Meet the System: Sega Game Gear

One of the main goals of this blog is to introduce people to each video game console and their sound capabilities.   Today, let’s talk about the Sega Game Gear.

A Brief Description

After watching the successful launch of the Nintendo Game Boy in 1989, Sega decided to enter the market for handheld gaming.  Sega wanted to make a handheld gaming experience that was far superior to the Game Boy.  Less than 2 years later, in late 1990, the first Sega Game Gear rolled out in Japan.  The intention was to seize the market by exploiting all the complaints people had with Game Boy.  As a result, the system sported an impressive back-lit color screen that displayed 32 colors instead of basically 1.  It also spread the controls around the screen so that there would be less hand cramps (a common early complaint of Game Boy users).  Sega really listened to what the fans wanted and tried to deliver.

The result?  Mixed reviews.  While the Sega Game Gear was the best selling non-Nintendo handheld system until the release of the PSP, it still sold a staggering 100 million less units less than it’s competitor, the Nintendo Game Boy (11 million units vs. Game Boy’s 118+ million units).  It was also largely bashed for it’s awful battery life (6 AA batteries got you MAYBE 4 hours of play), heat (the handheld would get very warm and would cause your hands to sweat), and lack of games.  The console may have been much more of a success had the launch titles been Sonic related.  The official US launch titles included such “crowd pleasers” as Columns (bundled to Game Gear), Psychic World, and Revenge of Drancon.  Yep.  But there’s also a problem to this logic.  The original Sonic game wasn’t even released until mid-1991 and since Master System and Mega Drive/Genesis were mainly know for arcade ports, this left the library for Game Gear very limited.

Still, this system was way ahead of it’s time.  A backlit system by Nintendo wasn’t released until the Nintendo Game Boy Light, some 8 years later.  A color backlit screen?  Not until the Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP+ (the original SP is technically frontlit) 13+ years later.  This falls in line with all of Sega’s ideas for innovation.  The first to do certain things isn’t always the most successful.  The successor to the Game Gear, original Sega Nomad prototype, Project Venus, was to be a touchscreen based system but was scrapped at the last minute…. so yeah…

Sound Capability

Technical Stuff:

I spoke about the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis in this post and how Sega essentially took the motherboard from the Master System and soldered another chipset onto it.  Sega, Sega, Sega.  Always borrowing things.  Well, the Game Gear is no exception to this rule.  The Game Gear is, hardware wise, EXACTLY the same as a Sega Master System.  It is powered by our friend, the Zilog Z80 @ 3.579545 Mhz.  Blazing fast.   This handled the processing and the audio files.

This Z80, typical to all other Z80s, is equipped with a 4 tone generator- 3 square waves and a noise channel.  The Game Gear does not possess any form of PCM or DPCM and lacks the ability to allow cartridges to supply their own sounds.  It is therefore is stuck with it’s original 4 set tones.  This makes Game Gear’s sound capabilities much more like the original Famicom/NES than they are like the Game Boy (locked instruments vs. customizable instruments).  Like the Game Boy, Game Gear’s playback through the hardware was mono but sounded stereo when using headphones.

An aside:  One benefit of the system being EXACTLY the same, hardware wise, to the Master System was it was easy to companies to port games from Master System to Game Gear and vice versa.  Too cheap to buy the game for both systems?  Well, they even made 3rd party adapters just for you!

Clamp this puppy on and the fun will begin!  Or something.  Or you can just buy the new games for Game Gear as they are released.  This meant that the music playback on your Master System and your Game Gear were nearly identical, save for the actual hardware speakers vs. your TV’s.  Interesting.


So, locked and limited to 3 squares and a noise machine, how did the music sound?  Here’s some choice cuts:

(credit:  sonicdx17)

(credit:  MusikFievel)

(credit:  axelei)

(credit: SaikyoMog)

And who can forget this weird thing:

(credit: TheOSTation) and yes, this is a weird mash up of Mega Man 4/5 levels and bosses, released for Game Gear.

And check out this nice collection of cool tracks by Alianger:

Anyhow, as always, check out soundtracks you enjoy and please share your comments!

About Classical Gaming

Steve Lakawicz holds an MM in Music Performance from Temple University as well as a BM in Tuba Performance from Rutgers University . His teachers include Paul Scott, Scott Mendoker, and Jay Krush. His love of video game music has lead him to form a blog, Classical Gaming, to promote discussion both casual and academic about the music of video games. He is the co-founder of the video game/nerd music chamber ensemble, Beta Test Music and regularly composes/performs chiptune music as Ap0c. He currently resides in Philadelphia where he teaches college statistics at Temple University. View all posts by Classical Gaming

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