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I like to think that during the 80s, Sega watched Nintendo roll around on the giant pile of money they accumulated from the Game & Watch and soon after, the Game Boy, and thought to themselves a question that has driven business since the dawn of time: “How can we get in on that?”
Their solution for getting in on that was the Game Gear; a handheld gaming console which pushed the limits “gaming on the go” was capable of at the time. It garnered praise for the groundbreaking backlit screen, bleeding edge graphics, and spectacular game library. Shortly following the praise came the expected flack all objects created for consumption are fair game to (“3 hour playing time with 6 AA batteries?!” my mother screams from sometime, someplace), some of which, as time as marched on, has become questionably valid.
The most notable criticism attached to the Game Gear is that the system was an overall failure. This claim can frequently be found on articles with obnoxiously clickbait titles such as “Top 10 Worst [gaming related thing] Ever (#5 will ASTOUND you)” that don’t cite any kind of data as they wax poetic on how much they think Sega blew it.
I always found this angle more confusing than it was profound to me, because aside from how the conclusion was being drawn too easily, it appears that citing references for data you present has become a thing of the past. In addition, nobody seems to take time to reflect on the data and examine the context around the situation, or if it’s even correct. I am increasingly more and more suspicious of how quickly many folks look at that period of time and say with certainty that the Game Gear was a failure. Was it, actually? What do we mean when we call it failure?
Throughout this article, I, too, shall wax poetic on the Game Gear, but I’ll attempt to do it responsibly, using referenced data as my guide and heavy skepticism as my eccentric scientist grandpa. By the end, I’ll have established our criteria for failure, determine if Sega met that criteria, and bust a myth of a commonly misused popular data point that’s starting to keep me up at night. We will laugh together, cry together, and most importantly, we will cite our references like civilized human beings together.
Before we go much further, it’s only fair that I admit the one existing bias that could influence my personal opinion throughout this discussion: I owned a Game Gear in the 90s, and my memories are only fond. All with the exception of that one level of the Lion King with the stampede, which can go to hell.
Videographic evidence of me in 1992 playing what is likely Sonic the Hedgehog at a family gathering. Source: My aunt.
If I wanted to get really cheeky I would end the article right here and now with “It is ultimately Sega’s decision if the Game Gear failed or not so everybody go home”. However failure itself is subjective, which means the rest of us get to sit here and think about why things are the way they are (which god knows I love doing or why would I be here in the first place). And then write those thoughts down for others to read and start an argument in the comments section. Subjectivity: truly as much a blessing as it is a curse.
Being that I am a product manager who is interested in product manager-related things and little else (with the exception of pizza), the criteria which I use to define failure should surprise no one:
Sales: The product didn’t do enough of them
Depending on just how poorly the product sold, the company might be unable to continue paying the team or investing in future products. Catastrophic failure in this area could even mean shuttering of the company.
Customer Value: The product didn’t have enough (or any)
“Value” is harder to measure because unlike sales, it can be interpreted in many qualitative ways from a variety of sources. Some examples of this are critic reviews, customer reviews, and even demands for refunds. Truly volcanic levels of delivering little to no value can hurt future product iteration and growth.
There are other minor factors that also can influence the failure of a product, however these two are what I have seen to be the most important and influential. Bottom line – businesses don’t survive if they don’t make money. It’s difficult to survive (let alone profit) if your product doesn’t bring value to your customers.
Before we answer this, we get to engage in my fourth favorite pastime: setting expectations. I’m about to throw a ton of data at you (referencing all of it, so eat your heart out annoying clickbait articles). But there are a few things you should understand before you proceed:
30 YEAR OLD DATA IS HARD TO FIND
Sega’s lips are sealed, and while Nintendo does have data around sales available on their website (11), it’s not quite what we’re looking for (more on that later). Even our Lord and Savior Wikipedia is [shrug emoji needed] when it comes to citing their sources. I can’t decide if this is because neither companies want to give it out (which is fair) or if it’s because some unfortunate employee accidentally dropped the production database that contained all the sales data from 1980-1998 and nobody wants to talk about it (which is also fair).
Too many people are either citing bad references or not citing anything at all (probably because of the former point)
Biggest example: Sega and how many units of the Game Gear were sold. More articles and wikis than you can shake a stick at go between 10.62 and 11 million units of the Game Gear, hardly anyone citing it. The few who do (1) often cite an opinion piece article (2) (the sort I dragged earlier) with no kind of data attached to it. Welcome to my hell, dear readers. Nothing makes sense and it’s full of bad early 2000’s HTML.
It’s because of the reasons above that I will not be using any kind of number to represent the Game Gear’s sales. There’s just not enough (or any) reliable data to back it up. When in doubt, leave it out.
