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Atari Lynx — innovative design, color graphics, horrible battery life

By: 18 January 2011 3 Comments

When Atari officials announced the Lynx back in 1989, they must have thought they had the system that would reverse the company’s declining fortunes.

The Atari Lynx was, indeed, a very sophisticated portable gaming system when it was released (and, yes, it’s still a heck of a lot of fun). It was the first handheld to feature color graphics and up to 17 players could link the systems together through the ComLynx cable for multiplayer gaming on the road. Want another innovation? The system is ambidextrous — the “action buttons on the right, control pad on the left” default orientation caters to right handed players, but hitting a couple of buttons will “flip” the display and present a setup more favorable to lefties.

On top of all that, the heart of the Lynx is a 16-bit graphics processor that provided for some very smooth animation, scrolling and scaling (well, the scaling can be choppy at times) on a 3.5″ liquid crystal display (LCD) that’s playable even in the dark thanks to backlighting. While the main 8-bit CPU for the Lynx is from the MOS 6502 family, the graphics are 16-bit and look downright incredible for a portable system that was released almost 22 years ago.

Indeed, there is a lot about the Lynx that was very right, so why did it fail? The short answer to that question is the Nintendo Game Boy. We’ll reserve the discussion of how Nintendo managed to rain on Atari’s parade yet again in a bit.

To understand the Lynx, it’s important to take a look at the history of the thing. The Lynx started life as the Epyx Handy — the system was a project that started in 1986 and was more or less finished in 1987. Now, think about that for a moment — 16-bit graphics in a portable system in 1987? Forward-thinking, indeed. At any rate, Epyx ran into some money problems and entered an agreement with Atari. Without going into too much detail, Atari would brand and market the Handy as its own unit and Epyx would deal with software development.

Atari did a couple of design tweaks and dropped the “Handy” name by the time the Lynx was announced in 1989. Unfortunately, the Nintendo Game Boy was also announced in 1989 — the Game Boy line is still thriving today whereas the Lynx died out in the mid-1990s. A side-to-side comparison of the Lynx and the original Game Boy might prompt some to wonder why history played out as it did. The Game Boy is a pure 8-bit system with a comparatively dinky screen, monochrome graphics and sound that wasn’t up to par with the Lynx’s four-channel sound.

Ah, but the Nintendo had quite a bit going for it. First and foremost, Nintendo was the dominant player in the market when the Game Boy was released, meaning the company was absolutely rolling in cash and could market the heck out of the system. Good marketing translates into sales, which translates into third-party developers lining up to make games for a system.

It’s all about software, folks. You can have the best hardware on the block, but that won’t matter one whit unless you’ve got the games that people want. And Nintendo had those in spades. Third-party development for the Game Boy was strong, indeed, and let’s not forget Nintendo’s in-house development of very solid games featuring characters that people were nuts over back then (and still are, honestly). Platformers featuring the likes of Mario and Kirby and, heck, even the wildly popular Tetris were all available for the Game Boy and helped drive sales.

Another major factor was the entry price for a Lynx. The system, when introduced, cost around $190, whereas the Game Boy cost $90. And the Lynx was more expensive to operate — the thing sucked down six “AA” batteries in about four hours, whereas the Game Boy got over 30 hours out of four “AA” batteries. Yes, there was an AC adapter available as well as a big, goofy external power pack that utilized “D” batteries. Those are odd devices, indeed, to lug around with a system that’s supposed to be portable.

And, speaking of portable, the Lynx is a large thing, indeed. The original one was huge and even the second revision (the Lynx 2) of the unit is a massive thing that’s close to a foot across in size. Good luck sneaking that piece of hardware into anything.

I’ve heard people gripe about the Lynx’s display in that they claim you have to hold it at weird angles to see the action correctly. There is some merit to that, but such claims are overblown. I’ve had a Lynx 2 (Lynx II, according to some people) for years and I’ve never had trouble with the angle of the screen. Keep that in mind should you run across one of those “the Lynx has a terrible display” arguments. Perhaps people who complain of the display are referring to the original Lynx. I do know the Lynx 2 came with a slightly better screen, stereo sound through its headphone jack, a smaller case and some other minor improvements.

One of the improvements of the Lynx 2 — which was released in 1991 — was its $99 sticker price. By that time, however, the Nintendo was as dominant in the portable market as it was in the console market and the Lynx was in serious trouble. Atari pretty well shifted its focus from the Lynx to the dreadfully awful Jaguar console in 1994, leaving the Lynx to fade into oblivion. It’s worth mentioning that the failure of the Jaguar effectively killed Atari.

Anyone collecting old systems such as the Lynx might wonder why they should purchase the Atari portable. The answer is pretty simple — there are some great games for the Lynx that you simply will not find anywhere else. Pseudo-3D graphics were in abundance on games such as Blue Lightning (a jet fighting game) and Checkered Flag (a great — but tough — racing game). For sports fans, Awesome Golf and Jimmy Connors Tennis are dandy fun, while solid arcade translations such as Paperboy and Ms. Pac-Man are great, too. Want puzzlers? Try Chip’s Challenge, Klax or Shanghai (a solid version of Mahjong with a lot of options) on for size.

The thing to look out for on the Lynx is that a good number of games are, at best, shovelware. For every unique, outstanding title such as Hydra or California Games, there’s a dog like Kung Food or Pit Fighter. Fortunately, there are archives of reviews at The Atari Times (disclaimer — I wrote some of those reviews) and a few reviews at The Video Game Critic. You’ll also find a group of enthusiastic Lynx fans in the forums at AtariAge and news about current game development (you read that right) over there, too.

Finally, you’ll find a Lynx system for a reasonable price at eBay and most of the better games for the system are available for cheap over there, too.

Stay tuned — more reviews to come in the “retrogaming” category here at First Arkansas News.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

3 Comments »

  • Xeryus said:

    Great read and visit down memory lane, out of curiosity i checked eBay, couldn’t find one going for under $400… crazy

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    $400? Seriously? I’m surprised — I got mine for around $50 several years ago!

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