Gaming To-Go Part 2: Gameboy and beyond
For more than 10 years various portable games came and went, mostly focusing on a single title in custom hardware, then in 1989 it all hit at once. With such a small gap between releases it was clear that multiple companies were developing cartridge-based portable consoles. Most portable systems in history moving forward had one simple goal: to port home console games to handhelds as faithfully as possible. While some gems of creativity did spawn from portables that were clearly not ports, the main goal of many developers was always about getting those console ports in the palm of your hand.
Gameboy – Launch Price: $89.99 – Released: 1989
In every way shape and form, the Nintendo Gameboy was designed to be a portable NES. The brainchild of Gunpei Yokoi (Game & Watch series) and Nintendo Research & Development 1 (R&D1), known best for the creation of Metroid, the Gameboy was defined by one game: Tetris. Not only was the portable 8-bit console looking as promising as the NES – complete with launch titles Super Mario Land and a handful of all-too-familiar titles that launched the NES like Baseball and Tennis – but Nintendo picked the ultimate pack-in. With the Gameboy, Nintendo linked to a more casual market as well as the NES and gamer faithful, which was no more clear than the inclusion of Tetris, not Super Mario Land, in the box. Tetris fever was rampant in the United States at the time, some six or more versions were floating around on various platforms by 1989, and the Gameboy was a convenient and relatively inexpensive (Tetris was around $40 in most software versions) way to get a versatile version of the game. Starting in 1990, after many children and adults alike received a Gameboy for Christmas, it was not uncommon to see people in public grinding away the hours on a Gameboy. What was unique is that they almost always were playing Tetris and nothing else.
Now that doesn’t mean the Gameboy remained a Tetris console, not at all. As time went on plenty of games received the Gameboy treatment with varying results. One of the biggest problems was that the LCD screen had a lot of issues with blur, making images, pixels, and moving characters (namely the person you’re controlling) difficult to control. To add to this issue was the fact that it wasn’t backlit, so you had to find that happy medium between enough light to see and not too much to cause glare (like sunlight). The games themselves also had issues with sprite size, making characters too big for the screen. While large sprites on the Gameboy did look good, the side effect was that you wouldn’t be able to see dangers around you and therefore died often with enemies and/or traps above and below. Metroid II, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan, and just about all the Mega Man games suffered this issue. On the other hand, Wario found his place in the Nintendo multiverse thanks to the Super Mario Land series (and eventual Wario Land) and the SaGa series was born in the form of Final Fantasy Legend. Not to be mistaken with Final Fantasy Adventure, another popular title on the Gameboy, Final Fantasy Legend helped start the strength of RPGs on portables. Arcade titles also had their shot on the portable with games like Alleyway (Arkanoid clone), R-Type, Donkey Kong ’94 (an amazing sequel to the original arcade), Qix and oh so many more with varying results. Even later arcade titles, mostly fighters, made appearences on the portable with Pit Fighter, Street Fighter II, and Mortal Kombat, which were all pretty terrible.
Gameboy not only had a large influence on the birth of portable gaming but it also lasted what is essentially forever. Several different versions released including the “Play It Loud!’ see-through model in 1995, the Gameboy Pocket in 1996, the Gameboy Light in 1998, which doesn’t even cover the Gameboy Color line (discussed later in this article). Despite several options, including newer generations of Nintendo portables, being on the market, the Gameboy stayed strong well after its time. This is due mostly to two major factors. The first is the failure of the Virtual Boy, which released in 1995 and was supposed to be the 3D successor to the Gameboy. Unfortunately the Virtual Boy wasn’t really portable, cheap, or popular and even caused vision and balance issues with some consumers. For that reason the Virtual Boy will receive its own article separate from either home or portable consoles, and the Gameboy was expected to pick up the reigns of the portable market in 1995. In addition a little licensed title called Pokemon breathed new life into the already dated system and had a whole new audience picking up Gameboys again. Gameboy was already nine years old in 1998 when Pokemon Red & Blue came out in America, but that didn’t stop everyone from getting Nintendo’s handheld as a Christmas gift yet again. While it did have support for those that moved on to the Gameboy Color, the traditional Gameboy support allowed a huge audience to appreciate it, many spending about the same amount for the game as the cost of a used Gameboy. There’s no telling exactly when the Gameboy officially died, but with more than 118 million units sold worldwide, it definitely stands as the portable platform of the 90s.
