In April 1989, Nintendo, then the biggest video game force in Japan by some margin, released a handheld system, the Game Boy. A natural evolution from the older Game & Watch series of portables, while being influenced by the hugely successful Famicom console, the Game Boy went on to sell 300,000 units in two weeks. Sega's Game Gear is thought to have had a humble origin - to give Nintendo's new system some competition.
Codenamed Project Mercury, the Game Gear was seemingly designed to address the two major concerns with Nintendo's handheld - the Game Boy's awkward vertically-orientated shape, and its murky screen, capable only of four shades of green/yellow.
It was originally announced at Tokyo Toy Show 1990 on the 7th June 1990.
The Game Gear was first released in Japan on October 6, 1990 with launch titles Columns (bundled with the unit), Super Monaco GP, and Pengo. 40,000 units were reportedly sold in Japan in its first two days of sale, and within a month, 600,000 had been shipped, but Sega struggled to keep the momentum going and sales tailed off by the middle of the decade.
Despite its strong launch, Japanese consumers are thought not have been too interested in the handheld, and early units suffered from several hardware faults. By the time of the "second wave" of Game Boy games materialised, prompted by the hugely successful release of Pocket Monsters in early 1996, the Game Gear was in a distant second, though limited software support continued until the release of G Sonic in December of that year. Despite strong support for the PC Engine in the region, the PC Engine GT, a handheld version of the aforementioned console, is not thought to have performed admirably and would have likely trailed in third place.
1.25 million Game Gears are thought to have been sold in Japan by the 20th March 1994.
Japan was the only region to receive coloured systems (with one exception). Initial units were black, much like the rest of the world, but later, yellow, blue, red and white units were released, as well as several special versions tied to game releases.
North America saw a staggered launch for the Game Gear across April 1991, making it difficult to pin-point an exact launch date.
Sega of America organised a staged event on the 5th of April, in which a helicopter supposedly carrying the first batch of Game Gear consoles and software, arrived on the docked USS Intrepid aircraft carrier (the home of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum) in New York. On board were 600 "avid Sega fans" - kids which had been mobilised by the likes of local radio station Z-100 specifically for the event. Of that figure, 100 were sons and daughters of service personnel who had taken part in Operation Desert Storm and were currently stationed in Forts Hamilton and Tottem.
The guests were invited to jump into three swimming pools filled with 10,000 brightly coloured foam balls, 60 of which were specially marked and would win whoever found them a Game Gear console and games. Sega supposedly had plans to roll out similar events across the country, though it is not known if this actually happened.
On the 15th of April, Sega launched the Game Gear in the test markets of New York and Los Angeles, before a nationwide rollout began on the 26th.
Sega of America immediately went on the offensive, attacking the Game Boy at almost every opportunity for its limited colour palette with amusing and bizarre TV spots. This continued throughout the first half of the 1990s despite again trailing in second place, even poking fun at the existence of the coloured Game Boy console lineup of 1995 (i.e. those with coloured shells, not with coloured screens).
Commentators were writing off the Game Boy within a couple of years of launch, and Sega themselves made (biased) claims that their system was preferred by 91.79% of kids aged 8 to 14, however Nintendo's system went on to beat all expectations and Sega were forced to settle for second place.
The Game Gear also debuted at a time when another rival, the Atari Lynx, was taking an (albeit limited) share of the market from Nintendo, though Sega's competitive price and larger library of games trounced Atari's efforts. The NEC TurboExpress, as in Japan in PC Engine GT form, buckled under its high asking price and poor marketing and likely finished fourth. Many of the Game Gear's flaws in regards to screens and battery life also applied to the Lynx and TurboExpress (although the Lynx drained its batteries in slightly less time than Sega's - 4-5 hours).
Four million Game Gears had been sold by the end of 1993.
Blue Game Gears were bundled with copies of World Series Baseball and The Lion King in this region. They are considerably rarer than the black models, and a darker shade than the Japanese blue models.
Majesco, who were given the rights to distribute older Sega consoles, re-released the Game Gear in February 1999 at an asking price of $29.95 (games being priced at $9.95). These Game Gears have lightly improved specifications, including a better screen and longer battery life, but can run the entirety of the older back catalogue. Majesco Game Gears can be identified by their non-coloured logos and purple start buttons. They are incompatible with the TV Tuner.
Though a reasonably popular handheld in Europe, the Game Gear again played second best to the Game Boy, making it the first Sega console in that region to make less money than Nintendo. Sega Europe curiously put a greater emphasis on the Game Gear's TV Tuner, bundling it with consoles and using it as a marketing tactic against the system's only rival, however the Game Gear struggled for similar reasons as it had in North America - poor battery life, awkward design choices and a smaller library of games.
The Game Gear is known to have been released in these markets but its performance is not fully understood. More than likely the system failed to get off the ground due to high asking prices.
As with later Sega consoles, third-party support for the Game Gear was in short supply, particularly from Japanese developers. However, due to the hardware similarities, many early Game Gear games were modifications of Sega Master System games made to take advantage of the larger palette capabilities and smaller screen size. This meant many companies could convert their Master System lineup in to Game Gear titles fairly easily (and vice versa), but this only applied to companies supporting Europe, as by the time the Game Gear was released, the Master System had been discontinued in Japan and North America.
Typically one can assume the Game Gear always stood in a distant second place when compared to the Game Boy, but this does not seem to be entirely true for many regions of the world, with Sega even claiming a 51% share of the handheld market by early 1995. However, despite an extensively aggressive Western marketing strategy for much of the early 90s, the system's presumed lukewarm acceptance in Japan led to Sega prioritising their Sega Mega Drive, Sega 32X and Sega Saturn consoles.
While the Game Boy became more portable, streamlining its design and adopting better screen and battery technology, no significant changes were made to the Game Gear to overcome its faults. The combination of poor design choices and poor third-party support led to the Game Gear's eventual decline and discontinuation in 1997, although much of this seems to have been driven by a desire to concentrate on the struggling Sega Saturn and future projects.
Approximately 390 Game Gear games were produced, with 11 million Game Gear units sold worldwide.
After the Game Gear's discontinuation, Sega did not attempt to re-enter the handheld console market, instead choosing to become a third-party developer for other handhelds. Sega of America immediately moved to supporting Tiger Electronics's Game.com and R-Zone units, and by the end of the decade Sega of Japan backed the Neo Geo Pocket Color and licensed games to Bandai for the WonderSwan and to Media Factory for Nintendo's Game Boy Color. By the end of 2000 Sega had become a licensed third-party developer for Nintendo's handhelds, releasing Chu Chu Rocket! as a launch title for the Game Boy Advance.
The next generation of Game Boy rivals, such as the Neo Geo Pocket Color, the WonderSwan and Game.com all opted to follow in Nintendo's footsteps - cutting back on performance-degrading backlit screens and demanding graphics, and instead utilising monochrome screens or specifications akin to the 1998 release of the Game Boy Color. Arguably Nintendo themselves did not surpass the Game Gear's 1990 specifications until 2001 with the launch of the Game Boy Advance.Game Gear games are offered in the Nintendo 3DS's Virtual Console service.