The Game Gear Micro is a portable console as a performance art.
Sega had two options to revive Game Gear, its contemporary 8-bit handheld system. It could produce another generous, accessible device that plays well and looks great on a modern screen. Or it could do something else.
Since Sega is Sega, it did something else. The game Gear Micro, exclusive in Japan, is not one console, but four with four games each. Each model has a screen the size of a postage stamp. And while Sega offers a convenient option that lets you play with a literal magnifying glass, the only option is to buy all four consoles for around $ 200.
This is obviously an absurd consumer suggestion. But nostalgic Sega fans in 2020 are not normal consumers. If you've bought non-working plastic 32X and Sega CD add-ons for your Genesis Mini, you're going to love the Game Gear Micro. It's a wonderfully stupid product that was designed with passion.
The Game Gear Micro has one task, namely to shout "Sega" loudly using four small plastic devices as a megaphone. Most people probably don't want to hear this. But it does the job well.
- Incredibly small
- Some great games
- Solid hardware
- Incredibly small
- There are four of them
- Large window not available separately
The Game Gear Micro takes the idea of a mini retro console in the most extreme direction yet. At 80 x 43 mm, it's roughly the size of a Matchbox car. Much of the volume of the device is consumed by the two AAA batteries that power it. Fortunately, however, they last a little longer than the original device.
The attention to detail is impressive, with precise lettering and colors for all four models, and Sega even found room for a headphone jack so you can enjoy Game Gear audio in a delightful stereo. There's also a micro-USB port that lets you play without batteries and a dial that lets you adjust the volume on the mono speaker, which gets pretty loud.
I wouldn't consider the Game Gear Micro to be the world's largest video game input device, but considering the circular D-pad is less than a dime in size, it's remarkably usable. Action buttons 1 and 2 are a bit wobbly but so small that it is difficult not to press them precisely.
The screen is surprisingly good for something the size of a cornflake. With a diameter of 1.15 inches and a resolution of 240 x 180, the pixel density is very sharp. This isn't exactly the same resolution as the original Game Gear, but the scaling looks nice. It's very bright, and contrast and viewing angles are more than solid as well, not that it would be really convenient for more than one person to see the screen at the same time.
Games aren't unplayable on the tiny display – I actually found it a lot easier than I expected to see what was going on – but it's still more comfortable with Sega's micro-sized snap-on resurrection of its old Game Gear accessory, the big one Window. The resulting image stays smaller than what you get with Nintendo's already tiny Game Boy Micro, but every little bit helps. It's unfortunate that Sega doesn't sell the Big Window Micro separately, but the company views it as a bonus rather than an essential accessory.
Would I have preferred mini game equipment with a larger screen and all 16 pre-installed games on one unit? Good yes. I guess so. But I can see why Sega did things this way. The individual $ 50 units make sense as a curiosity or impulse buy, while the entire set will appeal to collectors and presumably justify the project in the first place. I doubt Sega could charge much more than $ 50 for a single Game Gear Micro, even if it contains a lot of games.
The Game Gear was not a very successful system. It was one of many challengers wiped out by the Game Boy, and its library is quite limited. There are many ways to play Game Gear games if you really want to, be it through the 3DS virtual console or through less official means like the myriad of open source emulator handhelds. Unfortunately, there would probably not be a large market for conventional mini-game equipment.
Personally, I like what Sega has done here. It's such a strange, incredible product that I can see hardcore Sega fans wanting to pick up at least one of them. The question is what to choose.
- The black model is the mainstream one of the four models. Available in the most popular Game Gear color, it includes three classic games plus Royal Stone, a strategy role-playing game that was never published in English. Easy to play for importers, Sonic the Hedgehog, OutRun, and Puyo Puyo 2 represent some of the largest Sega franchises of the time. This model is almost worth hearing just the Game Gear version of the OutRun soundtrack.
- The blue model is my personal favorite. It has Sonic & Tails (Sonic Chaos outside of Japan), one of the better Game Gear Sonic titles, as well as the amazing 8-bit port of Treasures Gunstar Heroes. I love the original, but I've never played this version and it was a great time seeing it crammed into the Game Gear hardware. If anything, it made seeing on the micro even more impressive. There's also Baku Baku Animal, a fun Puyo Puyo-style puzzle game that is all about aligning food for animals, and Sylvan Tale, a Zelda-style action-adventure that could be difficult to play without knowing Japanese.
- I admit I haven't spent much time with the yellow model. Three of his games come from the tactical RPG series Shining Force, which would be tight-knit even in English on a screen like this one. The last is a Japan-exclusive puzzle / RPG hybrid called Nazo Puyo Arle no Roux. It's a shame because I like the color scheme, but it's hard to imagine anyone but extremely dedicated Shining Force fans sinking hours into this one.
- The red model also has some games that are not very accessible to most importers, namely two Last Bible spin-offs from the Megami Tensei RPG series. But you also get the technically impressive (and extremely difficult) Game Gear version of Shinobi, as well as the classic block-busting puzzler columns. And the red hardware is great.
If you go to the hassle of importing one, most of the players outside of Japan should be best off buying the black or blue models. Or maybe the red one if they're really good at shinobi.
The system software is very simple. When you turn it on, there's a Game Gear splash screen, a home screen with four game icons, and an options menu that only includes personal credits, open source license information, and the ability to reset system data. The only data that needs to be reset is your backup state files, which you can use by holding the start button in the game.
The emulation is done by M2, the developer Sega often works with on retro game projects such as the Mega Drive Mini and the 3D Classics series for the Nintendo 3DS. The functionality is pretty simple, but there are some nice touches like a multitude of Sega screens that pop up when the battery runs low.
Some of the games themselves have been optimized for the system. For example, M2 was the developer of Gunstar Heroes for the Game Gear and added an Easter egg that allows you to activate a flickering technique that the team originally developed for the Game Gear's blurry screen. In other games, simple modes or cheat codes were programmed. M2 is one of the best studios in the world for reviving games and updating them in ways that don't detract from the original experience, and the Game Gear Micro is another great example.
The Game Gear Micro is clearly an absurd product. But it's also a charming and lovable celebration of Sega's history. Nobody is going to play three full Shining Force games on this one, but the point is, you could. The hardware is adorable and the fact that games actually run well is almost a bonus.
But it's a niche, not to mention expensive and wasteful, if you want the whole set. It is objectively silly to buy the same console four times to play 16 8-bit handheld games. I assume that most of the casual Sega fans interested in exploring the Game Gear library will write off the entire project as a cynical money heist, which would be understandable.
For something to be cynical money robbery, it has to be cynical. The Game Gear Micro is not. It is a confident passion project that has been turned into a mistake with care and quality. Supporting Sega through history is like supporting a bad football team: looking forward to eternal failure is almost part of the appeal. And what could be more Sega-esque than an elaborately undersized replica of a fancy handheld system better known for eating batteries than playing good games?
The Game Gear Micro is Peak Sega. A less important device is hard to imagine. But if there's a place in your heart for Sega, consider getting your hands on one or two.
Photography by Sam Byford / The Verge