Some Other Handheld: Atari Lynx, 20 Years On

lynx-headerLost in the flap over the 20th anniversaries of the Nintendo Game Boy and Sega Genesis/Mega Drive in 2009 was the 20th anniversary (last month, in fact) of the Atari Lynx, the second-to-last console to carry the ill-fated Atari brand. The Lynx was, and remains, one of the finest examples of a machine that was both truly excellent and far too fatally flawed to succeed.

The Lynx’s gestation began at Epyx, a company better known for software, especially on the Commodore 64 in the mid-’80s. The machine eventually came to to market in 1989, after Atari had picked up the project – originally codenamed Handy – and renamed it. Funnily enough, it would remain a bone of contention that the development environment for the Lynx was based on the 16-bit Commodore Amiga computer – the direct competitor to Atari’s own comparable ST line of computers in the still-multiplatform home computer marketplace of the late ’80s and early ’90s before the PC’s performance and price levels caught up to became the de facto standard.

The Lynx was the first of what would become a succession of Game Boy competitors. Sega would eventually release the Game Gear and later the Nomad, and NEC the TurboExpress, a portable TurboGrafx-16, but these machines suffered similar flaws to those that plagued the Lynx as well as coming out far too late, years after the Game Boy had already established its dominance.


The redesigned Lynx II

The Lynx represented a completely different approach to handheld consoles than Nintendo’s all-conquering little machine. For a start, it was portable only in a technical sense, relatively speaking. Close to twice the size of the Game Boy, it also drained batteries far faster (making the AC adapter less of an optional extra and more of a necessity), and its backlit screen, while great in a dark environment, was near-useless in daylight. An optional sun-shield accessory was a less-than-ideal solution. Also, the system’s reliability and build quality was fairly poor. A redesigned Lynx that was often referred to unofficially as the Lynx II wasn’t too far behind the original, correcting several physical design flaws – for example, replacing the original’s bizarre side-opening cartridge hatch with a traditional cart slot, and finally offering stereo output through the headphone socket – as well as offering significantly better build quality and also slightly improving the atrocious battery life.

However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Both variants of the Lynx offered a symmetrical horizontal layout with the option to flip over for left-handed use, connectivity between up to eight consoles (if you were lucky enough to know any other Lynx owners), a vibrant color display and – for the time – hugely powerful hardware. While the screen hasn’t aged well in the intervening two decades, the hardware has – it wasn’t until the Game Boy Advance launched in 2001, twelve years after the Lynx’s debut, that a more powerful handheld console was available. While its capability to do truly polygonal 3D visuals was limited, it could fudge 3D effects remarkably well due to its incredible sprite-handling abilities. Scaling and rotation of hundreds of sprites at once were its specialties, matched even in home consoles only by the advent of the SNES and Sega CD years later. Some games even used both sprite-scaling and polygonal 3D at the same time, often to great effect.

The result of this weirdly powerful but esoterically-designed hardware was a plethora of remarkably unique games, mostly by Atari and Epyx themselves – as is so often the case with ultimately failed consoles, third-party publisher and developer support was severely lacking, and by the time the plug was finally pulled, the Lynx had a relatively small library of available games. However, the flipside of this trait is that the system has a very small amount of shovelware in that library, and indeed it has a reasonable number of fantastic titles – including some great conversions of arcade titles of the era – that remain well worth playing even now.

Here’s just a few of my favorites:

lynx-chips_challenge1Chip’s Challenge – One of the Lynx’s best games didn’t really take advantage of the system’s crazy hardware abilities much at all. Chip’s Challenge was a stage-based puzzle game, where you guide nerdy Chip through some of the most devious, evil and brain-melting traps you’ve ever come across. Yes, it’s a puzzler that will challenge (ho ho) your smarts as well as reaction times. It doesn’t look like much, but appearances can be deceptive.

lynx-stun_runnerS.T.U.N. Runner – Atari’s 1989 arcade tunnel-racer-cum-shoot-’em-up game was converted (I hesitate to use the rather inaccurate term ‘port’ in this bygone era of gaming) for virtually every noteworthy computer system under the sun, but every one was a dismal failure except the Lynx version. Even by the Lynx’s standards, the game’s re-working of the arcade classic’s blistering 3D visuals using sprite-scaling was a technical tour de force.

lynx-xybotsXybots – One of the earliest examples of a co-operative shooter in a 3D environment, Xybots originally appeared in arcades in 1987. The Lynx version dispensed with the other versions’ split-screen layout in favor of utilizing the link cable, but was otherwise identical. Before 3D visuals evolved to the point where games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom became feasible, Xybots gave us a glimpse of where we were headed, and was a damn fine game in its own right. Bonus: the main characters have two of the best names in gaming history: Major Rock Hardy and Captain Ace Gunn.

lynx-slime_worldTodd’s Aventures in Slime World – An almost Metroid-esque, side-scrolling shooty explore-’em-up, Slime World mixed up beautifully gooey graphics (it’s amazing what the Lynx’s graphics hardware can do with oozing, dripping snot) tons of secrets, solid action, a bunch of different modes and support for up to eight players both co-operatively and competitively to become one of the system’s classics. It even includes a zit-popping mini-game! Just what you’ve always wanted, I know.

lynx-gates_of_zendoconGates of Zendocon – This side-scrolling shoot-’em-up (we didn’t call them ’shmups’ back then) was less remarkable for its action as it was for its exploration. Its 51 levels could be explored in a non-linear fashion through the titular gates at the end – and sometimes in the middle – of whichever level you happened to be in at the time, and the visual diversity was so imaginitive that you’d always want to see where you’d end up next. Explosions that would literally fill the screen without a hint of slowdown were the icing on the cake.

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