Sunday, August 23, 2015

The 50 Greatest Sega Game Gear Games Ever! (Part Four 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 20:
"Defenders of Oasis"
Released: 1992
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega of Japan

While the Game Boy may have had a better selection of traditional JRPGs, there is no denying that the Game Gear had some pretty outstanding genre titles of its own. Case in point? The supremely underrated "Defenders of Oasis," a top-notch role playing game with one of the handheld's more engrossing narratives.

The Arabian motif is certainly a welcome change of pace from the eight-billion Medieval-themed RPGs out there, and the visuals in "Defenders" are very, very nice. Clearly inspired by works like "Aladdin" and "Sinbad," Sega really crafted a great story to complement the solid gameplay, as well.

Frankly, there is nothing that "Defenders of Oasis" does that you haven't already seen in earlier games (save, of course, for the Mediterranean dressings.) That said, pretty much everything the game sets out to do, it does extremely well. It's a fun, challenging game with good music and fleshed out characters, and that auto-save feature? My goodness, is that ever the blessing heading into unexpected fights against scorpion monsters...

Number 19:
"Baku Baku Animal"
Released: 1996
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Minato Giken

"Baku Baku" was one of my favorite games on the Saturn, and its miniaturized Game Gear iteration is every bit as addictive and satisfying.

This game plays fairly similarly to "Pac-Attack," albeit with a number of variables. Basically, what you're doing is trying to position little blocks of foods (a bone, a carrot, some bamboo and a banana) so that they intersect with their corresponding animal, which is also represented in block form (the monkey is DEFINITELY my favorite.) It sounds simple, but when the gameplay gets fast and frantic, it actually turns into quite the harrowing experience.

The game includes a pretty decent story mode, but the meat and potatoes here comes in the form of a tremendous two-player mode. There really aren't that many outstanding multiplayer games on the handheld, but this is certainly a welcome aberration; solo or against a buddy, "Baku Baku Animal" is guilty pleasure fun, through and through.

Number 18:
"Streets of Rage 2"
Released: 1993
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Japan System House

You really have to give the developer credit on this one. Not only does this game faithfully recreate one of the most beloved Sega Genesis offerings of all-time, it manages to do so without hardly sacrificing ANY of the elements from the home console version!

Although the lack of a third face-button makes offensive a little more frustrating, the beat 'em up gameplay here is nonetheless fantastic. Sure, the sprites are a little less defined, but the core mechanics remain virtually unchanged. And these levels really aren't THAT condensed for the platform -- considering the technological limitations the developer was working with, this is probably about as authentic a recreation of the home console game we could have expected at the time.

Of course, the music is fantastic and the boss fights are very memorable. The smaller screen, unfortunately, lends itself to a lot more "muggings" than in the Genesis version, but that just means you have to diversify your attacks to incorporate more jumping maneuvers (or, better yet, more smacking generic goons half to death with ranged metal pipe strikes.) Then, there's the game's biggest selling point -- co-op play! Naturally, considering the length of the game, that would also necessitate two A.C. adapters for you and your buddy to finish it, but trust me -- considering the bad-guy pummeling, garbage-eating, child-endangering two-player fun this game entails, it is well worth the increased wattage.

Number 17:
"Vampire: Master of Darkness"
Released: 1993 
Publisher: Sega
Developer: SIMS

They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery. If that's truly the case, the guys at Konami ought to be extremely flattered by "Vampire: Master of Darkness," if not even a bit jealous, seeing as how it manages to outdo "Castlevania" in some respects.

In addition to having one of the bossest box art covers in the pantheon of Game Gear offerings, this excellent Sega Master System port holds the distinction of being the finest Simon Belmont rip-off ever. While the core gameplay mechanics are flat out stolen from the classic Konami horror series -- complete with the same primary/secondary weapon set-up and virtually identical controls -- "Master of Darkness" does manage to strike gold with a few ideas of its own. Although clearly inspired by "Castlevania," the level design throws more than a few curve balls at you, especially in the second level's "haunted" mansion. Furthermore, the boss fights are really fun, and since you don't have to worry about collecting hearts to "power" your weapon, there's a whole lot more emphasis on action than in, say, "Bloodlines" on the Genesis.

