Gaming To-Go Part 3: Self-Reliance
Given the low price point for both games and hardware, massive amount of ports, and obvious room in the market for clones, portables were not hard to find. It wasn’t until the late 90s that they actually found their voice, though, starting with weak license translations and resulting in full-blown solid titles developed solely for portable platforms. At the same time, many developers would revert back to ports now that they could make long RPGs of yesteryear and games from last gen run in your hand.
Game.com – Released: 1997
Pronounced “game com” and not “game dot com”, this newest handheld from Tiger Electronics was a clear attempt to make a cartridge-based handheld version of the games they popularized in the late 80s. Much like those old school handhelds, the games shared popular licenses of the time and similarities in gameplay, but for the most part were unique creations. Think of a company that only does book adaptations to film – the concept remains the same and the characters are familiar, but it’s essentially something new. This sounds like a good idea, but for some reason Tiger always seemed to miss the point of portable games and Game.com is no exception.
At first glance the Game.com seems pretty innovative and has similar features to a primitive DS. Boasting a larger dot matrix display of 200×160, it also supported limited online functionality, a touch screen and on-board ROM with a phone book, calendar, solitaire and gaming functions. While it initially required 4 AAs for near-Gameboy battery life, a pocket version would only require 2 AAs and remain consistent with battery life. The touch screen wasn’t even as responsive as a Palm, making it a rather frustrating feature to the console. To get this guy online required you to purchase a Tiger modem, connect it via serial cable and have an available ISP to bridge the connection to the Internet. From there you could upload scores and if you had the online cartridge (sold separately) you could browse e-mail and web in a text-only format. Of course this was assuming you could figure out how to make everything work as instructions online and in the manual gave incorrect directions. Aside from all that, portability was out if you planned to get online in the least and there were so few players that the leaderboard was pointless.
As for game library, Tiger decided to produce titles internally, opting for license agreements over external development and dev kits were near impossible to get. As a result, the game library was both limited and lacked innovation. Furthermore most members of the gaming press didn’t cover the console or games so there were few resources to validate the purchase of anything that came out. Eventually the console died an undocumented death only to be “revived” by the Internet in the form of independent development and a recent emulator. Given that it sold just over 250,000 units, working consoles are harder to find and cost a bit too much (>$50) online, not to mention the rarity and cost of most titles.
Gameboy Color – Launch Price: $79.99 – Released: 1998
Many gamers think that the Gameboy Color is just a Gameboy with a color LCD. While aesthetically that may make sense, and keeping all the Gameboys straight at that time was impossible, there’s a lot more going on under the hood. It still sported the Z80 8-bit processor, but at twice the speed (8 mhz over 4 mhz) and had four times the RAM size (32 KB system, 16 KB graphics). The Gameboy Color had the same resolution as its predecessor and was fully backward compatible with Gameboy titles and lasted 30+ hours on just 2 AAs. Developers had been clamoring for a new Gameboy since the old one’s hardware was nearly a decade old, but they were probably hoping for a little more of a boost than they got with the Gameboy Color. Still, it did help to spawn a large number of unique titles and interesting ports as well as adding four color shades to regular Gameboy titles.
As you can imagine, Nintendo was responsible for some of the strongest titles – Zelda fans really got a treat with Link’s Awakening DX, which added color to the Gameboy title, and both Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons released at the same time were completely different games with intermixing storylines. The Pokemon series continued with Pokemon Gold & Silver, Pokemon Yellow, and Pokemon Crystal. Warioland 2 and Warioland 3 also continued to take the reins given up by the Super Mario Land series with impressive results. Third party developers took an early shot with Lufia: The Legend Returns from Natsume, Metal Gear Solid: Ghost Babel from Konami and Resident Evil Gaiden by Capcom. In terms of ports, however, the portable was adorned with both great and terrible recreations. Donkey Kong Country actually got ported and looked like a splotchy mess of the original. The original Super Mario Bros came out in a “DX” form that added a few bonuses and the original Mario Bros on the cart, but was the beginning of a long trend of Nintendo reselling us classics. Enix released both a Dragon Warrior I & II compilation and Dragon Warrior III ports that not only featured mild graphical changes but had a new translation that ditched the Elizabethan-style text and changed names and words to be closer to the Japanese version (Dragon Quest). Near PC-port perfect versions of Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto II released from Take-Two’s Tarantula studios. Plenty of other arcade and console ports made their way, including the “DX” versions of several Gameboy games. It may not have been the improvement everyone wanted, but Gameboy Color was definitely a step in the right direction.
