Game Boy at 25: the Competitors

On September 28, 1990, one year after Japan and North America, Nintendo’s handheld game console the Game Boy finally made it to Europe. Due to the Game Boy’s huge worldwide success, selling millions of units within weeks after its release, many other game companies wanted to get a slice of that pie by making their own handheld gaming device. Even though many of them were better on paper, with high end hardware and advanced features for the time, none of them achieved no where near as much success as Nintendo’s system did. Nevertheless, I’ve created a list of the Game Boy’s opponents:

Watara Supervision

The Watara Supervision was heavily inspired by Nintendo’s Game Boy. So much so, they designed their first model to be almost identical to Game Boy, but with a slightly larger screen. While Watara designed most of the games themselves, they also received a small amount of third party support, mostly from Sachen. Supervision did enjoy a modest degree of success, but it didn’t get anywhere near as much attention as the Game Boy did, and it didn’t make any impact on Nintendo’s sales whatsoever.

Bitcorp Gamate

The Bitcorp Gamate was one of the first handheld consoles to attempt to compete with the Game Boy. It was released in 1990 in Asia and in 1991 worldwide. We have to give this system some credit because, unlike many other Game Boy clones of that time, this one was a little bit more original. Its design was horizontal, and like Game Boy, It required 4 AA batteries. Gamate’s biggest downside was its screen. It was difficult to use, and it suffered from motion blur problems. It sold poorly as a result, and was entirely removed from the market by the end of 1994.

Game.com

Tiger Electronics answered to Nintendo’s Game Boy with their own system called the Game.com. Released quite late, in September 1997, Game.com (pronounced “Game Com”) was the first handheld system with two game cartridge slots on the same machine. It also had some nice features, such as a touch screen and stylus, which were in their own way ahead of their time – seven years later, the DS would capitalise heavily on those features.

One notable feature of the ultimately failed console was that it was the first handheld to have online gameplay via a 14.4kbps modem attachment. That explains the “.com” then.

Turbo Express

Released in 1990, Turbo Express was a portable version of the TurboGrafx 16 console which performed respectably as a competitor to the SNES and Mega Drive in Japan. Due to its ability to display 64 sprites at once, in 512 colors on its high resolution screen, Turbo Express was the most advanced handheld system of that time. It had 64 Kb of RAM, and two 3.58 MHz CPUs. It also had a feature called ”TurboLink” which allowed two-player play.

The short battery life and requirement for six AAs hindered its progress, though, and despite a not inconsiderable 1.5 million sales, the console came a poor fourth, some way behind the Atari Lynx.

Sega Game Gear

Sega’s Game Gear was the biggest Game Boy competitor, and the only one, which could have reached Game Boy’s level of success and become a real threat to Nintendo’s sales.

While it did enjoy relatively strong success, with 11 million sales (more than the Dreamcast or Saturn ever managed) it still fell way behind Nintendo’s Game Boy.

Released in 1990 in Japan, and a year later worldwide, Game Gear was based on the Sega Master System. That allowed a fast game development for the Game Gear, due to Sega’s large library of Master System games. The console featured in a fairly brutal attack campaign against the Game Boy, seeking to portray the latter as a console for people who were “color blind and had an IQ of 12” as one rather startling advert put it.

It carried on respectably until the mid-nineties, when its successor the Nomad flopped catastrophically.

Atari Lynx

Atari-Lynx-I-Handheld

The Lynx was probably the last Atari system that could be said to have any measure of success. After being (quite rightly) blamed for the Great Video Game Crash of ’83, the Atari 2600 never recovered, although its sales of 30 million remain respectable and the Atari ST home computer found success in Europe, particularly for music production.

The Lynx was the first of two big cat themed systems from Atari – the other being the notorious Jaguar – and did include some remarkable innovations. The system could be played ambidextrously. This didn’t just mean it included controls to make things easier for left handed players, but that the entire console could be flipped over with an identical set of controls on the other side. It also featured a colour LCD display and technically could be linked to up to 17 other Lynxes.

It managed around seven million units sold, but the lack of big name games, the slightly damaged brand of Atari and the big names competing with it from Sega and Nintendo meant that it never got very far.

Remarkably, games still continue to be produced for it, almost entirely by independent studios like Super Fighter Team, who released a shooter called Zaku for the system in 2009.

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