With hardware reviews, I generally tend to not go anywhere behind the current systems. All the hardware reviews I’ve done are for the 3DS, Vita and their variants, namely the New 3DS XL, 2DS, PS Vita Slim, and PlayStation TV. It takes a very special exception for me to go beyond that to more handhelds in terms of hardware reviews.
Today is one such occasion, as I was browsing through a flea market store, browsing for some Nintendo DS games for new retro reviews. I was specifically looking for Pokemon: Soul Silver or Heart Gold, not only because a friend of mine asked for a review, but because I really want to play one of them. In my trip here, however, I found a gem I’ve been wanting to buy for a long time, and I got it for no less than the price of a new PS Vita game, along with 2 games and a power cord.
All the way back from the 1990s is the handheld that dared to not only compete with Nintendo, but technically outclassed it, much in the way the PS Vita outclasses the Nintendo 3DS in terms of hardware and processing capabilities.
Sega fans, take note, for this is my retro review of the Sega Game Gear!
When you look at the Game Gear, you realize how massive the thing is. It’s a good 2 inches wider and taller than a PlayStation Vita and over twice as thick as a Vita slim. It’s got weight to it as well. My Surface Pro 2 tablet/keyboard combo is considerably lighter than the Game Gear. It’s still comfortable to hold the system, but it’s heavier than most of today’s portable technology.
Now let’s get to the input. From the front, we have four different button input areas. There is a circular D-Pad on the left, two face buttons on the right simply called Button 1 and Button 2, and there is a Start button directly above those face buttons for pausing games. There is also media on the front, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.
The sides and bottom don’t have anything to interact with, but the top and back do. On the top, we have a volume slider wheel and headphone jack. Next to it is a mystery port that is guessed to be used for a controller, though none of the sources I found online nor the person I bought it from really knew. Beside that is the cartridge slot for games and the two interesting and wacky peripherals Sega made for the Game Gear. One was the TV Tuner to watch TV on the system and the other was a modification add-on that allowed the Game Gear to play Sega Master System games. (Just imagine if Nintendo made one for the 3DS that let you play Game Boy, GBC, and GBA games). Finally, there is the switch for turning the system on and off and a port for the AC power cord that Sega made.
On the back, we have the rest of the cartridge slot as well as two large battery compartments. The Game Gear was a power hog. Unlike the Game Boy and Game Boy Color’s 2-4 battery supply, the Game Gear takes 6 AA batteries to be able to be used outside of the house.
Now let’s get back to the front of the system. There is a backlit screen used to display games and a single mono speaker in the bottom-right corner of the system.
That’s about all there is to it in the design. I’ll be talking about all of this in much further detail in the video review as I don’t want to go on and on in the written review.
Now we get to how this thing handles and runs. And that will go in sections as well. First of all, is how it feels in your hands. Overall, I am comfortable using the game gear. It is designed in such a way that I can hold it in my hands with my fingers comfortably over the buttons. I also hold it in a way that the mono speaker on the system is not covered up by my left hand.
Before we get to performance in games, let’s talk about that speaker and that backlit screen. The Mono Speaker is, of course, just a mono speaker. In today’s handheld standards, mono sound is pretty iffy quality. You can tell there is a certain degradation in the sound quality when you listen through this speaker. Thankfully, plugging in headphones gives you stereo sound that is much better quality for when you’re alone or want to block out the world while you play.
The screen is something else that was ingenious at the time, but ends up being a problem. A backlit screen on a handheld was unheard of back in 1990, but Sega pulled it off. The screen is quite colorful, but there is a problem with quality. The screen is lit and colored in a way that you have to hold it at a specific angle from your eyes to keep the color from distorting on you. Not only that is the fact that games on the Game Gear are much less clear than on a TV with, say, the Genesis. You can see it, but there’s a lot of blurring involved, especially in games with moving text, like Jurassic Park.
Now let’s get to the power-hogging nature of this system. I researched battery life online a lot this week, and most of the sites and discussions I found claimed that the Game Gear could barely last 2 hours on 6 new AA batteries. I tested that this week with generic brand batteries bought at a local CVS store. With Sonic 2 in the entire time, the system managed to last nearly 6 hours before it finally gave up. That’s pretty on par with today’s handheld standards, and this is a system that came out almost 30 years ago. Much better than I was expecting.
As far as playing games is concerned, it played them quite well. Button input was spot on when I was playing Jurassic Park and Sonic 2, and you don’t even have to power the system off to switch out your cartridges. If you slip one out and put another in while the system is running, it automatically reads the new cartridge and starts it up.
The Sega Game Gear was yet another of Sega’s set of intuitions of hardware designs years before its proper time. It’s got less-than-attractive screen quality and a mono speaker, but for any retro handheld fan looking to get one, they’re affordable if you can find one and so are the majority of the games available for it.