Neo Geo Pocket Color – Launch Price: $69.95 – Released: 1999
It would seem that the Neo Geo Pocket Color was designed specifically as a Gameboy Color killer, which is somewhat true, but this was actually a scramble by SNK to release an update to the Neo Geo Pocket released in Japan the year before. Sold exclusively by eToys in the US before hitting major US retailers around 2000, this portable gave Gameboy Color a technological run for its money. It was a portable 16-bit console with a separate Z80 8-bit processor for sound, resulting in the much cleaner soundtracks of Neo Geo Pocket Color titles. It also lasted 40+ hours on just 2 AAs, making it one of the most energy efficient portables ever released in the US.
Unfortunately SNK did a horrible job with 3rd party developers so the console is mostly made up of portable versions of Neo Geo titles. While Neo Geo Pocket Color didn’t have the graphical superiority of its console brethren, the low price and strong availability was a great opportunity for regular consumers to expose themselves to a solid library. Portable installments of Fatal Fury, King of the Fighters, Magical Drop, Metal Slug, Samurai Showdown and SNK vs. Capcom all had ports, making this the essential portable for fans of 90s fighters. It even had support for linking consoles to play these fighters against each other. The only other notable title for the console was Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure, which also allowed you to hook your Pocket Color to the Dreamcast and unlock content in Sonic Adventure. SNK suffered a collapse and folded, ending the Neo Geo Pocket Color in 2001, which most likely wouldn’t have gone on to produce much given poor third-party support. Either way, it was a decent and fitting end to the Neo Geo era.
Gameboy Advance – Launch Price: $149.99 – Released: 2001
Gameboy was clearly the portable form of the NES and Gameboy Advance (GBA) was clearly the portable SNES. Ironically, from an internal component standpoint, the GBA and SNES are quite different from one another although the heavy sprite-based library made the distinction visually difficult. An ARM processor provided a strong portable 32-bit central unit while a Z80 allowed for sound co-processing and complete backwards compatibility with the Gameboy/Gameboy color library. Additional onboard memory also allowed the Gameboy Advance to do basic 3D modeling and scaling as opposed to the Mode 7 “fake 3D” provided by the SNES. Having said all that, it was basically responsible for a heaping handful of SNES ports and thus appropriately dubbed a portable SNES.
Like the Gameboy before it, the GBA required lots of direct light to be seen and even had an anti-glare screen for direct sunlight play. This made playing under artificial light somewhat difficult without additional accessories, mostly unlicensed by Nintendo. Early Advance titles included the many remakes of Mario games in the Super Mario Advance series (don’t even bother trying to figure out the numbering system). Castlevania open-map games, dubbed “MetroidVania” by fans, started with Cirle of the Moon and continued with the much more impressive and balanced Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow. Advance Wars provided the first outing in the strategy RPG series in the US, which was addictive then as it ever was for Japanese gamers. Zelda received its next portable iteration, Minish Cap, which used the cartoonish Link and reduced the difficulty, thus splitting some fans of the series. Mario Kart Super Circuit gave gamers a portable version of the racer and returned from the roots abandoned in the N64 outing. Metroid Fusion was the next installment in the series, giving fans the first new outing in almost a decade. Of course Pokemon got two installments with Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire. This was also the console that started the WarioWare series, which I still love in every portable iteration.
It’s important to note that this was an interesting time for video game development. Many studios that were responsible for some of 2D gaming’s best titles were really sinking with the 3D gaming trend that had gone mainstream in the late 90s. With the PS2 on the horizon and no end to 3D in sight, most of these developers were working on re-released collections at budget prices. In addition the RPG, especially the Japanese RPG, was taking new shape and the traditional style just wasn’t selling, especially at $50 price tags. These developers found a new safe home on the Gameboy Advance. Treasure released a sequel to Genesis great Gunstar Heroes with Gunstar Super Heroes, just about every Final Fantasy was re-released with new translations and graphics, including Final Fantasy Tactics, Klonoa Heroes, Lufia: Ruins of Lore continued on portables and Sonic got a new side scrolling series with Sonic Advance. Tons of ports also made their way with 30 NES classics coming to the console as well as a remake of Kirby’s Adventure renamed Nightmare in Dream Land. Donkey Kong Country 1, 2, & 3, Final Fantasy Advance IV, Final Fantasy Advance VI, Final Fight One, Mortal Kombat Advance, Phantasy Star Collection, R-Type III, Shining Force, Sonic The Hedgehog Genesis, Super Ghouls & Ghosts, Super Mario World, and Yoshi’s Island plus plenty I’m sure I’m forgetting were all 16-bit console ports from the SNES and Genesis. Ports of more recent games were given limited versions like Metal Slug Advance, Max Payne, Tomb Raider, and Jet Grind Radio. Capcom also begun the way-too-large Megaman Battle Network series, which had 11 different titles (not all unique) on the console and also continued the Zero plotline from Megaman X in Megaman Zero 1-4. Despite its strong third-party support and faithful portable ports, not to mention more than 80 million units sold worldwide and even a redesign that added a backlit display (that it desperately needed), the Gameboy Advance was phased out by Nintendo in 2004 with the introduction of the DS. Needless to say, there was a lot of quality damage done in those three short years and GBA titles still sell for some high prices today.
