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Sega Gear: Genesis Portable System

Genesis owners have long been looking to the Nomad as their only means of taking their favorite console with them outside the home. For over a decade, they’ve suffered with a blurry screen and horrible battery life, as there was no other option. Truly, being able to play virtually any game in the entire Genesis catalog at any time seemed to make up for any faults in Sega’s portable system. Unfortunately, Nomads are quite rare these days, and finding one with its carry case and rechargeable battery pack can cost a pretty penny.

Now, after almost two decades, fans are finally getting some new options. Innex, along with Sega and AtGames, is releasing three new pieces of hardware, two of which are portable. Along with the Retro Gen, a full, cartridge-compatible substitute for the aging Nomad, is the Genesis Portable. Both of these compliment the upcoming Firecore console, which has a cartridge slot and supports future upgrades via SD card. Innex doesn’t actually manufacture these new devices and is instead the sole distributor.

Though it’s smaller and doesn’t offer a cart slot, the Genesis Portable is an excellent alternative for those in need of some 16-bit gaming on the go. Fully licensed by Sega, bundled in some awesome packaging and stocked with twenty of Sega’s more notable titles (as well as some retreads. Flicky? Again?), there’s plenty to keep Segaphiles busy when away from their consoles and televisions. Come October, the doors to modern Genesis portable gaming will finally open, and we’ll finally see our favorite console brought into the 21st century.

The Hardware

The first thing fans will notice about the Genesis Portable is its tiny size. A bit larger than Nintendo’s Game Boy Micro, the GP boasts a 2.4 inch screen that neither blurs not obscures any part of the action. For such a tiny screen, we can tell you that the clarity and quality of the images are amazing. Everything is quite clear and detailed, and reading text is not a problem. Granted, AtGames didn’t include any RPGs in the collection of onboard titles, so the amount of text required in each game is quite small. Overall, we had no visibility problems with any of the titles, and we can honestly say that the image quality is outstanding. A contrast or brightness button would have been nice, but the screen is quite clear as it is, and people shouldn’t have any trouble seeing the action.

The rest of the unit’s face is composed of a small D-pad, not as good as the original Genesis six-button controller’s but solid and comfortable. There are three buttons placed in a configuration similar to that of the stock Sega three-button pad, but these are notably smaller. Despite their tiny size, they aren’t problematic at all, and unless owners have mutant large fingers, they should have no trouble playing. We’re sure people are decrying the lack of a six-button layout, but three buttons is fine, considering that all the games included only use that many. Rounding out the package are the menu button (reset), and a power button.

Our only issue with the hardware is the fact that the sound is mono. Sega took great pains to stress the stereo quality of its 16-bit games, and playing them in mono just doesn’t seem right. At least the GP belts out some loud sound from its solitary speaker, and headphones will split the signal for both left and right sides, giving the illusion of stereo sound. We’re sure that the decision to keep things mono stemmed from a desire to increase battery life, and though unfortunate, the decision is understandable. It’s not a deal breaker, but Genesis games were meant to be played in glorious stereo. There is no substitute!

Included with the portable is an AV cable that allows you to play all twenty games on a TV. While the quality of sound is quite good as Genesis clones go, there are some notable differences. Some games seem to sound louder than normal (the sounds in Decap Attack overpower the music), and others seem to occasionally dip, such as an enemy’s death cry in Golden Axe. Also, the music in Alien Storm just seems… off. Aside from these few instances, however, the overall audio quality is much better than previous units and beyond (better even than Innex’s own Firecore console). Sonic & Knuckles, for instance, seems to sound much clearer and faithful than its Xbox Live Arcade counterpart. For the most part, we didn’t notice any major differences in sound between those titles included here and those on Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.

