Game Gear Micro review — You might not need this, but I did

I’m the kind of Sega lover who buys silly merchandise like polygon-accurate Virtua Fighter action figures and scale model kits of the Astro City arcade cabinet. After all, we love Sega for selling quirky products. Even so, the Game Gear Micro was still a bridge too far for me when I first read about it.

Promotional images use hands for a reason: the Micro is just that small

It’s kind of crazy, right? $50 to play four Game Gear games on a screen the size of a postage stamp, on a toy the size of a key chain. Did I mention there are long, text-heavy Japanese RPGs on all of these units? It just didn’t make any sense. Even if I wanted to, I thought, I wouldn’t be able to play the thing. If only they had made a bigger unit. More readable, more games. What a waste.

Anyway, about a week before the Micro came out, I broke down and bought two of them. The worst part is that I love them, and now I want another.

Size and form — a shocking replica

Pardon the dust, but here’s a pair of GG Micros and a larger-than-average bottle cap. Note that the bottle cap is in fact slightly larger than the screen.

It’s difficult to make an appropriate size comparison for the Micro because it’s so damned small. A USB stick is too small, but a credit card is too big. Your phone is a hulking beast by comparison. The Game Gear Micro comes in a box about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and the unit is a little over 3 inches wide and a little under 2 inches tall. The only weight you feel when you hold the Micro in your hand is that of the batteries.

Like the Genesis/Mega Drive Mini before it, the detailing on this replica goes above and beyond. These are the same plastics used on the original Game Gear, every marking, and the same textures you felt when you touched it. There’s even a fake cartridge with the names of the games on the back.

The screen is barely over an inch wide, so you’d reasonably expect it to be unreadable. But the GG Micro counterbalances its tiny screen with sheer brightness: the test screen that pops up when you boot the unit immediately blasts you with bright white light and clean lines. Furthermore, the developers (retro game specialists M2) seem to have deliberately chosen games with big text and sprites to make things easier to read. I had no issue reading the screen in any action game: RPGs, on the other hand, are as hard on the eyes as I had expected.

It would have been easy to overlook the speaker on such a tiny toy, but the Game Gear Micro is surprisingly, satisfyingly loud. It really points to the love the designers had for the machine that they didn’t say “Game Gear audio? Who cares.”, but instead let that little sound chip shine. Indeed, there’s even new music for the Mini’s menu screens, with one track composed by M2’s chibi-tech and the other by Shinichi Sakamoto, composer for the classic Wonder Boy games.

Controls — wait, this works?!

I am a tall guy with big hands, so I was especially concerned about the size of the pad and cramped button placement making the games impossible to play in the first place. When I started Sonic the Hedgehog for the first time on my Micro, I was completely ready for — expecting, even — the big let-down that made me put the toy away. A few levels later I was shocked. I could play the whole game on this damn thing, and I would proceed to do so.

The Micro buttons are only slightly smaller than on an original Game Gear. The defined, concave D-pad is easy to navigate by feel, and I never found subtle movement to be a problem in any game. The two concave action buttons are jammed close together, but not so much so that it ever becomes a problem in gameplay.

Ultimately, I was very quickly able to get down to the business of beating Outrun (the GG port is particularly difficult!) and speed-running Sonic levels.

Games: namely, not enough of them

Another big issue with the Game Gear Micro is also Sega’s scheme for selling a lot of units: each unit only comes with four games. There are four types, and of those I bought the black and blue models, each of which feature a well-rounded set. The units I didn’t get are yellow (effectively a Shining Force collection) and red (GG Shinobi alongside two GG-only Megami Tensei games and good old Columns).

The average $20 retro collection contains more games than all four GG Micro units combined, so this is a steep fall. Each set has to cover many bases, which is probably why most of the units have an action game and a puzzle game with at least one long RPG for staying power (if you read Japanese and can bear a whole lot of microscopic hiragana).

A lot of the games on the blue and black Micros are not exclusive to the system, or even the best available versions thereof. You can buy a perfect arcade port of Outrun on your Switch for 8 bucks. But in the same way that it’s inherently impressive that the engineers behind the GG Micro made it so tiny, so too do these games impress upon the player a respect for creators who squeezed so much out of the Game Gear. M2’s own Game Gear port of the cult classic Gunstar Heroes is a work of mad genius, squeezing a game that had already pushed the limits of the Genesis into an even smaller container.

It’s important to remember when you look at these screenshots that they’re many times the size of the Micro screen.

Outrun is perhaps the strongest choice of the set: the demake of the arcade game is shockingly smooth and maintains the feel of the original masterpiece, with a big, foregrounded player character (your car) that’s particularly suited to the tiny screen. I’d say it even beats the Master System version!

You can read this screenshot just fine right now, but things are different on a screen the size of a bottle cap

The game that suffers the most is Puyo Puyo 2, which feels like it’s here mostly for (Japanese) name recognition. Stripped of multiplayer, and with the gameplay area consisting of about a third of the already tiny screen, Puyo 2 on the Micro is in fact the recipe for eye strain that I had first imagined when I heard about it. Could I play it? Yeah, I could set up combos and everything. But my eyes hurt doing it. Baku Baku Animal on the blue unit has a larger play area and as such is a lot easier to manage.

The Sonic Game Gear games (Sonic The Hedgehog and Sonic And Tails) are not downscaled ports but original takes on the classic formula by different developers (Ancient and Aspect, respectively). Keeping the vital character feel of Sonic intact, these games set him loose on smaller stages in a similar race track style to the originals, but without their extreme speed. This slightly different flavor quickly grew on me.

As for the RPGs, my Japanese is not great, but my eyes and brain gave up almost immediately on trying to read long dialogs in microscopic hiragana. I don’t know how a native would fare, but I can’t imagine it would be much better. The yellow unit, containing the entire Shining Force Gaiden series, must be some kind of cruel joke on a very small number of people.

Battery: such a thing as “too faithful”

The single greatest weakness of the GG Micro — and it’s already got a couple — is its power solution. In part to save costs, and in part out of a religious faithfulness to the original, battery-guzzling Game Gear, the Micro does not have an internal battery so that you can plug it into the wall and charge. You know, like nearly every other device of its kind you might use in the year 2020. Rather, you’re stuck either playing with a USB-C cable plugged into a power source or on two AAA batteries, which last about three hours.

There’s no winning on this part. It’s uncomfortable to play such a small device with a wire sticking out of its back, and the AAA’s short battery life is a major hidden cost. I’d have paid extra for a rechargeable battery, no matter how 90s accurate it is to have to mess with AAA batteries.

Final

Obsession level: Sega used the original designers of the Japanese GG box art

Though the Game Gear Micro is a product meant strictly for impulsive novelty seekers and Sega maniacs (two charges of which I am guilty), it’s made with a lot of love. Sega and M2’s obsessive attention to detail ultimately pays off with a truly crazy, high-quality video game toy that you’ll certainly get $50 of play out of. The more I play with the Micro, the more I like it, and the more I want the red one too. Just make sure you have a pack of AAAs ready in advance.

Sooolar wind. Anime/games writer. Sometimes on @polygon? @Kawaiikochans is the sum of my efforts. Serious about stupid.