Nokia N-Gage – Launch Price: $299.99 – Released: 2003
A hybrid between a portable gaming console and a cell phone, the N-Gage wasn’t good at either. Jokingly called the “taco phone” because you had to hold it that way during a call, no one purchased this as a cell phone. Costing nearly twice the price of a Gameboy Advance and having internal components not much different from the competitor. Sure, it was a smartphone, but given that it was more expensive than most smart phones and no one wanted to be caught talking on it, that fact was hardly a selling feature. Even worse, the cartridge slot required you to partially disassemble the console.
So few games were released on the N-Gage that it was thought of as a gimmick rather than a portable. Ports of Rayman, Splinter Cell, Tomb Raider, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Super Monkey Ball and Bomberman all cost more than the used version of the same game on consoles. No one in 2003 wanted the original Tomb Raider for $30 when they could get it used for $5. The N-Gage also had a vertical orientation more drastic than 4:3 so games looked distorted on the console. A few original titles were released, like the first person shooter Ashen, and thanks to horrendous reviews made it to the junk pile before ever being bought. I’m fairly certain that even Gamestop, EB Games, and several other used game retailers decided not to purchase or sell used copies of these games. It was a sad entry into the console gaming market and begun a trend of portable console/cell phone failures that continues today. Somehow Nokia ended up moving more than 3 million phones and kept the N-Gage on the market until 2008, but how that is possible remains a mystery to me.
Gizmondo – Launch Price: $400 (w/o “Smart Adds”) or $229.99 (with “Smart Adds”) – Released: 2005
Probably the most controversial and forward thinking device, the Gizmondo promised to be so many things at once and ended up being nothing but the worst selling portable in history. With less than 30,000 units distributed worldwide it took manufacturer/distributor Tiger Telematics (not to be mistaken with Tiger Electronics, mentioned above) less than a year to go bankrupt (March 2005-February 2006). The device was available in several ways, but in the United States it was mostly limited to mall kiosks and the official website. Furthermore there was extremely slim advertising – I never even saw any – and only 14 games released over here and those were hard to find in stock. In fact, the largest exposure the device got was when Tiger Telematics executive Stefan Eriksson was discovered to be the leader of the Uppsala mafia, a crime syndicate.
As a portable gaming device the Gizmodo actually featured some decent hardware and built-in software. A 400 mhz ARM processor by Samsung ran the device with 64 mb RAM, an nVidia GoForce 128-bit 3D accelerator, and 320×240 color display capable of over 65,000 colors. It featured an SD slot for storage and was capable of playing MP3, MP4, Windows Media Player 9, GPS and GPRS for location and mapping, bluetooth wireless communication, SIM card for GSM cellular technology and a digital camera, because “why not?”, right? The device featured “Smart Adds”, which was a misspelled way of delivering location-based (via GPS) advertisements to the home screen of the device, which reduced the purchase price. If you had money to burn and didn’t care for ads on your home screen, you could purchase Gizmondo without “Smart Adds” for nearly twice the price. In truth, you should have gone with the “Smart Adds” version because they were only online for around 10 months. A huge number of games were slated to release on the console but only a handful did – although I’ve heard that an SD card and a quick torrent search can net you the entire library of games, both released and unreleased. Of these games, I’ve heard none of them are really worth mentioning save for Colors, an unreleased GTA-style game that is most notable because you can get out of prison by performing sexual acts on a prisoner. For those thinking they can grab an SD card and a Gizmondo cheap, good luck – I rarely see the system for sale and when I do it’s either broken or more than $200.
That wraps up our coverage on the history of portable gaming. Sure, the DS and PSP released quite some time ago, but given that there’s nearly no library for the 3DS combined with the Playstation Vita’s uncertain future – it hasn’t released yet – both the DS and PSP are still considered “current generation” in my eyes.