Sega Game Gear
Based on: Taking a decent piece of kit and making it a distant second place to the competition, twice in a row.
Article by Johnny Driggs | July 20, 2009
You'll have to forgive the personal, first-person perspective of this article. It's something I try to avoid in my writing, but this time there's just no getting around it. Let's face it, there's not much to the Game Gear itself. It was more or less a handheld Master System, it ate up batteries quicker than you could put them in, and was home to roughly zero important games. That's it. The only thing it's significant for is being the ultimate example of Nintendo's Game Boy monopoly. If then-mighty Sega couldn't knock off Nintendo, who could?
No, the Game Gear isn't significant for its place in gaming history. It is, however, significant in that owning one made you that kid.
I, ladies and gentlemen, was that kid. Normal kids had Game Boys. Normal kids and their families spent hours playing Tetris. Normal kids enjoyed pint-sized versions of Metroid, Zelda, Mega Man, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, and all their other favorite console games. Normal kids watched as princesses turned into grotesque, giant insects after navigating a stout Italian gentleman through ancient Egypt. I wasn't a normal kid. I was a Game Gear Kid.
Actually, being a Game Gear Kid was simply part of the larger ethos of being a Sega Kid. We had a fairly strong contingent at my elementary school, strangely enough. I don't know whether this was a result of demographics or simply a freak statistical anomaly. I certainly don't remember my school being comprised of an inordinate amount of Brazilian expatriates.
Me, though? I was a dyed-in-the-wool Sega Kid. See, some of my comrades had the presence of mind to get a Game Boy. Not me. I was in whole hog. Thank almighty God I wasn't aware of the slogan “Sega does what Nintendon't” as a child; it would have become an insufferable mantra for me. Thank goodness message boards didn't exist yet, either, archiving forever concrete proof of my narrow-minded brand loyalty.
Here's the thing though: I was a Sega Kid before I even owned a single video game system. I could have been a objective third-party to the console war. It's not like I didn't have friends, relatives, and neighbors who owned either system. I could have weighed the merits and shortcomings of each system and come to a reasoned conclusion as to which would garner my support. But no. I chose Sega right off the bat. And most of that had to do with one thing: Sonic the Hedgehog?.
See, Sonic is the Michael Jackson of video games. [Editor's Note: This article was published a few months ago, so no complaints about poor taste, please.] These days they're both little more than shallow husks of their former selves, and people avoid thinking about them lest the remember all the unsavory realities surrounding them. But back in the day? They were huge! Supposedly, Jackson even wrote the music for one of the games! Doesn't anyone remember the vise grip Sega's marketing department had on the mind of the average American child in the early '90s? Perhaps I'm speaking too much from personal experience here, but Sonic was where it was at if you were in elementary school during the 16-bit era. There's a reason every single copy-cat platforming mascot followed the Sonic woodland-animal-with-'tude model instead of Mario's.
Sonic was cool, he was fast, he had attitude, he was everything a kid wants in a video game. Was he better than Mario? No, but he was more. Being a Sega apologist during the 16-bit era was based on a quantitative approach to game criticism, if you could have called it that. Sega had more. The Genesis was faster, it had more buttons, it had more blood. The Game Gear had color, it was back-lit, it had a larger screen, it had a landscape format. The aspiring Sega fanboy had plenty to latch onto when assailed by throngs of the Nintendo loyal.
Did any of those things matter? Of course not. The color, back-lit screen was the main contributor to the system's legendarily short battery life. And remember, it used six AA batteries as opposed to the Game Boy's four, making each play session exponentially more expensive. The screen might have been bigger than the Game Boy's, but it was the exact same resolution, making the visuals appear chunkier. The display was also incredibly fuzzy, beating the N64 at its own game five years early. Despite the fact it was supposed to be a portable Master System, its resolution was smaller than its console predecessor's, making for cramped ports. And sure, the form-factor might have been a bit more ergonomic, but it came at the expense of the system's portability—not the best compromise for a portable system. The Game Gear was far bulkier than the Game Boy: nearly twice as large, in fact, if you had the good sense to buy the rechargeable battery pack. And we're talking the old-school Game Boy here, none of that GB Pocket stuff.
