Let’s take a trip back in time to the magical year of 1989 and all that it entailed; a simpler time when it was acceptable to wear hideous sweaters and video game magazine covers looked like bad fan art. Nintendo was riding high on the success of it’s NES system, and Atari was still reeling from a string of unsuccessful consoles and the public relations nightmare that was the Video Game Crash of 1983. Nintendo, for lack of a better phrase, cleaned up Atari’s mess by introducing the NES and instituting the “Nintendo Seal of Quality.” The seal, known as more of a joke today, was an instrumental part of regaining the public’s faith in good, quality video games.
Nintendo very much represented a “changing of the guard” in the game industry. Atari, the company that had dominated the game industry for a decade, was no longer at the forefront of gaming and had instead lost ground to the upstart NES and Nintendo. However, while the NES was winning over gamers everywhere, publisher Epyx was working on a handheld with the potential to change the industry.
“The Handy” as it was codenamed was technically impressive, but the company hadn’t the money to manufacture of distribute the device. Epyx eventually went belly up and “The Handy,” was shopped around to potential suitors. No one was biting, especially Nintendo, who was secretly prepping the Game Boy for a Holiday 1989 release and they certainly weren’t going to abandon their hardware for an untested machine from a failed publishing company.
Eventually, just when all seemed lost, Atari bought the rights to the machine, renamed it the “Lynx,” and contracted the machine’s creators to make games for the device. Atari felt a handheld was the perfect way to gain some market share, especially when the only competition at the time was Nintendo’s aging Game & Watch handhelds. To Atari this must have seemed like a slam dunk decision but little did Atari know that in a short time it would all change.
The Lynx was a powerhouse of a handheld. It featured a backlit screen, ambidextrous controls, and vivid 16-bit graphics that, at the time, were not even standard on consoles. Nintendo’s Game Boy was pathetic in comparison to the Lynx, featuring only 8-bit graphics. The Lynx; however, had some drawbacks such as its massive size and short battery life. The handheld was very similar to Sega’s Game Gear, which would be released two years later and be even more technically impressive.
Atari’s Lynx retailed at $189, which was almost twice the price of the Gameboy, putting it firmly out of the reach of the teenage demographic. The Lynx was still was boasting strong initial sales numbers during the holiday season, but could not keep stores stocked with enough units to really make a push. Nintendo, of course, had no trouble supplying stores with enough Game Boy units and so many of the consumers who would have bought a Lynx ended up leaving their retailer with a Game Boy instead. Atari eventually managed to supply stores with enough units, but by then Nintendo had a firm grasp on the handheld industry and hasn’t let go since.
Of course, the holiday season wasn’t enough to break the Lynx; there were a few other contributing factors. For one, the Lynx had a distinctive lack of third party publishers on board. However; if Atari had managed to show strong numbers for the holiday season, it is likely that developers would have jumped aboard after the system had proven profitable. While all of the problems compounded to make a headache for Atari, the Lynx was crushed by one thing, Tetris. The Game Boy was shipping with Tetris as a pack-in title, and that addicting little title sold enough Game Boys to cement Nintendo as the King of Handhelds.
The Lynx did re-launch in 1991 with a sleeker design and a $99 price tag, but by then Sega’s Game Gear had hit the market and with strong third party support it steamrolled the new Lynx. With the Lynx firmly in last place, Atari decided to abandon production in 1994 and instead focus on its new console, the “Atari Jaguar”. We all know how well that turned out.
The handheld gaming market, as it stands today, is dominated by Sony and Nintendo. Nintendo’s DS clearly won the last generation, but with the impressive Sony NGP and Nintendo 3DS both releasing this year, only time will tell who comes out on top this time. Who knows what could have been if Atari had managed to hit a home run with the Lynx . . . it may have changed the game industry as we know it today.