Friday, January 29, 2016

Tech History: The First Portable Color Gaming System - The Atari Lynx

As an undergraduate I attended Temple University and lived in Center City Philadelphia.  Each day I had to hop the Broad Street line up to Temple from what used to be called Market East (it is now Jefferson Station).  For me personally, this was frustrating and annoying.  Sitting around waiting for a train that ultimately made me late for class more often then it should have was no fun.  If I were in college now I'd have killed time on my cell phone or iPad, but this was the 90's -- we had no smart phones or tablets!
Atari Lynx I
But we had the Atari Lynx!

I remember sitting on the bench in the train station, and on the train heading north to the crime-infested streets that surrounded Temple and playing games such as California Games, Missile Command, Asteroids and many others on my handy little Lynx that fit easily into my backpack.

Originally released in October of 1989, the cartridge based Atari Lynx was the world's first handheld, portable, color gaming system that sported an LCD display.  The combination of the crisp color LCD, long(ish) battery life, ability to play the device as left-handed or right-handed without any modification plus the ComLynx multiplayer cable made the Atari Lynx one of the best gaming systems of the 90's.  The system was originally designed by ex-Amiga employees and developed by the gaming company Epyx (known for Jumpman and other titles), before Atari purchased the rights to the system in 1989.  

The Atari Lynx boasted the ability to support zooming and distortion of sprites on screen.  It had a 4096 color palette, integrated math and gaming processors -- stealing blitter technology from the Atari computer line -- and a psuedo 3D display feature that made it stand out against anything else at the time.  Keep in mind that the Lynx had all the graphic capabilities of the Super Nintendo, plus the ability to zoom and distort sprites (that the SNES did not have) and was released a year before the SNES!

And for 1989, the multiplayer capability was revolutionary.  The ComLynx cabling system could support up to 17 units linked together.  That was great, but the maximum any game supported was 8.  The good news was that there were 36 titles that supported the ComLynx, which made for some super fun gaming.  When initially developed, the ComLynx feature was based on infrared.  The technology, called RedEye, was similar to the infrared connectivity that laptops of the time sported.  Ultimately, it was nixed in favor of a cable system because of battery and connectivity stability concerns.

Originally priced at $189, the Lynx was initially quite popular.  In its first 18 months it sold nearly a million units. There were a number of games out to support the system, and even the included game (California Games) was pretty darned fun to play.  And while $189 does not seem like a lot of money for a state-of-the-art gaming system now (look at the prices of the Sony PSP or Nintendo 3DS), at the time Nintendo's Game Boy was half the cost -- even if it was not in color.  Unfortunately for Atari, the Lynx began to suffer from its price point by late 1990, and Sega announced it's handheld -- the Game Gear.  While the hardware in the Lynx was better than the Game Gear, Atari had to do something to boost sales.  So they redesigned the case and introduced the Lynx II in 1991.  The sleeker look helped push a unit that had a slightly faster processor and improved battery life over the original unit.  The Atari Lynx II was also the first handheld gaming unit with build in stereo headphone sound.

Atari Lynx II with California Games
In spite of the new look and improved specifications, Atari looked forward from the Lynx in late 1992 and began development on the Atari Jaguar console.  And once Atari moved on, they were not looking back.  The combination of newer, greener (or so Atari thought) pastures that lay ahead in 64-bit console gaming and the Sega Game Gear that was backed by a much larger library of games, the Lynx was doomed.  By the end of 1995 sales had fallen off, and the world had moved on to other systems.  All told, the estimates on Lynx sales put it between 3 and 7 million units in 6 years.  By comparison, the Game Boy moved over 16 million units in about the same time.  

Games continued to be developed and released well into the 2000's for the beloved Lynx, but it was a mere trickle compared to the hundreds of titles available between 1989-1993.  And in 2008 Atari was honored by Technology and Engineering Emmy Awards as a pioneer in mobile gaming for its work with the Lynx.

And while the sales may not show it, anyone who has owned a Lynx and played it next to a Game Boy or a Game Gear will tell you -- the Atari Lynx was the best handheld gaming system made in the 1990's!

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel

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