Rise of the handheld
Back in 1989, Nintendo stunned the world with the introduction of the Game Boy. While other handhelds had existed prior (including Nintendo’s own Game & Watch series), no handheld had offered the versatility, the portability, and the power of that old beige brick. This was due to the engineering philosophies of Gunpei Yokoi, the lead designer of the Game Boy. He used what he had learned from the Game & Watch series to create a device that had enough power to impress, while relying on older, proven technologies that would allow the device to launch at a cheap price and maintain good battery life.
In 1995, Nintendo released another of Yokoi’s devices, but to much less acclaim. The Virtual Boy, which relied on spinning mirrors and an array of red LEDs to simulate 3D environments, was big, expensive, and utterly confusing. It was battery operated, but its short stand and heavy weight made it too awkward to really be a portable. Playing it in the home secluded you from others, and gave people headaches, eye strain, and neck pain (unless you tossed the stand and purchased a head strap). The device remains Nintendo’s biggest flop, having sold less than a million units. (Sorry Wii U, you’re not even Nintendo’s biggest mistake.)
Triumph and Tragedy
Yokoi would eventually retire from Nintendo in 1996, forming his own company, Koto Laboratory. Shortly after, Bandai approached him to create a Game Boy competitor. He and his new company used the design philosophy of using the older, proven technologies to create a small, inexpensive handheld with great battery life. This device was the WonderSwan. It featured a 16-bit processor (compared to the 8-bit processor of its chief competitor, the Game Boy Color), a wide screen capable of being played vertically or horizontally, and was powered by only one AA battery. This device would eventually make its way to the market in 1999, though not before being struck by tragedy.
In 1997, Gunpei Yokoi was killed in a car accident. His team (which featured some of his underlings from his Nintendo days) continued on with his vision and finished developing the console in his absence. While we will never know how the console would have turned out had Yokoi not passed, we can compare the finished product with his past glories, as well as Nintendo’s own successors to his products.
Spa 5? Is it good?
These were never released outside of Japan, so they can be a bit hard to find. The WonderSwan I bought is one of the later iterations, the WonderSwan Color. It’s the same device, but features a screen capable of displaying colored graphics. Like all WonderSwans (including the third and final iteration, the SwanCrystal), the screen isn’t backlit, which makes seeing the screen a little difficult without being near a light source. (If only I had a Worm Light for this thing.)
The system isn’t without other oddities. The battery, for example, isn’t actually housed inside the console. Instead, the battery locks into the battery cover, which then plugs into the console like the battery packs of Xbox controllers. There is a locking mechanism for the battery pack, but I leave it unlocked as its easier to yank the battery out than it is to get the power button to actually power down the console. Also, the volume is controlled by a single volume button, as opposed to a rocker, slider, or nob that are normally present on handheld devices. What this button does is cycle through a few preset loudness settings. Heavy metal concerts have ruined my hearing, so unless it’s on the max volume setting, I can barely hear the thing.
There were quite a few games released for this console, though if you don’t know Japanese, I recommend sticking to the games that don’t require a whole lot of reading. The only WonderSwan game I own is GunPey EX, which is played in the vertical mode I mentioned earlier. Developed as a tribute to the father of the WonderSwan, GunPey EX is a vertically scrolling puzzle game where you vertically swap tiles containing line segments in an attempt to make a contiguous horizontal line that spans both sides of the playing area.
Playing in vertical mode means that you have to use the dual-set of disconnected D-pads to control the action. Now, if these were Game Boy-style D-pads (or even the disconnected types offered by the PlayStation or the upcoming Switch), this wouldn’t be such a big deal. Unfortunately, these buttons are tiny. My hands are far from being considered large, and yet, my thumbs easily dwarf the entirety of this tightly-packed buttons. This leads to lots of accidental button presses and hand cramping.
Despite the awkward controls, the difficulty seeing the screen, and the bizarre volume controls, this is a surprisingly addicting game. Since the single battery lasts for 20 hours of straight play, it’s possible to play this for far longer than you realize.
Overall, the WonderSwan is a bizarre device. It’s too tiny to be comfortable, the screen is too dark to fully appreciate the gorgeous graphics this thing was capable of producing, the volume is too quiet and leaves little room for adjusting, and its game lineup is hindered by a lack of variety (as well as only being released in the one region). Despite all these flaws and more, the WonderSwan is the closest non-Nintendo handheld to nail that feel of a GameBoy. While it certainly lacks the polish of a GameBoy Advance or a GameBoy Color, it gets a lot right. Although I would not recommend that anyone go out of their way to buy one of these, if you happen to stumble upon one for cheap, pick it up. It’s a pretty fun system, and serves as a decent tribute to the man who made all of this possible.