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The Lynx was a handheld game console released by Atari in 1989. The Lynx holds the distinction of being the world's first handheld electronic game with a color LCD display. The system is also notable for its forward-looking features, advanced graphics, and ambidextrous layout. The Lynx was released in 1989, the same year as Nintendo's (monochromatic) Game Boy. However, the Lynx failed to achieve the critical mass required to attract quality third party developers, and was eventually abandoned.
Today, as with a lot of older consoles, there is still a small group of devoted fans, creating and selling games for the system. An emulator called Handy was released to play Lynx games on PCs in 2000.
The Atari Lynx had several innovative features including it being the first color handheld, with a backlit display, a switchable right-handed/left-handed (upside down) configuration, and the ability to network with up to 17 other units via its "ComLynx" system (though most games would network eight or fewer players). ComLynx was originally developed to run over infrared links (and was codenamed RedEye). This was changed to a cable-based networking system before the final release.
The Lynx was also the first gaming console with hardware support for zooming/distortion of sprites, allowing fast pseudo-3D games with unrivaled quality at the time and a capacity for drawing filled polygons with limited CPU intervention. Blue Lightning, an After Burner clone, was especially notable and featured in TV advertising for the console.
The games were originally meant to be loaded from tape, but were later changed to load from ROM. The game data still needed to be copied from ROM to RAM before it could be used, so less memory was available and the games loaded slower than necessary.
The Lynx was Atari's second handheld game to make it to production, the first being the handheld electronic game Atari Touch Me. Atari had previously worked on several other handheld projects including the Breakout and Space Invaders, the Atari Cosmos portable/tabletop console, and the Atari Atlantis. However, those projects were shut down during development - some just short of their intended commercial release.
The Lynx system was originally developed by Epyx as the Handy. Planning and design of the console began in 1986 and completed in 1987. Epyx first showed the Handy system at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 1989. Facing financial difficulties, Epyx sought out partners. Atari and Epyx eventually agreed that Atari would handle production and marketing, while Epyx would handle software development.
Atari changed the internal speaker and removed the thumb-stick on the control pad before releasing it as the Lynx two years later, initially retailing in the US at US$189.95. Atari then showed the Lynx to the press at the Summer 1989 CES as the "Portable Color Entertainment System", which was changed to Lynx when actual consoles were distributed to resellers.
However, Nintendo's new Game Boy was also introduced at the 1989 CES. At $109, it was 58% the price of the Lynx, without the color or custom chips. Nintendo had no problems supplying retailers with the Game Boy for the Christmas season while Atari only managed limited distribution of their Lynx by year's end.
During 1990, the Lynx had moderate sales but Nintendo's Game Boy continued to gain market share. In 1991, Atari relaunched the Lynx with a new marketing campaign, new packaging, slightly improved hardware, and a new sleek look. The new system (referred to within Atari as the "Lynx II") featured rubber hand grips and a clearer backlit color screen with a power save option (which turned off the LCD panel's backlighting). It also replaced the monaural headphone jack of the original Lynx with one wired for stereo. The new packaging made available the Lynx without accessories, dropping the price to $99. Although sales improved, Nintendo still dominated the handheld market.
As with the actual console units, the game cartridges themselves evolved over the first year of the console's release. The first generation of cartridges were flat, but were designed in such a way as to be stackable. This design proved to be the most difficult to remove from either generation of console, and so a second design was introduced. This style, called "tabbed" or "ridged", used the same basic design as the original cartridges, with the addition of two small tabs on the cartridge's underside to aid in removal. The first, flat style, could be stacked on top of the newer cartridges, but the newer cartridges could not be easily stacked on each other, nor were they stored easily. Thus a third style, the "curved lip" style was produced, and all official and third-party cartridges during the console's lifespan were released (or re-released) using this style.
In May 1991, Sega launched its Game Gear portable gaming handheld. Also a color handheld, in comparison to the Lynx it had a higher cost, smaller bulk, and lower battery life. However, the Game Gear was backed up by significantly more popular titles and consequently the market became dominated by Nintendo followed by Sega in a distant second and the Lynx in third.
