If the ‘80s was the decade that thought it was the future, then the ‘90s was the decade that actually saw some of those technological promises come true. Case in point: handheld electronics—video games, to be precise. The ‘90s saw an explosion of handheld gaming consoles, most of which came on the heels of the popular Nintendo Gameboy. But which one ranks as pound for pound the best handheld around? We’ve broken down the history and stats of the major players in order to determine ultimate handheld superiority.
The one that started it all. Technically the Gameboy is an ‘80s handheld, since it was released in 1989. However, because Europe didn’t get it until 1990, we’re on solid legal ground to include it in this list. The Gameboy’s popularity can be explained thusly: it simply did everything right. It was affordable (retailing for around $90 upon release) was AC adapter compatible, was lightweight (it weighed just under 14 ounces with batteries), and it came bundled with Tetris, which, along with other popular games, would help push the device to great commercial heights. Also, there was no learning curve when it came to playability, since Nintendo modeled the button layout after the NES controller.
And despite its 8-bit graphics and black-and-white, green-reflective LCD, the original Gameboy went on to sell tens of millions of copies worldwide. Of course there were subsequent models, but the Gameboy Pocket and Gameboy Light never matched the popularity of the original. Nintendo even held off on releasing a color version of the Gameboy until 1998 because sales of the original were so strong.
The Atari Lynx went head to head with the Gameboy in 1989, and the smart money said this was the handheld to own. After all, it boasted the first color backlit LCD display of any handheld gaming console up to that point. It had the capability to network with other units, and there was an extensive library of solid arcade conversions for the Lynx. Plus the graphics rose above 8-bit and achieved a pseudo-3D effect via planar expansion/shrinking.
But all those slick graphics came at a price—namely, shorter battery life. While the Gameboy could squeeze about 35 hours out of its four AA batteries (plus it could accommodate a rechargeable battery pack), the Lynx generated a measly 4-5 hours from its six AAs. The price point didn’t help, either. Retailing for $179.99, the Lynx was too cost-prohibitive for most everyday folks. In the end, the Lynx did okay business, but over the course of its life it only sold some 3 million copies, which is a very small fraction of the Gameboy’s sales.
Released in 1990, the NEC TurboExpress was another shot across the bow of Nintendo. It seemingly had everything going for it, such as its color LCD, as well as the ability to play the very same game cartridges as its home console counterpart, the TurboGrafx-16. It even had a tuner that allowed the user to watch TV. But again, cutting-edge features cost money—$249.99, to be precise. And in 1990 dollars that was a big chunk of change. So was the TurboExpress worth it? Did the public lap it up, price tag be damned?
Not really. It had a lot going against it. Because this handheld was essentially a TurboGrafx processor shoehorned into a handheld case, that meant the TurboExpress had to be bulky, and it most certainly was. The thing weighed in around two pounds, making it the chubbiest of handheld consoles. It also sucked up battery juice like it was getting paid to do it, which resulted in the death of 6 brand new AA batteries in an hour and a half or so. As if this wasn’t enough, its stock capacitors were cheap and often resulted in sound issues, or to the console dying entirely. Combine this with the pixel problems inherent in the new LCD color screen and you had a machine that never gained a foothold in the market.
Sega released its handheld version of the Genesis (Mega Drive outside North America) in 1995 and was almost instantly faded into obscurity. There are a few reasons for this, not the least of which is that Sega was concentrating most of its marketing energy on the Saturn, which was outselling the PlayStation at the time. Another is that, despite being compatible with Sega’s library of some 500 games, the Nomad didn’t work with certain add-ons or the Sega CD. These factors combined to condemn the machine to a lonely death.
One thing Tiger’s Game.com had going for it was that it was the first handheld console that offered touchscreen capabilities. That may not seem so impressive now, but remember that the Game.com was released, in 1997. This was the dawn of the Palm Pilot revolution, when touchscreen technology was new and exciting. The Game.com even came with its own “stylus” (remember that word?), which players used to control the action on screen. On top of all this, the Game.com had online capabilities via a modem port in the back, making it the first handheld gaming device with Internet connectivity (text only).
Despite all these features, the stark reality is that the Game.com failed miserably. It did so for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that its black-and-white, non-backlit screen technology was about as advanced as the first of Nintendo’s Gameboys— which came out in 1989. Also, it 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, which they released a couple years later, but the gaming public had already spoken: thanks but no thanks.
So who wins the battle of the handhelds? While the Atari Lynx is a solid handheld that still offers much entertainment via its library of decent games, it seems that the Gameboy is still the best of its era. Its enduring popularity is a testament to everything that particular handheld got right. After all, there are no iPhone cases modeled after the TurboExpress, now are there?