90s Handheld Consoles, Who's the Best Handheld Game System?

best handheld consoleIf 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 gaming devices, portable video games, to be precise, & the 90s classic consoles.

The ‘90s saw an explosion of handheld game systems, most of which came on the heels of the popular Nintendo Game Boy. But which one ranks as pound for pound the best handheld console? We've broken down the history and stats of the major players in order to determine the best handheld gaming console.

Nintendo Gameboy

The one that started it all. Technically, the Game Boy is a 80s Handheld Console, 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 about 90s Handheld Systems. The Game Boy's90s handheld game systemspopularity can be explained justly: 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 classic titles, would help push the device to great commercial heights in the handheld gaming market. 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 Game Boy Pocket and Game Boy Color never matched the popularity of the original. Nintendo even held off on releasing the Game Boy Color version of the Gameboy until 1998 because sales of the original were so strong. Browse our shop for some old Nintendo handheld game systems here.

Atari Lynx

The Atari Lynx went head-to-head with the Gameboy in 1989, and the smart money said this was the best handheld retro gaming Atari Lynxconsole 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 games 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 Game Boy 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 AA's. 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 of 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 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 Nomad

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 16-Bit Sega Genesis 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.  I didn't mention the battery-hungry Sega game gear due to the fact, most of these old handhelds don't work any longer.  Pretty much all the game gears need a capacitor replacement to function properly. 

Tiger Game.com

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,Game comwhen 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 Game Boys, 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 of years later, but the gaming public had already spoken: thanks, but no, thanks.

So which old handheld game system wins?

While the Atari Lynx is a solid handheld that still offers much entertainment via its game library, 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?

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Friday, 30 September 2022