In 1994, Atari shifted its focus away from the Lynx. As Nintendo's Super Nintendo and Sega's Genesis/megadrive filled retailers' shelves, Atari refocused its efforts on its Jaguar console. A handful of games were released during this time, including Battlezone 2000. In 1996, Atari shut down its internal game development.
Telegames released a number of games in the second half of the 1990s, including a port of Raiden, a platformer called Fat Bobby, and an action sports game called Hyperdrome. At the end of the decade, Hasbro, the current owners of Atari at the time, released the rights to develop for the system to the public domain. Since then a number of independent developers released games into the new decade, like Championship Rally, CyberVirus, and Winter Games. Some of the late 90s/early 2000s games were under development by other companies at one time, but rights to the game programs and all of the existing code was bought and finished by other developers.
Though technologically superior to the Game Boy, a number of factors thwarted success of the unit:
- Nintendo's marketing muscle, domination of 3rd party developers, and quality first party game releases (particularly Tetris), ensured the Game Boy always enjoyed vastly superior software support.
- Nintendo's clout with retailers gave plenty of shelf space for Game Boy. Atari struggled with getting retailers to sell Lynx.
- The Lynx needed six batteries versus the four in the original Game Boy. The more powerful architecture of the Lynx, plus its backlit screen, would also drain a set of six AA batteries in less than four hours (five to six hours in the Lynx II).
- The original Lynx was also physically large and cumbersome. Atari had followed the advice of focus groups who wanted a bigger unit because that gave them "more" for their money. While the system is considered comfortable to hold, its portability was limited, and proved to be much harder to carry around than the Game Boy (which easily fits in a large pocket).
- The Lynx sold at a substantially higher price than the Game Boy, due to the cost of the screen and more elaborate custom chips.
- The original Lynx had problems with its cartridge slot. A cartridge was easy to insert, but because of their design, were difficult to remove from the system. The Lynx II remedied this.
- The developer's kit for the Lynx was expensive and required an Amiga computer (Atari's own ST computers could not be used). The two creators of the system, RJ Mical and Dave Needle, were also members of the Amiga design team and much to the frustration of Atari, the Amiga was used as the software development platform.
- MOS 65SC02 processor running at up to 4 MHz (~3.6 MHz average)
- 8-bit CPU, 16-bit address space
- Sound engine
- 4 channel sound (Lynx II with panning)
- 8-bit DAC for each channel (4 channels × 8-bits/channel = 32 bits commonly quoted)
- Video DMA driver for liquid-crystal display
- 4,096 color (12-bit) palette
- 16 simultaneous colors (4 bits) from palette per scanline (more than 16 colors can be displayed by changing palettes after each scanline)
- 8 System timers (2 reserved for LCD timing, one for UART)
- Interrupt controller
- UART (for ComLynx) (fixed format 8E1, up to 62500Bd)
- 512 bytes of bootstrap and game-card loading ROM
- Suzy (16-bit custom CMOS chip running at 16 MHz)
- Graphics engine
- Hardware drawing support
- Unlimited number of high-speed sprites with collision detection
- Hardware high-speed sprite scaling, distortion, and tilting effects
- Hardware decoding of compressed sprite data
- Hardware clipping and multi-directional scrolling
- Variable frame rate (up to 75 frames/second)
- 160 x 102 standard resolution (16,320 addressable pixels)
- Math co-processor
- Hardware 16-bit × 16-bit → 32-bit multiply with optional accumulation; 32-bit ÷ 16-bit → 16-bit divide
- Parallel processing of CPU and a single multiply or a divide instruction
- Graphics engine
- RAM: 64 KB 120ns DRAM
- Storage: Cartridge - 128, 256 and 512 KB exist, up to 2 MB is possible with bank-switching logic.
Some (homebrew) carts with EEPROM to save hi-scores.
- Headphone port (mini-DIN 3.5mm stereo; wired for mono on the original Lynx)
- ComLynx (multiple unit communications, serial)
- LCD Screen: 3.5" diagonal
- Battery holder (six AA) ~4–5 hours