While some people might point to the Lynx as their favorite old-timey handheld, almost nobody will tell you theirs was the TurboExpress – and that’s kind of sad. Not sad for them, but sad because the TurboExpress was a good idea that went horribly, horribly wrong.
Sure, the TurboExpress had serious problems. It was reportedly common for units to have faulty sound and dead pixels right out of the box, and at $250 in 1990 (equivalent to around $400 in 2011 money), it was by far the most expensive handheld on the market. Even the Lynx could thrive against a competitor like that.
On the other hand, it was the first handheld version of a more established console, the TurboGrafx-16. It used the same credit card-sized games as the console, and delivered near-16-bit visuals at a time when 8-bit was considered pretty impressive. And while its games might not have had the same recognizable cachet as Mario or Sonic, it was still pretty sweet to be able to play a handheld, full-color version of Legendary Axe or Splatterhouse when everyone else was muddling through black-and-green Tetris.
Of course, that sounds a lot better than it actually was. Since the games were intended for display on a TV, reading text could be difficult, and the TurboExpress lacked the onboard save memory that the TG16 had. It also ate batteries even faster than the Lynx and Game Gear, burning through six AAs in two or three hours.
There isn’t much else to say about the TurboExpress. Apart from sporting a TV tuner accessory, it never did much to differentiate itself from the TG16, which itself is mainly remembered for weird games, terrible ads and arguments over whether or not it was ever really 16-bit.
Above: But, you know, as long as you were one of the (presumably) cool kids it was all OK
However, the TurboExpress was tenacious; even though its sales were anemic, totaling around 1.5 million by the time it was discontinued, the handheld stuck around until 1995. By then, the world was anticipating a new wave of 32-bit consoles, the TurboDuo (a CD combo system that replaced the TG16) was in its death throes and not even Johnny Turbo could save the TurboExpress from its demise. For a system nobody really wanted or could afford, though, that’s a pretty good run.
For a while after the Lynx and TurboExpress, it looked like the handheld market had stabilized into a comfortable two-way fight between Nintendo and Sega. It couldn’t last, however, and before long Tiger – the same company that had filled the ‘80s and early ‘90s with awful, overpriced LCD adaptations of seemingly every popular game and movie – decided to release a handheld. A real handheld, with graphics that weren’t just drawn-on and lit-up.
Released in late 1997, the Game.com (pronounced “gaym kahm,” with a silent “.”) was a $70 combination game machine/rudimentary PDA that featured a touchscreen, two cartridge slots, a handful of built-in applications and a $50 add-on modem that allowed for online capabilities. It also took to heart the lesson that known game franchises can make or break a new system, and immediately secured licenses for Duke Nukem, Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat Trilogy and – most baffling of all – Sonic the Hedgehog.
Unfortunately for the Game.com, it turns out that having recognizable titles doesn’t actually mean much when they all look like cruddy, poorly animated Game Boy ports. It probably also didn’t help matters that Tiger developed most of the games internally, simply buying the rights to make its own ports like it did in the LCD-game days. Factor in that the Game.com actually looked dated even by Game Boy standards, sporting a blurry screen after the Game Boy Pocket had introduced a sharper display, and it’s easy to see why this thing never stood a chance.
There was also this ad, which probably didn’t help matters much:
Above: AAIIIGH!!!! SCREAMING!!!!
Following a year of weak sales, the Game.com did what nearly every other failed handheld did: it released a second, smaller version of itself, the Game.com Pocket Pro. Sporting a single cartridge slot, a sharper front-lit screen, a $50 price and the ability to run on two batteries instead of four, it was an improvement… on a handheld nobody really wanted in the first place. Even so, it managed to hang onto retail shelves until 2000, which is a pretty significant achievement, considering that its main competition at that point came from the Game Boy Color.