Sega Game Gear
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

First released in Japan in October 1990, the Game Gear was Sega's first portable games console and was in direct competition with Nintendo's Game Boy, Atari's Lynx and NEC's PC Engine GT. The Game Boy would emerge the ultimate victor, but the Game Gear lasted longer than its other rivals and was only discontinued by Sega in 1997.

Host to some of the company's biggest names – including Sonic, Phantasy Star, Shining Force, Panzer Dragoon, Out Run, After Burner and Wonder Boy – the Game Gear has a library of titles that stands up very well, even by modern standards. Below you'll find 20 of the best examples, presented in no particular order.

Sonic the Hedgehog (GG)

Developed by Ancient, the studio founded by composer Yuzo Koshiro, this version of Sonic the Hedgehog might not look or sound as good as its Mega Drive / Genesis sibling, but it's still a lot of fun. Rather than attempt to cram the 16-bit version into weaker hardware, Ancient instead took when made the full-fat game so appealing and tailored it to the strengths of the host hardware (the Master System and Game Gear versions are practically identical). Sonic got quite a few subsequent adventures on Sega's portable, but none of them really match this.

Shinobi II: The Silent Fury (GG)

The original Game Gear Shinobi is a fantastic game, but this sequel is better in all the ways that matter. It's blessed with better levels, improved controls and amazing visuals, and offers a truly stern challenge – thankfully, a password system means you can pick up where you left off. The excellent soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima rounds off one of the finest action titles you'll find on the Game Gear; Shinobi II: The Silent Fury is a must-have (check out the original, too).

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (GG)

There are quite a few really good Disney games on the Game Gear, but Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse – one of the earliest examples – is the one we think has aged the most gracefully. Like Sonic, it's clear that the Game Gear version (which is based on the Master System game) is a lot less striking than its 16-bit equivalent, but the gameplay is just as appealing, despite the technological gulf that exists. Sharp visuals, responsive controls and some really nice gameplay make this one of the best Game Gear platformers money can buy.

Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya (GG)

Known in Japan as Shining Force Gaiden II: Jashin no Mezame, Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya is actually the second game in the series to come to Sega's handheld; the original Shining Force Gaiden was never released outside of Japan (although it would be bundled with this sequel to create Shining Force CD for the Sega / Mega CD). Compared to the 16-bit entries in the franchise, The Sword of Hajya more than holds its own – and makes for a fantastic portable tactical RPG. Sadly, the third Game Gear outing, Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict, was never released in the west, but fan-made translation patches do exist.

Vampire: Master of Darkness (GG)

Castlevania didn't come to a Sega system until 1994's Bloodlines on the Genesis / Mega Drive, so, for the Master System and Gear Game, Sega was forced to create its own clone. Vampire: Master of Darkness (also known as plain old Master of Darkness in some regions) manages to do a pretty good job of imitating Konami's famous vampire-slaying series; the visuals are moody (and better than those seen in the NES Castlevania titles), and the music sets the scene perfectly. The gameplay is tricky but addictive, making for a real hidden gem in Sega's 8-bit library.

Columns (GG)

Designed by Jay Geertsen, Columns was positioned as Sega's answer to Tetris (Sega was one of the companies that lost out in the legal tussle for the rights to the game, having been erroneously sold the arcade and home console rights – a Mega Drive port was created but had to be pulled from sale). This simplistic Match-3 puzzler might not be quite as addictive as Alexey Pajitnov's masterpiece, but it's still a wonderful way to waste a few minutes of your day, and this portable edition is compelling and accessible.

Defenders of Oasis (GG)

The Game Gear was hardly swimming in RPGs, so it's fair to say that even the bad ones on the handheld got a lot of attention (Ax Battler, we're looking at you). However, Defenders of Oasis is a genuinely good example of the genre, mixing exploration, turn-based combat and a fantastic storyline borrowed from Arabic folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights. If you fancy some role-playing action on your Sega portable, then this is your best bet.

Gunstar Heroes (GG)

Developed by M2 and launched in 1995, the Game Gear port of Gunstar Heroes is a lot better than it has any right to be, considering how far the Mega Drive / Genesis pushed its host platform. Sure, there are concessions – the Dice Palace level is absent, and the action is a little less smooth – but, for all intents and purposes, this is an excellent port of Treasure's legendary 16-bit run-and-gun blaster.

Streets Of Rage 2 (GG)

Those expecting a perfect port of the seminal Mega Drive / Genesis scrolling fighter will have be disappointed back in the day, but that doesn't mean this isn't worth your time. Streets Of Rage 2 is a massive upgrade on the Game Gear version of the original game, adding in better controls and more moves to exploit. Content is missing that was present in the 16-bit version – there's no Max Thunder, and there are fewer levels – but this is still one of the best brawlers on the Game Gear.

