Sunday, August 16, 2015

The 50 Greatest Sega Game Gear Games Ever! (Part Three 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 30:
Released: 1994
Developer: Namco 
Publisher: Namco

There were scores of top-notch puzzle games on the Game Gear, and this has to be one of the more underappreciated. Who'd thunk "Pac-Man" and "Tetris" would've gelled together this well, anyway?

"Pac-Attack" takes a very novel approach to the old "falling brick" gameplay mechanic. This time around, you're dropping little ghost guys on the playing field, along with pieces of the traditional "Pac-Man" maze. If you line up three ghosts of the same hue together, they go into flashy-blue mode, which allows you to drop a little "Pac-Man" icon on the screen. The idea, obviously, is to gobble up as many ghosts as possible, which means you have to do a little bit more strategizing to lock up the huge combos than you would a game like "Tetris 2" or "Dr. Mario."

The game has a standard time-trial mode, a special puzzle challenge mode and even a two-player set-up. The visuals are good, and the music is suitably catchy. While the later Game Boy Color upgrade included a full-fledged port of the classic arcade game, this one "just" includes the Pac-Attack puzzler ... which all things considered, is still a pretty damn good little package in its own right.

Number 28 (tie):
"Puyo Puyo 2" and "Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine"
Released: 1994, 1993
Developer: Compile, Compile
Publisher: Compile, Sega

For all intents and purposes, these are the same two games, albeit with quite a number of audiovisual differences.

In the Japan-only released "Puyo Puyo 2," you are given a slew of game modes to slog through, including a very fun "story mode" that has you battling lambs, pandas and "Dragon Warrior" slimes for jelly-bean alignment-dropping supremacy. The gameplay, as you would expect, is just fantastic, and the visuals -- while relatively simplistic -- are well-defined. Oh, and the music? It is aggravatingly catchy.

"Mean Bean Machine" is basically a beta of "Puyo Puyo 2," only with all of the original characters replaced with bad guys from the beloved "Sonic" franchise. The game modes are pretty comparable, although I would give a slight audiovisual nod to Robotnik's game. No matter which version of the game you pick up, however, you're getting a super fun, super addictive competitive puzzling experience either way. Just be sure your unit has plenty of juice -- some of these "matches" can go on for upwards of half an hour!

Number 27:
"World Series Baseball '95"
Released: 1994
Developer: Blue Sky Software
Publisher: Sega

There were a ton of baseball games on the Game Gear, but none were as comprehensively awesome as this one. With excellent graphics, solid batting and pitching controls and a damned impressive season mode, this is definitely one of the finest sports simulations to be found on the console.

Not only does this game have the full MLB license (that means you're not forced to play as "The New York Americans" or "The Boston Crimsons") it even features all of the real-life diamond stars from the strike-shortened 1994 season. Along with a dandy exhibition mode and some robust-for-the-time player editing features,you get an awesome "pennant chase mode," that allows you to play as many as 162 games en route to the World Series playoffs.

This is pretty much the only baseball game on the unit that got everything right, control-wise. The batting is fun and simple, while the pitching, although instantly accessible, also has some nuance to it. Really, the big thing the game has going for it are the excellent outfield controls, which basically every other baseball game on the system could never nail down. All in all, this is just a top-notch offering -- if you are a hardcore baseball fan, you definitely owe it to yourself to give this one a try.

Number 26:
"Galaga '91"
Released: 1991
Developer: Namco
Publisher: Namco

It's more or less a port of "Galaga '88," but this Japan-only release is nonetheless a top-tier SHMUP on a handheld unit that had gobs of them.

Of course, it's not as intense as the arcade original (or the awesome version PC Engine owners got), but there's no denying the simple (although challenging) appeal of this one. Fundamentally, the core gameplay here is the same as it was in 1981, albeit with some definite graphical upgrades and a few new tricky adversaries. Admittedly, the sprites themselves aren't much to write home about, but the backgrounds are very vivid -- especially in some of the latter stages.

"Galaga '91," as you'd imagine, is all about the gameplay. It doesn't inundate you with needless game modes or too many bells and whistles, it just gives you solid, hard-to-put-down, instant-gratification old-school shoot-em-up action. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, per se, but it DOES provide one hell of an arcade blast-a-thon experience.

