Developer: Koto
Manufacturer: Bandai
Release: 1999
Format: Withered Technology

Based on: Learning from prior successes, and the fact that nerds love Gundam.

Games | WonderSwan?

Article by Jeremy Parish | August 4, 2009

SNK wasn't the only fading console maker to release an inexpensive monochrome portable system as a last-ditch effort to stay in the game. The Neo Geo Pocket wasn't merely up against Game Boy; it also had to square off against Bandai's WonderSwan.

All things being equal, it's a battle Neo Geo Pocket should have won, and handily. SNK's hardware history was far more impressive than Bandai's. The latter had been responsible for such winners as anime crapfest Playdia and Apple's shameful Pippin @mark, while the former had created Crystalis, The King of Fighters, and Metal Slug?. But few things in life are fair or just or logical, so the Neo Geo Pocket was a faint blip on the radar while the WonderSwan sold several million units -- enough to put it behind Game Gear as a respectable third-place competitor to Game Boy.

But reality is a little more nuanced than that, and the truth of the matter is more complex than, "Bandai is crap and everything they touch turns to crap and so WonderSwan was crap." While it's mostly true that everything Bandai touches turns to crap -- see also: Namco -- WonderSwan was a rare and surprising exception. The system had three advantages unavailable to SNK, you see. The first was Bandai's extensive stable of anime franchises, which gave the system plenty of familiar tie-in games. That ensured sufficient sales to secure the system's second advantage: popular third-party franchises. Capcom let SNK dabble in its licenses, but those Neo Geo Pocket games were a lot like third-party Master System games of yore in that they were developed internally by the system's manufacturer. Meanwhile, Capcom, Namco, and -- oh yes -- Square were more than happy to put their most popular works on WonderSwan. Square was a particularly impressive coup, since the company had vanished from the handheld scene for several years after its falling-out with Nintendo, during which time it had become a major player through the international success of Final Fantasy VII. Clearly the company saw in WonderSwan the means to spite its old ally, and the presence of both high-quality remakes and new titles alike from the RPG powerhouse sold a load of systems. Even Sony lent its support to WonderSwan with franchises like Arc the Lad -- after all, PSP was still years away, and the house that PlayStation built couldn't very well put its brands on Nintendo's Game Boy or the Sega-allied Neo Geo Pocket.

And finally, WonderSwan had one last advantage that ensured its success: Gumpei Yokoi. The father of the Game Boy had established his own company, Koto, after falling out of favor at Nintendo, and its first project was a new portable system that would revisit the principles behind Game Boy while upping the ante in every possible way. The result was WonderSwan, a machine designed to be more versatile, more powerful than its predecessor, yet also cheaper. Like Lynx, WonderSwan could be played either horizontally or vertically, a feature that could be annoying when used arbitrarily but also offered brilliant results when applied correctly, as in the Radiant Silvergun-inspired homebrew horizontal shooter Judgment Silversword.

The screen was passive-matrix, much like Game Boy Pocket, but it was bigger, offered twice as many shades of grey, and displayed a higher resolution. It ran on a single AA battery for hours on end. Its multipurpose output jack allowed not only linking between systems but also with cool gadgets like the WonderBorg programmable robot and WonderWitch home dev kit. And to top it all off, the system sold for about fifty bucks.

Of course, its launch timing meant that WonderSwan arrived on the scene at roughly the same time as Neo Geo Pocket and Game Boy Color, so it was more or less obsolete at launch. That didn't crimp its success, though; the system sold for about half as much as Nintendo's color machine, and it boasted a wide array of recognizable names right from the start. It also had a decent pack-in, a puzzler called Gunpey in honor of the system's late creator. It was no Tetris to be sure, but it was good fun nevertheless. And like SNK, Bandai quickly tweaked the machine to a color version. Soon after that, they released the SwanCrystal, with a more powerful processor and active-matrix screen. By that point, though, the Game Boy Advance had landed in Japan and Nintendo had greatly upped the ante; respectable as the SwanCrystal was, it had nothing on GBA in terms of both power and games alike. Despite a few not-particularly-funny jokes about future WonderSwan models in the .hack? games, Bandai quietly put the system to sleep at the beginning of 2003, leaving the tricky task of competing with Nintendo to the big boys and symbolically paving the way for Sony's entry into the portable arena the following year.

Still, while WonderSwan remains a footnote for most gamers (what with it never coming to the U.S.), the system stands a fitting final legacy for one of gaming's most inventive and insightful creators -- a simple, effective, successful vindication of concepts and skills that washed away the bitter taste of Virtual Boy. And it had some pretty good games, too, which just goes to show.

Images courtesy of VG Museum

Previous: Neo Geo Pocket | Next: Metal Gear Solid