There was a dark period of time where Sega tried out a very aggressive ad campaign against the Game Boy (and dogs, I guess!). Source: Retro Gaming Australia
When we can’t trust or find the data like we were hoping we could, we have to find clues in other areas to answer whether or not Sega failed by the criteria we set. After crawling through the archives of VG Sales, I found a clue that would suggest Sega’s success in sales in the middle of the Game Gear’s life. According to back in the day Business Wire, Sega kicked everybody’s ass in sales the first two months of the Holiday season of 1994:
“For all of 1994, Sega had 58 percent of all 16-bit hardware sales. Sega also beat Nintendo, and Atari, Phillips and 3DO combined, in overall annual video game hardware sales, with 56 percent of the market.”(3)
That’s great and all, but what we’re looking for is how the Game Gear did, which is answered shortly after:
“Sega maintained its leadership position with a comprehensive hardware and software lineup: Game Gear, the best-selling portable system, with 53 percent dollar share; Sega CD, which grew 38 percent over 1993; the 32X add-on for Genesis, with nearly 500,000 units sold between its introduction in late November and Christmas; and Genesis, the overall home video game system leader, with substantial sales of over 4 million units.”(3)
53 percent dollar share in the holiday season of 1994 is pretty darn impressive, yet I remained skeptical that this article wasn’t just another “businesses are always going to pitch everything they say to the press from the best angle for the company possible”, until I found another article that said Sega continued to kick ass in the 1996 Holiday season as well:
“With approximately 900,000 units of Game Gear sold, more than 600,000 of those in the fourth quarter of the year, Game Gear was in short supply at retailers around the country.” (5)
Ironically it goes on to praise the Nomad, but hindsight is 20/20 and I’m not here to drag what was, in theory, a cool idea for a handheld (however questionable the execution).
We can now say with a good amount of confidence that at the very least for a few years, Sega did great in sales. From how the articles were written (however purposeful that may be) it even sounds like they hit their benchmark. But that’s something we can’t know unless we knew what that benchmark was (which we don’t). We do, however, have further reason to believe that Sega truly does believe they hit whatever goal they wanted to hit with the Game Gear, as shown in this interview with Hideki Sato, who designed many of Sega’s retro consoles, and served as the president from 2001-2003:
“Overseas, a converter was sold which allowed the Game Gear to play Master System games, and if you add in the domestic sales, we sold about 14 million systems: a respectable chunk of market share. However, as you know, Nintendo’s Game Boy was such a runaway success, and had gobbled up so much of the market, that our success was still seen as a failure, which I think is a shame.” (4)
Mr. Sato says a lot of interesting things here – he gives us a number of how many units were sold (which is totally different from everywhere else and leaves me completely bamboozled/slightly annoyed), he recognizes how much of a giant success Nintendo was at the time, and most importantly, he calls out that Sega chalked the Game Gear up to be a success. Here’s where we have come full circle, folks: Sega thinks the Game Gear was a success, and we can all go home now. But before you do, we’re not quite done yet, because –
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t include context from the company who, whether they meant to or not, had possibly the biggest impact on the Game Gear aside from Sega: Nintendo.
By the time Sega released the Game Gear in late 1990 (‘91 for the States) (8), Nintendo had been in the handheld market for over a decade, steadily building an audience with the Game & Watch that was only compounded with the Game Boy. By the time the sun would set on the Game Boy legacy, Nintendo would report selling 118 million units. In scientific terms, that is commonly referred to as a “big-ass number”.
As a result, when folks hear 118 million Game Boys they’re quick to deduce that big-ass number is the benchmark, and anything less is a loser. This becomes problematic without examining what the data really represents, and important details get left behind. It’s sort of a half-baked inference, but it’s difficult to blame anyone for doing this since our puny human brains have spent hundreds of thousands of years getting super good at thinking quickly, not critically.
How does this all tie in? The most popular argument you’ll hear in favor of the Game Gear failing is shortly after comparing it to the Game Boy’s astronomical success. This is weird and doesn’t make sense to me, for two reasons:
First, the success of one thing doesn’t mean everything everything else is a failure.
That some weird “all or nothing” extremo logic right there, be careful what you do with that. However easy it is to do, this kind of quick thinking is risky. It implies that Nintendo’s runaway success is the standard, which is certainly not the case. In this situation, the Game Boy is the exception, not the rule.
To put this in a little more context, according to our Lord and Savior Wikipedia, there are 70 handheld gaming consoles on record, from 1979 to present day (6). The Game Boy held the top spot for units sold until 2010, when the DS finally outsold in units
(7). Reminder: the Game Boy (and this includes the original Game Boy, the Pocket, and the Game Boy Color) was discontinued in 2003, which means it held the top selling spot for seven years after Nintendo stopped making it.
Let’s read that last sentence again: the Game Boy was the highest selling handheld for seven years after it was discontinued from production.
That is what I mean when I call the Game Boy a “runaway success”. That is also what I mean when I call the Game Boy the exception; majority of handhelds that have existed on our precious puny planet sold nowhere near that bonkers 118 million units. Out of respect for Nintendo, Sega, and the numerous other companies who’ve participated in the adventure that has been handheld gaming, please take a moment before throwing that number around without considering the weight that is attached to it.
Secondly, and I cannot emphasize nor scream this from the top of my lungs enough: everyone is using that 118 million statistic incorrectly for this situation and I’m gonna lose my mind.
