90s Handheld Consoles, Who's the Best Handheld Game System?
The 1980s were a dreamer's paradise: a decade that thought it was the future. But the 90s were a lot more practical.
That’s when we realized that most of our 80s dreams were nonsense and we actually started developing the ones that weren’t. Case in point: this era turned our dreams of handheld gaming devices and portable video games into a reality.
The 90s saw an explosion of handheld game systems, most of which came on the heels of the popular Nintendo Game Boy.
Which one ranks, pound for pound, as the best video game console?
Below, we look in-depth at the history and stats of all the major 90s handheld consoles to answer this question. Check it out!
Nintendo's Original Game Boy (1989)
Though not technically the first handheld game console, the Game Boy was the first to become a true, worldwide phenomenon. Also, the Game Boy is actually an 80s game console since it was released in 1989 in Japan and the US. However, because Europe didn't get ituntil 1990, we're on solid legal ground to call it a 90s handheld system.
It’s not hard to see why the console was so popular. Basically, it did absolutely everything right.
To be specific, it was
- Affordable (retailing for $90 upon release)
- Lightweight (it weighed just under 14 ounces with batteries)
- AC adapter compatible
Perhaps even more important is the fact that the Nintendo Game Boy was originally bundled with Tetris. Tetris, along with other notable video game titles, helped push the device to historic commercial heights in the handheld gaming market.
Also, there was no learning curve when it came to playability. After all, the Game Boy had the same button layout as the already familiar NES controller.
Handheld Gaming’s Most Iconic Success
Despite its 8-bit graphics and its unlit, monochromatic screen, the original Game Boy console sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. Of course, there were subsequent Game Boy models as well.
Even the Game Boy Pocket and Game Boy Color never matched the popularity of the original. In fact, Nintendo intentionally held off releasing the Game Boy Color until 1998 because the sales of the original were still strong.
Altogether, Nintendo sold 118 million Game Boy systems. (This includes all variations of the system released prior to the Game Boy Advance.)
Atari Lynx (1989)
The Atari Lynx went was released to challenge Nintendo's Game Boy in 1989. And the smart money said that this was the best handheld retro gaming console to own. After all, it boasted the first color/backlit LCD display of any video game console up to that point. Amazingly, it also had the ability to network with other units.
And there was an extensive library of solid arcade game ports for the Lynx. Plus, the graphics rose above 8-bit and achieved a pseudo-3D effect via planar expansion/shrinking.
So What Happened?
But all those slick features came at a price, namely, shorter battery life. While the Game Boy could squeeze about 35 hours out of its four AA batteries, the Lynx generated a measly 4-5 hours of play from its six AAs.
On top of that, this state-of-the-art 90s system cost a pretty penny. Retailing for $179.99, the Lynx was too cost-prohibitive for most everyday folks.
In the end, the Lynx made some decent profits. But over the course of its life, it only sold some 2 million units, a pitiful fraction of the Game Boy's sales.
Sega Game Gear (1990)
In 1990, Sega released the Game Gear handheld system, the first true contender to the Game Boy. And what a contender it was, with much to boast about against its competition.
Like the Lynx, the console featured games in full color, as well as a backlit screen. But unlikethe Lynx, the Game Gear featured a reasonable launch price. At $149 dollars ($40 cheaper than the Lynx), the Game Gear was a Christmas present that plenty of parents could still afford.
Even better, most of the popular third-party games that were ported to Game Boy were also ported to Game Gear. And let’s be honest: who wants to play Mortal Kombat in black-and-white when they can play it in color?
Additionally, gamers could play mobile ports of beloved Sega exclusives, like Sonic the Hedgehog 2. There was even an accessory that let you watch TV on your Game Gear, presumably while you were camping.
So What Happened?
The Game Gear had so much going for it. So why did it only sell 10 million units?
Mostly, one could blame the ever-present curse that always plagued Sega consoles (AKA, poor timing and bad luck.) At the time of the Game Gear’s release, the Game Boy had already cornered the market for over a year.
Not only that, but the 8-bit system was also competing with 16-bit home consoles, like Sega’s own Genesis console. Players had already grown accustomed to 16-bit Genesis graphics for almost 2 years when the Game Gear came out. Plus, gamers were saving their money for the Super Nintendo, which was scheduled for release one month after the Game Gear.
Aside from that, the system was also plagued with poor battery life. But this could be solved using an AC or car adapter. Still, the Game Gear was ultimately a superior system that never saw the popularity it deserved.
TurboExpress (Released 1990 by NEC Home Electronics)
Released in 1990, the NEC TurboExpress was another shot across the bow of Nintendo. Similiar to other handheld video game consoles, it seemingly had everything going for it, including a TV tuner accessory and a color LCD screen. It even allowed gamers to play their TurboGrafx-16 cartridges on a handheld system for the first time.
But once again, these cutting-edge features came at too high a price—$249.99, to be precise. And in 1990, that was a huge chunk of change.
So What Happened?
So was the TurboExpress worth it? Did the public lap it up, price tag be damned?
No, not at all. Regardless of the price, it had a lot going against it.
