The technology behind the Sega Genesis Nomad (a.k.a. "Project Venus") traces back to the Mega Jet, a semi-portable Mega Drive (the name of the Genesis console in Japan and Europe) that was used on flights by Japan Airlines (JAL). The device did not feature its own screen, nor could it run on batteries, but the condensed unit played Mega Drive cartridges when linked to a small monitor (used by JAL) or a regular television. Besides having a slot to insert cartridges, the black unit featured a directional pad on the left side and six buttons on the right, similar to the layout of a game controller.
After earning its wings on JAL, the Mega Jet was released by Sega of Japan on March 10, 1994 at the cost of 15,000 Yen ($123 U.S.). The system came with a mono DIN plug cord as well as an AC adapter, but no other additions or improvements. Those in the media were thinking if the system had only included a screen and battery support, Sega could once again compete in the handheld market. Little did they know the company was already working on such a system...
Released in the United States in October 1995, the Sega Genesis Nomad featured a 3.25 inch color LCD screen and received power via six AA batteries, making it the most advanced portable game machine at the time. Not only was the Nomad the first true 16-bit handheld, but it offered several features that set it apart from previous color portables. For starters, an A/V Out plug was located at the top of the black rectangular unit, letting owners play games on a television screen with a separate A/V cable.
Linking the handheld to a television did not mean owners lost the ability to play games using the Nomad's screen, however. Thus one player could witness the action from a TV while the other watched from the Nomad. The directional pad on the unit controlled all one-player games, and a port on the bottom allowed a second pad to be plugged in for two-player contests.
The unit itself looked similar to the Game Gear, only it was slightly heavier and "boxier" due to differences in cartridge size and technology. The Nomad measured 7.25 inches across, four inches in height and nearly two inches in thickness. The unit featured a cartridge slot, red power switch, A/V Out plug and a DC In plug at the top, while a headphone jack, volume dial, controller input and brightness dial appeared on the bottom. The screen was centered in between a directional pad on the left and six buttons on the right. A low-battery indicator, mode button (used to select three- or six-button games) and start button were also located on the Nomad's face.
While the machine was praised for its screen resolution and features, there were some problems worth noting. First, the Sega Genesis 32X and Sega CD were not compatible with the unit. In addition, Sega's Power Base Converter used to play Sega Master System games was also incompatible with the device, although the peripheral had long been retired from the company's lineup. Players were also warned not to use the AC adapter from either the Sega CD or the original Genesis (Model MK-1610), meaning an additional purchase was necessary for owners of these two units.
The six batteries were not a serious option for most users, since the manual not-so-subtly stated: "When using alkaline batteries, you should have about two hours of continuous gameplay." As owners of the most power-hungry handheld released thus far, players had one of two options: purchase the rechargeable Genesis Nomad PowerBack (MK-6102, 6103) for $59.99 or go with the cheaper AC adapter (MK-2103, MK-1619) at $29.99. Of course, using the AC adapter meant the system lost its portability, although the $19.99 car adapter (MK-2104, MK-2115) meant gamers could plug the unit into a vehicle's cigarette lighter.
The system also supported both stereo and mono audio/visual cables as well as an RF adapter for televisions without input jacks. While none of these cables were included with the system, players who already owned one or more for their current Genesis could readily use them on the Nomad. Other peripherals supported included the Mega Mouse, Activator (a floor device that used body motions to control games), Team Player Adaptor and the 6 Button Arcade Stick. Those who enjoyed multi-player gaming with Electronic Arts' 4 Way Play adapter were out of luck, however.
On paper, it would seem the Sega Genesis Nomad would be the perfect color portable, addressing all of the faults from previous handhelds to make it a serious threat to the Game Boy's future dominance. Didn't like the original Game Boy's screen? The Nomad had a full-color, backlit display. Upset by the lack of software for the Lynx or the TurboExpress? The Nomad supported an estimated 600 titles already on the shelves. The two things it didn't have going for it were the lack of a TV tuner accessory and the original price of $179.99 without a pack-in.
Still, the cost shouldn't have been too prohibitive considering the technology involved. Unlike the TurboExpress, gamers could play their portable on any television, and the game library covered all major genres. The unit also supported two players by including a port on its base. Factor in the color screen and you have what should have been an instant hit. Yet sales weren't as brisk as many had hoped, and the system began dropping in price within a year of its release.
Despite the price falling to $99.99 and then $79.99, the handheld did not garner enough support to make it anything more than a footnote in Sega's growing lineup of failures. Ironically, the name given to the handheld became a self-fulfilling prophecy; the Nomad couldn't find a home. Part of the problem may have been the alienation gamers felt with the lack of support given to the Sega CD, CDX, Menacer (Sega's light gun), 32X and Activator.
And then there was the 32-bit Saturn that was thrust upon gamers without even a warning on May 11, 1995. Sega wanted to surprise consumers and get a leg up on the PlayStation, but what they did was send mixed signals to loyal, trusting Genesis owners. After all, the Nomad was released at the tail end of the last great year for the Genesis. How much longer would Sega support the system? If the 32X was any indication of things to come, it wouldn't be long. The reason for the Nomad's failure may have very well been a combination of poor timing, company mistrust and the relatively high cost of the machine (without a pack-in). Genesis owners were too skittish to invest in another 16-bit system.
If nothing more, the Nomad served as the final ring in the wakeup call to Sega. Their next system would be approached in a different manner, and steps would be taken to ensure the same mistakes weren't repeated with the Dreamcast. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide