The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the beginnings of the handheld game console industry as we know it, after the demise of the Microvision. As backlit LCD game consoles with color graphics consume a lot of power, they were not battery-friendly like the non-backlit original Game Boy whose monochrome graphics allowed longer battery life. By this point, rechargeable battery technology had not yet matured and so the more advanced game consoles of the time such as the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx did not have nearly as much success as the Game Boy.
Even though third-party rechargeable batteries were available for the battery-hungry alternatives to the Game Boy, these batteries employed a nickel-cadmium process and had to be completely discharged before being recharged to ensure maximum efficiency; lead-acid batteries could be used with automobile circuit limiters (cigarette lighter plug devices); but the batteries had mediocre portability. The later NiMH batteries, which do not share this requirement for maximum efficiency, were not released until the late 1990s, years after the Game Gear, Atari Lynx, and original Game Boy had been discontinued. During the time when technologically superior handhelds had strict technical limitations, batteries had a very low mAh rating since batteries with heavy power density were not yet available.
Modern game systems such as the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable have rechargeable Lithium-Ion batteries with proprietary shapes. Other seventh-generation consoles such as the GP2X use standard alkaline batteries. Because the mAh rating of alkaline batteries has increased since the 1990s, the power needed for handhelds like the GP2X may be supplied by relatively few batteries.
Nintendo released the Game Boy on April 21, 1989 (or in September 1990 for UK). The design team headed by Gunpei Yokoi had also been responsible for the Game & Watch system, as well as the Nintendo Entertainment System games Metroid and Kid Icarus. The Game Boy came under scrutiny by some industry critics, saying that the monochrome screen was too small, and the processing power was inadequate. The design team had felt that low initial cost and battery economy were more important concerns, and when compared to the Microvision, the Game Boy was a huge leap forward.
Yokoi recognized that the Game Boy needed a killer app—at least one game that would define the console, and persuade customers to buy it. In June 1988, Minoru Arakawa, then-CEO of Nintendo of America saw a demonstration of the game Tetris at a trade show. Nintendo purchased the rights for the game, and packaged it with the Game Boy system. It was almost an immediate hit. By the end of the year more than a million units were sold in the US. As of March 31, 2005, the Game Boy and Game Boy Color combined to sell over 118 million units worldwide.
In 1987, Epyx created the Handy Game; a device that would turn into the Atari Lynx in 1989. It was the first color handheld console ever made, as well as the first with a backlit screen. It also featured networking support with up to 17 other players, and advanced hardware that allowed the zooming and scaling of sprites. The Lynx could also be turned upside down to accommodate left-handed players. However, all these features came at a very high price point, which drove consumers to seek cheaper alternatives. The Lynx was also very unwieldy, consumed batteries very quickly, and lacked the third-party support enjoyed by its competitors. Due to its high price, short battery life, production shortages, a dearth of compelling games, and Nintendo’s aggressive marketing campaign, and despite a redesign in 1991, the Lynx became a commercial failure. Despite this, companies like Telegames helped to keep the system alive long past its commercial relevance, and when new owner Hasbro released the rights to develop for the public domain, independent developers like Songbird have managed to release new commercial games for the system every year until 2004’s Winter Games.
The TurboExpress was a portable version of the TurboGrafx, released in 1990 for $249.99 (the price was briefly raised to $299.99, soon dropped back to $249.99, and by 1992 it was $199.99). Its Japanese equivalent was the PC Engine GT.
It was the most advanced handheld of its time and could play all the TurboGrafx-16‘s games (which were on a small, credit-card sized media called HuCards). It had a 66 mm (2.6 in.) screen, the same as the original Game Boy, but in a much higher resolution. And could display 64 sprites at once, 16 per scanline, in 512 colors. Although the hardware could only handle 481 simultaneous colors. It had 8 kilobytes of RAM. The Turbo ran it HuC6820 CPU at 1.79 or 7.16 MHz.
The optional “TurboVision” TV tuner included RCA audio/video input, allowing users to use TurboExpress as a video monitor. The “TurboLink” allowed two-player play. Falcon, a flight simulator, included a “head-to-head” dogfight mode that could only be accessed via TurboLink. However, very few TG-16 games offered co-op play modes especially designed with the TurboExpress in mind.
