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The Video Game Handheld War Part 2 August 13, 2013

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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The first handheld devices had hit the market and consumers had chosen that the Nintendo Game Boy was the superior product.  However, Nintendo’s direct competition was not completely out for the count.  For the second part of the video game handheld war, we’re going to focus on an odd time in the handheld space, the second half of the 90s.  This era can be considered by many to simply be an extension of the first-generation Video Game Handheld War, but personally, I consider it a separate generation, and as such should merit its own part in my ongoing series.  The reason why I consider this a separate battle is because of just how long it lasted.  The rules for handheld platforms had not yet been established, and platforms like the Game Boy stayed in the market for a little less than a decade before Nintendo would release its successor.  That’s a lot of time to cover, but we’re going to do it.

It was the mid-90s and Nintendo’s Game Boy was by far the most successful handheld device on the market.  While it only featured a monochrome screen, it had a fantastic library of Nintendo games. However, as the years continued there was a lot that Nintendo could have done to improve on the Game Boy’s design.  The original model Game Boy was about the size of a brick and it took 4 AA-batteries to get running.  While it still could perform longer than any other competing handheld product, the first game handheld war made it clear that Nintendo’s competitors would attack the Game Boy by providing a superior screen.  The Sega Game Gear had proven that backlit color screens could be done in a handheld gaming device, and while it was a major detriment to battery life, gamers were starting to expect more than a fuzzy monochrome screen if they wanted portable game time.

Undeterred by coming in second place with the Sega Game Gear, Sega tried again to release a portable system that would compete against Nintendo’s Game Boy.  In 1995, Sega released the Sega Nomad.  Oddly enough, this was not a next generation handheld system to replace the Sega Game Gear, it was literally a portable Genesis.  I am not kidding.  The Sega Nomad boasted a decent screen, two player support with an extra controller, and a TV output.  This thing could play any Genesis game, with the exception of X-Men.  This was a brilliant move on Sega’s part.  Genesis players already had their games on their shelves, and the game library of the Genesis included some of the finest games ever made.  In fact, the Nomad was so ahead of its time, to this day I can’t think of any other company that has released a similar device!

However, there were problems with the Nomad.  Sega was marketing the device to people who already had a Genesis and a game library to make the best use of the device.  Well, a new Nomad was expensive.  I remember how loudly people clamored when Sony launched the Playstation Vita at a price of $249 US (even though the PSP launched on that price over five years earlier), well the Nomad was even more expensive than that!  At launch, the Nomad cost around $280 US, which was much more expensive than a Sega Genesis cost around the same time.  Genesis games could take hours to complete and the Nomad only lasted around two hours on a new set of batteries.  The other issue was compatibility with the newer Genesis peripherals, specifically the Sega CD and the Sega 32x.  I know that seems like a small trade off, but the Nomad was released towards the end of the Genesis’s lifespan, and by the time of its release, people actually wanted the option to upgrade their Genesis with a Sega CD or 32x.

The Sega Nomad floundered at retail.  Sega didn’t do a very good job advertising it, and most retailers didn’t care enough to advertise or promote it either.  Because of that, most people probably aren’t aware that it even existed.  In fact, I was around during its lifespan and I wasn’t aware of its existence until I saw it used in a few episodes of Captain S!

I know by today’s standards, the Nomad wouldn’t even be considered a competitor in the Video Game Handheld Wars, but truth be told, they were the only thing to even come close to being a blip on the radar under the near total dominance of the Game Boy.  In the end, the only company that would be able to uncrown Nintendo…would be Nintendo.  In 1996, Nintendo released a new version of the Game Boy, dubbed the Game Boy Pocket.  Launched in a series of different colors, as well as a see-through model, the Game Boy Pocket was a smaller, slimmer Game Boy for a new generation of players who hadn’t jumped on the Game Boy bandwagon, as well as current Game Boy owners who wanted to upgrade.  While it still had a monochrome screen without backlight capability, the Pocket’s screen was much sharper than the original Game Boy, making games easier to view.  To top it all off, it only required two AAA-batteries to get running!

Nintendo did a lot right here.  The Game Boy Pocket was smaller and more affordable than the original model Game Boy was at launch.  Nintendo did a great job of marketing the system as well.  They did a great commercial that played on TV constantly where an original model Game Boy was put side by side with the Pocket and clearly boasted all the new improvements the Pocket offered.  Marketers, take notice.  That’s all you need to do!  Also, by offering the Game Boy Pocket in multiple colors, it boosted the collector’s value of the system, and was a precursor to Nintendo offering multiple color options for their later handhelds.  The only issue with it was that it broke compatibility with the original Game Boy’s System Link cables.  If you wanted to play a Pocket in two-player mode, you would need to purchase a new System Link cable, which was now sold separately, or get an adapter.

In the end, Nintendo would take the crown of the second video game handheld war.  This time it wouldn’t even be close, and I would be completely remiss to ignore the huge elephant in the room that not only handed the win to the Game Boy but started a phenomenon on par with Super Mario Bros or Legend of Zelda, Pokémon.  Created by Satoshi Tajiri, Pokémon followed the story of a young boy, as he traveled the game’s world, battling, trading, capturing, and training Pokémon.  Pokémon Red and Blue were quite literally the games that defined the Game Boy as they took full advantage of all the great things the Game Boy offered.  By being on a handheld, it ensured that players would bring their Game Boy everywhere, making it easier for players to find each other, and players would need to find each other to battle or trade Pokémon with other players.  In the days before everyone would have their own cell phone, Pokémon made the Game Boy the first personal electronic device that I can think of that everyone would take with them when they left the house.

Pokémon games sold a lot of Game Boys, and cemented Nintendo’s dominance in the handheld market.  In the years after the Game Boy Pocket’s release, Nintendo would release other revisions to the Game Boy to further bank on Pokémon’s success, including a Game Boy with a backlit screen, but many of those revisions never even came to my neck of the woods and would only get released in Japan.  It would not be until the release of the Game Boy Color that a true successor to the Game Boy would hit the market, but that is a story for next time!

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