SEGA’s Switch Predecessor: What Happened to the Nomad?

No, we're not mad.

Genesis Nomad
Genesis Nomad

Never heard of the Nomad? Sega had such a turbulent existence from the mid-90s to when they dropped out of console manufacturing entirely in 2001, it’s understandable if you’ve never heard of the Genesis Nomad. The last true handheld console released by Sega, the Nomad was another interesting attempt at keeping the Genesis library relevant as the system itself was near the end of its lifespan.

Much like the Sega Channel, another Genesis tie-in that ended in relative failure, the Nomad was just a victim of very poor timing, and perhaps the same absent-mindedness Sega gifted many of their major releases that led to many of the company’s problems in the first place.

Released in 1995 exclusively in North America, the Genesis Nomad is something that even a well-versed Sega fan can be surprised to learn about. Poorly marketed and extremely limited in where it was available, on top of Sega region-locking the device, created another situation for the arcade legends that on paper sounds doomed from the start.

Was that the case? Was the Nomad an afterthought at Sega within moments of its release? Let’s take a look at the four-year lifespan of a handheld that promised with all sincerity to let you play Sega Genesis games on the go.

The amazing thing about the Nomad is that it actually worked. Sort of. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it was also technologically impressive for 1995. With a library as deep as that of the Genesis six years into its run, it couldn’t be a complete disaster if it tried. But it comes close to that.

By the mid-90s, Sega was reeling from a few bad business decisions, particularly the Sega 32X and the underrated Sega CD. They were still very much in the fight with Nintendo, and it’s rumored that they originally saw the Nomad as the successor to their Sega Game Gear. Codenamed Project Venus, it was said that touchscreen technology was originally considered for the Nomad, but the idea was supposedly scrapped over concerns that it would cost too much. The Game Gear was technically still in production at this time, although nearing the end of its life in 1996 in Japan and 1997 everywhere else, so the Nomad would eventually become the last true Sega handheld. A true Game Gear successor never actually materialized.

Unless, of course, you’re counting the Dreamcast VMU, which, you know, maybe. If you want.

Sega Dreamcast

Rumors aside, what we know for sure is that the Sega Genesis Nomad was born out of a 1994 Japan exclusive known as the Sega Mega Jet. Besides being really fun to say aloud, the Sega Mega Jet was a fascinating product that was mostly made available on airplanes. This semi-portable device could be rented on flights and could only work if it was connected to a TV screen and a power source, with many planes in the Japan Airlines fleet featuring small LCD screens that could be used to entertain passengers.

Requiring an external power supply and not having its own screen, you can hardly call the Sega Mega Jet a success. But it inspired Sega of America to take the concept further. Sega of Japan did make the Mega Jet available in stores for a very brief window, but the device would only work with cars that had a TV screen and a cigarette lighter for charging, so it sold very poorly and was gone in seemingly weeks.

Production of the Sega Genesis Nomad would begin at some point in 1994. Sega made a wide range of announcements that were covered by the likes of Game Pro in March of 1995. Among plans for the eventual release of the Sega Saturn, as well as the desperate bid to get the 32X over by selling it with the Genesis as a dual console, there was the announcement of the Nomad as a handheld that Sega of America President Tom Kalinske was still calling Project Venus. He indicated that the device did not have a release date as “Sega doesn’t feel it can comfortably price the unit for consumers.”

But eventually, they did hit a price that they felt consumers could live with. The Nomad would be released in October 1995 at a price of US$180. With a backlit 3” LCD screen, the Nomad’s feature set was identical to that of the model 2 Mega Drive, utilizing a 6-button control pad. Using the same power and video cables as a regular Genesis meant the Nomad could be hooked up to any normal television. There was even a 2nd DE-9 port for a 2nd player.

The device saw little promotion before or after its release, save for some sparse magazine advertisements. While it reviewed fairly well in publications like Game Players and in EGM’S 1998 Video Game Buyers Guide, no really gave a shit about the Nomad. This included Sega of Japan, who were far more interested in focusing their time and energy on the Sega Saturn. In 1995 alone, Sega technically supported the Genesis, the 32X, the Sega CD, the Game Gear, the 32X-CD, and the freaking Sega Pico. They wanted to streamline all of that madness, and really didn’t see the point in putting time and resources behind anything related to the Mega Drive, which sold very poorly in Japan to begin with.

In other words, the Nomad was another dead-on-arrival Sega product. The Nomad sold roughly one million units, and it’s easy to see why. Besides the fact that Sega didn’t seem to care, the system suffered from two other major issues. Firstly, no one really cared about the Genesis by 1995. 3D gaming was just starting to really take hold, and with most gamers looking ahead to a generation of consoles that would include the Sony PlayStation, there wasn’t a lot of emotion left for a console that debuted in 1989.

The other problem facing the Nomad is one you may have already guessed. Requiring a staggering six batteries to play, the Nomad needed a fresh half-dozen every 3-5 hours. Even in 1995, that was going to get a little pricey pretty quickly. It seems like Sega hadn’t quite learned from the Game Gear’s battery munching antics.

Then there’s that dreaded blurring that cursed most handhelds from this era. The early LCD technology behind the Nomad was impressive, but it was also subject to what is known as “ghosting”, a blurring of the screen caused by its inability to refresh fast enough to keep up with the game you’re playing. This was particularly problematic on the Nomad, since we’re talking about games with far more pixels than anything else appearing on portables. Even if your character was standing perfectly still, certain intricate details were completely lost. A small handful of games flat-out didn’t work or had issues, including X-Men, Golden Axe 2, and King of the Monsters.

The Nomad just didn’t have enough behind its ambitious concept. Sega somehow continued to support the system until the end of the 90s, but people stopped caring long before that. A Nomad today isn’t hard to track down, but you’ll be paying at least US$250 for one.

In a different universe, we’d like to think the Nomad had a nicer run than what we got here, but we’ll always have the memories. Not really, because most of us never even laid eyes on this thing, but someone somewhere has fond memories of the Genesis Nomad.

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