Monday, August 31, 2015

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


HEY! LOOKING FOR THE REST OF THE COUNTDOWN?
PART ONE IS RIGHT HERE.
PART TWO IS RIGHT HERE..
PART THREE IS RIGHT HERE.
PART FOUR IS RIGHT HERE.
PART FIVE IS RIGHT HERE.

By: Jimbo X
JimboXAmerican@gmail.com
@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 eight Double-A batteries can make it, anyway...

Number 10:
"Phantasy Star Gaiden"
Released: 1992
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Japan System Supply


In a way, this game sums up why the Game Gear was deemed a "disappointment" stateside. Here, you had a stellar, shrunken-down iteration of what was far and away Sega's most popular (and best) role-playing-game series ... and for some stupid reason, you never release it in the North American market, where the platform was starving for genre offerings?  

Those familiar with the games on the Genesis will feel right at home here, as the controls and combat system are pretty much lifted directly from the second game in the venerable RPG series. The game world in "Phantasy Star Gaiden" is relatively small, but it certainly packs a LOT of adventure within its confined spaces. It may not be a revolutionary dungeon crawler by any stretch of the imagination, but what it sets out to do, it does extraordinarily well.

For an RPG, it's very short, and there are some mystifying game mechanics at play (why in the world would anybody use those stupid torches to light caverns when the amulet you're given at the beginning of the game does the exact same function for free?) However, the story is very solid and leveling-up is an absolute hoot. I may be in the minority here, but I actually kind of enjoyed the smaller scale, too -- being able to trek back home and have your mom tuck you in after slaying monsters and visiting Martian desert colonies and doing battle with lawyer-baiting RoboCop knock-offs all evening certainly has a unique charm missing from most of its genre contemporaries. Similar in spirit to the "Final Fantasy Legend" games on the Game Boy, this is a bite-sized, on-the-go role-playing game well worth spending a weekend or two with.

Number 9:
"Sylvan Tale"
Released: 1995
Publisher: Sega 
Developer: Sega


This game was released late in the Game Gear's life cycle, and it's definitely one of the most impressive games ever made for the platform. Visually and aurally, it's absolutely stunning, and the "Zelda" inspired gameplay is definitely a hoot -- in fact, in some ways, "Sylvan Tale" is a much better handheld action-adventure game than even "Link's Awakening!"

This Japan-only cartridge employs a top-down perspective a'la "Crysis" and "StarTropics." Similar to those games, the objective is to crawl through subterranean fortress after subterranean fortress, doing battle with huge boss monsters who, in exchange for kicking their ass, give you some super-powerful weapon upgrade. Where this game really diverges from your standard "Zelda" clone is that these weapon upgrade effectively transform you into entirely different characters, a'la "Super Mario Bros. 3" and "Kid Chameleon." One upgrade turns you into a nigh-unkillable turtle, another transforms you into a mole with burrowing abilities and another turns you into a merman -- my favorite, though, has to be the upgrade that transforms you into a mouse that runs at super-sonic velocity. Huh, a rodent with hyper-speed abilities ... where do you think they came up with that idea?

This one will take you a couple of hours to tear through, for sure. While it doesn't have as much emphasis on story and character development as "Link's Awakening," it more than makes up for it with satisfying action, twitchy boss fights and puzzles that require more manual dexterity that grey matter. That, and the presentation is just superb, all the way around. With great visuals, top-notch music and super-smooth controls, this is definitely one of the best of its kind on the Game Gear ... and for that matter, 1990s portable gaming altogether.

Number 8:
"GG Aleste"
Released: 1991
Publisher: Compile
Developer: Compile


Compile is a really diverse developer (remember, these are the folks who brought us both the "Puyo Puyo" series and the super-underrated NES masterpiece "The Guardian Legend"), but they will always be best known for their amazing line-up of SHMUPS, such as "Gun-Nac" and the genre-defining "Robo Aleste" titles.

This Japan-only "Aleste" offshoot is everything you could want out of a Game Gear shoot-em-up and then some. With both vertically and horizontally-scrolling levels, "GG Aleste" throws everything at has at you as soon as the first level begins. This, most certainly, is NOT a beginner's SHMUP -- expect to die in this one, early and most certainly often.

There is just so much to love about this game. The backgrounds are very stark and colorful, and the action is downright awe-inspiring considering the hardware limitations (how the Sega Game Gear can handle so many on-screen enemies without any framerate drops whatsoever just boggles the mind.) The music is catchy, the controls are spot-on and with so many different power-ups littering the combat zones, you actually do have to employ a little bit of strategy heading into fire-fights. Oh, and in case you were wondering? The boss-fights in this game are, as you would expect, freaking awesome.


Number 7:
"Royal Stone"
Released: 1995
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega


Now this game is just freaking awesome, in every sense of the word. I suppose the best way to describe it would be a fusion of "Shining Force" and "Phantasy Star," but executed in a way that makes it feel almost like "Fire Emblem." If that doesn't whet your appetite, clearly, you're not an old-school Sega fanatic.

