Then and Now Consoles: The Atari Lynx

All retro systems come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.

The Nintendo Game Boy revolutionized the handheld market because it was widely available, highly affordable, and had Nintendo’s trademark properties attached to it. However, it was also an incredible pain in the neck to play. The green, monochrome LCD screen had no backlight, which meant you had to play it under absolutely perfect lighting conditions in order to see what was happening, if what was happening wasn’t too blurry.

What’s amazing, when looking back, is that Nintendo even got off the ground so well when put against the power of a system that had a backlit, colour screen and the backing of who was one of the biggest names in the industry at that time. Looking back at the Atari Lynx and comparing it to what else was out when it was released in 1989—specifically, nothing—it’s hard to imagine that, in the very first battle of handheld systems, it would finish third behind the Game Boy and Sega’s Game Gear (it was better off than NEC’s Turbo Express, another monster of a system). However, if the video game industry has taught us anything over the years, it’s that simple and inexpensive usually wins out over powerhouses with a large price point and narrow niche, from the Atari 2600 over the ColecoVision and Intellivision, to the NES over the Master System, all the way through to this console generation, which has been won by the Wii over the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The average consumer doesn’t like risk, and that’s the usual deciding factor that determines which device “wins” a war of sales. So the Game Boy, with its $99 price point and a solid first-party library of games, was the least risky of the first generation of consoles.

Of course, these features aren’t for the sake of being a time portal back to the early 1990s; they’re for the sake of using a time portal, taking things from that era, and bringing it back to 2012. Thanks to the charity of Kris at Retro Games Plus, I was able to do that with the Atari Lynx.

Though for some reason, I’m wearing bright neon orange clothing, five snap bracelets, a spike haircut, and listening to the Mother’s Milk cassette. Maybe I spent a little too long on this…

Manufacturer: Epyx (published by Atari)
Technical Specifications:
* 4MHz 6502 65SC02 8-bit CPU
* 32 bit, 4 channel sound engine
* 3.5″ diagonal LCD colour screen running 4,096 colours, 16 colours simultaneously
* 160 X 102 resolution
* 64KB DRAM
* 512KB storage space on cartridges (2MB w/ bank-switching)
Life span: 1989 – 1996
Original Release Date: September, 1989
Original MSRP: $199
MSRP @ Retro Games Plus: $74.99 w/ carrying case + no A/C pack, $89.99 in box

MASSIVE HARDWARE

The first words out of my mouth when Kris showed me the hardware were simple: “I don’t remember this being so… big.” Simply put, the Model 1 is a monster, at 9.25″ by 4.25″ by 2″. Not only is this significantly larger than every handheld system, it’s literally twice as large as my Morotola Photon 4G cell phone, which is itself larger than an iPhone 4S.

Size comparison of the Atari Lynx and two PSPs

The screen is in the middle of the case and measures 3.5″ diagonally, which is significantly larger than the Game Boy’s 2.6″ screen. An eight-directional D-pad is on the left side of the screen, and on the right are two sets of A and B buttons, as well as three option buttons which can be combined to do other functions. I can’t think of any other system off the top of my head, console or handheld, that allows the player to do what the Lynx does: play left handed. By pressing the bottom two option buttons, the screen can be flipped, which enables the game to be played with the D-pad on the right side for those more comfortable with that standard. This system hasn’t been emulated outside of a few touchscreen games because most gamers are comfortable with the D-pad on the left side at this point, but it was revolutionary in 1989.

The cartridge slot is on the bottom of the system, underneath where the D-pad lies. Cartridges lock in, and the system won’t start without a game in the system. Taking games out was a noted issue with the Lynx, which Atari tried to address in later cartridge evolutions by first adding tabs to the bottom of the carts, then curving the back end of the cart, the latter of which is the more well known look. They’re still not easy to get out under the later setup, but the first generation was particularly annoying. I repeat that the system won’t start unless a game is actually in the system. This was well before the days of systems having a BIOS of any kind, but this is the only system I’ve seen that doesn’t even turn on.

