GameSpite Quarterly #1 | Chapter 3

Article by Jeremy Parish | Posted June 15, 2009

Lynx was no real competition for Game Boy, but perhaps that was to be expected; the thing was practically born to die. It was manufactured and distributed by Atari, a former videogame powerhouse whose spectacular demise in the early '80s had left the vacuum that Nintendo swooped in to fill in the first place. The name Atari had very little connection in 1990 to the groovy California company that had launched the home gaming industry two decades prior; this new beast bearing the legendary name never quite grasped how to capitalize on the revitalized industry that Nintendo had coaxed into being from the VCS's ashes. When Lynx launched, it was a considerably more powerful system than the two consoles the company was already supporting: the '70s-vintage 2600, whose relevance had ceased the instant it brought the industry to its spectacular crash, and the marginally more powerful 7800, which had been ready for launch well before the NES reached America but was held back until Nintendo had already claimed dominance over the marketplace. Though Atari Games -- a company completely unrelated to the home business in all but name -- continued to innovate in the arcade space, Lynx's Atari (whose focus was the home market,)was utterly directionless. And to top it off, Lynx's years-long launch delay put it head-to-head with Nintendo's machine, blowing the lead it should have had as a key advantage.

Atari, however, was hardly the only other company looking to enter the handheld space. No sooner had Game Boy launched than it suddenly had a far more dangerous competitor breathing down its neck in the form of Sega's Game Gear.

The Game Gear boasted specs nearly on par with Lynx, but rather than being the detritus cast off from the half-dead shell of a former industry powerhouse, it was the invention of an up-and-coming superstar. Though Sega's system was nearly as power-hungry as Atari's dud, in every other respect it succeeded where Atari had failed. The $150 asking price was a modest compromise between the Game Boy and Lynx's stickers. It sported major, recognizable franchises, including the all-important Sonic the Hedgehog -- in fact, it would eventually play host to more Sonic games and spin-offs than any other Sega system, including Genesis. It was compact and comfortable to hold and offered a number of cool options, such as a TV tuner. And above all, it was a cinch to program for, with innards that effectively made it a portable Master System that traded a smaller maximum resolution for richer color. Game Boy developers spent years trying to squeeze NES-quality games out of the system, but Game Gear was essentially interchangeable with a console that was one step better than the NES itself. In fact, a number of Game Gear titles made their way to Master System (and vice versa), enriching the former's library while handily expanding the lifespan of the latter.

Sega knew it was operating from a position of strength and wasted no time in going for the jugular; the company's advertising made no bones about calling out Game Boy as an underpowered disgrace, employing the same aggressive attitude that had done so well for Genesis.

One would assume Nintendo was concernedóGenesis was rapidly eroding the NES's dominance in America and softening Super NES's prospectsóbut the company fell back on two saving graces. The first was that Sega never did figure out how to entice Japanese gamers. The SG-1000, the Mark III (aka Master System), the Mega Drive (aka Genesis): all had been niche favorites at best in Japan, with the U.K. and the U.S. providing the lion's share of each platform's install base. Japanese development still dominated the console market in those days, which meant that publishers tended to congregate around the winnerówhich is to say, Nintendo.

Secondly, and a bit of a corollary to the first, Game Boy games had finally gotten good. Damn good. The sporadic successes of the system's first couple of years had evened out into a consistent stream of genuine masterpieces, led off by the insanely ambitious Metroid II. No mere spinoff, it was a genuine sequel to a major NES hit. Meanwhile, Super Mario Land's sequel was a massive leap over the first game in terms of presentation and design, even incorporating elements of Mario's freshly-released Super NES launch title. Castlevania recovered from its pitiful freshman effort, and Square offered an action RPG in the form of Final Fantasy Adventure that stood toe-to-toe with Zelda. Mega Man's portable adventures began to develop their own personality rather than being rote rehashes of the NES titles, Megami Tensei took tentative steps onto the platform in the form of Last Bible, and Capcom somehow converted its NES masterpiece Bionic Commando to Game Boy without losing the essential greatness of the original. And the next few years saw just as many hits, including a brilliant Zelda sequel and the single best Donkey Kong game ever made, bar none.

It was around this time that developers began to experiment more vigorously with the potential of the hardware. While it was far more limited in terms of presentation than the Game Gear, Game Boy also offered unique abilities, particularly its link cable. Xanth and Bulletproof in particular managed to cram an impressive conversion of Atari ST multiplayer shooter Faceball 2000 onto Game Boy without compromising the game's most compelling feature: theoretically, up to 16 people could play head-to-head. Although this probably never actually happened in the real world thanks to the ridiculously convoluted daisy-chained mess of link cables that would have been required, its mere existence was amazing and demonstrated the untapped potential of the platform.

Nintendo pressed the advantage even more by linking Game Boy to the increasingly popular Super NES. E3 2003 and its dark threat of Connectivity was a decade away, mercifully, so the link between Nintendo's current console and its portable offshoot was pleasantly direct. Sega had scored a coup by making Game Gear and Master System effectively interchangeable on a technological level, but there was no practical interaction between the two on the user's end. On the other hand, the Super Game Boy -- basically a Game Boy processor built into a Super NES cartridge -- offered an inexpensive alternative to owning a Game Boy by letting gamers play their portable games via the 16-bit system's output. Not only was owning a Super Game Boy less expensive than buying an actual handheld, the overall experience was generally superior as well. The Super Game Boy allowed games to make use of limited (but generally attractive) color palettes, and TV sets didn't suffer from the blurriness of the system's passive-matrix screen. Of course, the Super Game Boy wasn't precisely portable, and linking was out of the questionóbut these were minor issues at worst. By and large, Super Game Boy was a boon, another way in which Nintendo expanded on the potential of its system.

Yet for all that Game Boy dug in and entrenched itself, Game Gear fought the good fight. In the end, it sold roughly a tenth of what Game Boy managed, rather echoing the Master System's fortunes against NESóbut a tenth of more than 100 million is a lot of units, easily making Game Gear the second most successful portable of all time until Sony's PSP rolled around. Unlike Lynx, Nintendo couldn't fairly claim Game Gear as another kill notch; it was rather a worthy competitor whose presence likely spurred Game Boy's supporters to new heights of excellence.

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