The Bitcorp Gamate was the one of the first handheld game systems created in response to the Nintendo Game Boy. It was released in Asia in 1990 and distributed worldwide by 1991.
Like the Sega Game Gear, it was horizontal in orientation and like the Game Boy, required 4 AA batteries. Unlike many later Game Boy clones, its internal components were professionally assembled (no “glop-top” chips). Unfortunately the system’s fatal flaw was its screen. Even by the standards of the day, its screen was rather difficult to use, suffering from similar motion blur problems that were common complaints with the first generation Game Boys. Likely because of this fact sales were quite poor, and Bitcorp closed by 1992. However, new games continued to be published for the Asian market, possibly as late as 1994. The total number of games released for the system remains unknown.
Interestingly, Gamate games were designed for stereo sound, but the console was only equipped with a mono speaker. To appreciate the full sound palette, a user must plug into the head phone jack. Doing so reveals very sophisticated music.
The Game Gear was the third color handheld console, after the Lynx and the TurboExpress; produced by Sega. Released in Japan in 1990 and in North America and Europe in 1991, it was based on the Master System, which gave Sega the ability to quickly create Game Gear games from its large library of games for the Master System. While never reaching the level of success enjoyed by Nintendo, the Game Gear proved to be a fairly durable competitor, lasting longer than any other Game Boy rivals.
While the Game Gear is most frequently seen in black or navy blue, it was also released in a variety of additional colors: red, light blue, yellow, clear, and violet. All of these variations were released in small quantities and frequently only in the Asian market.
Following Sega’s success with the Game Gear, they began development on a successor during the early 1990s, which was intended to feature a touchscreen interface, many years before the Nintendo DS. However, such a technology was very expensive at the time, and the handheld itself was estimated to have cost around $289 were it to be released. Sega eventually chose to shelve the idea and instead release the Genesis Nomad, a handheld version of the Genesis, as the successor.
The Watara Supervision was released in 1992 in an attempt to compete with the Nintendo Game Boy. The first model was designed very much like a Game Boy, but it was grey in color and had a slightly larger screen. The second model was made with a hinge across the center and could be bent slightly to provide greater comfort for the user. While the system did enjoy a modest degree of success, it never impacted the sales of Nintendo or Sega. The Supervision was redesigned a final time as “The Magnum”. Released in limited quantities it was roughly equivalent to the Game Boy Pocket. It was available in three colors: yellow, green and grey. Watara designed many of the games themselves, but did receive some third party support, most notably from Sachen.
A TV adapter was available in both PAL and NTSC formats that could transfer the Supervision’s black-and-white palette to 4 colors, similar in some regards to the Super Game Boy from Nintendo.
Hartung Game Master
The Hartung Game Master was an obscure handheld released at an unknown point in the early 1990s. Its graphics were much lower than most of its contemporaries, similar in complexity to the Atari 2600. It was available in black, white, and purple, and was frequently rebranded by its distributors, such as Delplay, Videojet and Virella.
The exact number of games released is not known, but is likely around 20. The system most frequently turns up in Europe and Australia.
By this time, the lack of significant development in Nintendo‘s product line began allowing more advanced systems such as the Neo Geo Pocket Color and the WonderSwan Color to achieve moderate success.
The Game.com (pronounced in TV commercials as “game com”, not “game dot com”, and not capitalized in marketing material) was a handheld game console released by Tiger Electronics in September 1997. It featured many new ideas for handheld consoles and was aimed at an older target audience, sporting PDA-style features and functions such as a touch screen and stylus. However, Tiger hoped it would also challenge Nintendo’s Game Boy and gain a following among younger gamers too. Unlike other handheld game consoles, the first game.com consoles included two slots for game cartridges, which would not happen again until the Tapwave Zodiac, the DS and DS Lite, and could be connected to a 14.4 kbit/s modem. Later models had only a single cartridge slot.