Let me let you guys in on a secret: we Sega Kids were jealous of you Nintendo Kids. Really, we were. I was, at least. I wouldn't admit it, of course, but I'd always be a little too reluctant to leave a friend's when we were playing his Super NES. You guys' games were colorful, and you had all the best series, all the innovative stuff like Mario Paint. But we couldn't let on. We had our systems and we were going to defend them, dammit. No matter how much we tried to deny it, we knew you guys had it better.
And here I am killing the first video game system I ever owned. When my parents gave me one for my birthday, it was a huge deal for me. My parents were not what you'd call "video game friendly," my father's bizarre impulse to play every Space Invaders cabinet he comes across aside. It wasn't a home console, but it was a video game system, something I'd only been able to play at other people's homes. The portability was actually a plus, as my family took lots of road trips and I got motion sick when I tried to read. Game Gear was my constant companion on those long drives through the deserts of northern Nevada.
For a Sonic fan like myself, the hedgehog's handheld versions might not have stood up to their console counterparts, but they were mine. And there were more than enough gimmicks in them to satisfy my young id. Sonic in rocket boots! On a snowboard! Tails in a submarine! With missiles!
The system was home to the first game I ever beat, Aladdin. The Game Gear version actually more closely resembled the SNES version than the Genesis iteration, with a focus on platforming over combat. The game is stupidly easy, but I can still remember asking mom to go into the Macy's so I could concentrate on finally beating Jafar. Alone in a car in a mall parking lot, I landed the last blow and watched my first-ever credit sequence.
Then there was Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, a strange hybrid of fighter and beat-em-up, where your ranger of choice would take on low-level fodder until you reached the level's boss, which you fought Street Fighter style once as normal and then in your Zord. The game also featued a standard fighting game mode where you could choose any character from a lowly putty to the Ultrazord. It was heaven for a kid addicted to the show, and yes, I did have to look up the name for the Ultrazord.
Jurassic Park was a solid action game, and featured some impressive boss fights. A screen-sized boss may not mean much on a 3.2-inch screen, but when that Brachinosaur popped out of the water, it was something to see, visual glitches notwithstanding. The game was also home to one of those needlessly frustrating elements that we would tolerate as kids and never again: after plowing through the final stage, you're met with a hallway full of doors. Pick the right one and fight the final boss. Pick the wrong one and it's back to the start of the level. These days, I head straight for GameFAQs. Back then, I entered every door until I found that T-Rex—and I liked it that way.
There was Ecco: Tides of Time with its quasi-faux-3D effects and weird, new-age storyline. There was PGA Tour Golf, a decent golf sim with some nice wireframe depictions of putting greens. NBA Jam, a prerequisite for any budding basketball fan, also got lots of play time. I didn't do much more than get on fire, and then jack up full court shots, but you couldn't tell me it wasn't fun back then. Oh yeah, I also bought Rise of the Robots. Can't win 'em all.
Owning a Game Gear may have made me that kid, but would I go back and do things differently? Not at all. See, as much as this issue is meant to laud the Game Boy, it's a system that works a lot better in retrospective. By now we've cataloged the classics and the sleeper hits and have a good perspective on its place in gaming history. At the time, though, owning a handheld was a total crapshoot. There's great games on the Game Boy, some masterpieces even, but if you had a Game Boy back then meant you probably owned Tetris, one of the Super Mario Lands, some kind of Breakout clone, and a bunch of games based on a cartoon license. I could have owned a Game Boy, but would the games I'd have owned been any better than the ones I played on my Game Gear? Probably not. Actually, knowing my and my parents' knack for choosing games -- definitely not. I was a kid. I didn't know any better. As such, the Game Gear is irrevocably tied to my childhood.
One of my favorite games for the system was Sega's own World Series Baseball, a super-fast paced take on the national past-time. I made a custom team named the Reno Mustangs on behalf of my major-leauge deprived home town and populated the roster with my favorite players. Mostly players from the Giants, but it was the thought that counted. I played it for hours. I loved it. And yet I could never win a single game. Not one. I was horrible at it. In the ninth inning I'd always pull out a pinch-hitter to attempt to drive in the winning run, and was treated to an astoundingly dramatic two-frame cut-scene showing the would-be hero standing up off the bench. Never worked, of course, but I loved doing it because it was my game with my team and on my system.
Years later, I picked it back up to play a game for old time's sake. I won by ten runs.