Sunday, August 2, 2015

The 50 Greatest Sega Game Gear Games Ever! (Part One of Five)

By: Jimbo X


Oh, the Sega Game Gear. The 8-bit, full-color handheld always played second fiddle to the Game Boy, despite being a much more impressive piece of hardware. Alas, while Sega's portable is largely remembered today as an epic hardware failure (thanks in no small part to an absurdly short battery life), the truth of the matter is that there actually were quite a few good, great and flat-out excellent titles released on the platform, including a number that not only rival the best the Game Boy had to offer, but in some cases, even exceeded them. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say the Game Gear has such a less-than-stellar reputation today because the pool of North American cartridges was rather shallow compared to the MUCH more robust library overseas. Thankfully, the Game Gear is a region-free unit, so as long as you don't mind stumbling through some kanji, you can play virtually every title released on the handheld worldwide on your U.S. hardware. Well, that, or you can cheat and hit up the emulators. Not that we would EVER condone such behavior at The Internet Is In America, obviously.

To help repair the handheld's somewhat dinged-up image, I decided to conduct an experiment. Over the course of three years, I played EVERY SINGLE game released on the Game Gear. As in, all 400 or so U.S., Japanese and PAL releases, along with a few weirdbeard Brazilian offerings (don't ask me why, but in Blanka's home country, they were still making unlicensed games for the system in the late 1990s.) Scoring the games on a 10 point scale (with one being the worst and ten being the best), I quantitatively ranked every last Sega Game Gear title. Before you today is a final tally of the top 50 cartridges released on the system, the titles representing the absolute cream of the proverbial crop when it comes to early-to-mid 1990s non-Nintendo portable gaming. Before we hop into the countdown, however, there are a few caveats I'd like to address:

Number One: Only officially licensed Sega Game Gear games were eligible for the countdown. That also means homebrews are off limits, no matter how cool they are.

Number Two: For the sake of making things simple, I played fan-translated versions of all of the text-heavy Japan-only games (chiefly, all of the role playing games.) For every other type of Japan-only Game Gear game, I opted for the original version, complete with the indecipherable characters.

Number Three: The games were rated on how well they compared to similar genre offerings on the handheld, so a game like "FIFA '96" would be scored on the same criteria that "Sensible Soccer" was scored, and not the criteria used for a game in an entirely different genre, like "Sonic the Hedgehog" or "Factory Panic."

Number Four: As always, AC adapter gameplay is much encouraged.

Now, with all of that stuff out of the way, who is ready to take things to the next level? You know, as long as the six Double-A batteries can make it, anyway...

Number 50
“Arena: Maze of Death”
Released: 1996
Developer: Eden Entertainment Software
Publisher: Sega

If I am not mistaken, “Arena” was one of the last games Sega published for the handheld before they gave up on supporting the platform. While the game definitely has some issues with its controls, it’s pretty hard to not appreciate what it sets out to do; it’s basically “Escape from New York” in portable form, with gameplay mechanics lifted right out of “Syndicate.”

An isometric action game, you commandeer a generic video game tough guy named “Freelander,” who is waging a one-man jihad against an evil, tyrannical corporation (named, ho-ho-ho, “ABC”) by doing what generic video game tough guys do best; picking up rocket launchers conveniently just laying around and grenading the holy hell out of indistinguishable drones in warehouses and abandoned railroad stations.

Yeah, “Arena” ain’t winning any awards for creativity, but it does what it does fairly well. The graphics are solid and the audio is slightly above average, and the level layout is really well-done. The action, while not as good as some of its genre contemporaries, is still respectable and its pretty much impossible to hate on any game that steals its grand finale from the Roddy Piper classic “They Live.” Really, the big Achilles’ Heel for this one is its sticky controls -- had the developers made movement a bit more fluid and manageable, this one definitely would have ranked a lot higher on the countdown.

Number 49
“Predator 2”
Released: 1992
Developer: Teeny Weeny Games
Publisher: Arena

Speaking of isometric action titles, here’s another fairly decent one for the Game Gear -- and it’s also probably the only game released on the system featuring an exposed human spinal cord on its front cover.

“Predator 2” on the GG is a really faithful adaptation of the Sega Master System port, which itself was a really good iteration of the Genesis title of the same name. The game follows the plot of the movie quite closely, as you hop in the shoes of Danny Glover to gun down a million bajillion drug runners in the slums and on top of buildings while also avoiding being caught in the crosshairs of a certain dreadlocked, skull-collecting crab-monster warrior from outer space.

