This is my Sega Nomad, the portable version of the venerable Sega Genesis videogame console, introduced in 1995. I don’t remember which thrift store I found it at, but it’s likely to have been the old State Road Goodwill, sometime in the early 2000s.
The Genesis is better known as “the Sega” (as in, “remember when were were kids and played Sega at your house?”) than by it’s real name. It was Sega’s one and only true hardware success.
By the end of the 1980s through a combination of quality first party games and tight control of third party publishers Nintendo had come to dominate the home videogame console market. The Genesis broke Nintendo’s near monopoly and setup the first great “console war” of the 1990s. Powered by the venerable Motorola 68000 CPU (which also powered the Apple Macintosh and is one of the great CPUs of all time) the Genesis was home to Sonic the Hedgehog, edgy fighting games, and popular sports games.
While they were riding high on the success of the Genesis in the early to mid 1990s Sega made some bizarre decisions about videogame hardware that damaged their relationship with consumers in the years to follow.
There are a lot of companies that you come to find out 20 years later had design concepts or prototypes for ideas that seemed really cool but in retrospect were probably best left on the drawing board. These drawings for Atari computers that never were and these Apple prototype designs come to mind. There are probably sound reasons why these things were never produced for sale. In Sega’s case, they actually produced some of their bizarre ideas and basically every one of them was either an embarrassing failure or was received with apathy by the public.
When you consider the numbers of consoles and hardware add-ons for consoles that Sega either produced or licensed to other companies it’s staggering to think how much hardware they produced in such short a time between 1991 and 1995:
- There were two versions of the Sega CD that added better graphics and a CD-ROM to the Genesis.
- The Sega CDX that combined the Genesis and the Sega CD into one semi-portable console.
- The Sega 32X add-on for the Genesis that added somewhat pathetic 32-bit CPUs to extend the Genesis’s lifespan.
- An attachment for the Pioneer LaserActive that combined Genesis and Sega CD hardware with a LaserDisc player.
- The JVC X’Eye that was a combination Genesis and Sega CD console licensed to JVC.
- The Sega TeraDrive that somewhat unbelievably combined an 286-based PC and a Genesis.
The Nomad is another one of these bizarre hardware ideas. The technology of 1995 could not provide the Nomad with a crisp screen, a manageable size, or anything that could be considered better than horrendous battery life.
Here’s the back of the Nomad. Notice there is no battery compartment but there are contacts for a battery accessory. You were expected to attach an external battery pack to the back of the Nomad to actually use it as a portable game system. Without the pack, the Nomad is already over 1.5 inches thick on it’s “thin” edge. I don’t have a battery pack so I can’t speak directly to what the weight and battery life are like with the pack installed, but you read phrases like “the low battery light told you when the Nomad was on” and “horrendous” to describe the battery life.
The Nomad’s screen, while much better at producing color at the Casio TV-1000 I blogged about in February, has some serious issues with ghosting. As you can imagine, this is an issue with games like Sonic the Hedgehog that have fast movement.
Oddly, the blurring actually does a good job at hiding the awful color dithering in Virtua Racing.
Apparently part of the cause of the Nomad’s notoriously poor battery life is the high voltage florescent backlight which also lights the screen in an uneven way.
If you had paid $180 for a Nomad in 1995 expecting a portable Genesis as advertised, you would have cause to be unhappy. In that respect, the Nomad was a failure.
The thing is though, is that if you just consider the Nomad to be a miniature, self-contained Genesis model, it’s pretty fantastic. The saving grace of the Nomad is that it has everything a Genesis has: An AV output, a second controller port, and a six button controller. I have several Genesis controllers and I dislike all of them. The buttons feel clunky and the D-pads feel mushy. The Nomad’s controls seem much sharper. I like the smooth, convex buttons on the Nomad much better than the rough, concave buttons on most Genesis controllers.
Now, you can’t use the Nomad with the 32X (because the AV output that’s necessary to connect to the 32X is covered up by the bulk of the 32X) or the Sega CD (because the Nomad lacks the necessary expansion port) but in all other respects it IS a Genesis. It uses the same AV cables and the same power brick as the Genesis Mark 2 model. If you want to collect Genesis cartridges and play them on a real Genesis but you lack space for a real Genesis in your residence, the Nomad is for you. You would do yourself a favor though, by plugging it into a TV (especially a late-model CRT TV).
One problem the Nomad shares with the Genesis Mark 2 is that the connection between the power input and the PCB board can become weakened causing the Nomad to randomly shut off or not turn on at all. My Nomad had this problem until my father opened up the unit and re-solderer the power input’s connection to the PCB. One of the five screws on the back of the unit is a security screw, so safely cut that screw post, which does not affect the structure of the case at all.
If you really, really want to use the Nomad as a portable Genesis there are mods available to help. One mod replaces the florescent backlight with an LED for significantly improved battery life but otherwise stock appearance. Another mod replaces the mid-90s vintage LCD with a modern LCD for improved screen clarity.