Following the incredibly successful launch of the Nintendo Gameboy which sold 300,000 units in the first two weeks, other companies suddenly became more excited about the prospects of the handheld market, Atari who had purchased the ‘Handy Game’ off Epyx where it had been in development since 1986 launched it’s powerful but woefully under supported Atari Lynx soon after the Gameboy and NEC managed to impressively squeeze it’s PC Engine console into the restrictivley expensive PC Engine GT.
Sega began work on Project Mercury, a hand held console designed to address the two major drawbacks of Nintendo’s successful hardware, namely it’s awkward vertical orientation and murky monochrome screen, basing their system around the same hardware that powered the Master System console, the Mercury would eventually be renamed as the Game Gear and was officially announced on June 7th 1990 at the Tokyo Toy Show.
The original release in Japan was on October 6th 1990, the unit came bundled with a copy of Columns, with Super Monaco GP and Pengo available at launch, sales were encouraging, the Game Gear shifted 40,000 units in the first two days and 600,000 units had been shipped by the end of the month, but initial interest seemed to wane quite quickly not helped by several hardware faults that seemed to plague the early units.
A staggered launch was planned for the North American market, beginning with a staged event on 5th April 1991 where a helicopter docked on the USS intrepid supposedly carrying the first batch of Game Gear consoles, this was followed on April 15th by a launch in the test markets of New York and Los Angeles before a full scale national roll out on the 26th April.
Sega famously went on the offensive with an aggressive marketing campaign based on attacking Nintendo’s Gameboy with both amusing and bizarre TV spots, despite this Sega with their more powerful hardware remained very much in a distant second place, having issues of its own as the increased power also meant poor battery life, an issue which also plagued both Atari with its Lynx console and NEC with the PC Engine GT.
Europe shared America’s April 1991 launch and here it proved to be reasonably popular, Sega had benefitted greatly from its Master System outshining Nintendo with their NES hardware in the region and the Game Gear was well received, for the year of 1991 520,000 units had been sold in Europe with 130,000 of those being in the UK, beating Sega’s predicted 100,000 target figure, it still however languished behind the immense popularity of the Game Boy, which despite its inferior power boasted vastly improved battery life and an impressive library of games.
As well as games Sega also released a couple of peripherals for the Game Gear, the most successful of which was the TV Tuner, building on the short lived craze in the early 90s for handheld televisions that were intitaly pricey (I had a casio model at the time that cost £140) the TV tuner slotted into the consoles cartridge slot and worked off a whip antenna to pick up analogue broadcast television, the drawback however was the tuner ate through batteries even faster than playing games did, which severely hampered the devices chances compared to dedicated handheld televisions.
Sega were also guilty of spreading themselves too thin, they were never as cash rich as their rivals and alongside the Game Gear they were also marketing their Mega Drive home console, along with both the Mega-CD and 32X peripherals and with the company already hard at work on the next generation with the Sega Saturn, the money simply didn’t exist to focus the required attention to keep the Game Gear relevent.
Despite the technical limitations of the Game Gear compared to the fourth generation of home consoles and the the similarities with the previous generation’s Master System which led to a glut of easy ports filling up the library, the console did manage to produce some quality games, The Game Gear version of Gunstar Heroes is an impressive version of Treasure’s masterful Mega Drive title which sits alongside games like Shinobi II: The Silent Fury and Power Strike II which are also must have stand outs.
Despite the initial success and aggressive marketing strategy Sega was never able to fully compete with Nintendo’s Game Boy which went through several design changes over the years, become smaller, lighter, more portable, more powerful and significantly more efficient, by the time the Gameboy Pocket Colour was released it was giving around twenty hours of game time running on a pair of AA batteries compared to four hours for the Game Gear running on six, Sega however made no changes to the design of the Game Gear, which wasn’t exactly the most portable system to begin with, leading to sales declining greatly before its inevitable discontinuation in 1997.
Over its official seven year lifetime the Game Gear sold 11 million units world wide , with a library of around 390 titles, compared to Nintendo which through the various iterations of the Gameboy sold 118.69 million units with a library of around 1049 titles. After its discontinuation third party developer Majesco, following on with the moderate success it had with the Genesis 3 console, kept the Game Gear going a while longer by releasing a budget version of the system that lacked support for the TV Tuner and Master System converter peripherals, but was compatible with all existing games.
The Majesco Game Gear was released in the North American market for a retail price of $29.99, the company also licensed several of the games for the system that would be priced at $14.97, the build quality was obviously lower than the Sega original, a cheaper screen lens was used that was prone to scratching, however the screen itself seemed to be little brighter and they had the good sense to swap out the capacitors that were prone to dying in the original console, replacing them with a more reliable alternative.
Although not officially released outside of America the Majesco Game Gear did find it’s way to the shores of the UK, through a stock aquisition deal with Telegames the consoles turned up in Game stores priced at £29.99 sitting alongside the surplus stock of the ill fated Jaguar console that Telegames had aquired from Atari, although in 2001 the retro market was still niche enough that nobody really cared, before long most of the items ended up being further discounted before disapearing completely, with some of the games even making their way into 99p shops.