This Japan exclusive is actually the sequel to "Crystal Warriors," a just-sorta-OK turn-based game from early on in the console's lifespan. "Royal Stone," however, takes that formula and amps it up to eleven, with some downright gigantic battles, buttressed by some very engaging one-on-one, traditional JRPG style combat.

There is ample room for exploration and character development, but the huge melees are really the heart and soul of the experience The game uses a genius "earth, wind, fire and water" battle system, which makes strategizing both more simplistic and nuanced at the same time. Think of it as a really, really churched-up version of rock, paper, scissors .. only with way more wizards, gargoyles and man-like crow monsters who slash Roman soldiers to death. With excellent graphics, a terrific soundtrack and super addictive combat -- not to mention some epic battles that go on in excess of half an hour -- this is most definitely an unheralded offering you need to get your mitts on if you're a genre fan.

Number 6:
"Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict"
Released: 1995
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega


This was the third and final "Shining Force" game released on the Game Gear, and it's certainly the grandest of the trilogy. The story is more epic, the characters are more intricate, the combat has more nuances and the battles? Oh, you better believe they are a sight to behold. How so much was able to fit on one 512kB cart, I'll never comprehend.

For starters, this HAS to be the longest game on the handheld. With battles that often drag on for more than half an hour, you're definitely going to need to have the AC adapter on hand, unless you want to have the console die on you right before you take out that last centaur enemy. Secondly, the scale of battles is just absurd; during some skirmishes, you'll have a dozen characters at your disposal, taking on two dozen foes simultaneously. And these aren't open-field contests either, we're talking full-on castle sieges. How big are the levels, you may be wondering? So big that sometimes, you'll have to spend three or four turns just walking towards an enemy before you can go toe-to-toe with them.

Granted, games like these aren't for everybody, but for the genre faithful, "Final Conflict" is about as good as it gets. The story is excellent, the characters are fleshed out, there are tons of classes, the weapons are great and the combat is just about as close to perfect as you can get in a game of its type. Alas, as outstanding as this game was, it somehow never made it to the U.S. That means if you want to play it, you're either going to have to learn some kanji or hit up the emulators for a fan-translated copy. Either way, if you're looking for a hardcore J-Strategy experience, either means of obtaining "Final Conflict" are probably worth it.

Number 5:
"Super Columns"
Released: 1995
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega


Every handheld needs a killer puzzle app, and for the Game Gear, it came way too late.

"Columns" was one of the very first Game Gear titles released, obviously serving as Sega's riposte to "Tetris." While "Columns" is no doubt a fun game, it just didn't have enough originality to make it a truly console-defining puzzler. So, fast forward nearly half a decade after the portable was unveiled, and Sega gives us "Super Columns," a downright incredible puzzling experience that -- had it been released at the console's launch -- may have completely changed the handheld's fortune.

There are quite a few things that make "Super Columns" not only the best puzzle game on the handheld, but in many ways, the best puzzle game EVER from Sega. For one thing, the core gameplay has been amped up, allowing you to not only shift the order of jewels mid-drop, but rotate them horizontally and vertically. It's a small addition, to be sure, but it makes the game all the more enjoyable, and in intense battles, frantic. Secondly, you get a ton of game modes, including a super addictive story-mode and a really unique "flash" mode that'll have even seasoned puzzlers wiping sweat from their brows. Alas, the BIG thing that makes "Super Columns" going out of your way to experience is its incredible two-player battle mode. Had this game and the link-up cable been available on day one of the hardware launch, methinks things could have played out WAY differently than they did. Still, lost opportunities or not, "Super Columns" is just a remarkable genre offering -- be warned, however, that once you start playing it, it will probably be a few hours before you are able to pry yourself loose from your portable.


Number 4:
"Sonic Chaos"
Released: 1993
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Aspect


"Sonic," obviously, is the marquee property for Sega. While the first two "Sonic" games on the portable ranged from very good to ALMOST great, "Sonic Chaos" is indelibly an outstanding title. I've always considered this game -- with its unique worlds and awesome power-ups -- to be about as close as Sega ever got to making a Sonic-themed "Super Mario Bros. 3." And yes, the execution here is every bit as amazing as the concept sounds.

This has to be the best Sonic handheld game ever (or, at the very least, the best Sonic handheld game of the 1990s, for sure.) The visuals are vibrant, the music is top-notch and the controls are just spot-on. There are so many neat little nods to the Genesis games, and you can FINALLY play as Tails. Factor in some really cool power-ups that I don't believe have ever made it into any other Sonic titles -- including a pair of rocket boots and a spring-jump power-up that's nearly as much fun as that wind-up boot in SMB3 -- and you have a game that's just immensely enjoyable from start-to-finish.