The premise is very simple: each stage has a timer, and a finite number of hostages you must rescue to proceed to the next level. The action here is fast and furious, at times feeling like an even more intense version of “Narc” than the already hectic arcade original! Alas, as with most isometric themed games, the big problem here are the controls; as with “Arena,” they are a bit slippery and unresponsive, which is definitely not something you want when you have 15 enemies onscreen shooting at you. Still, it’s a fun game and something probably worth ROMing at least once, especially if you are a fan of the underrated 1990 film (and if you aren’t, I pity you a plenty.)

Number 48:
“Coca-Cola Kid”
Released: 1994
Developer: Aspect Co.
Publisher: Sega

This Japan-only release features some of the most egregious product placement in the annals of video gaming, making such shameless offerings as “Yo! Noid” and “Cool Spot” look like anti-consumerism screeds by comparison. That said, despite its pimping and pandering for a certain American soft drink brand, "Coca-Cola Kid" is actually a surprisingly competent little platformer, with good visuals, better than average music and some unexpectedly well-designed levels.

Playing the eponymous mascot, you travel across cityscapes, forests and about 14 different warehouse levels, collecting power-ups and kicking the living dog-shit out of everything that breathes. The animations here are really nice, and for a handheld game from the mid-90s, you actually have a lot of different moves you can pull off.

Towards the latter half of the game, the stages do get a little bit too predictable, and there is a little bit of uneasiness with a few platforming segments. That said, the combination of “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Mega Man” style gameplay -- with even a little bit of “Ninja Gaiden” thrown into the mix -- definitely makes for a memorable title. And if that’s not enough for you? For some inexplicable reason, the final boss is a levitating, half-naked dominatrix … no doubt possessed by the inferiority of Pepsi Crystal, I assume.

Number 47:
"Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin"
Released: 1992
Developer: B.I.T.S.
Publisher: Flying Edge

"The Amazing Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin" on the Sega Genesis remains my all-time favorite Spider-Man game (although it's definitely arguable that the souped-up version on the Sega CD is even better, but I'm going into this thing with my nostalgia lens on, not my objective reporter glasses.) As such, this Game Gear port is actually pretty damned impressive, although it certainly has a few faults and foibles.

As in the Genny game, in this one you commandeer Peter Parker as he traverses his way across New York, beating up muggers and kung-fu-ing costumed super-villains before Kingpin blows up the whole fucking island with some neutron bomb or something. Just like in the brilliant home console game, you have to take pictures of bad guys for money, which allows you to purchase more web fluid, which you will definitely need if you even THINK about finishing the second level.

While it is admirable just how much from the Genesis game was stuffed into this shrunken-down port, there is a big, big problem keeping the game from begin truly amazing: the controls. I'm not really sure what happened, but both web slinging and wall crawling seems next to broken at some points, and since that's such a huge component of the gameplay, expect to be miffed a plenty throughout the experience. Alas, as long as you can work your way around the controls (a tall order, I know), you will find yourself a really content-heavy portable platformer that, if not precisely great, is at least technically impressive.

Number 46:
"Putt & Putter"
Released: 1991
Developer: SIMS Co.
Publisher: Sega

There were a ton of "realistic" golf games on the Game Gear, but to be honest with you, they all pretty much sucked. Despite having one of the worst names of any title on the handheld, "Putt & Putter" is actually a really fun little diversion, and easily the best golfing title -- arcade, or simulation -- on Sega's underrated platform.

Visually, the game takes an isometric approach, so at first glance, it kind of resembles "Marble Madness." Thankfully, this game has much more manageable controls, and the 18 courses are very distinct, with some pretty tricky obstacles. The putting mechanics are very intuitive, and the physics in this one are actually pretty damn astounding for a game released in the early '90s. And if that wasn't enough? The game even includes a two-player mode, which produces a very unique competitive golf experience that I don't think I have seen any game since really replicate.

It's a fun game to be sure, but in terms of replay value, there's not much. Once you figure out the angles on the courses, it's really easy to blaze through the game, and as much madcap fun as the two-player mode is, it's not really enough to surmount the shortfalls of the single-player experience. Still, it's definitely an inventive title, and something probably worth at least one or two play-throughs.

Number 44 (tie):
"Woody Pop" and "Devilish"
Released: 1991
Developer: Sega, Genki
Publisher: Sega, Hot-B

At some point, you've probably played "Breakout", or one of its countless variations. While arguably the most popular "ball and paddle" series, "Arkanoid," never made its way to the Game Gear, we still ended up with two really fun games within that genre -- "Woody Pop" and "Devilish."