First, since this handheld was basically a reduced-size TurboGrafx processor it was quite bulky. The TurboExpress weighed in at around two pounds, making it the chubbiest of handheld game consoles. It also sucked up battery juice like it was getting paid to do it, killing 6 brand-new AAs in less than 2 hours.
As if this wasn't enough, its stock capacitors were cheap and often resulted in sound issues or console death. Combine this with the pixel problems of the finicky LCD screen and you had a machine that never got its big break. Total units sold: 1.5 million.
Sega Nomad (1995)
Sega released the Nomad, which was a mini, portable version of the Genesis, in 1995. Despite its undeniable awesomeness, it was a complete failure that instantly faded into obscurity.
One reason for this is the Sega Saturn, which was outselling the PlayStation at the time. Sega focused so much marketing energy on the Saturn that they barely told anyone about their awesome new handheld console.
And although it was compatible with Sega Genesis games, the Sega Nomad didn't work with certain add-ons, including the Sega CD. Combined, these factors doomed the machine to a lonely death. Total units sold: 1 million.
Tiger Game.com (1997, Tiger Electronics)
Tiger's Game.com was the first handheld console that offered touchscreen capabilities. That may not seem so impressive today. But in 1997, when the Game.com was released, this was a huge leap forward for handheld electronics.
In fact, it marked the dawn of the Palm Pilot revolution. The Game.com even came with its own stylus, which players used to control the action on screen.
On top of all this, it had online capabilities via a modem port in the back. Thus, it was also the first handheld gaming device with Internet connectivity. Though none of the games made use of this feature, Game.com users could send/receive emails and surf the web through a text-only browser.
So What Happened?
But while many of the Game.com’s features were ahead of their time, the rest were staggeringly outdated. Namely, its black-and-white, non-backlit screen was no more advanced than the original Game Boy, which came out 8 years prior.
While this lowered the introductory price to $70, it was a deal-breaking turn-off to most gamers. Also, the system had an incredibly low frame rate, which led to ghosting in many games.
Tiger did attempt to remedy these issues with the Game.com Pocket Pro, released a couple of years later. But the gaming public had already spoken: “Thanks, but no, thanks.” Total units sold: 300,000.
Neo Geo Pocket (1998, SNK)
History repeated itself in 1998 with the release of the Neo Geo Pocket. Once again, a semi-popular console company (this time, SNK) released a handheld system with an outdated, monochromatic screen.
And they couldn’t have done so at a worse time. This forgettable console debuted the very same month that Nintendo released the Game Boy Color.
Thus, the Neo Geo Pocket was stillborn: instantly obsolete before it even launched. Total units sold: 2 million.
Game Boy Color (1998)
Though we technically covered the Game Boy already, it seems necessary to list its legendary semi-successor, the Game Boy Color. Color graphics might sound like only a minor improvement, but it’s more revolutionary than you’d think. After all, it kept the 9-year-old Game Boy system at the top of the handheld gaming market, out-competing all the fresh, new contenders.
It also let gamers play all their old Game Boy cartridges as well as the colorful new titles. Many of the best-selling Game Boy games, like Pokemon Crystal, were enhanced and re-released so that gamers could play them in full color. The 8-bit system’s 5-year run only came to an end because it was overshadowed by the release of Nintendo’s 32-bit Game Boy Advance.
Neo Geo Pocket Color (1999, SNK)
In a desperate attempt to rectify their failure with the Neo Geo Pocket, SNK released the Neo Geo Pocket Color a mere 6 months after the previous system’s launch. This time, though, the system actually had a lot going for it.
Most notably, it was one of the first 16-bit handheld systems (alongside the WonderSwan, which also launched in March, 1999). Strangely, SNK also made a deal with Sega that allowed connectivity between the Neo Geo Pocket Color and the Sega Dreamcast.
So What Happened?
Unfortunately, these bragging points simply weren’t enough to convince gamers that it was worth the investment. Plus, those same gamers were already too invested in the hugely popular Game Boy Color to care about anything else.
So Which Old Handheld Game System Wins?
The Atari Lynx, Sega Nomad and Neo Geo Pocket Color were all amazingly capable systems that offered massive entertainment value. And, in terms of playability, one could easily consider the Neo Geo Pocket color as the undisputed champ.
However, it is definitely not undisputed. It’s undeniable that the Game Boy is and always has been the most popular of these consoles.
Because of this, it also has the largest game library. This includes hundreds of mega-hit game cartridges like Metroid II and the slew of awesome 90s Pokemon Games. This fact alone makes it the best 90s handheld console for retro gamers (particularly the Game Boy Color).
The Game Boy's enduring popularity is a testament to everything that this iconic console got right. After all, there are no iPhone cases modeled after the TurboExpress now are there?
90s Handheld Consoles: Revive the Glory Days of Handheld Gaming
Lastly, no one ever said you had to agree with us. Perhaps your favorite is the Atari Lynx or the Sega Nomad.
The important thing is, some of the most enjoyable games ever made are exclusively available on these handheld game consoles. Get these consoles and games from our store and enjoy hours of portable entertainment. Other honorable mentions, Bandai Wonder Swan, and the Watara Supervisio