Once Nintendo opened the floodgates to portable gaming by announcing the Game Boy, it came as little surprise when a stream of competition steadily flowed into the market in the years surrounding its launch. Of course, history paints a clear picture of those also-rans drying to a trickle before vanishing completely. While today’s portable players consider Sony’s PSP as the first non-Nintendo portable to carve out its own respectable niche, one early device managed to survive in the Game Boy’s shadow: Game Gear. Though it failed to match the monochromatic dynasty of its market superior, Sega’s portable, like the Genesis, brought an arcade experience home to its players—albeit slightly less faithfully.
On paper, Game Gear’s color screen ensured its victory. Unfortunately the realities of technology dulled that advantage quite a bit. Sega’s advertising told a semi-accurate tale: The Game Boy did resemble bland pea soup compared to Game Gear’s tasty full meal—until the player moved. While Nintendo’s handheld acquired a reputation for blurry visuals in motion, at least three simple shades of gray (green) allowed the human brain to parse its on-screen action. Game Gear’s screen also blurred, creating an experience akin to baby’s first acid trip. This might not have been so bad—after all, color trumps not-color for almost everybody—but players paid for “arcade resolution” with the blood of discarded batteries. Sega’s long black box devoured 6 AA’s in fewer hours, which created at least 300% more “Are we there yet?”s per road trip than the Game Boy.
We all know it’s the games, not the specs, that determine a system’s success—else we wouldn’t have Nintendo, Sega, or Sony today. Here, too, Game Gear seemed to have a strong start out the gate. While Game Boy had Nintendo titles, its first few waves of third-party software just didn’t match up to their console siblings. Meanwhile, Game Gear had no qualms about repackaging Master System titles (even marketing a converter to play SMS carts outright) and literally providing a console experience on the go. Unfortunately, once that well ran dry, Game Boy development picked up and created some truly great titles. Game Gear developers, left to create original software, churned out games like X-Men, which barely scraped “embarrassing” on the quality meter.
Though it never conquered the handheld market, the Game Gear deserves a fair bit of respect for not buckling under Nintendo’s dominance. It also deserves some credit for the PSP’s success, considering how closely Sony followed Sega’s playbook—a fact which suggests that in a more mature market, with an audience more willing to spend, the Game Gear could have emerged victorious.
Article by Tomm Hulett
GameSpite Journal 12: Gear Up | Game Gear