Thoughts on the History of SEGA, Part 09

Welcome back, friends!  We’re still working through the history of SEGA as we start our work-week.  Today, we’re going to take a small moment to look at the hand-held systems that SEGA produced.

With the success of Nintendo’s Game Boy, the people at SEGA reasoned that gamers would purchase a hand-held system that was, really, better than the Game Boy in nearly every conceivable way.  Production on what would later be known as the Game Gear began in ‘Eighty-Nine by essentially taking the old Master System specs and retooling them a little.  The result was a full-color, stereo sound (through headphones) portable gaming system.  In the technical side, it really was better than the Game Boy, but it didn’t overtake the competitor like the heads at SEGA had hoped.

SEGA Game Gear

For one thing, it was introduced after the Game Boy had already staked out a sizeable chunk of the market.  Secondly, third-party support was rather poor.  Thirdly, perhaps one of the most oft-mentioned complaints—the battery life.  Six AA batteries provided just around three hours’ worth of use, and it wasn’t exactly feasible for most kids to beg new batteries from their parents every day.

One good thing was that, due to the hardware being essentially re-worked Master System hardware, companies could convert their Master System games over for use with the Game Gear.  That was a great idea—but by that time, the Master Drive had been long since discontinued in North America and Japans, so that left Europe.

That’s not to say that the Game Gear was without a few tricks up its sleeves.  The accessories broadened the appeal of the system for gamers.  For example, you have the T.V. Tuner which, as can be inferred from the name, was a way to watch television on your Game Gear.  What amounted to a television antenna was plugged into the cartridge slot, and you could watch any channel you could pick up, which was quite a lot back then.  You also had the Master Gear Converter, which was a way to play Master Gear games on the Game Gear.  It was actually a pretty good set-up, with surprisingly few games being incompatible.  Still, everything it offered wasn’t enough to let SEGA topple Nintendo in the hand-held market.

SEGA Mega Jet

The next hand-held system is one most gamers probably haven’t heard of.  Released in ‘Ninety-Two for use on Japan Airlines flights, the Mega Jet could be rented.  The unit plugged into the arm rest, which housed a small television screen, so the unit itself functioned almost like a “regular” video game controller.

Four games were available along with the unit, but it accepted regular Mega Drive games, so passengers could bring their own cartridges with them to use.  A variation was sold in Japanese department stores as a portable Mega Drive, available in limited quantities.

What makes the Mega Jet more than just an interesting footnote in the history of the company is the next hand held system.

Based on the Mega Jet hardware, the Nomad was released in ‘Ninety-Five, in Japan and North America.  In Japan, it was primarily for use on long flights, similar to its predecessor, while in North America it found its way to store shelves.  Unfortunately (perhaps, depending on one’s point of view) it never appeared in Europe at all.

Its biggest innovation—at least for North American gamers, most of whom obviously didn’t even know of the Mega Jet’s existence—was that it could play Genesis games.  It wasn’t like pretty much every other hand-held system before or since.  It was more likely that a kid could get their parents to get them a Nomad for just that reason, on top of that they wouldn’t have to build another game collection.  That it went for the asking price of a hundred and eighty U.S. dollars, though, meant that some kids had to be shrewd to get their parents to go along with it.

SEGA Nomad

The price was just one strike against the system.  Similar to the Game Gear, even though you plugged six AA batteries into the thing, you only got a few hours’ worth of play-time out of it.  There was an accessory called the PowerBack which replaced the need for batteries with a rechargeable pack, and it extended the usage life of the system by a few hours, though it only solved that one issue.

There was also the visual problem.  While the L.C.D. screen was larger than on other hand-held systems of the time, there was still a problem with the graphics blurring in faster-paced scenes—which meant gamers ran into this issue a lot.  Then you had the list of games that were, to whatever degree, incompatible with the system—the most notable of which being the first Sonic the Hedgehog.  One can imagine how well that went over, as popular as that particular title was.

Last and certainly not least, one more strike against it was that the Genesis was being phased out in favor of the Saturn.  This meant shelf-space was being freed from Genesis titles to make room for Saturn titles, which meant fewer games for the Genesis and therefore the Nomad, which in turn meant lesser interest in the Nomad to begin with.  All of these issues combined to make the Nomad positively bomb in the North American market.

While there were talks about another hand-held system, it’s not hard to see why SEGA ultimately shelved that idea.  It was a great idea, and in a lot of ways the systems—the Nomad especially—reached for the unattainable, paving the way for the hand-held systems we have today.

Unfortunately, the company’s failure in the hand-held market was just another symptom of a company losing its way.  As we’ll see as we continue this trek through the company’s history, eventually things like this will be the least of their worries—but we’ll get to that another time.

Until then, fellow gamers!


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