6. Neo Geo Pocket Color
The N-Gage was a laughable, genuinely terrible piece of equipment, but that can’t be said of all the handhelds on this list. Some of them were actually pretty great, and until disaster struck early in its lifespan, Neo Geo Pocket Color looked like a pretty solid contender.
Released stateside in 1999, the NGPC sported a 16-bit processor, slick graphics that were comparable to the Game Boy Color, 40 hours of battery life and a clicky little thumbstick that seemed tailor-made for its fighter-heavy library. It also debuted for $70 ($10 cheaper than the GBC), and could hook up to Sega’s Dreamcast for interconnectivity between certain games. With enough muscle to give the GBC a fight, just what the hell went wrong?
The easy answer would be the arrival of the Game Boy Advance, but it wouldn’t be the right answer. While its impending release may have been a factor in the NGPC’s demise, it didn’t hit the market until the year after NGPC went under. What really went wrong was SNK, which created the NGPC, and which was undergoing severe financial troubles around the time of its release. In 2000, SNK was acquired by pachinko maker Aruze, and following dismal sales of the SNK vs Capcom games, Match of the Millenium and Card Fighters Clash (both of which were excellent), the company shuttered its American operations that summer.
If it had stopped there, the NGPC might have simply died the same quiet death as other failed consoles. Instead, SNK abruptly recalled the remaining unsold stock of NGPC systems and games, intending to reflash and resell them in Asia. Not only was the system discontinued, but it disappeared from store shelves almost overnight, leaving those who had bought an NGPC unable to even buy more games for it. If you owned one, that was something of a huge shock.
A few years later, in 2003, the NGPC showed up on US store shelves again, this time packaged with six games. And while that was a bonanza for collectors, it wasn’t a second chance for the system so much as it was a second chance for consumers to buy it before it disappeared for good. Like the Dreamcast it connected to – and unlike every other handheld on this list – the NGPC was killed off before it even had a chance to properly decline and fail. How sad.
Ask anyone who lived through the early ‘90s what the Game Boy’s biggest competitor was, and they’ll probably tell you it was the Game Gear, Sega’s battery-sucking color handheld. Some, however, might tell you it was the Atari Lynx, at which point they’ll probably wax nostalgic about how their rich friend in grade school had one, and how awesome and underrated it was.
They’d be at least partly right. While the Lynx was never really a threat to Nintendo, it was arguably ahead of its time. Developed in 1987 at then-important software publisher Epyx, it was eventually sold to Atari and shipped a few months after the Game Boy in 1989, beating the Game Gear to market by nearly two years. It featured a sharp full-color screen, a switch that allowed left-handed players to flip the system, and network play for up to eight players.
Remember a couple of entries ago, when we said that Nintendo’s dominance has taught us that bells and whistles are meaningless against a lower price point and recognizable games? The Lynx was the first system to learn that lesson. We could say the Lynx’s fatal flaw was that it chewed through batteries like a mofo, eating up six AAs in four hours (while the Game Boy took around 35 hours to get through four), but that was only part of the problem. Debuting at $199, the Lynx was more than twice as expensive as the $90 Game Boy, and had nowhere near the marketing muscle Nintendo could put behind its handheld.
Above: It did, however, churn out some interesting commHOLY SHIT THAT THING IS ENORMOUS. Also, that’s probably Tobey Maguire
Selling the handheld to Atari may have been what sealed its fate. Following a string of failures and legal debacles, Atari didn't have the best track record with retailers. Combine that with fear of then-domineering Nintendo and limited quantities available at launch, and a lot of retail chains simply weren’t interested in carrying the Lynx.
The Lynx spent 1990 getting hammered by Nintendo, during which time it dropped the price of the Lynx to $99 (in a package that included no accessories). Lynx sales got a boost the following year, when Atari rolled out a new ad campaign and the smaller, more energy-efficient Lynx II – although just when things were starting to look up, the Game Gear hit the market, bringing a handful of recognizable games in tow. With the Lynx unable to attract significant third-party support, Atari decided it couldn’t compete, and pulled the plug in 1993 so it could focus all its energies on the horrendous Jaguar.