Where the game really shines, however, is the level design. There is just so much to explore in each stage, but if you want, you can definitely zip through each of them at breakneck speeds. Really, you'll have to play the game at least twice to soak up all of the details. Overall, it's a fairly short game, but there's no way you're just going to play through it once. It's unquestionably THE Sonic game on the platform -- if you haven't gotten your hands on this one before, you don't know what you're missing.

Number 3:
"Power Strike II"
Released: 1993
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Compile


HANDS-DOWN the best SHMUP on the Game Gear, the best handheld game Compile has ever produced and quite frankly, the best Game Gear game U.S. players ever got their mitts on back in the console's heyday.

First and foremost, this game does NOT fuck around with the difficulty. The first stage in the game is about as hard as the final level in most other Game Gear SHMUPS, and even veteran genre fans will likely get wasted in mere seconds on the first two or three playthroughs. The super-challenging gameplay, of course, is complemented by some absolutely stellar visuals, outstanding music and unbelievably crisp animations. How Compile was able to make a game THIS fast on the platform is utterly mind-boggling.

The core gameplay here is just remarkable. Everything feels smooth and the controls are just impeccable. It's hard, no doubt, but its also fair, and as you'd expect from a Compile game, power-ups and defense-boosting items are plentiful. At the beginning of the game, you are asked to select from a few different weapon types, which means you will have to play through the game at least five or six times to truly experience everything "Power Strike II" has to offer (oh, and if you pick the rotating shield weapon, you are such a pussy.) The replay value here is off-the charts, and so is the action; for hardcore genre fans, this title alone justifies the Game Gear's existence.

Number 2:
"Sensible Soccer: European Champions"
Released: 1993
Developer: Eurocom
Publisher: Sony Imagesoft


Technologically, this is a mesmerizing title. Not only does it feature an astounding array of game modes (including a dazzling number of teams and the best micro-management simulation of ANY handheld sports game from the 1990s), visually, it's almost identical to the home console versions, with core gameplay that's nearly indistinguishable from the SNES and Mega Drive iterations.

The "Sensible Soccer" series has always put gameplay first, and this Game Gear port is certainly no exception. While the minimal graphics are off-putting at first, as soon as you start batting the ball around you will realize just how genius the core gameplay is. The controls are about as perfect as you could imagine the controls in a footy game being, making offensive and defensive play not only fun and accessible, but extraordinarily deep and strategic, too.

This is definitely a hard game to put down. With so many options and insanely enjoyable (and addictive) gameplay, this is the undisputed champion of Game Gear sports titles -- and with that in mind, it might just be the absolute best handheld sports game ever developed. (An interesting aside: did you know the same guys who made this game also made those old Uncle Fester arcade units that literally shocked the shit out of you? Talk about portfolio diversification, no?

...and the number one Sega Game Gear game EVER is...

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Number 1:
"Gunstar Heroes"
Released: 1993
Developer: M2
Publisher: Sega


This is far and away the most impressive title on the Sega Game Gear. What M2 did here is nothing less than a miracle of game design -- how they were able to put AS much "Gunstar" awesomeness -- complete with the near-CPU-crashing explosion effects -- in this miniature package is utterly astounding.

Very, very little was excised in this port, although there are some notable exclusions -- primarily, the "dice" game from Black's level and the multiplayer mode. Had those been included, this game would have no doubt been a nearly perfect offering -- or at least, AS perfect as a Game Gear game could have been.

Alas, you do get an absolute TON of stuff to love in the GG version. As stated before, the graphics and audio are tremendous, and the core gameplay feels impossibly close to the Genny version. Not only do you get all of the beloved boss fights from the home console game, you even get a couple of neat Game Gear only bonuses, included an all new level on a jetpack (complete with an awesome "propulsion" mechanic that you'll just have to experience for yourself) and even the ability to RIDE some of the walker 'bots in the latter half of the game! At the end of the day, this potent portable is every bit as energetic, action-packed and challenging as its highly touted Genesis big brother. With controls so smooth, presentation this nice and gameplay this satisfying, there is NO denying that this is the absolute greatest Sega Game Gear cartridge ever.

Which, of course, begs the oh-so-painful question (which, in a way, summarizes the tragedy of the Game Gear as a whole) -- just why in the fuck didn't Sega port this thing outside of Japan?

THANK YOU, SEGA
FOR GIVING US THE BEST TWENTY MINUTES IN THE HISTORY OF VIDEO GAMING

3 comments:

  1. What a great article, nice detail on all the titles you are obviously passionate about games. You should emulate increasingly obscure handhelds and review the best and worst they have to offer. Game gear was awesome though

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  2. Great list, with some forgotten gems...but a lot of them are missing: Judge Dredd and Earthworm Jim (that worth Ristar), Power Rangers 1 & 2 (a lot bigger than Mortal Kombat 2), Ecco: tides of time, Jungle Strike, Garfield (and his puzzles...), Daffy Duck in Hollywood...And the Shinobi's (that allows you to open different places depending of the ninja you're using!!!)

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