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The Video Game Handheld War Part 1 August 5, 2013

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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That’s right, we’re bringing back the GameXcess.net History section, and what better way to bring it back than to talk about the other component of the gaming console wars, handheld game systems.  Previously, anachronos and I had talked about the various console wars from all the generations that we were around for, but that was all we had discussed, home consoles.  Well, home consoles are not the only front for the gaming wars, and today we’re going to talk about the battle behind handheld game systems.

Mobile or handheld gaming devices go back a very long time, but they have only been electronic for the past forty or so years.  They’re basically just an extension for the human desire for recreation during boring activities like travel.  For as long as human beings have been mobile, we have desired to take games with us on our journey.  A person cannot go for days either working hard or doing nothing, we crave mental stimulation and relaxation in order to maintain mental focus.  Games have provided us with both stimulation and relaxation, and there’s probably a reason why there are so many stories about cowboys or western settlers playing card games.

Of course as our technology started to improve, circuits got smaller and cheaper to make, and a deck of cards became replaced by a small board of microprocessors and LCD screen.  By the late 70s, bored businessmen in Japan took to playing with their pocket calculators for entertainment.  Gunpai Yokoi, who worked for Nintendo, thought there was a better way to entertain people on the go.  Nintendo’s motto has always been “Creating Something Unique”, and he set out to do exactly that.  Nintendo themselves started off as a toy and playing card company before they started developing video games.   As technology progressed, Nintendo started with their first portable devices, the Game & Watch from creator Gunpai Yokoi.

All of a sudden, video games could go mobile, but there were limitations.  You would have to buy a new handheld device for each individual game.  Other companies across the world tried their hand at mobile gaming devices of their own to capitalize on the market of technically savvy young people, but it wasn’t until the late 80s when multiple companies decided to enter uncharted territory and release portable game consoles.  Unlike the mobile games of the past, these new handheld systems would be game consoles of their own, and could play a wide array of game cartridges the player purchased separately.

Very quickly, these companies knew they would be competing with each other to get their handheld into the hands of gamers, and several tried to do this by boasting improved system specifications or other gimmicks, because they thought that in reality, a handheld console war would be decided as much by the system as it would by the games.  For this first part of the Video Game Handheld War, we’re going to talk about the first handheld war that I was a part of, and that was the battle between the Nintendo Game Boy and Sega Game Gear.

It was the late 80s and Nintendo’s NES was enjoying a near total market share in people’s homes and Nintendo wanted to bring a portable gaming device to the market.  Calling it the Game Boy, it was designed to be a complementary device to Nintendo’s NES which could bring many of Nintendo’s classic franchises mobile.  The Game Boy had a monochrome screen, stereo sound, and a very similar button configuration to the NES controller,  It was equipped with a D-pad, A and B buttons, and Start and Select Buttons.  Nintendo was banking on brand recognition and awesome first party launch titles to sell the system.  Launching at the height of the summer, the Game Boy was expected to be a hot item.  Now gamers would finally have the chance to play games like Super Mario Land and Tetris on the go, and games could even support two-players through a unique link cable.

Game Boy launched with a monochrome screen and one of the best pack-in titles a handheld ever had, the Game Boy version of Tetris, which featured a great multiplayer mode which took full advantage of the Game Boy’s included Link Cable, and cameo appearances by Nintendo heroes Mario and Luigi.  By including a Link Cable and and bundling a 2-player game, it was clear that Nintendo wanted to showcase the 2-player functionality of the Game Boy to the early adopters.  The Game Boy took 4-AA batteries, but they lasted longer than you would think.  You could get several hours of gaming on just a single set of batteries, and there was an optional AC adapter for when you wanted to play games at home.  I cannot tell you how happy I was the Christmas I received my Game Boy and copy of Super Mario Land.  I spent many summer road trips helping Mario battle the minions of Tatanga.  In fact, it was the first Mario game I had ever been able to complete.

Now, I would be neglectful to mention that there were two other portable gaming systems which launched around the same time as the Nintendo Game Boy, and they were the Atari Lynx and NEC TurboExpress.  I’m not really going to talk about them very much, as they really had no baring on the handheld gaming market in general.  Neither the Atari Lynx nor the NEC TurboExpress seemed to gain enough traction to be competitive against Nintendo’s Game Boy.  In fact, I can’t remember a single person who actually had either of these devices, or even talked about them.  All my discussions with friends growing up, if our conversation would turn to gaming, would be about our desire for a Game Boy, or raving about it if we were fortunate enough to have one.

The TurboExpress, while it had decent hardware, was far too expensive to be competitive.  On top of that, it was prone to hardware issues, even on new units.  The Atari Lynx, while it lasted in the market much longer, had a full color screen which to this day is still considered difficult to view, and was a problem that wasn’t fixed in the revised Lynx II.  The Lynx survived into the era of the Atari Jaguar, but I never thought of it as a competitive product, especially given when the next gaming handheld entered the ring to try to take Nintendo’s crown.

As the 16-bit war fired up, Sega planned to complement their extremely successful Genesis console with a handheld of their own, the Sega Game Gear.  By all intents and purposes, the Game Gear was an improvement on everything that the Game Boy was.  It boasted a larger screen with full color display.  Heck, the screen was so good, Sega planned to sell a TV tuner so people could watch broadcast TV channels with it while on the go.

As far as I can remember, the Sega Game Gear was the first handheld console that was seriously perched to take Nintendo’s crown.  Not only did it have the better system specs over the Game Boy, it had the full first party backing of Sega, which had found a valuable mascot in Sonic the Hedgehog.  In fact, Sega included a copy of the Game Gear version of Sonic the Hedgehog with each Game Gear to show front and center just what the Game Gear could do graphically.  I have to admit, having seen the system in action myself back in the day, it was surely capable of producing the amazing graphics that I had seen Genesis games produce.  However, the Sonic the Hedgehog game Sega included with the Game Gear was not a port of the original, and the biggest thing I remember from that game was how frustrating it was that I was unable beat the game’s first boss!

While the Game Gear had impressive features, looking back on it there was a lot that was wrong with the system.  I can’t remember the Game Gear ever getting a library of games that was able to compete with Nintendo’s Game Boy.  In fact, the only other game my sister purchased for the system back in its heyday was a port of NHL Hockey, which to this day remains the only sports game I was able to score a goal in.  While by all intents and purposes, Sega had made a superior system over the Game Boy, better technology is not always what wins a console war, and while Sega had succeeded in making a more advanced portable system, they had neglected one of the major concerns about portable electronic devices, battery life.

I think many people can remember how bad it was in the early 90s when it came to power consumption.  This was just as high drain devices like CD-players had started to hit the market, so many people were aware that a pack of AA-batteries wouldn’t last more than a couple of hours of regular use.  However, for a portable game system like the Game Gear, being a high-drain device that was competing against a much more power efficient system like the Game Boy was a huge black mark.  The whole idea for a portable device is that people intend to use them on the go, and if your device is unable to withstand the duration of a long road trip, gamers are going to grab something else to play that will.

In the end, Sega could not compete with Nintendo’s Game Boy, and the Game Boy took the first handheld gaming crown, with the Game Gear taking a far second.  In fact, the Game Boy was so competitive in its market, Nintendo continued to support the device for years as other handhelds tried to take its crown, but that’s a story for another time.