What is not immediately obvious is that 118 million units includes all iterations of the Game Boy, including the Pocket, Game Boy Light, and Game Boy Color. Additionally, it’s for total sales from 1989 through 2013 (reminder: the Game Gear’s lifespan under Sega was from 1990-1997). 118 million units is a triumph for Nintendo, but it’s not the correct (or fair) number if you want to play the “let’s compare Sega to Nintendo” game.
If we don’t want to use 118 million, what number should we be using? Much like trying to find the source for Sega’s mystical 10.62 million, I ran into the same problems here. I even called Nintendo’s customer support, who were extremely amicable to the stranger with a weird request, but were unable to help. I ended up catching a break when I asked my small pool of Twitter followers if anyone could help me find what I was looking for. Sure enough, my friend Matt delivered with the best information I’ve yet to find.
From a 2013 discussion on NeoGAF.com, the user Aquamarine was hunting for similar information and went even farther than I did, somehow got in contact with Nintendo’s Kyoto office which supplied them with yearly numbers of shipping units of Nintendo’s products (9). They’re not sales numbers, but I’ll gladly take it (Aquamarine if we ever meet IRL, drinks are on me, my friend).
I want to get a better idea of how Sega did competing with the Game Boy the seven years that the Game Gear shared the market. If you notice on the graph, it’s counting by year starting in April and ending in March the next year. The Game Gear was released October 1990 in Japan, and April 1991 in the US, and discontinued worldwide in April of 1997 (10). Even then these numbers still are not entirely what I want, because they include the Game Boy Light as well as the Game Boy Pocket, and the dates aren’t exact.
Game Boy Units shipped (including OG Game Boy, GB Light, and GB Pocket), from April 1990 to March 1997
- Japan: 13,010,000
- US: 18,000,000
- Other: 19,820,000
And if you do the math, you should hopefully get 50,830,000 units
This number is not final, but it does give us a better ballpark to what Sega was up against at the time. I’m not completely satisfied and trust it about as far as I can throw it, but I’m happy enough to the point where I won’t Ocean’s Eleven myself into Nintendo’s headquarters to find what I actually wanted (which I am pretty sure I could never convince George Clooney to do, anyway). As an aside- I will never do that, please don’t put me on some weirdo watch list.
And thus ends our truth-seeking adventure. A lot of lessons were learned today, and only a handful ended in tears. As you leave this article undoubtedly a completely transformed individual, it is my hope you (amicably) share them with the next uninformed meatbag who inevitably tries to dunk on Sega.
To recap (and frankly, here’s the TL;DR if you’re gonna be that guy):
Don’t use hindsight to be a jerk
It’s easy for us here in the future to look back and sneer at all the decisions folks made years ago, because we have the privilege of hindsight. How would you like it if a group of random people dragged you based on the undoubtedly questionable fashion decisions you made when you were 13?
Runaway successes are the exception, not the rule
We all can’t be the Game Boy, or Fortnite, or indoor plumbing. We can only reap the benefits they bring into our lives.
Before you make a decision about numbers, find out what they mean
Critical thinking is hard, but I believe in you.
Last but not least – cite your sources or I will find you
And I will sing about the importance of showing receipts until your ears fall off your head. Because I care.
2: “GamePro.com.” Feature : The 10 Worst-Selling Handhelds of All Time [Domestic] – from GamePro.com, web.archive.org/web/20080918035922/http://www.gamepro.com/article/features/125748/the-10-worst-selling-handhelds-of-all-time/.
3: “Sega Threepeat as Video Game Leader for Christmas Sales; Second Annual Victory; Sega Takes No. 1 Position for Entire Digital Interactive Entertainment Industry.” The Free Library, www.thefreelibrary.com/Sega+threepeat+as+video+game+leader+for+Christmas+sales%3B+second…-a015997617.
4: “The History of Sega Console Hardware.” Shmuplations Segahistory Comments, shmuplations.com/segahistory/.
5: “Sega Captures Dollar Share of Videogame Market — Again; Diverse Product Strategy Yields Market Growth; Sega Charts Path for 1996.” The Free Library, www.thefreelibrary.com/Sega+captures+dollar+share+of+videogame+market+–+again%3B+diverse…-a018001580.
6: “List of Handheld Game Consoles.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_handheld_game_consoles.
7: “DS Finally Outsells Game Boy, Best-Selling Handheld Ever.” Destructoid, www.destructoid.com/ds-finally-outsells-game-boy-best-selling-handheld-ever-173069.phtml.
8: “Sega Game Gear.” Sega Retro, 6 Oct. 1990, segaretro.org/Sega_Game_Gear.
9: Aquamarine. “Nintendo Historical Shipment Data (1983 – Present).” NeoGAF, 23 Oct. 2016, www.neogaf.com/threads/nintendo-historical-shipment-data-1983-present.701305/.
10: “Game Gear.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_Gear.
11: “IR Information : Historical Data.” Nintendo Co., Ltd., www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/finance/historical_data/index.html.