Lynx – Launch Price: $189.95 – Released: 1989
Atari’s portable is interesting because it was technologically much more impressive than the Gameboy, came out at the same time as the Gameboy, boasted a backlit color screen and Atari had no home console to copy games from. Unfortunately, the Lynx did not sell for a number of reasons, the strongest being a weak software library. Aside from that the price alone was discouraging – you could purchase a Gameboy for $90, an NES for $100, and a Sega Genesis for the same price in 1989. Power consumption was also a major and expensive issue with 6 AAs only lasting about 4 hours compared to the 10-12 hours of the 4 AAs in a Gameboy, and although there were AC/DC cords the concept of portability was completely lost. Finally the Lynx suffered distribution issues during the holidays in 1989, which resulted in a miniscule stock of the Lynx alongside the wall of Gameboys at less than half the price. Those that had the money or were gifted the console also noted that it was very bulky and as I remember nearly impossible to move around.
If you can get past all those flaws, the console itself was impressive with a 4 mhz 8-bit processor (about the same speed as an SNES), 4 channel sound, a 3.5″ 4,096 color LCD display with 16 simultaneous color support and up to 2 MB cartridges. Many of the titles are ports including the launch title California Games, often praised as a very faithful version of the Commodore 64 release. Arcade classics like Ninja Gaiden and Double Dragon suffered from the fact that they were faithful ports from their coin-op classics and thus the inferior versions when compared to the NES releases. Plenty of other games are great on-the-go versions of home games but the Lynx truly proves that portable versions of home/computer games isn’t always as good as it sounds. A canceled version of Aliens vs. Predator might have been cool, especially when you consider the developer was Rebellion, who was also known for the Jaguar and later versions of the series. As it stands, the Lynx died a slow and painful death as both portables and consoles released around its potluck library that never saw much 3rd party support.
TurboExpress – Launch Price: $249.99 – Released: 1990
This is the best example of portables having the sole purpose of home consoles ports – the TurboExpress is just a Turbografx-16 made into a portable. Selling for as much as $299.99, the price dropped to the more acceptable $199.99 within two years, but by then you could pick up a clearance TG-16 at Toys R Us for like $50. With a 400×270 2.6″ (same size as Gameboy) color LCD that was very advanced and super sharp for its time, TurboExpress demonstrated the issues with porting to handhelds. First of all there was an issue with distribution in that the Turbografx-16 was already losing steam and had very few games from a relatively small library on store shelves. Additionally the price was ridiculous, you could get an SNES and a Gameboy at the same price. The console also suffered plenty of problems with both graphics and sound – the sound could cut out from bad capacitors with the only solution to replace them on the board and the cutting edge LCDs had frequent dead pixels. It also foreshadowed another issue: small text. Since many TG-16 titles were initially Japanese, text told many a story and on such a small display with no compensation for the portable the text was completely unreadable. To no surprise the TurboVision TV tuner that included RCA inputs was an expensive and unnecessary add-on, with portable TVs being cheaper than the add-on. It was known as the “Rolls Royce of handhelds” and just like the prestigious car, it had the same size customer base.
Gamate – Launch Price: $100 (approx, see below) – Released: 1990
Virtually unknown to most people not in Taiwan and China, this Bit Corporation Gameboy clone actually saw worldwide release including Europe and the United States. I have never seen one of these in the classic gaming expos I’ve gone to, but I do know they exist thanks to sites like eBay. This was a true Gameboy clone through and through with identical LCD display (including resolution), same power consumption (4 AA batteries), and almost all of the software cloned classics like Tetris, Bomberman and Lode Runner under different names like Treasure Hunter. Fortunately the parts and assembly are also mostly cloned from the Gameboy in that they are quality and durable save for the horrendous mono speaker in the console. Software was released on credit card-style chips that resembled the Turbografx-16 HuCard and Sega Master System Cards. There is said to be a rumored 70 games, although others have claimed the true library could be as little as half that many, but due to scarcity it’s probably impossible to tell. The only pricing info I could find was an ad offering it for 60 British pounds, which in 1990 converted to $96.60, accounting for the approximate $100 launch price. Given the low distribution, obvious attempt to clone the Gameboy, and cheap look I’m not shocked that few gamers, even retro ones, are aware of this console. Bit Corp went under in 1992, less than two years after the release, but UMC/Funtech picked up the reigns for an undisclosed period of time before the console and software was discontinued.
