The Ryan Lambie Column: How Nintendo won the handheld console war

How Nintendo saw off Nokia, Sega, SNK, Sony and the Wonderswan, and why it'll see off Apple too...

Wonderswan. What sort of name is that for a console? It’s the kind of name Spike Milligan could have come up with. It’s also the only conceivable answer to the question ‘which superhero can only be legally eaten by the Queen’.

The peculiarly monickered Wonderswan was a handheld system released in 1999 by Bandai as a potential rival to Nintendo’s all-conquering Gameboy. A library of decent games and neat design touches notwithstanding (its button configuration meant you could play games in a horizontal or vertical format) the Wonderswan was only a modest success, and was never sold officially outside its native Japan.

Despite my love for obscure systems (particularly Japanese ones), I only got round to adding a Wonderswan to my collection this week; a rare Tare Panda edition, which comes in a beautifully designed box with a white version of the console and a copy of Tare Panda no Gunpei (a worryingly addictive puzzle game). It’s a nifty little device – a touch too small and light perhaps, but its buttons are well positioned and responsive, its screen quality crisp and clear. So why didn’t the Wonderswan take off?

On paper, the Wonderswan had an excellent pedigree – one that should, in theory, have made the handheld a genuine contender in the portable gaming battle ground: its development was overseen by the late Gunpei Yokoi, the brains behind Nintendo’s legendary Game and Watch gadgets, the games Kid Icarus and Metroid Prime, and most significantly, the iconic Gameboy.

Ad – content continues below

Of course, the gaming battlefield is littered with the corpses of Nintendo’s competition: Atari with their Lynx, Sega with their Gamegear, NEC with their TurboExpress, SNK with their Neo-Geo Pocket. The fact that the Gameboy, in all its various guises (Pocket, Colour, SP, DS), has never been truly rivalled is clearly lost on Nintendo’s competitors, even today: the Nokia NGage, hamstrung by its awkward design and fiddly little game cartridges, completely failed to ignite the public’s imagination, and the PSP has taken a very, very long time to make a dent in Nintendo’s market hegemony. And new pretenders to the crown still occasionally appear: Apple has begun to push its iPhone/iPod Touch device as a potential games machine, despite its lack of experience in the field.

So how has the Gameboy succeeded where so many others failed? The most obvious answer is that Nintendo simply got there first – as I mentioned earlier, Yokoi’s blueprint for the handheld game system had already been set with the highly successful Game and Watch series in the 80s(which are now becoming sought after collector’s items), and when the Gameboy appeared in 1989 it quickly became the Hoover of handheld gaming. Nintendo’s competitors looked at the console’s diminutive technical spec, with its cheap LCD screen and bleepy sound, as a potentially exploitable flaw, but their attempts to lure away Gameboy addicts with superior graphics failed miserably.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Tetris also played a vital role in the Gameboy’s success story: it was the system’s killer app before the term had even been coined, selling several million copies either by itself or bundled with the console.

What Atari and Sega didn’t appear to realise was that the Gameboy’s meagre specifications were in fact its chief asset: its non-backlit, black and white screen meant that its battery life was comparatively huge, with four AA batteries lasting nearly 11 hours (six batteries lasted a piffling two hours or less on the GameGear). Nintendo’s antiquated Z80 based technology also made it cheap to produce and smaller too – its rivals were twice as big and also twice as expensive.

Moving into the 21st century, the handheld gaming landscape is largely unchanged: Sony may have had the greatest success of all Nintendo’s rivals with its PSP, but the DS is still the most popular thanks to its mass appeal and low cost.

So there we have it: a potted history of the Gameboy, and a record of the rivals it has slain on the road to world domination. In many ways it’s the most significant piece of hardware Nintendo have yet released – not only did it become an icon of its late 80s/early 90s era, it helped the company through the lean N64/GameCube years before the Wii’s gigantic success.

Ad – content continues below

Despite my love for Nintendo and their sunshine-filled games, I can’t help feeling a pang of regret for its unfortunate rivals. For all its bloated, battery-guzzling excess, the GameGear still had some excellent games – Halley Wars and GG Aleste were two eminently playable shooters, and the Japan-only platformer Berlin Wall was one of the most quirky and fun games of its type on any handheld. Similarly, the Neo Geo Pocket had its own unique conversion of Metal Slug, and the Wonderswan boasted Crazy Climber and the impossible-to-find but brilliant shooter Judgement Silversword.

Sadly, a clutch of decent titles, superior technology or even the innovative design of Gunpei Yokoi himself were no match for the Gameboy’s fighting spirit. Underneath Nintendo’s cute, carefully constructed public image lurks a dark, killer instinct – as Sega, Atari, NEC, SNK and Bandai found to their cost.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.