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A Brief History of Gaming
The Ballad of the Portable Launch Line-Up
By Cyril Lachel     |   Posted on February 09, 2012   |   Episode 20 (Show Archive)  

   
EGM Issue 1
This girl really wanted to give me a Vita for Christmas, but evil Sony got in the way!
Admit it, system launches are a lot of fun. Who cares if the system cost too much and there's a limited library of games? All is forgiven once you have a chance to toy around with the brand new hardware.

Although less common, handheld system launches can also be an exhilarating experience. Just ask anybody eager to pick up Sony's PlayStation Vita. With close to two dozen games ready at launch, Sony has one of the most robust line-ups in modern history. From racing (wipEout 2048) to action (Uncharted) to fighting (Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom), the Vita seems to have most genres covered.

While Sony seems to have the line-up firmly in grasp, that hasn't always been the case when launching a handheld system. To help put the current portable releases in context, we have decided to take a look at the past. Join us as we take a tour of the classic handheld game systems and the launch line-ups that defined them. Which is the best?

Game Boy
[ Company: Nintendo | Release: April 21, 1989 | Price: $89.99 ]
The Line-Up: Tetris, Alleyway, Baseball, Super Mario Land and Tennis.

What Worked: With the exception of the Game & Watch and Tiger's mediocre LCD games, Nintendo was the first to offer a portable game system as ambitious as the Game Boy. It was big, clunky and lacking a color screen, but that wasn't going to keep eager gamers away from this important system launch. Thankfully early adopters were greeted with a surprisingly strong line-up of games, including a black and white Super Mario adventure.

Unaware by how big the game would eventually become, Nintendo opted to include Tetris as a free pack-in game. While it's true the company definitely put their best foot forward, the overwhelming success of Tetris easily overshadowed the rest of the launch line-up. The one-two punch of Mario and Tetris was enough to convince the public that the Game Boy was the system for them.

What Didn't: The Game Boy launched with zero third-party support. This meant that Nintendo had to come up with a number of simple titles in genres outside
of their comfort zone. The worst examples of this include Tennis and Baseball; two sports games Nintendo had no right developing. Alleyway isn't a bad game, but it was too simplistic for the asking price. One has to wonder if Nintendo's flagship Mario game would have been even better without the other releases weighing them down.

Bottom Line: Nintendo came out of the gate with a safe line-up, headlined by Super Mario Land. As it turns out, Tetris was the game that had the bigger impact. The other games ranged from forgettable to insultingly bad. There's a reason nobody has ever asked you to play Baseball on the Game Boy. Even with a few questionable titles, Tetris was strong enough to raise the Game Boy's grade. (B+)

Lynx
[ Company: Atari | Release: October, 1989 | Price: $179.99 ]
The Line-Up: Blue Lightning, Electrocop, Gates of Zendocon and California Games.

What Worked: Atari decided to go a decidedly different route when launching the Lynx. Of the four games released alongside this 16-bit color portable, only one of them had a familiar name. Eventually Atari would manage to port several prominent arcade games (including Ninja Gaiden and S.T.U.N. Runner), but the early days of the the Lynx were bleak. The big push seemed to be for California Games, a port of the popular Epyx franchise. The mini-game collection did a good job of showing gamers the difference between Atari's color handheld and the black & white Game Boy.

The big surprise at launch was Blue Lightning, one of the system's best reviewed games. In fact, the game was so popular that Atari would eventually release a follow-up on the ill-fated Jaguar CD. Who wants a cheesy sports mini-game collection when you can speed through a 3D environment shooting down airplanes and saving the day? The moment you saw the raw power of the Lynx it was near impossible to go back to Nintendo's handheld.

What Didn't: While Blue Lightning impressed, Electrocop and Gates of Zendocon failed to gain any traction. Electrocop was a fast-moving 2D action game that looked like it
took place inside the Lynx. Gates of Zendocon, on the other hand, was your typical 2D shoot-em-up. Between the three action games and one mini-game collection, the lack of genre diversity was hard to ignore. It didn't help that the machine ate through double-A batteries at an alarming speed and was the size of a surf board.

Bottom Line: While Blue Lightning was impressive for the time, it isn't enough to make up for an otherwise disappointing launch line-up. Neither Electrocop or Gates of Zendocon are worth remembering and California Games gets old quick. Still, the games did an excellent job of showing off the power of the Lynx.

Game Gear
[ Company: Sega | Release: April 26, 1991 | Price: $149.99 ]
The Line-Up: Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, Columns, G-LOC: Air Battle, Psychic World and Super Monaco GP.

What Worked: With Sonic the Hedgehog still months away and a general lack of interest in Alex Kidd, Sega was left to go with a virtual unknown mascot when launching the Game Gear. The character in question? He's just this guy named Mickey Mouse. While Disney's main mouse doesn't have the same impact these days, in 1991 it was a strong argument for Sega's first handheld. Genesis owners had been swooning over their own version of Castle of Illusion, so it was easy to see why so many people were excited about the shrunk down 8-bit platformer.

