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The Atari Lynx is Atari's only handheld game console, though its second handheld device released (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 handheld electronic games, 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 has the privilege of being the world's first handheld portable gaming system 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 Atari Lynx failed to achieve the critical mass required to attract quality third party developers. In contrast, Nintendo's Game Boy had full support from game developers. 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).
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 system was developed by Epyx as the "Handy" and completed in 1987. Epyx first showed the Handy system at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 1989. Facing financial problems, Epyx sought out partners. Atari and Epyx eventually agreed that Atari would handle production and marketing, 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 USD $189.95. Atari then showed the Lynx to the press at the Summer 1989 CES.
However, Nintendo's new Game Boy was also introduced at 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 within Atari as the "Lynx II") featured rubber hand grips and a clearer backlit color screen with a power save option. 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.
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, larger 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.
The Lynx was dropped as a product in 1994. As Nintendo's Super Nintendo and Sega's Genesis filled retailer's shelves, Atari refocused its efforts on its Jaguar console.
Though technologically superior to the Game Boy, a number of factors overshadowed the 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 CPU 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 1. While the system is considered comfortable to hold, its portability was limited, and proved to be much harder to carry around then the Game Boy (which easily fit 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 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
- 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: 64Kbyte 120ns DRAM
- Storage: Cartridge - 128, 256 and 512Kbyte exist, up to 2Mbyte 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
The Sega Game Gear followed a similar formula to the Atari Lynx, and the Game Gear did fare somewhat better due to stronger marketing and better titles. At the same time, the Game Gear was also plagued by similar problems that hurt the Lynx; higher price, shorter battery life, larger size and the Game Boy's dominance of the portable video game market.
The Lynx has made at least two appearances in the American TV show Full House. In one episode, Michelle Tanner invites two snobby friends over to play. They sit on her bed and both pull out two Lynx consoles. Michelle asks if she can play, and they tell her she can when she gets her own console. The Lynx II appeared in a later episode, where Gena has a make-out party. Steph's "make-out partner" plays it right before Danny walks in.
- List of Atari Lynx games
- Atari 2600
- Atari 5200
- Atari Panther
- Atari Jaguar
- Atari Jaguar II
- The Atari Times Lynx Area - Game reviews & features
- AtariAge – Comprehensive Lynx Rarity Guide and information
- Atari Lynx - the handheld system that time forgot (with top 10 games list)
- Atari Lynx FAQ
- Information regarding development for the Lynx
- Atari Lynx Reviewed and EXPOSED!
- Germany's biggest Atari Fanpage
- Greece's biggest Atari Lynx Fanpage
- mirsoft lifespan site
- Handy Lynx emulator homepage