The Lynx takes a whopping six AA batteries, which are fed into two slots of three with a convenient ribbon that can be put underneath for easy removal. If you have a Lynx, don’t forget to put the ribbon underneath because they’re a pain in the ass to remove otherwise. The Lynx gets about five hours of battery life on average, but interestingly enough, I couldn’t independently verify this because the Lynx, if left idle, shuts down after about five minutes. This is a good thing from the standpoint of saving batteries, but not so good if you have to put the system down for a few minutes and are in the middle of a game because the system does not save any progress. In fact, there’s no game-saving capability to the system at all. Later  games supported saving high scores, but that was after the Lynx became a hobbyist’s system. By itself, there is no way to save anything; this is a handheld arcade, nothing more.

THE GAMES

I was able to check out two games: Blue Lightning and Rygar. Blue Lightning showed off the graphical capabilities of the Lynx at the time with some very nice scaling, 3D-like effects when flying. Effectively, Blue Lightning was After Burner for a home market, complete with a four-letter password function and long stages. One thing that’s important to note is that the screen makes this game look really good: the issues with seeing the screen that plagued the entire Game Boy line are non-existent on the Lynx. There are vertical scanlines on the video, but it’s nothing even approaching a distraction. This is a good thing because Blue Lightning is a fast game to play with things flying around all over the place.

Blue Lightning

Rygar was a remake of the arcade game for the Lynx. They concentrated on making it look good instead of making it as playable as the arcade version, so it does look great for its era. They did adjust to make it a little easier than the frantic arcade game, but they further compensated for that by disallowing continues or a stage select, making this frustrating to play. This game, with its four directions, also shows the weaknesses of the directional pad, which mimics that of the Sega Genesis and has its same flaw: it’s very easy to hit or miss a directional (think 135 degrees) when you want a straight angle (think 90 degrees). This caused problems when I was trying to swing my weapon upwards.

Rygar

It’s important to note that, despite this system being about twice the size of my PSP, I didn’t have any problems playing the games themselves, though I could see someone with smaller hands like Aileen having more problems. Buttons are placed well whether you use it left or right handed, and I found the screen being right in the middle of the system less stressful and that of the Game Boy, where the screen is above the buttons. Such a setup is now standard operating procedure, and it’s easy to see why.

The Lynx’s library is pretty small with about 120 games, all said. Most of those were ports of arcade titles like California Games, Paperboy, and Xenophobe, along with some third-party titles, most of them by Telegames. Considering they’re limited ports of already limited arcade games, it’s safe to say that there are no must-own games for the Lynx.

Lastly, the left directional button on my particular Lynx was a little dead, enough to cause problems in Rygar, so try to avoid buying a system on eBay if you can help it unless you’re capable of fixing it.

EMULATION?

There is only one emulator for the Atari Lynx: the open-source Handy, which hasn’t seen an update in five years. The person who wrote the emulator included a dummy BIOS file due to copyright, but AtariAge has the right BIOS. For what it’s worth, the emulator does its job. It defaults to the Lynx’s pitifully small screen, which works great on a handheld but is eye-straining on a full desktop monitor. I tried a few games with it, and it played well enough with six games out of six being compatible. It also supported my Xbox 360 pad with no problems, which is often an issue with older emulators.

Handy is available for Windows, Mac, and for those who just want to screw around, Amiga. There is no Linux version, though I’m assuming the Mac version can be recompiled. I’ve yet to try the Windows version in Wine.

IS IT WORTH A PURCHASE?

The Lynx I took home with me cost $75 and came with a carrying case that supported sixteen games. I constantly had games falling out of it, though to be fair, it’s seen some use over the years. The system itself is only worth it for hardcore collectors of gaming history. It’s nice to own, but the going rate is really high for what it is: a handheld system that’s totally limited to arcade-like games that are good for picking up, playing for five minutes, and putting down. Though it wasn’t considered here, the Lynx II, with a smaller and more angular design, might be better for the average game collector, and it seems to be going for slightly less price-wise. However, the inherent issues with the system—the limited library, the poor battery life, and the prohibitive size of either model—prevent this from being a wise buy from a game-playing perspective. The Lynx was far ahead of its time and could’ve been an amazing system if it had Nintendo’s properties and marketing muscle. But as it is, it’s a footnote that, like every first-generation handheld, has not aged well.

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.