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21 Features

History Lesson: Game Gear

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 22nd Dec 2013 at 10:00 AM UTC

In many ways, the Sega Game Gear was the spiritual predecessor (if there is such a thing) to the PlayStation Portable.

Both the Sega of 1990 and the Sony of 2004 thought they had the ultimate two-pronged strategy to combat Nintendo's dominance of the handheld market: out-muscle it with sheer graphical force and ice-cool branding.

Thus the two consoles, 14 years apart, had much in common. Alliterative names that oozed adult credibility. Sleek and comfortable landscape designs. The kind of dark, brooding colour schemes that cause young maidens to faint.

A focus on multimedia capabilities (the Game Gear's TV Tuner add-on transformed it into a portable telly), which was orchestrated largely to make the rival Nintendo consoles seem like toys in comparison. And of course, tech specs that blew their contemporaries away.

And so, unsurprisingly given their similarities, both consoles fell on the same sword. Their cutting-edge displays might have looked good in demo pods, but they were overly ambitious for their time and this led to a host of problems. These woes included the price (at £145, the Game Gear was significantly more expensive than the Game Boy) and, most crucially, an abysmal battery life.

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The Game Gear's unquenchable thirst for power was legendary: it could suck six AA batteries dry in a little over three hours. The Game Boy could manage nearly ten times that with only four. It wasn't long before the world's Game Gears were left at home with their AC adapters while their owners frolicked outside with their Game Boys.

The Game Gear's worldwide sales figure of 11 million might have been dwarfed by the Game Boy's 64 million, but it was enough to put it in second place in the most competitive handheld market there has ever been.

The Game Gear outsold its nearest rival, the Atari Lynx (5 million sales) by a factor of over 2:1. The TurboExpress - pretty much a portable TurboGrafx-16 - came fourth with a disappointing 1.5 million sales worldwide.

Despite its monochrome display and yellow screen, the Game Boy was already wiping the floor with full-colour rivals such as the Atari Lynx when the Game Gear finally launched in Japan on 6 October 1990. Although battery life and cost were also factors in the Lynx's demise, the perception was that it just didn't have the game library required to mount a meaningful challenge against the Game Boy. Tetris or Loopz? Super Mario Land or Dinolympics? It wasn't even a contest.

The Game Gear's innards were designed to ensure that Sega's handheld wouldn't suffer the same fate. At its heart, the Zilog Z80 processor was structurally almost identical to that which powered Sega's 8-bit home console, the Master System - so much so that it was capable of playing its back catalogue with the help of the Master Gear add-on. This made it cost-efficient to develop for the system, since coders were already familiar with the chip.

Naturally, this led to a large influx of Master System ports, another nail in the Game Gear's 209x111x37mm coffin (a pretty rubbish coffin, to be fair, as it's exactly the same size as the Game Gear itself), but a great many of them were reworked significantly for the small screen.

Below: One of Sega's controversial Nintendo-baiting TV commercials

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In all, 363 games were released for the Game Gear over its seven-year life, but it never found its equivalents of Tetris or Super Mario Land and its best games could be found in some form on another format. Worthwhile exclusives were limited to a handful of minor classics, such as Ax Battler and Crystal Warriors.

It was the Game Gear's absurd battery life that ultimately undermined any long-term success. Where's the value in having 32 colours on screen if you can no longer switch the thing on by the time your plane reaches France?

And so, Nintendo's handheld expertise buried the Game Gear's library of forgotten mini-classics through no fault of its own. Two decades on, that same expertise has seen its DS and 3DS repeat history, drastically outselling the far more powerful PSP and Vita respectively.

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Although the Game Gear had a handful of great original titles, the vast majority of its worthwhile games were Master System ports.

Since the Game Gear's resolution was 160x144 compared to the Master System's maximum resolution of 256x224 these weren't direct ports, but as their processors were so similar developers still managed to get their Master System games on Sega's handheld with minimum fuss.

Here, then, are some of our favourite games that were released on both the Master System and Game Gear.