Game Boy Color
The Game Boy Color (also referred to as GBC or CGB) is Nintendo’s successor to the Game Boy and was released on October 21, 1998, in Japan and in November of the same year in the United States. It features a color screen, and is slightly bigger than the Game Boy Pocket. The processor is twice as fast as a Game Boy’s and has twice as much memory. It also had an infrared communications port for wireless linking which did not appear in later versions of the Game Boy, such as the Game Boy Advance.
The Game Boy Color was a response to pressure from game developers for a new system, as they felt that the Game Boy, even in its latest incarnation, the Game Boy Pocket, was insufficient. The resulting product was backward compatible, a first for a handheld console system, and leveraged the large library of games and great installed base of the predecessor system. This became a major feature of the Game Boy line, since it allowed each new launch to begin with a significantly larger library than any of its competitors. As of March 31, 2005, the Game Boy and Game Boy Color combined to sell 118.69 million units worldwide.
The console was capable of displaying up to 56 different colors simultaneously on screen from its palette of 32,768, and could add basic four-color shading to games that had been developed for the original Game Boy. It could also give the sprites and backgrounds separate colors, for a total of more than four colors.
Neo Geo Pocket Color
The Neo Geo Pocket Color (or NGPC) was released in 1999 in Japan, and later that year in the United States and Europe. It was a 16-bit color handheld game console designed by SNK, the maker of the Neo Geo home console and arcade machine. It came after SNK’s original Neo Geo Pocket monochrome handheld, which debuted in 1998 in Japan.
In 2000 following SNK’s purchase by Japanese Pachinko manufacturer Aruze, the Neo Geo Pocket Color was dropped from both the US and European markets, purportedly due to commercial failure.
The system seemed well on its way to being a success in the U.S. It was more successful than any Game Boy competitor since Sega‘s Game Gear, but was hurt by several factors, such as SNK’s infamous lack of communication with third-party developers, and anticipation of the Game Boy Advance. The decision to ship U.S. games in cardboard boxes in a cost-cutting move rather than hard plastic cases that Japanese and European releases were shipped in may have also hurt US sales.
The original WonderSwan had only a black and white screen. Although the WonderSwan Color was slightly larger and heavier (7 mm and 2 g) compared to the original WonderSwan, the color version featured 512 kB of RAM and a larger color LCD screen. In addition, the WonderSwan Color is compatible with the original WonderSwan library of games.
Prior to WonderSwan’s release, Nintendo had virtually a monopoly in the Japanese video game handheld market. After the release of the WonderSwan Color, Bandai took approximately 8% of the market share in Japan partly due to its low price of 6800 yen (approximately US$65).
Another reason for the WonderSwan’s success in Japan was the fact that Bandai managed to get a deal with Square to port over the original Famicom Final Fantasy games with improved graphics and controls. However, with the popularity of the Game Boy Advance and the reconciliation between Square and Nintendo, the WonderSwan Color and its successor, the SwanCrystal quickly lost its competitive advantage.
The 2000s saw a major leap in innovation, particularly in the second half with the release of the DS and PSP.
Game Boy Advance
In 2001, Nintendo released the Game Boy Advance (GBA or AGB), which added two shoulder buttons, a larger screen, and more computing power than the Game Boy Color.
The design was revised two years later when the Game Boy Advance SP (GBA SP), a more compact version, was released. The SP featured a “clamshell” design (folding open and closed, like a laptop computer), as well as a frontlit color display and rechargeable battery. Despite the smaller form factor, the screen remained the same size as that of the original. In 2005, the Game Boy Micro was released. This revision sacrificed screen size and backwards compatibility with previous Game Boys for a dramatic reduction in total size and a brighter backlit screen. A new SP model with a backlit screen was released in some regions around the same time.
Along with the Nintendo GameCube, the GBA also introduced the concept of “connectivity”: using a handheld system as a console controller. A handful of games use this feature, most notably Animal Crossing, Pac-Man Vs., Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Metroid Prime, and Sonic Adventure 2: Battle.
As of December 31, 2007, the GBA, GBA SP, and the Game Boy Micro combined have sold 80.72 million units worldwide.