The mono sound really only becomes an issue when the unit is connected to a television, though such connectivity is more of a bonus than a standard feature. Honestly, a handheld like this shines when played outside the home and away from a TV. For that reason, given the limited selection of titles and the mono sound, we’re not exactly sure how attractive a feature this is, since one can always just play a regular Genesis console if a TV is going to be used. Perhaps the best use of this feature comes from those instances when one can’t carry a full system or just doesn’t want the hassle, such as in a hotel room. Other than that, there doesn’t really seem to be much benefit.

The Genesis Portable runs on three AAA batteries, and AtGames seems to have taken a page out of Nintendo’s book about how to squeeze every ounce of power out of them. We kept our unit on for over eight hours with a fresh trio of batteries, and it was still going strong. That’s a big plus, given the battery vampire the Nomad is. Our only gripe in this area is the lack of a battery life indicator, which would have been a nice thing to have after playing for a few hours.

The Games

The Genesis Portable comes with twenty built-in games. That’s a pretty sizable selection, and while most of the titles included are great for portable gaming, we really wish a few had been left off the list. Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, Altered Beast, and Flicky have long since worn out their welcome among compilations, and there are far more deserving games than these three, especially since this unit is officially licensed by Sega. Ecco Jr. seems like an odd choice, but everything else makes sense. Just about all genres except RPGs are represented here, and there’s a great selection of platformers, action titles, puzzle games, and even shooters! RPGs were most likely left off due to battery life.

There have been some changes to the line up since this unit was originally released as the Mega Drive Portable (curiously enough, the menu screen still says “Mega Drive” at the top), and a few games have been swapped out. Ristar has been replaced with Sonic Spinball, and Revenge of Shinobi was traded for Shinobi III. We’re disappointed to see Sega’s starry hero get benched, but the Shinobi exchange is definitely for the better.

One issue that concerns us is game length. Games like Arrow Flash and ESWAT are fine for a single sitting, but going through Kid Chameleon and Decap Attack in one playthrough is a pretty tall order in this day and age. Save states would have made a world of difference here, especially since they’re available on other recently released compilations. Some might argue that the omission of a save feature makes the collection more authentic, but we’d argue that such a point is unsustainable, given that the games are being played on a modern portable. If you want authentic 1992 on your Genesis portable, go play the carts on a Nomad. We’d rather have those save states. Think about going through all of Gain Ground’s fifty plus stages without being able to save, or having to do all of Ecco the Dolphin or Sonic & Knuckles in a single sitting. Portable gaming is about getting some playtime in between destinations or while waiting. It shouldn’t require hours of gameplay to be done at once, and the lack of saves here really makes the prospect of finishing a few of these games quite daunting.

Here’s the complete list of included titles:

Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle Crack Down Ecco Jr. Kid Chameleon
Alien Storm Decap Attack Flicky Shadow Dancer
Altered Beast Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine Gain Ground Shinobi III
Arrow Flash ESWAT: City Under Siege Golden Axe Sonic & Knuckles
Columns III Ecco the Dolphin Jewel Master Sonic Spinball

To Buy Or Not To Buy?

While most gamers awaiting a true Genesis portable will likely pass this one over in favor of the upcoming Retro Gen, we think the Genesis Portable is a solid entry in the handheld 16-bit market that shouldn’t be overlooked. Those who don’t own a large Genesis library will appreciate the diverse selection of titles here, and the GP makes a great gift for those just getting started with Sega’s wonder console. The mono sound and lack of a save feature are the only things we really take issue with here, but neither one is enough to for anyone to dismiss this unit. Heck, we’re more than content with the mere fact that we have two Genesis handhelds arriving in 2009. The days of scouring eBay for a Nomad unit that is both scarce and expensive might finally be coming to an end.

Devoted Genesis fans might not see the Genesis Portable as more than a curiosity when it ships sometime next month, especially given its $50 price tag. No, they have already made up their minds to wait for the Retro Gen, which is going to cost a mere $10 more. Even so, we recommend the Genesis Portable as a solid alternative that offers a great selection of games with an awesome screen and excellent battery life. Not a bad way to get some 16-bit gaming while on the go!

Rating (out of 5):

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