The release of Game Gear by Sega in 1990 brought with it a new level of gaming potential. Competition in the handheld gaming market was fierce. Nintendo’s Game Boy dominated the market, but Sega was determined to make its mark. The result was the Game Gear, and it did not disappoint.
The console had an 8-bit 3.5 MHz processor (Zilog Z80), 8 KB of RAM, a 3.2-inch backlit LCD, and a 4096-color palette. It was truly ahead of its time. The potential for a whole new generation of gaming experiences was huge. And it didn’t take long for developers to start exploring the possibilities of this powerful handheld game console.
Any fan of open-world gaming will be familiar with Grand Theft Auto, Fallout, and The Elder Scrolls. However, before those games existed, Sega’s Game Gear was home to some awe-inspiring sandbox experiences. Here is our take on 7 of the best Sega Game Gear sandbox games.
What is a Sandbox Game?
Sandbox games can incorporate different types of gameplay. Some are open worlds where players can freely explore and interact with the environment. Others feature non-linear storytelling, where the player chooses their path. Still others focus on emergent gameplay, where the environment adapts to the player’s decisions.
Essentially, it’s a game with minimal character limitations. The gamer can roam the world without restrictions, crafting their own unique story as they go. Unlike more linear games, sandbox games often feature an open-ended experience.
Was the Sega Game Gear Known for Sandbox Games?
For starters, the sandbox isn’t a genre but a game style. So, when we talk about sandbox games on the Sega Game Gear, we’re referring to any game that offers an open-world, non-linear story, believable agents, automation, or emergent gameplay.
Many games released on the Game Gear during its lifetime offered sandbox elements. From action-adventure titles to role-playing games, there was a lot of variety. While it’s not fair to say that the console was known for sandbox gaming, it certainly had its share of titles.
7. Streets of Rage 2
Streets of Rage 2 is one of the most beloved Sega games ever. Yuzo Koshiro’s classic beat ’em up was released on the Mega Drive in 1992, but it also saw a port to the Game Gear the following year. It was a bold move as such an ambitious game rarely made it to handhelds back then.
Even the most demanding critics praised the game’s level designs, characters, and music. Streets of Rage 2 cleverly used its open-ended nature for more replay value. Even though it had linear levels with set objectives like any other brawler, players could find multiple paths to complete them. They could also experiment with different moves and strategies.
The replayability factor was further increased with un-lockables and secrets that could be found throughout the levels. Players could also find new characters, upgrades, and cheat codes in certain stages. The game became a cult classic on Game Gear thanks to its mix of sandbox elements and action-packed battles.
We can’t forget to mention the fantastic soundtrack composed by Yuzo Koshiro. It’s widely considered one of the best video game soundtracks in history, and it was a massive part of Streets of Rage 2’s success on Game Gear. Sega Retro gave it a fair 77 out of 100.
The Game Gear was home to many classic puzzle games, and Columns was one of the best. Developed by Jay Geertsen in 1989, it was an early example of a matching game that spawned countless clones. Deemed Sega’s answer to Tetris, Columns was a delightful and addictive puzzle game.
It may not have had the sandbox elements of other games on this list, but it was still an open-ended game. Approaching each level differently would yield different results. Players could take their time and plan or play faster and be more aggressive. Nothing was scripted, and the game was really in the hands of the player.
The gameplay starts with falling jewels from the top of the screen. Players need to match jewels of three different colors to clear them from the board. Clearing more lines with one move was rewarded with higher points and bigger combos. Repeated combos spawn power-ups that can give players a big advantage.
Columns was deep, creative, and endlessly re-playable. Even with its age, the game still has a dedicated fan base. No wonder it still holds an impressive average score of 80 on Sega Retro for its Game Gear version.
- Drift back in time to ancient Phoenicia and challenge yourself with Columns
- Played by Middle Eastern merchants centuries ago
- Tinker with your riches to align glittering jewels across, down, or diagonally
5. Ecco The Dolphin
Take a break from the landlubber life and embark on an aquatic adventure with Ecco The Dolphin. If anything, this game proves that open-world games can be just as compelling when you take them underwater.
Released in 1992, Ecco the Dolphin was a critical and commercial success and it wasn’t hard to see why. For one thing, the game was a graphical masterpiece. It featured beautifully-rendered art and detailed sprites that brought the underwater world to life.
The storyline was compelling, too. Echo survives a giant vortex that sucks up all the marine life around in the bay. He must investigate what happened to his pod, and in the quest, he must traverse oceans and explore hidden caverns. He learns of the ancient aliens and the power of song.
