Not so long ago I talked about Sony’s PSP, a portable that somehow managed to have a library overflowing with excellent games and sell over eighty million units worldwide but was still considered little more than “the other one” against the mighty Nintendo DS. Proving that history has always been more of a circle than a straight line, this time I’m going to take a look at an earlier technologically superior handheld that also fell to its Nintendo rival: Atari’s Lynx.
The year was 1989. Golden Axe was a fresh arcade hit. Prince of Persia’s smooth animations were wowing Apple II users. Turtles were exclusively of the Teenage Mutant Ninja variety.
And the Game Boy was the coolest gadget in the world.
It’d be easy to dismiss the Lynx as simply a reaction to their rival’s success – Atari money-men shouting “We want a piece of that!” in a boardroom somewhere as harried hardware designers scurried off to try and think of something that’d let them keep their jobs – but Atari’s handheld released just a few short months after Nintendo’s record-breaking Tetris machine and had been in development for years beforehand. Let’s also consider Atari’s place in the gaming landscape at that point in time: They were (outwardly) still a serious competitive force in the industry, a long-established company with a string of industry-changing hits to their name – Pong, Star Wars (the fancy vector arcade one), Missile Command, Gauntlet, Centipede, Paperboy, and so on – and a range of successful home consoles and computers stretching back to the very beginning of videogaming. This wasn’t a cynical cash-grab but a serious attempt to mark their territory on an emerging new market and, on paper, they had everything they needed to get the job done.
Of course we all know now that things didn’t quite work out the way Atari had hoped for the Lynx coming in stone-dead last behind not only the Game Boy but Sega’s Game Gear as well. In fairness it did manage to outsell the PC Engine GT (AKA: TurboExpress), but that was a fabulously expensive portable version of a pre-existing home console and as such I don’t feel it falls into quite the same space as dedicated handheld gaming devices. The main thing is that unlike the PSP, which merely “failed” the Lynx really did fail fail, no sarcastic quotation marks required – but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be a fascinating window into what on-the-go nineties gaming could have been.
Barring some minor internal revisions there are two versions of the Lynx: The original 1989 model and the revised 1991 re-release that Atari somehow hoped would increase sales over, I dunno, making sure they had loads of amazing games in development for the system instead.
[cough – we’ll get to that later]
The original Lynx, which would definitely be “The Duke” if it was an Xbox controller, was famously large and unwieldy, even at the time. It was big. Seriously huge. You needed a sturdy neckstrap and arms like tree trunks just to hold it up to your puny nerd face, you nerd… didn’t you? Actually it’s roughly an inch and a smidge wider than a Nintendo Switch (with Joycons attached), and I know this for a fact because I rescued a measuring tape from the depths of my “Helpful stuff I’ll never use” drawer and put both handhelds side-by-side. It’s fair to say that the original Lynx is big and heavy by both retro and modern standards; but it’s far from the ridiculous beast it’s been made out to be.
The revised Lynx (the Lynx II was it’s official but not strictly officially-spoken moniker) is smaller and fatter than the original, looking like something of a chunky Game Gear. The screen and battery life are allegedly a little better this time around but having played on both models in the distant early nineties as well as now there’s really not enough in it to definitively call the original obsolete, and in the hand both models feel nice enough to play even if you could never honestly call them portable portables.
Then we get to all the weird little snags that remind you just how new this all was not just to gamers but the industry at large:
The Lynx’s carts are beautiful square-ish things that will instantly bring to mind NEC’s equally gorgeous HuCards – all thin and flat and a complete nightmare to remove from the Lynx’s cart slot because they’re so very thin, and so very flat. Later games and re-releases sensibly gave carts a practical curved lip at the top, eliminating the removal issue entirely, but heavens above getting an early cart out of a Lynx II is a chore, enough to make me think twice before I put one in.
Then there’s the controls. The d-pad would feel large even if it was on a regular home console pad with each direction feeling very separate from the others due in part to that size but mostly because it lacks the kind of roll and tilt you get on a Nintendo or Sega controller. It never really becomes a problem because games tend to not need anything more complex than four-direction movement anyway, but it does feel a bit “off” somehow. The buttons also feel oversized but the strangest thing is that while there may be four of them on the front they’re actually two sets of two, the lower pair of duplicated A and B buttons existing for all three people on the planet who want to make use of the Lynx’s unique “flip” function that reverses the screen so you can play with the d-pad on the right and the buttons on the left (with the cart slot on the bottom!).
The Lynx’s layout also allows it to be held vertically, a lovely albeit vastly underused feature that has made it my go-to Klax machine for twenty-eight years running. The other two games to embrace this orientation are Gauntlet III, a game that uses it mostly for the sake of trying to give you a reason to play Gauntlet III (don’t play Gauntlet III) and, yes you’re reading this right, Raiden. That Raiden.
