The Game Boy's Biggest Rival Gets Revived By The Modding Community
In the early 1980s, portable gaming was mainly limited to LCD-based games. Companies such as Casio, Grandstand and Tiger Electronics would all release various watches and devices to keep us entertained on those tiresome journeys. Nintendo wasn't really known here in the UK back then, but it stood out from the crowd with the excellent range of Game & Watch handhelds. The Japanese company showed just how skilful and creative it was when it came to creating great gameplay with limited hardware (a skill it arguably continues to exploit), releasing hits such as Mario Bros. and the multi-screen Donkey Kong.
Nintendo's Game Boy had taken everyone by surprise and it would be Sega which played catch-up
In April 1989 – 30 years ago this month – Nintendo took portable gaming to a whole new level with the release of the Game Boy, a cartridge-based handheld with a dot-matrix monochrome screen that had similar controls to the famous Game & Watch range. The Game Boy was an instant success and rival companies would race to get out their own handheld devices onto the market – one of those companies being Sega.
One year earlier, Sega had taken Nintendo by surprise in the console market when it released the 16-bit Mega Drive and it would be two years before Nintendo responded with the Super Famicom/SNES. In the nascent world of handhelds, however, things were the other way around. Nintendo's Game Boy had taken everyone by surprise and it would be Sega which played catch-up; on October 6th 1990 – 18 months after the Game Boy's release – Sega released the Game Gear in Japan. With a backlit colour screen and hardware based on the 8-bit Master System, it was technically superior to the Game Boy and Sega hoped this would be enough to steal some of Nintendo's rapidly-increasing market share.
As most people will be aware, this never happened and the Game Boy went on to sell over 100 million units, eclipsing the 10.6 million sales of the Game Gear. However, Sega’s handheld will always be remembered for being the main rival to the Game Boy (Atari's 16-bit Lynx only managed around 3 million sales), as well as a system with a decent library of titles – some of which were exclusive to the platform.
However, looking back now, it's clear to see why Sega's gamble failed. The Game Gear’s biggest problem was battery life; the Game Boy could go for over 30 hours on four AA batteries, while the high spec of the Game Gear meant it consumed double-As like nobody's business. In fuel economy terms, the Game Boy was a Volvo estate, while the Game Gear was a Ford Sierra Cosworth RS Turbo (yep, that one with the whale tail spoiler).
The Game Gear has not stood the test of time as well; you are more likely to bump into an honest politician than see an original Game Gear in full working order
Another problem with making a technically powerful device is that by default it also becomes more complex inside, and unlike the Game Boy, the Game Gear has not stood the test of time as well; you are more likely to bump into an honest politician than see an original Game Gear in full working order. Most units have faulty sound or weak displays as a result of faulty capacitors; these units weren't made with a vision of people using them 20-plus years later. In order to fix these issues and ensure no further failures, most Game Gear consoles require a replacement of all the capacitors on the internal PCBs (commonly known as recapping) and in the rare event of a unit still fully working, it is just a matter of when (and not if) it will require the recapping treatment.
I bought a Game Gear that was sold as "fully working" with the intention of recapping it, and had it delivered to retro repair wizard Simon Lock, a man whose electrical expertise was detailed in a previous Nintendo Life article. Upon investigation, it turned out that my model had almost zero sound, a line missing from the display, took ages to power up and wasn't reliable when reading carts – so not quite "fully working" as had been described. Simon sent me pictures of the issues and his findings, and after extensive testing, cleaning and recapping my Game Gear had sound and a decent display bar 2 lines – Simon informed me this was down to an IC failure from voltage damage caused by the previous owner using an incorrect PSU. The unit was returned to me and I was really happy to finally have a Game Gear, having never owned one back in the day.
As a kid in the 1990s, it was exciting just to have colour LCD screens and while they did a decent job, they pale in comparison to modern displays; original Game Gear screens need to be tilted to find an optimal viewing angle and suffer from terrible motion blurring. It's something we tolerated back in the day as it was the best option available, but after witnessing a Game Gear with a brand new LCD screen fitted at a gaming market, it wasn't long before I made the decision to get the famous 'McWill' screen mod. I got in touch with Retro Modzz, a UK-based company specialising in console and handheld modifications, and just a few days later I had a Game Gear with a brand new screen.
Playing the games with the McWill screen mod is a visual treat and breathes new life into the Game Gear
So how good is the screen? In a word, incredible. I would compare it to playing Silent Hillon a PS1 and then putting on Sonic Mania on the Switch; there is such a difference in colour, contrast and sharpness it is hard to imagine ever having tolerated the original display (you still have an option to add scanlines should you wish to emulate that older screen). Playing the games with the McWill screen mod is a visual treat and breathes new life into the Game Gear; the mod includes a full recap and a new screen protector so the machine arrives looking and sounding at its best. If you want to play Game Gear games on original hardware, this is an essential purchase and one I cannot recommend highly enough.
Retro Modzz also changed the DC input supply which allows the use of a USB power bank to quench the Game Gear's thirst for power; extremely handy if you want it to remain portable. I decided to keep my model close to the factory standard but other mods can be added, such as a VGA socket to output the display to a monitor and the addition of a joystick port allowing you to attach a Master System control pad essentially turning the Game Gear into an 8-bit Mega Jet.
The Game Gear may have only sold a fraction of what the Game Boy managed, but it's clear there's still a lot of love for the console. It's a shame that the hardware isn't as robust as the Game Boy, but it's great to know there are options out there which enable you to bring these machines back to life – and, in the case of the McWill mod, actually make them better than before.