While the linear gameplay doesn't allow for much exploration, the levels themselves are quite large. Odds are, this one will take you at least an hour to complete, which is way longer than most platform-action games on the handheld. And take heed, Konami -- this is how you're supposed to implement stair climbing controls into a 2D game!

Number 16:
"Mega Man"
Released: 1995
Publisher: U.S. Gold
Developer: Freestyle

Yes, there was a "Mega Man" game released for the "Game Gear." Although perplexingly under-publicized by both Capcom and Sega, I can assure you this is a classic "Mega" offering, through and through.

While Capcom does get licensing credits, the game itself was not developed or published by the company. Instead, it was designed by Freestyle and released by U.S. Gold, the same fellas responsible for the Genesis cult classic "Flashback." Combining elements of the fourth and fifth "Mega Man" games on the NES, the title looks every bit as crisp and colorful as its Nintendo inspiration, and the controls are just as slick and polished.

Although there are only four levels to choose from, Dr. Wily's castle is triple-sized, so basically, it's a seven-stage game. All of the tried-and-true classic "Mega Man" elements are on full display here, including the charged shot and the endlessly fun "power slide." And for those of you wondering if the developers were going to wimp out on us, rest assured this game pulls absolutely no punches: in fact, it might just be even harder than the infamously difficult games on the NES! Action-platformer fans definitely need to give this one a look-see -- and that's doubly true if you're looking for a side scroller to kick your ass for awhile.

Number 15:
"True Lies"
Released: 1995
Publisher: Beam Software
Developer: Acclaim Entertainment

"True Lies" was a damned impressive top-down action game on the Genesis and SNES, but as a Game Gear offering, I think it might be even BETTER.

Based on the 1994 James Cameron flick, "True Lies" is a traditional God's Eye View shoot 'em up, albeit one of the more cerebral from the era. This ain't no "Ikari Warriors," folks, as the level lay-out consists primarily of enclosed spaces ... meaning, you're going to have some incredibly hectic firefights throughout the game.

The visuals are top-notch and the strategic gameplay is very, very satisfying. Also notable is the "feel" of the gunplay; every time you rattle off a shot and register a hit, you just sense it vibrating through the controls -- it's hard to explain, but somehow, the developers of the title were able to convey an extraordinary sense of weight in this one. Even the grotesque sight of a fully-pixelized Tom Arnold can't detract from the fun in "True Lies" -- if you fancy yourself a good shooter, you definitely need to get your paws on this cartridge.

Number 14:
"Aerial Assault"
Released: 1992
Publisher: Sanritsu
Developer: Sega

While it can certainly be argued that the Game Boy bested the Game Gear when it came to traditional platformers and role playing games, there's no denying Sega's handheld had the better SHMUP library. "Aerial Assault," a horizontally-scrolling shoot-em-up, is definitely one of the best of the best when it comes to arcade twitch action on the handheld.

A port of the 1990 Sega Master System game, the Game Gear version actually adds content instead of subtract it, complete with an all-new opening level set inside a cityscape. With about a half dozen fairly lengthy levels -- complete with some hellacious boss fights -- "Aerial Assault" may not make for a long-term investment, but there is no denying the insane, old-school short-burst arcade fun provided by the title while it lasts.

This is a rough and tough shooter, with a slowed down pace that actually makes the gameplay even more challenging. You're going to need split-second reflexes to make your way through this one, and even bullet-hell-weaned nu-school SHMUP enthusiasts might be taken aback by how hard some of the stages are. Thankfully, you get a ton of weapons and bombs to tinker around with, and really putting this one over the top? The inclusion of a rare two-player mode, which makes this one of the few hardcore action games on the console you can play alongside a buddy.