But the stand-out “Help we want to make a portable gaming device but we’re not sure what one should be” example has to be the graphical capabilities, and more specifically how they really don’t tie in with the screen used to display them. This was a handheld, in the eighties, that could do sprite scaling. Proper hardware-based sprite scaling! The SNES was still a few years away for most of the world, and yet here was a battery-powered portable doing all of that fancy pixel manipulation already! I really cannot stress how amazing this was, and how when games used it – like Blue Lightning and Electrocop did – it looked fantastic and created experiences that the Game Boy really, truly, couldn’t hope to replicate. But this key feature was utterly hobbled by a backlit screen that only had a resolution of 160×102 pixels – much less than not just the Game Gear but the original Game Boy too. If you want to be clever you could call try to spin this issue into a widescreen colour display (exclamation mark, semi-dressed eighties woman taking up most of the space on the pamphlet), but the lack of detail on screen on a system that was trying to position itself as the superior experience and had the under-the-hood hardware to actually pull that claim off is noticeable not just to the opposing team’s bloodthirsty marketing people looking for a weakness but end users too.
As you’d expect that backlit display was also the main source of power drain on the system, with six (six!) AA batteries lasting around five hours. A clear issue when you’re main rival boasts a battery life so long everyone’s always surprised when they finally have to change the four AA’s in their Game Boy, but with a decent set of modern rechargeables you could definitely leave a Lynx out for a week and keep coming back for the odd session on it, no problem.
If you happen to have a long-suffering Atari-loving friend (Falcon forever!) you can link anything from two to eight machines together (game-dependent, of course) for some multiplayer action. It’s there and it works, and it’s as much a not-worth-the-effort faff as any other portable game that can’t offer Pokemon trading or adorably vicious Neo Geo Pocket battles as a reward for all that expense and setting up.
The Lynx’s slight game selection – the system didn’t even clear eighty official releases in its time – is largely made up of popular eighties/early nineties arcade titles with a few original games and some now painfully dated licenses thrown into the mix (Batman Returns, anyone? Bill and Ted?), and needs a little adjusting to: The machine’s graphical output may have been at the cutting edge of a brave new world but game design hadn’t had the chance to catch up and as such most developers didn’t really know how to take advantage of all the features on offer. To go back to the Game Boy, with its simple monochrome screen and obvious beepy-boopy-ness (I mean this in a loving way) there’s an immediate feeling of limitation – you don’t expect the hardware to do much, so every time it goes above and beyond it feels like you’re witnessing the envelope being pushed before your eyes – the Game Boy shouldn’t do this, but it does it anyway. And when it does fall back on that basic beepyness it’s easy to think “Oh well, it is only a Game Boy, bless it”. In contrast seeing the Raw Power of the Lynx™ being used to run California Games of all things (it was the pack-in title – this was supposed to be Atari’s Tetris-beater!) makes the entire brand feel flabby and half-arsed because the system, even when only doing what it was perfectly capable of doing, could look so much more impressive than that. There may be nothing wrong with Ms Pac-Man, or Qix, or Joust (I do love Joust), but even in 1989 they weren’t hot new titles and they certainly didn’t flex the Lynx’s powerful hardware muscle in any shape or form.
Similar issues pop up in the Lynx’s library with alarming frequency: Rampage has always been a good bit of mindless fun but it didn’t do anything amazing that justified purchasing it again over any of the other numerous ports it had already received and you can level the exact same complaint at Pit Fighter, Switchblade II, Shadow of the Beast, and too many other Lynx ports to mention.
Which isn’t to say that there’s nothing worth playing on the system: S.T.U.N. Runner is a great way to show off the hardware. The Lynx’s version of Klax is still my favourite port of Klax ever, in no small part thanks to that vertically orientated screen. It’s got Ninja Gaiden, Rygar, and Lemmings. And as I said, games like Qix, Joust, and Shanghai may not play to the system’s strengths but there’s no actual issue with the quality of the games themselves.
Ultimately the Lynx was too much, too soon – and yet in many ways also not enough. The system needed more flagship games with that Nintendo-beating (or at least, Nintendo-slightly worrying) “oomph” to them, but they never arrived. The pack-in title was a port of a port of a game that was already a few years old even on the Lynx’s launch day. Overall the system is an interesting time capsule of Western ideas of arcade and arcade-like gaming but it’s fair to say it’s aged poorly; a lot of the things that made it special thirty years ago are now mundane to the point of being invisible (or outright forgotten) and the games it decided to hang its hat on have largely fallen out of style save for a few nostalgic pieces of merchandising. If you can either remember that far back or still honestly enjoy the sort of arcade title that had a kill screen rather than an ending then you’ll find something of value here, but for most it’s an interesting curiosity and should be left at that.
Kimimi’s Quick List o’ Games to Try:
Gates of Zendocon