In the late 80’s, video gaming was gaining in popularity with the release of highly successful consoles from companies like Nintendo, Atari and Sega. Once technology had improved (and shrunk considerably) portable games consoles were possible, adding another theatre of war for hardware manufacturers to do battle on. It wasn’t a fad either, handheld gaming is a booming business even today.
Pretty much everyone now owns a device that can play, making anyone a potential customer. Knock the clock back 25 years and you’d have to go out, buy a chunky unit, some overpriced cartridges and hopefully have change left for a pocket full of AA batteries.
Let’s relive the past without the dodgy D-pads, horrendous battery life and having to blow the dust off each cart before playing a game. To emulation!
Don’t Ask Me For ROMs
No really, I can’t tell you where to get them. If you own original cartridges then you’re entitled to a backup copy, and you can go ahead and reclaim your collection. If you’re looking for ROMs then you’ll probably have no problems using Google, BitTorrent and if possible, private trackers.
It was time to replace the Game and Watch – Nintendo’s first (rather DS-like) handheld venture, and the Game Boy was born. Nintendo aimed to keep production costs low and battery life acceptable, and despite initial criticisms the handheld eventually shot to success thanks to one game in particular.
Nintendo saw a game called Tetris exhibited at a 1988 game show and immediately saw the potential. The company bought up the rights to the game and released it as the Game Boy’s killer title. It was a hit-and-a-half.
I’ve just finished an article all about Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance emulator VisualBoyAdvance. It runs on all major operating systems (and a few other, more obscure platforms to boot) and provides great emulation.
Atari Lynx (1989) – Handy
Initially called “Handy Game” (bet you’re glad they ditched that title) the Atari Lynx was the world’s first colour handheld games console. The unit was released around the time Nintendo were debuting their monochrome Game Boy and featured superior hardware, as well as an “upside down lefty” method of play.
Unfortunately the Lynx flopped. That colour screen was thirsty, as was the beefy hardware, which meant that the console chewed through batteries in no time. It was also expensive, and this further spurred on the success of the cheaper (and less unwieldy) Game Boy.
Handy is (allegedly) the best Lynx emulator – it runs on Windows but hasn’t had an update for a while so compatability mode on newer systems might resolve any issues.
Sega Game Gear (1990) – KEGA Fusion
One of the few consoles to give the Game Boy a run for its money, Sega’s Game Gear appeared in 1990 in Japan, with a worldwide release in 1991. It too featured a colour screen and devoured batteries like they were going out of fashion – lasting on average around 3-4 hours.
Sega intended to make a follow-on touch screen version of the Game Gear (which was based on the Master System console) but production costs put the company off. The Game Gear can be emulated rather well with KEGA Fusion, an emulator that runs on all 3 major operating systems.
Game Boy Color (1998) – VisualBoyAdvance [No Longer Available]
Adding backwards compatibility for the first time in a handheld, the Game Boy Color was the next iteration of the Game Boy franchise. Further information about the console and emulator can be found in the VisualBoyAdvance article.
Neo Geo Pocket Color (1999) –
The Neo Geo Pocket Color was a 16-bit handheld that disappeared from US and European markets due to an SNK buyout in 2000. Until then the portable was looking promising in the US market, even managing to give the Game Boy Color a decent fight.
NeoPop is tipped as the best Neo Geo Pocket Color emulator. It runs on Windows but also has a version for BeOS.
The WonderSwan Color was the follow-up to Bandai’s original WonderSwan console and only ever saw release in Japan. During its life it managed to steal 8% of the market share from Nintendo’s Game Boy, thanks in part to a deal that saw the original NES/Famicom Final Fantasy ported over.
Oswan appears to be the only WonderSwan Color emulator still out there, and runs on both Windows and Mac.
Game Boy Advance (2001) – Visual Boy Advance [No Longer Available]
Adding two more buttons, improved graphics, improved sound and improved battery life to the Game Boy name, the GBA (despite not being quite as successful as the original) managed to shift more than 80 million units during its lifetime.
Nintendo franchises like Pokémon and Mario as well as some guests (including Sonic) made the console an overwhelming success. Far more information check out the Visual Boy Advance article, which covers the GBA.
So who’s still with us? Nintendo, sure – but the rest? Sega dropped out of the hardware market after poor sales of the Dreamcast, and many of the others simply publish, develop or churn out software these days.
Still, Sony have joined the ranks with the upcoming Vita and the 3DS can’t be far away from a revision by now. If you’ve enjoyed reading about these old portables or have found an emulator you’ve been looking for leave us a comment below!
Any favourite handhelds? Any favourite games? Nobody forgets their first handheld, right? Discuss below!