Assuming you can make your way past the absolutely atrocious title, "Woody Pop" is a very fun little title that, despite its cutesy dressings, actually packs quite the challenge. As in "Arkanoid" and its ilk, you take control of a paddle (which, in this case, is an anthropomorphic log who smiles or frowns depending upon your performance) and bust myriad bricks and blocks across a multitude of stages. The power-ups in this one are very inventive, including some items that change the attributes of the ball (including one that turns it into a super-powerful fireball) and some assist-characters (including a gaggle of helper robots who march all over the playing field like wind-up toys.)

"Devilish," on the other hand, is quite a bit easier, despite having the much more hardcore horror theme. Outside of the atypically demonic trappings (the whole game takes place in Hell, if you can imagine that), the game's most unique element is that it allows you to change the properties of the paddle at wall, so you can split it into three smaller boards or even reconfigure it into an "alligator mouth" for angled shots. Not only is it a rock-solid port of the Genesis original, I actually prefer this version to the home console iteration -- primarily, because we don't have to deal with that annoying "skull zipper" loading screen here.

Number 43:
"Robocop vs. the Terminator"
Released: 1993
Developer: NMS Software
Publisher: Virgin Games

The super-gory version of "Robocop vs. the Terminator" on the Genesis has become something of a cult hit over the last few years, and for good reason. Not only does it pit two of the most beloved cybernetic protagonists in film history up against one another in a blood-and-guts-drenched battle for robo-supremacy, it's also a damned outstanding action-platformer in its own right.

This shrunken down port is actually remarkably faithful to the home console version, even if it does sacrifice a few things visually and aurally along the way. As with its console big brother, you fill the big, metallic boots of Alex Murphy, embarking upon a literal one man war against Molotov cocktail tossing degenerates in old Detroit Town, with each level concluding with an impressive boss fight against some type of mechanical menace from both film franchises.

Granted, the stages aren't as nuanced as they are in the console version, and the controls aren't quite as smooth, but on the whole, this is a rather bang-up adaptation. And unlike the bone-dry SNES version, this one doesn't skimp out on the red stuff -- in fact, this has to be the absolute bloodiest game on the handheld, bar-none!

Number 42:
Released: 1991
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega

On a superficial level, "Pengo" isn't really all that impressive. With its super unrefined sprites, this PAL and Japan-exclusive looks more like pre "Mrs. Pac-Man" arcade game than a Game Gear offering, and at first glance, the gameplay itself looks quite rudimentary and, dare I say it, even kind of boring.

Alas, something unexpected happens when you actually start playing "Pengo." It doesn't take long before you realize this is actually an ingenious little puzzler, serving as not only one of the handheld's most addictive genre titles, but one of its most challenging as well.

The premise behind "Pengo" is deceptively simple. Playing as the eponymous character (a ruby red penguin, naturally) you have to use your wits and evasion skills to avoid being captured by these little orange fellas with curling brooms. Again, it sounds almost too simplistic, until the number of ice blocks start dwindling down; that's when this turns into one of the most surprisingly nerve-racking games on the handheld. It may not be much visually, but in terms of pure old school charm and challenge, there are not many games on the system that can go flipper to flipper with "Pengo."

Number 41:
"Pop Breaker"
Released: 1991
Developer: Microcabin
Publisher: Microcabin

Every now and then, you play a game with a certain mechanic that, while seemingly simple and insignificant, completely transforms what would have been a good-but-not-great gaming experience into something truly memorable.

I think it's safe to lump the Japan-only release "Pop Breaker" in with such titles as "Psi-Ops" and "Breakdown" as a game that was MADE by a single, unorthodox design decision. On the surface, "Pop Breaker" -- basically, a "Bomberman" variation, sans the bombs and way more shooting stuff -- looks just like any other "kill-em-up" handheld title. That is, until you actually start hitting the fire button, and realize that your attacks pull either to the left or the right, instead of just flying straight out of your avatar in a direct line.

I don't think I have ever played a game of any variety that employed such a hook.  Not only does the design call make the game more realistic, it definitely amps up the challenge, turning a decent top-down puzzle/shooter into one of the most ingenious genre games to be found on the Game Gear (and, if you simply must, yes, you can opt for a center-fire option, you crybaby.) It may not be the most impressive audio-visual experience, but if you are looking for something you've likely never experienced as a gamer before, then "Pop Breaker" is an import title you definitely need to get your hands on.

                               THANK YOU, SEGA


  1. Pretty sweet list. I've got a few new games on my to get list for the ol Game Gear.

  2. Awesome list, but looks like you forgot to mention Shinobi II - The Silent Fury


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