Yes, I am taking a shot at Nintendo, the company that practically BUILT the home video game console market in the late 80s and early 90s. Gasp! Not Nintendo! I will give credit to Nintendo where it's due -- it is one of the most influential and successful companies in the industry, but somewhere along the line, it is also responsible for the utter ruin of hand-held gaming.

The story, as we pick it up, starts with the release of the Nintendo Gameboy in 1989. At its initial release, the Gameboy was a Godsend to gamers. At last, the world had its first truly portable video game system. And it was good! The Gameboy had its limitations, but for the time, it was an awesome buy - perfect for hardcore gamers on the go or kids to play with in the car. But Nintendo's biggest enemy was time.

Time passed and the years rolled on... and competitors came in to one-up Nintendo. Sega released two distinct hand-held gaming systems - the Game Gear was the better-known one and the Gameboy's first (and only) true challenge; the Nomad would be all but forgotten in the dark folds of gaming history.

And almost everyone has forgotten the Atari entry into the hand-held arena - Lynx, perhaps the best of all these systems. Lynx was released in 1989 as well, but unlike the Gameboy's tiny black and white screen, the Lynx was bigger (Game Gear sized) and the screen was in color. In almost every way, the Lynx was better than its competition. Not only was it 12-bit color (well, so were both the Game Gear and the Nomad), but it had a backlight (a still-demanded feature in the Gameboy), a headphone port, the ability to communicate to multiple units, and two separate 16-bit chips. The Lynx would never take off because of Atari's woes... the troubled company couldn't ever manage to launch the system as any sort of challenge to the Gameboy and Game Gear. More than half of all gamers still don't know about it to date.

So five years after its release, the Gameboy was left with only one solid competitor - the Game Gear. Fortunately for Nintendo, Sega doesn't know how to market anything. Sega never did. Instead of pursuing an aggressive marketing policy and working on obtaining more third-party games, Sega decided to do... nothing. Despite having a better system (16-color capacity, a decent - but not spectacular - selection of games, and better hardware), Sega didn't do enough to topple the Gameboy. And, eventually, Sega's stupidity rolled over to other game systems too (like the Genesis, the disastrous 32X, and the ill-fated Saturn). Sega decided to stop making Game Gears to cut losses.

And that was how Nintendo won the hand-held war. And how did they go ahead and ruin hand-helds? Well, it was simple really. There's a saying... "If ain't broke, don't fix it." The Gameboy certainly wasn't "broke"... and so Nintendo just kept on rolling out games, month by month, year by year, never changing the basic system. Even in the year 2000, you had kids playing on a Nintendo Gameboy that supported maybe 4 "shades" of gray. The games were newer, and - in some cases - better, but the hardware was still limited. Sure, in the past few years, Nintendo has released the Gameboy Color and the Gameboy Advance (which is the first true "upgrade" Nintendo has given the system), but for years, Nintendo has just let the hand-held industry stagnate because they had a monopoly on it.

And you can't blame it ALL on Nintendo. The consumers are as much to blame... despite Sega's stupidity, the Game Gear was still a known product - the customers still chose the Gameboy. Years after the Game Gear was dust, customers STILL put up with ancient hardware and games that burned your eyeballs. And it was perfectly set up by Nintendo... the targetted gamer wasn't old enough to know better, to expect better. The targetted gamer was still in elementary school. What a wonderful conundrum! No R&D but millions, even billions, in profit! No skill involved at all!

I sit down here today and look at the Gameboy Advance - it's an improvement, and the backward compatibility is commendable, but the system isn't half of what it could be. It is hard to hope that another competitor will come this way any time soon... and the "business" hand-held devices like the Palm and the Visor have other functions. 12 years after the Gameboy's release, Nintendo STILL has a deathgrip on the market. Sad.


Response to fondue below: I don't have much to say, really. You raised some very valid points (I liked your wu, even upvoted it). However, I think the basic point I was trying to make, which you also raised, was the stagnation without lack of competition that the technological industries seem to fall into. Of course, why would Nintendo WANT change? A similar argument can be made for Microsoft (which you also mentioned in passing), but that doesn't make it any better for innovation. Maybe it's just the idealist in me talking, but if you are a big company, it really should be a responsibility to put some more money into R&D and all that good stuff.

I'm going to refute some of the points made in the argument above. It could even be argued that Nintendo didn't really ruin handheld gaming - they invented it (Game & Watch!) and then perfected it at a time when it was just, just barely technically feasible.

Before I go on, I should point out that although handheld gaming probably makes a hell of a lot of money, it has never been at the forefront of most hardware manufacturers (and game developers') minds. It's a side business, something that is easy money for companies with a load of 8-bit properties lying around (I'm looking at you Konami) but not one that you'd bet the company on.

The Game Gear and Atari Lynx (the Sega Nomad was never intended to compete with the Game Boy) were developed around the same time as the original Game Boy, at a point when it was not clear that Nintendo had hit upon the winning formula (of cheapness and lots of good software). The Lynx didn't take off because it was enormous, underpowered for its price, poorly timed and had almost no decent games to speak of. The Game Gear actually did do pretty well for a while (contrary to the above, Sega hadn't lost the plot yet) but again was huge, expensive, battery-hungry and short of decent games. Pengo, Shinobi and Columns excepted.

No one is ever, ever going to spend more for a machine that arguably offers less. Take the N64, the Saturn, the Xbox (mark my words). These machines all will have great software libraries in posterity, but they launch with too little, too late, and for too much. It's the law of the jungle.

The charge of stagnation (in light of such weak opposition, who could blame them?) isn't entirely accurate either. The Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Light, and Game Boy Color were all minor incremental improvements. The original GB got through batteries way faster and had a much worse screen than its descendants. This inertia to change was the machine's greatest commercial strength - every Game Boy has access to the same vast catalogue of (non-region-locked) software. Even the AGB is backward compatible. Setting this precedent was a positive move for all concerned.

Of course, because the handheld market is a niche one that most people left alone, there was little in the way of competition for the Game Boy throughout the Nineties. Except towards the end, that is - both the Bandai WonderSwan and the sublime SNK Neo Geo Pocket Color wipe the floor with any first-gen Game Boy, and managed to have very decent software libraries. Sony even had a go with the PocketStation. (And then there was the Tamagotchi, and the Dreamcast VMU....)

This does count against Nintendo however - SNK withdrew the NGPC even though it was making a profit, because they forecast that the Game Boy would always control more than 90% of the market. Even now, there are maybe half a dozen little-known machines vying to compete with the GBA (check out lik-sang.com for more info). Just because no-one has beaten the Game Boy doesn't mean there aren't alternatives out there. The market's big enough to support them, if enough people are willing to go and search them out. And if it doesn't happen, well, at least a Game Boy monopoly doesn't suck quite so bad as the Windows one (although both are expensive toys).

Basically, handheld gaming is largely for kids, or a luxury. And it's also notoriously difficult and expensive to get right (hardware wise). Just look at the dreck Palm and Compaq pass off as fully featured PDAs - minaturising minertir minich ... shrinking hardware is an exercise in compromise and pain. Be grateful for what we have, and if it sucks, there's always the PC and home consoles (let's face it, it's not as if you ever see someone playing a Game Boy outside...).

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