Beyond Castle of Illusion, Sega decided to load the deck with a number of interesting franchises. Columns was just starting to gain traction on the Genesis when it hit the Game Gear. The same goes for Super Monaco GP, a 16-bit game that managed to earn a couple of 10s
from Electronic Gaming Monthly. The Game Gear launch also brought promise of exciting accessories, including a TV tuner and Sega Master System converter.

What Didn't: It was certainly disappointing that the three best games at launch were nothing more than 8-bit ports of popular Genesis games. Also
disappointing were the other games, which included a mediocre adventure game and a 3D shoot-em-up on a system that could barely process 2D shoot-em-ups. This is especially frustrating when you look at the original titles Nintendo and Atari worked up for their respective launches.

Bottom Line: Sega tried to duplicate Nintendo's success with their own portable puzzle game. Too bad Columns isn't in the same league as Tetris. On the other hand, there were a few worthwhile games to make you forget that Psychic World is a real thing. The real star of this launch is Mickey Mouse, which says all you need to know about the U.S. launch of the Game Gear.

Virtual Boy
[ Company: Ninetndo | Release: August 14, 1995 | Price: $179.99 ]
The Line-Up: Galactic Pinball, Mario's Tennis, Red Alarm and Teleroboxer.

What Worked: Yet again, Nintendo decided to launch with a Mario game. Unfortunately, the Mario game in question involved a lot of tennis playing. This was a safe line-up, featuring a futuristic shooter, a futuristic boxing game, a futuristic pinball game and Mario playing tennis. That wasn't exactly the line-up gamers were clamoring for, but when it came to the Virtual Boy, Nintendo didn't do a whole lot of listening to what the consumer wanted.

What Didn't: Even if Nintendo had magically reduced the price from $179.99 down to a more manageable $99.99, that still wouldn't have made-up for the horrendous launch titles. All of these games were interesting to look at in the
short term, but very few had enough draw to keep you coming back long after you've rested your hurting eyes.

There's no excuse for how bad these games turned out. Nintendo knows a thing or two about making an amazing 3D shooter as they had just released StarFox. And it's not just flying games, Nintendo also knows how
to make a great boxing game. It wasn't that long ago that gamers fell in love with Punch-Out. Yet every one of these games pales in comparison to Nintendo's previous projects. The eyeball busting display may create a gee-whiz impression in the short run, but these were some of the worst games to come out of the Japanese hardware maker.

Bottom Line: It's a $180 portable game system ... and it's not even portable! Even if you can get over the high price and non-stop headaches, that still leaves you with no must-have launch games. You're better off playing superior versions of all these games on other Nintendo platforms. And best of all, no matter how long you play the Super NES, it's not going to make you go blind.

Neo Geo Pocket Color
[ Company: SNK | Release: 1999 | Price: $69.99 ]
The Line-Up: Fatal Fury: First Contact, Metal Slug: First Mission, Baseball Stars Color, Pocket Tennis Color and Bust-A-Move Pocket.

What Worked: The Neo Geo Pocket Color has the destinction of having a new perfect launch line-up. While you may not immediately run out and buy all five of these early games, there isn't a single one that I wouldn't recommend to somebody. Even the sports games (the Game Boy's vulnerability) are shining examples of how to properly develop handheld games. Couple the strong line-up with the low asking price for the system (a mere $70) and you have one of the most successful launches in handheld gaming history. On paper, that is.

We can argue all day long about how successful the Neo Geo Pocket Color was, but there's one thing that's for sure: The five launch games are incredible. Fatal Fury: First Contact manages to outdo the mediocre arcade game by a mile and Metal Slug: First Mission pumps new life into the repetitive franchise. This was a line-up that set the scene for SNK's first portable. From here on out you should expect shrunken arcade hits, exciting puzzlers and the kinds of sports games you've come to expect from the Neo Geo cabinets. Where do I sign up?

What Didn't: SNK suffered multiple delays on the way to bringing the Neo Geo Pocket Color to the United States. By the time the system hit, consumers were preoccupied with news
of a brand new Game Boy and next generation consoles. SNK also found it hard to keep retailers interested in the product. Even with these problems, the Neo Geo Pocket Color had a fantastic line-up with very few bad titles. On the other hand, having amazing games means nothing if you can't buy them anywhere.

Bottom Line: SNK stacked the deck in their favor. Not only did they release a couple of must-have sports games, but they made better versions of both Metal Slug and Fatal Fury. The Neo Geo Pocket Color proved that you could make a deep and engaging fighting game on a handheld game system. Best of all, SNK opted for a puzzle game that didn't feature even one falling block.

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