Number 13:
"Halley Wars"
Released: 1991
Publisher: Sega
Developer: ITL

I'm a sucker for old-school SHMUPs, and this vertically-scrolling shooter from Taito is definitely one of the finest handheld genre offerings of the 1990s. While rather simplistic in visuals and core mechanics, the level design here is really brilliant, and the constant hot and heavy action -- coupled with some truly awesome boss battles -- makes this a title worth returning to time and time again.

It's a rather short game, but while it lasts, it's definitely a hoot. With gameplay residing somewhere between "Galaga" and "Gunnac," you will want to play through "Halley Wars," several times, monkeying around with all of the title's difficulty and auto-fire settings. While even on the hardest difficulty setting its not that difficult, its nonetheless a game that forces you to play it smart -- needless to say, just having a mastery of twitch gameplay ain't going to save your ass in this one. 

Ultimately, its the stage design that really puts "Halley Wars" over the top and distinguishes it from the deluge of other SHMUPs on the Game Gear. With deadly infrastructure common, that means you often have to do battle in closed-in spaces and extremely tight corridors -- and if dodging enemy fire while avoiding ship-crushing meteors wasn't enough, you also have to be on the lookout for meteor blasts, too! If you are a fan of classic arcade gaming, you are going to adore "Halley Wars" -- and if you're one of them new-school "Halo" kids looking to see what made the Game Gear and its 128kB gameplay so awesome, this is about as fine a starting point as any. 

Number 12:
"FIFA Soccer '96"
Released: 1995
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Black Pearl Software

On a platform glutted with quality soccer games, "FIFA '96" stands out as perhaps the most feature-laden of 'em all. Modern gamers will be absolutely astonished by the content offered by this game; not only do you get a wealth of exhibition, tournament and playoff modes, you get more than ONE HUNDRED global teams to choose from.

That's right, we're not just meddling with national teams here. The Premiere League, the Bundesliga, La Liga -- hell, even the inaugural Major League Soccer squads, plus a few Mexican Primara Division teams -- are all readily available. There are a ton of managerial tweaks at your disposal as well, making this far and away the most comprehensive executive footy sim on the handheld.

Of course, how good can a soccer game be if its extensive coaching mode doesn't come equipped with a fantastic on-screen product, too? Thankfully, "FIFA '96" is a damned fine football game all the way around, with solid defensive controls, snap-your-fingers-simple offensive mechanics and some of the best goaltending to be found in ANY soccer game from the era. The slower pace and quasi-isometric camera may take a while to get used to, but once you get accustomed to them? Yeah, you will be playing this one for a long time to come.

Number 11:
"NHL Hockey"
Released: 1995
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: High Score Productions, Realtime Associates

By now, we should all be aware of my adulation for "NHL '94." In fact, I've gone on record several times calling the Sega CD version of the seminal EA sports classic my all-time favorite video game. "NHL Hockey" on the Sega Game Gear is pretty much the closest we'll ever get to a portable version of that iconic title -- granted, it doesn't really match the lofty greatness of the Genesis original, but considering the tech limitations, this is nonetheless a damned impressive title.

First, the bad. Since the Game Gear has only two face buttons, that means the core gameplay had to sacrifice some of the defensive controls. While playing aggressively on the Genesis and Sega CD versions was a snap, defending the puck (and especially thwarting opposing players on breakaways) is way, way harder than it should've been. Secondly, the offensive controls, while not suffering as much as the defensive controls, are definitely watered down, with the finesse virtual skating needed for dekes and wraparounds pretty much out of the question.

That said, the game is still a hoot and a half to play. While it doesn't have a full season mode a'la "NHL '95," you do get virtually every game mode included in "NHL '94," including a robust playoffs mode. Furthermore, all of the NHL teams and players are included, and the controls (although limited to an understandable degree) remain silky smooth, especially when it comes to goaltending. It may not be the dream hockey game we all wanted on the Game Gear, but on its own merits, its nonetheless one of the finest handheld sports games of the 1990s -- and far and away the best hockey game to be found on ANY portable unit up until the heyday of the PSP.



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