The game was quite non-linear, too. Players could roam the open environments freely, explore the ocean bed, and find secret passageways. Ecco can use echolocation and use ‘sonar blasts’ to interact with the environment. As with other sandbox games, the game adapts to the player’s decisions. Reviewers on Sega Retro gave it a generous 84 average score.
- You are Ecco, a powerful young dolphin. A mysterious storm has swept your family from the sea. The search to find them will take you through vast underwater realms of treachery, beauty and adventure....
4. Defenders of Oasis
Defenders of Oasis packs a punch for a handheld game. Developed by Ancient and released in 1992, this action-adventure RPG was one of the most ambitious titles on the Game Gear. It is an open-world game set in a mythical land in the Middle-East.
The player takes control of the prince of Shanadar, who forms a party of three characters to take on his quest. The game featured side-scrolling levels, bosses to battle, and puzzles to solve. As an RPG, the game also featured a level-up system and equipment that can be bought or upgraded.
However, its unpredictable and emergent behavior makes it stand out as a sandbox game. The enemies and the environment react to the player in real-time. The game enters into combat at random intervals, and the players must coordinate to take on the foes. If one player takes too many hits, another can come in to help.
Far from the linearity of most Game Gear titles, Defenders of Oasis made good use of its medium. Most gamers won’t forget the moments when they explored and discovered its secrets. One of the best titles on the console, it holds an impressive 86 average score on Sega Retro.
3. Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse
Brilliant animation, intriguing level design, and Mickey Mouse — what more could you ask for in a game? Perhaps a retro-style platformer with sandbox-style elements? Well, Castle Of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse had all that and much more.
Initially released in 1990 for the Mega Drive/Genesis, Castle of Illusion made its way to the Game Gear in 1993. The game was a traditional side-scrolling platformer where players could take control of the iconic cartoon character and explore whimsical levels.
Not your typical sandbox game, Castle of Illusion had its unique sandbox-like elements. Players could explore each level freely, uncovering secrets and solving puzzles. For instance, Mickey could collect magical items like apples, gems, and stars. The game would adapt to the player’s decisions, too.
Players could combine different items and spend their gems on power-ups, giving Mickey an edge in his quest. It was a great example of how traditional 2D platformers can be given a new twist with some clever design. A Sega Retro average score of 87 is a testament to the game’s enduring appeal.
2: Sonic The Hedgehog 2
You can’t talk about the Sega Game Gear without mentioning Sonic the Hedgehog. One of the best-selling titles on the console was Sonic the Hedgehog 2, an action-packed platformer starring our favorite blue hedgehog, Sonic.
The 1992 sequel improved upon the success of its predecessor in nearly every way. The graphics were better, the levels were longer and more varied, the gameplay was faster-paced, and it even featured multiplayer options. However, the one thing that made Sonic 2 stand out was its open-world feel.
The plot was still linear, and the levels were still finite, but the game gave players more freedom to explore. Sonic could collect rings, hit switches, and uncover secret zones. Plus, the game had alternate routes and shortcuts to spice things up. Boss fights at the end of each level added to the challenge.
Sonic 2 was the quintessential Sonic experience, and it was a fantastic game on the Game Gear. It holds a respectable 87 average score on Sega Retro, proving it to be one of the best sandbox games on the console.
1. Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine
The 1993 puzzle game Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine is a classic. Developed by Compile and released on the Genesis and Game Gear, it was Sega’s answer to Capcom’s famous Puzzle Fighter franchise. However, Mean Bean Machine was more than a clone. It had its own twists and mechanics that set it apart.
The game is set in the Sonic universe, but the gameplay doesn’t involve running around levels or collecting coins. Instead, it relies more on quick reflexes and strategy to build bigger chains. Players must match four beans of the same color to clear them from the grid. With each move, beans drop down in a continuous chain and fill up the board quickly.
The falling beans can trigger more combos that can clear more beans from the board. There are no scripted events. Every move depends on the player’s strategy and reflexes. Even with time pressure and gravity doing their thing, players have plenty of room for creativity.
An element of unpredictability and emergent behavior gives the game a sandbox-like feel. Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine had gameplay that was easy to learn but tough to master. It was a sleeper hit on Genesis and Game Gear, scoring 88 out of 100 at Sega Retro.
Any retro gamer familiar with the Sega Game Gear knows it was a console full of surprises. While it had its share of half-baked clones, plenty of great titles pushed the hardware’s limits. Sandbox titles were a highlight on the console, with each game blending the genres of action-adventure and platforming in its own unique way.
The seven games discussed here are the absolute best Sega Game Gear sandbox games of all time. From classic platformers to puzzle classics, these titles show how developers managed to create a massive world in such small spaces. A lot of effort and imagination went into making this library of games. While they may be simple by today’s standards, they are some of the most beloved titles on the console.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Christos Film/Shutterstock.com.