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The Nintendo Game Boy and the Sega Game Gear squared off during a time when a "console war" had more than two sides.
Many gamers today may have forgotten that (or never experienced it to begin with)—and we'll forgive you if you also remember there being "winners" and "losers." Not that we have those now—with Nintendo off in a "Wii"rld of its own, did someone actually "win" the last generation? Sony? Microsoft? Does it matter?
Ask any Game Gear fanboy and they'll rattle off a list of a dozen killer titles for the system.
But if you ask people who won the handheld battle of the '90s, "Game Boy" is almost definitely their answer. And that answer—and for that matter, the question too—misses the point.
Yes, the Game Boy is the one we remember. But what about all the other handheld systems that rose and fell beside it? What about the ahead-of-its-time phone/gaming system combo the N-Gage? What about the Atari Lynx, the first color-capable handheld system ever made? What about the WonderSwan, Bandai's system with an awesome name that managed to take a tiny chunk away from Nintendo?
What about the Sega Game Gear, the system that but for one small detail should be the one being commemorated and fetishized?
Sega executives must have been patting themselves on the backs pretty hard when they launched the Game Gear shortly after the Game Boy arrived on the scene at the start of the '90s. Technically the Game Gear blew the Game Boy away in every aspect except for battery life, meaning it was flashier and more impressive in every way that mattered. Its games just looked better. Who cared if it didn't fit in your pocket?
The Game Gear had a full-color screen, and its basis in the same tech as the Sega Master System—precursor to the Sega Genesis—meant it had no shortage of games, since it was relatively easy for developers to create portable versions of Master System hits. Ask any Game Gear fanboy and they'll rattle off a list of a dozen killer titles for the system, including several Sonic games, countless quality licensed titles, Sega classics like Ecco the Dolphin, Madden—you name it.
Crack wise about its considerable battery consumption all you want, but in reality the Game Gear had it all. And by all accounts it put up a respectable fight against the Game Boy. So why is the latter the one that's so fondly remembered?
Some chalk it up to the Nintendo name itself, which admittedly did hold a lot of sway back then. But the real answer is probably much more simple: it was just about Tetris. Legend (and Wikipedia) has it that a couple of years before the Game Boy's release Nintendo of America CEO Minoru Arakawa saw a demo of Tetris and was so impressed that he subsequently bought it to pack it in with the Game Boy as its "killer app." It worked, and led to tens of millions of Game Boys sold, all thanks to falling blocks.
That dinky, dark little screen and the Game Boy's boring grey look didn't matter when all was said and done, because top brass at Nintendo took a chance on a previously unknown Soviet-era puzzle game. And there's no way Sega saw that coming.
I'm biased. My earliest gaming memories are not on the NES or the Super Nintendo or the Game Boy. It was the Game Gear that caused me to fall in love with games. Playing Sonic 1, 2 and 3, and X-Men, Batman and Power Rangers, and Chessmaster—the Game Boy's monochrome games literally paled in comparison with those. Hell, the Game Gear's screen lit up, over a decade before the Game Boy Advance SP's did. That's why it chewed through batteries so quickly, but it's also why it was so ahead of its time, and why it was so dazzling to those who appreciated it.
But while some companies today treat video game hardware production like an arms race, the same was true back then, and just like today it didn't always prove to be the best approach. It's the Wii that the world at large remembers, and it's the Game Boy that still gets talked about.
There aren't really losers in the console wars. There are just warriors that endure, and those that are forgotten. The Game Gear (and all Sega hardware, at this point) are counted among the latter, but they were heroes, too. So the next time you think fondly back on the Game Boy, remember that it wasn't the only contender on the field—and it certainly wasn't the best.
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