Game Gear – Launch Price: $150 – Released: 1991
For all intents and purposes, the Game Gear was a portable version of the Sega Master System that also supported more colors and stereo sound, despite most games not taking advantage. Sega and Nintendo were definitely competing on the portable front as well as the home console front, although the Gameboy had a lot of momentum before the Game Gear hit. At the time, however, SNES was not out so Sega fans could stand proudly with the technically superior Genesis/Game Gear combo compared to the NES/Gameboy – then again, portables have proven that better tech is usually a hindrance. Touting a 3.2″ (about 30 percent larger than Gameboy) color LCD at the standard Gameboy resolution of 160×144, this beast also gulped battery life at only 4-5 hours per 6 AAs. Rechargeable battery packs were more standard at this point, so the Game Gear fortunately was a bit more manageable than the Lynx had been.
Ironically enough the Game Gear was probably responsible for the prolonged life of the Master System and ports of games like Sonic the Hedgehog given the similar hardware. There was even an adapter called the Master Gear Converter that allowed Master System carts to be played on the Game Gear. Due to the color increase, it was not possible to put Game Gear games on Master System, but most popular titles saw a Master System release as well. The console came with pack-in Columns, Sega’s version of Tetris, to continue the Gameboy trend and launched with only six games. Obviously titles like Sonic the Hedgehog and Disney licenses were the most popular, but as a Game Gear owner the controversial bloody version of Mortal Kombat was a decent portable port and early shooter Aerial Assault is still my top pick for original games. Altogether there were nearly 400 (363-390 titles depending on the source) not counting the Master System games, which is an impressive library even compared to Gameboy’s massive 800+ title lineup.
Supervision – Launch Price: $49.99 – Released: 1992
Another Gameboy clone, the Supervision by Watara originated in Asia and had a bit more love in Europe as opposed to the United States. With a slightly higher resolution display of 160×160, slightly smaller display and power consumption that’s nearly the same as Gameboy on 4 AAs, it’s a clone through and through. I don’t recall ever seeing these on store shelves, but then I had already traded my Gameboy for a Game Gear so it would have held no interest to me. Like the Gamate, the Supervision used altered names to clone many popular portable titles (much like the pre-1983 consoles had) but with the strength of Nintendo’s first party titles on the Gameboy, no one was interested. It was offered as prizes in the early 90s on Nickelodeon’s Legends of the Hidden Temple and the New Price is Right, but by that point in 1994 no one even noticed it existed. The Supervision lives on strongly in emulation, a fitting place for it given that most of its games are either unlicensed clones or pirate titles anyway.
Nomad – Launch Price: $180 – Released: 1995
Sega’s biggest problem with the Nomad, a portable version of the Genesis, was very similar to the TurboExpress – it was far too expensive and the Genesis was at the end of its life span. By the time of its release the Sega 32X was fizzling out, the Saturn about to release and new Genesis software was all but non-existent. Furthermore, the battery life was horrid and due to the lower voltage of rechargeable AAs (1.2v vs. 1.5v) the Nomad would run dimly or much shorter life without the expensive $80 battery pack. In addition, the big selling point for the Genesis in 1995 was the inexpensive cost of the Sega CD and 32X expansion, mostly incompatible on the Nomad, and it was pretty much pointless if it wasn’t portable. Sega decided to drop the price to $79.99 in 1996 but with the Saturn, Playstation and N64 all on store shelves no one cared. Nomad is now popular today as an alternative to a Genesis thanks to the ability to hook it up to a television, solid display and ability to play imports with little to no issue.
Most remarkable about these portables and many that followed is the fact that console manufacturers like Nintendo and Sega didn’t program regional lockout chips. This makes the import gaming scene on portables very tempting and explains why European and Japanese titles are much easier to find than their home console counterpart. Still, it’s clear that the goal of most of these handhelds was to port home games to a portable format. Thankfully all of that began to change with the next wave of portables started by none other than Nintendo with the Gameboy Color. Check it out in Gaming To-Go Part 3.