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The Top 7... failingest handhelds

2. Tapwave Zodiac

Some of the entries on this list are genuinely awful (or at least problematic) pieces of hardware, but others are simply good ideas that never got a chance to flourish. The more we learn about the Zodiac, the more it seems to fall into the latter category, but given its obscurity and abysmal sales (around 200,000 by some estimates), it only makes sense to put it near the top of this list.

Don’t take that as a knock to its quality, however. Introduced in 2003, the Zodiac was another combination PDA/game machine, but unlike the, it actually had some muscle behind it. Sporting a small, sleek form factor and games that came on SD cards (for which it had two slots), the Zodiac boasted an analog stick, an extremely crisp touchscreen, smoothly animated visuals and even low-end 3D abilities. It even had some big developers behind it, and some of the earliest Zodiac titles were ports of high-profile games like Spy Hunter and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4.

Because it used Palm OS, the Zodiac also supported independent development, enabling ports of games like Doom and Quake, as well as several flavors of emulator. And on top of all that, it had Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, and could store photos and play MP3s and videos, which was a huge deal back before smartphones were so common. A hit with tech journalists, the Zodiac quickly started to rack up awards for its impressive hardware.

Above: Uh… this shows some of its games, I guess

So with so much power behind it, just what went wrong? Well, price was probably a factor – at $299 for the low-end version with 32MB of memory and $399 for the higher-end, 128MB version, the Zodiac made the N-Gage look downright reasonable, quality be damned. Marketing also played a part; in the US, the Zodiac was only sold through CompUSA stores and wasn’t widely advertised, leaving many gamers unaware of its existence. Image also seems to have been a factor, given that the few ads seem to be geared more toward PDA-seeking hipsters than actual gamers.

Whatever the reasons, when the DS and PSP hit the market the following year, the Zodiac folded like old laundry. Rather than try to compete with Nintendo and Sony’s handheld monsters (which it arguably wasn’t doing in the first place), Tapwave pulled the plug on Zodiac and went quietly out of business soon afterward.

1. Gizmondo

In the end, it could only be this. Oh Gizmondo, we do so love to drag your stupid carcass through the mud.

Considering the amount of exposure and mentions Gizmondo still gets, it’s hard to believe that it was a bigger failure than the Zodiac, a handheld almost nobody knew existed even when it was on sale. But then, the biggest reason for Gizmondo’s notoriety isn’t how well it sold, but that everything about the system, from its games to its mall-kiosk sales strategy, was completely, wrongheadedly batshit. However, the weirdness hit a fever pitch in 2006, when Stefan Eriksson, Gizmondo’s Swedish-gangster co-founder, infamously sheared a $2,000,000 Ferrari Enzo in halfin a crash near Malibu, Calif.

That’s a story for another article. Our focus is on Eriksson’s company, founded as Tiger Telematics, and the handheld disaster it eventually rolled out in March 2005. First envisioned as a GPS unit that parents could use to track their children, the Gizmondo’s game functionality was originally added as a sneaky way to get kids to carry it everywhere.

It snowballed from there, and by the time the Gizmondo was released, it had an impressive set of features that included not only GPS, but a built-in camera, text messaging, MP3 and video playback, motion-sensing accelerometers and Bluetooth connectivity. It also had some impressive graphical muscle for its time, able to pump out smooth 3D visuals that looked about as good as the PSP’s (albeit on a smaller screen).

Following a flashy, celebrity-studded launch in London, however, it became clear that the Gizmondo was all flash and no substance. Retailing for a whopping $400 (or $229 with “Smart Adds” enabled, which would theoretically show mandatory ads to defray the cost but never actually did), it was roundly lambasted by critics as an overpriced, underperforming hunk of shit.

Meanwhile, the 14 games available for the thing were mostly generic racing and sports titles, with SSX 3 and Sticky Balls being the only real standouts. It was the planned, unreleased games that were the most eye-catching, however, with titles like Johnny Whatever and Mamma Can I Mow the Lawn promising weird, horrifyingly misguided experiences.

Gizmondo’s sales in Europe quickly declined, and a strange US sales strategy (consoles were reportedly only available at small kiosks in a handful of malls) ensured that it never had a chance to gain a stateside foothold. By the time the Gizmondo went under in February 2006, less than a year after release, fewer than 25,000 units had been sold worldwide.

Then came the crash and the revelations that the company was run by violent gangsters, and Gizmondo went from a puffed-up laughingstock to an indelibly creepy, tainted brand. Of course, that didn’t stop Gizmondo’s director, Carl Freer, from forming a new company, Media Power, and trying to relaunch the thingas the smaller, supposedly improved Gizmondo 2. Following a series of delays and the arrest of Media Power’s co-founder for fraud, however, the Gizmondo 2 currently looks to be scheduled for release sometime between the South rising again and Hell freezing over.

Mar 28, 2011

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After graduating from college in 2000 with a BA in journalism, I worked for five years as a copy editor, page designer and videogame-review columnist at a couple of mid-sized newspapers you've never heard of. My column eventually got me a freelancing gig with GMR magazine, which folded a few months later. I was hired on full-time by GamesRadar in late 2005, and have since been paid actual money to write silly articles about lovable blobs.