GG Aleste II (GG)

Known as Power Strike II in the west (not to be confused with the Master System Power Strike II, which is an entirely different game), the second of the Game Gear Aleste outings is an absolute must-have, especially for fans of the genre. It's fast-paced, frantic and massively playable – the small, rather blurry screen of the console can make it tricky to see what's actually happening, but you soon get used to it. GG Aleste II was recently topped by the third game in the franchise, which, despite being developed with the Game Gear's limitations in mind, isn't actually available on the console (you can either play it on Aleste Collection or on the incredibly rare white Game Gear Micro console).

Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap (GG)

Originally released on the Master System, Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap is viewed by many fans as the absolute zenith of the franchise. It's a Metroidvania from a time before that genre term even existed, and presents you with a largely non-linear world to explore. Animal transformations give you the abilities required to uncover more of the map, and the traditional Wonder Boy combat system is present and correct. One of the best action adventures ever made, The Dragon's Trap was recently remastered on modern consoles to impressive effect.

Tails Adventure (GG)

Given how many Sonic games there are on the Game Gear, it's surprising that so few of them are worth your time. Tail's Adventure is one of the exceptions. It's best described as a 'light' take on the Metroidvania template (again, like Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap, this is a game from a time before that term even existed), and gives Sonic's sidekick a welcome chance to shine in the spotlight.

Sonic Drift 2 (GG)

Where Mario goes, Sonic is almost doomed to follow, so when Nintendo released Super Mario Kart, it was inevitable that Sega would produce its own racing game based on its famous mascot. The original Sonic Drift is nice enough, but this sequel improves on it in every way that matters. Sure, there's no Mode 7 here, but the sense of speed is impressive, and everything controls well enough. Sonic Drift 2 is perhaps the best racing game on the Game Gear, so be sure to check it out if you feel the need for speed on your portable travels.

Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine (GG)

A westernised version of Puyo Puyo, Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine removes the Madō Monogatari characters (a series of dungeon-crawling RPGs by Japanese company Compile) and replaces them with Sonic's archnemesis, Doctor Robotnik, who is kidnapping the people of Beanville in order to turn them into his robot army. The storyline is entirely superfluous, of course, because the real star of the show here is the addictive bean-matching gameplay.

Baku Baku Animal (GG)

Baku Baku Animal is one of the Saturn's best puzzle titles, and Sega was smart enough to realise it would work just as well in portable form, hence this Game Gear version. While it looks very similar to other games of this type, Baku Baku Animal's unique hook is that the falling food items must be matched with the relevant animal to remove them from play. Setting up massive chains based on this is incredibly addictive.

Sylvan Tale (GG)

This Zelda-style action-adventure was only ever released in Japan, but thankfully an English language patch exists. While it's hardly the deepest or most demanding game of this type, Sylvan Tale is attractive to look at, and the soundtrack by Saori Kobayashi (Panzer Dragoon Saga, Panzer Dragoon Orta) is easy on the ears, too. The gameplay is composed of the usual mix of puzzle-solving, NPC interaction and combat; this is one of the Game Gear's lesser-known RPGs, and a must for fans of that particular genre.

Dynamite Headdy (GG)

Like Gunstar Heroes, this is a portable version of Treasure's Mega Drive / Genesis classic. Again, things have had to be pared back in order to get it onto the console, so don't expect quite the same technical tour-de-force as you're used to on Sega's 16-bit system. Nonetheless, Dynamite Headdy is a real blast and one of the better action platformers on the handheld.

Mega Man (GG)

Despite the title, this isn't a port of the original NES Mega Man, but a new entry which takes elements from the NES series and pulls them together into a single adventure. Developed by a company called Freestyle rather than Capcom, Mega Man was exclusive to North America and never got a European or Japanese release. Once you get over the fact that the playing area feels really cramped due to the Game Gear's low resolution, there's fun to be had here; the Mega Man community often overlooks this particular outing, but we think it's one of the Game Gear's better platformers.

Factory Panic (GG)

The Japanese version of Factory Panic, titled Ganbare Gorby, stars a parody of the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who must utilise a series of conveyor belts to send goods to his people, who are situated outside the factory. This obviously wouldn't fly in the west, so Gorby was replaced with a generic child who performs the same duties, sending bread, meat and even Game Gear consoles to the waiting populace. It's a fun mix of puzzling and action, and one that is particular well-suited to the Game Gear.

Ninja Gaiden (GG)

Bit of an odd one, this. While the game is called Ninja Gaiden and has Tecmo's name attached, it's actually a totally original game by Sega which merely uses that series as a foundation. While Ryu Hayabusa's move set is very similar to that seen in the arcade and NES outings, the adventure is very different – which will no doubt have led to some disappointed punters back in the day, who were hoping this would be a portable version of the original game. Still, Sega has worked wonders here, creating an action platformer that is packed with challenge and style.