Number 25:
"Tempo, Jr."
Released: 1995
Developer: SIMS
Publisher: Sega

Talk about obscure; this is the "kidified" version of a mascot game on the 32X -- and somehow, it turned into one of the absolute best platformers on the Game Gear!

While "Tempo" -- much like late-life-cycle Genesis creations "Vector Man" and "The Ooze" -- never really became the iconic characters Sega wanted him to be, his first and only foray on the Game Gear is still quite memorable. Imagine, if you will, a "Jet Set Radio Future" platformer on the Genesis, and that's PRECISELY what you're dealing with here.

As a standalone platformer, it's very solid. The graphics are among the absolute best on the handheld, and the character sprites may very well be the most beautiful on the system. The animations, for sure, are the best you'll see on the Game Gear -- there's no denying this is an aesthetically captivating title. Gameplay-wise, the controls are smooth and the levels are very, very large, lending themselves to a lot of exploration. It's not very challenging, but man, does it feel nice roaming through the stages. The only thing I don't like about "Tempo, Jr." is that stupid musical mini-game after every level. That boring "Simon" inspired waste of ROM not withstanding, this is a downright stellar offering from the House Sonic Built -- you really have to wonder why this one never became more popular, no?

Number 24:
"Dynamite Headdy"
Released: 1994
Developer: Minato Giken
Publisher: Sega

You really can't go wrong with Treasure, and this shrunken down version of the cult Genesis platformer (which was actually handled a different developer) stays remarkably faithful to its console inspiration.

The levels are condensed, but there are very few things that didn't make the translation to the Game Gear. The stages all look mighty damn fine, and all of the boss fights from the original are likewise featured in this one. Graphically, it's a very handsome title, and the music is downright superb.

Where "Dynamite Headdy" truly shines, of course, is the gameplay. The head-launching (and borrowing) mechanic definitely makes this feel like anything other than your run-of-the-mill platformer, and some of the enemies are truly inspired. Each level feels unique and distinct, and the controls are spot-on. The only major drawback is that it's short -- probably less than an hour long for even novice gamers. Alas, despite its brevity, this is still a fantastic little outing; if you loved the home console version, you will certainly get a kick out of its portable predecessor.

Number 23:
"Ristar the Shooting Star"
Released: 1995
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega

Here's yet another handheld conversion that does a mighty impressive job of replicating its Genesis source material. In fact, there's so little from the home console version that didn't get excised that I just have to stand in awe before the developers.

For those unfamiliar with "Ristar," he's basically what happens when you merge "Sonic" with that dude from "Bionic Commando." In the Game Gear port, much like the Genesis original, you'll have to use the titular character's "grasp" attack to not only thwart enemies, but work your way through various platforming sequences. It's a really novel approach for the genre, and the silky smooth control definitely make it a hoot from start to finish.

There is a lot of content in "Ristar," so you'll probably want to keep the AC adapter handy. It takes some time to get the movement down, and a few of the latter levels can be a bit frustrating, but overall? With such great graphics and well-designed stages, it's pretty hard to not enjoy everything Ristar throws at you. Oh, and one last thing -- the music in this game is freaking incredible.

Number 21 (tie):
"Shining Force Gaiden" and "Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya"
Released: 1992, 1993
Developer: Sonic! Software Planning, Software Planning
Publisher: Sega, Sega

It's really hard to pick between the first two "Shining Force" games on the Game Gear. Both have great stories and solid strategy-RPG combat, so ultimately, I had to call it a tie.

Strangely enough, although three "Shining Force" games were made, only one -- "The Sword of Hajya," which is the second in the Game Gear trilogy -- was ever ported to the North American market. Trust me, working out the chronology of these damn games is a major pain -- just try and overlook whether the games are supposed to be prequels or sequels to the Genesis games, and just enjoy them for what they are -- really, really awesome tactical RPGs.

I think "Sword of Hajya" has a bit more meat to it in terms of gameplay, but I think I dig the story in "Gaiden" more. Regardless, both games are tremendous turn-based-strategy offerings, with rich stories and exquisite combat. Some of the battles in this game can get incredibly epic; if you're a Game Gear owner looking for a pair of games that will keep you occupied for weeks and weeks, then you definitely need to give these two a try. And lastly: both games, believe it or not, we're remade for the Sega CD -- and yeah, that game was pretty awesome, too!


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