Is that a gaming console in your pocket? Or are you just happy to see me? episode 3

By Ben

 

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that handheld gaming – barring inclusion what can be considered prototypes like Nintendo’s Game and Watch line – is 25 years old. That’s a quarter of a century! What may be more surprising to those who were unaware, who forgot, or are too young, is that even back in the beginning there was a system that already had features that wouldn’t become the norm for over a decade later.

Ep 3: Too much, Too Soon

Announced during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 1989 – the same exact time as the Game Boy – a handheld developed by what can be considered one of the grand-daddies of the industry was shown to the world for the first time. Atari had partnered with Epyx, a company over a decade old at the time and facing the fallout of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Epyx hand been in the early stages of developing a handheld system dubbed the Handy Game, but as can be expected of a company facing financial distressed, they didn’t have the capital to produce it themselves. Atari, with its long history of gaming and pedigree name and reputation, saw a great promise in Epyx endangered handheld. So in 1989 they let the world know there was a wild cat ready to be released on the gaming market.

Dubbed the Atari Lynx this handheld, one released the same time as Nintendo’s Game Boy, had features and specifications that were light years ahead of their competitor. Featuring a color display, 3.5” screen, a wonderful case design – one Nintendo would mirror with their Game Boy Advance – and maybe most importantly and technically impressive, a networking system. That’s right, folks! One of the very first handhelds ever to be released featured the ability to start a LAN party. Not just a few units either. The Lynx could network up to 17 systems! Before even home computers becoming normal in households, this handheld gave people the ability to connect with their friends and game together.

Unfortunately, being light years ahead of the competition isn’t always enough to put a system on top (I’m looking at your Dreamcast). The Atari Lynx came with a price tag of $180. This was double the Game Boy’s seemingly bargain price of $90. For whatever technically reasons, the Lynx was also released with moderate distribution at the end of the year. Nintendo on the other hand was able to release their Game Boy in large quantities and in time to hit the Christmas season. Along with a library of games that couldn’t quite capture the early 90s gamer imagination and the release of Sega’s Game Gear console in 1991, the Lynx struggled to keep sales up. The final nail was Atari’s leaving the console behind in 1994 to focus on their final home console, the Jaguar. By 1996, Atari had closed all internal game development.

The Atari Lynx was a technical marvel. In the early days of modern gaming, the Lynx did what even home consoles couldn’t do. It had features that wouldn’t surface again until the late 90s, when Nintendo debuted the original Game Boy Advance and it game from a company that even today young gamers can recognize by logo. Atari had a stand out system. As if they had traveled a decade ahead in time, Atari saw the potential of handheld gaming. However, with a price tag double the competition, a late and low number release, and games that were not as captivating to audiences, the Atari Lynx was shoved to the background. The brand that had such a high pedigree just a few years earlier – a company that dominated the home console market once upon a time – was unable to gain the following and reverence that they believed their portable console would bring. It was Atari’s first and last true handheld system. It was just so ahead of its time that it suffered against the more accessible gaming the Game Boy offered. The Lynx saw the birth of handheld gaming first hand, and it left a legacy that even its competitors would follow in their own future systems. Take a look at your 3DS or Vita and remember that, though Nintendo dominated the market, there where systems that influenced the future of portable systems over 20 years later.

As for the early game market, even the Atari Lynx didn’t suffer the same fate as what can be looked at as the Sasquatch of the handheld world. Rarely seen, big, smelly, and more than likely to break your bones…

 

Fun Fact: Feel like trying your hand at independent game development? Want that retro feel to be legitimate? Why not grab yourself a piece of the Atari Lynx? Hasbro released the rights to develop for the Lynx in the late 90s. Everything about the Lynx is currently to public domain. If you have the savvy and can find the equipment, there is still a dedicated market for new Atari Lynx games. You may not become a millionaire, but Hell; you can say you worked on game development for a system from none other than Atari. Street cred, yo… Street cred.

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