a couple had to be left out, the ones that are there have made it into the Game Gear with all their moves intact. Entering a secret code enables spattering blood during fights, which is all anyone seemed to care about when the game made the transition from the arcades to the home consoles. Credit to the developer Probe for making an extremely playable version of Mortal Kombat for the Game Gear, which is more than can be said for the extremely lacking Game Boy version. Word is that the sequel, Mortal Kombat II, also handled by Probe, was even better.
Fatal Fury Special (SNK, 1994)
A superb port of the Neo Geo original by developer Takara, Fatal Fury Special might be the best fighting game on Game Gear and is certainly one of the platform's showcase titles. Concessions definitely had to be made to squeeze it into a Game Gear cartridge, but this is about as good a version of an arcade fighting game as you could hope for on a portable 8-bit platform. I must state that I'm not the biggest fan of SNK's fighting games (and there are many). I've always thought they were all just cheap imitations of Capcom's Street Fighter II. Fatal Fury Special on Game Gear is as close to Street Fighter II as you're ever going to get however, and I know a good game when I see one. Fans will be happy to know that the eight playable characters that did make it into the game have all of their signature moves intact—impressive considering Game Gear only has two buttons—and even Ryo from SNK's Art Of Fighting is among those playable characters. Fighting game fans with a Game Gear owe it to themselves to track down a copy of Fatal Fury Special.
FIFA International Soccer (EA Sports, 1994)
At first glance, FIFA International Soccer on Game Gear has no discernable differences from the Sega Genesis/Sega CD version. Credit has to go to the developer Tiertex Design for somehow shoehorning this game onto Game Gear. Granted, I was never a big fan of the original FIFA games, mostly due to the awkward isometric perspective during gameplay and the lack of any player or league licenses, and unfortunately, FIFA on Game Gear inherits all of those shortcomings. This is one great-looking game however, and the gameplay, while not great, moves at a good pace and is solid enough to make it the best soccer game available for the system.
NHL Hockey (EA Sports, 1995)
Once again, EA found a developer that managed to squeeze a Sega Genesis game into a Game Gear cartridge, and again the result is a great-looking game that plays only so-so. NHL Hockey looks nearly identical to the great NHL ’94 for the Sega Genesis/Sega CD. All the real players and teams are represented, as well as full season and playoffs modes. Unfortunately, the gameplay is much slower than its 16-bit brethren, and the controls are sloppy. Only one other hockey game was released for the Game Gear however—Sega’s NHL All-Star Hockey—which I’ve never seen nor played. I have played NHL All-Star Hockey on the Genesis and Sega Saturn, however, and I can definitively state that they were all garbage. NHL Hockey looks really, really good, and plays good enough that NHL fans might enjoy themselves. So I feel good in declaring NHL Hockey as the best hockey game for Game Gear.
In Closing …
It’s really fun looking back on the Game Gear days. Really, was there ever a more exciting time to be a gamer? We had Sega coming into its own with the Genesis; Nintendo wowing the industry with the Super NES; outsiders like NEC trying to grab a piece of the market with the TurboGrafx-16; Game Boy versus Game Gear versus Lynx versus TurboExpress—not to mention the thriving arcade scene. The current state of the game industry looks completely stale in comparison.
The Game Gear was the longest surviving competitor to the Game Boy, but in truth, was the first in a long series of failed game platforms for Sega. Still to come were the Sega CD, 32X, Nomad, Saturn and, sadly, the Sega Dreamcast, which to this day is known as the one Sega platform that had true potential. In the portable arena though, Nintendo is still the only one that has gotten it right—from the Game Boy and Game Boy Color to the Game Boy Advance and Game Boy Advance SP and now with the Nintendo DS and its many permutations. I still play my Game Boy Advance regularly (mostly when I’m in the bathroom).
The Game Gear will likely be remembered as nothing more than an interesting footnote in portable gaming, but at least back then it was possible for companies to take risks on a new gaming system. Of the major players in the industry back then, only Nintendo remains (though not the dominant force it once was). Perhaps that’s why I still support Nintendo: It’s the one true game company left and the last remaining link we have to a time when video games were original, exciting and, most of all, FUN. Sega’s Game Gear was ultimately a part of all that, which is why I still have mine.