Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 132 / AUGUST 1991 / PAGE 100

The fingertip arcade. (hand-held video games)
by Gregg Keizer

Modern life's too much like the military: Hurry up and wait. Get to the airport early for a flight that's always late. Fume at the endless columns of cars in a traffic jam. Spend hours watching the clock in some doctor's waiting room.

Cellular phones, laptop computers and countless other minutiae of modern life struggle to make that downtime productive. But who wants to work every moment? The mobile office can quickly become a mobile prison, with work always at your fingertips. But what if you just want to relax?

Sure, you can wile away the hours with a magazine or book--time well spent. But for a generation born to television and weaned on video, electronic games draw leisure time like filings to a magnet. You can't cart a TV and game system across the country of course, so if you want fun on the move, you need something miniature. Fortunately, a quartet of videogame makers figured this out and would like nothing better than to put a machine in your hand and make an instant arcade.

Familiar names like Nintendo, Sega, NEC, and Atari label the handheld games. You can find machines priced for the impulse buyer willing to exchange a few dollars for a few minutes of entertainment. Other game machines are serious investments, complete with prices some may find shocking.

No matter what your condition--video junkie or game dabbler--just remember this: Nothing's better for killing time than killing aliens.

Boy, What a Game!

If you've seen someone playing a hand-held videogame, you've probably seen Nintendo's Game Boy. The giant of home videogames is also the king of the hand-helds.

Even among these shrunken systems, Game Boy is tiny. It fits snugly in one hand and is light and rugged enough to stand up to a six-year-old. Battery life is excellent, easily the best of any portable arcade machine. It's not uncommon to play 24 or more hours before you need to replace the four AA cell batteries.

Game Boy's biggest problem is its black-and-white 2 1/2-inch LCD screen. Because it isn't backlit, Game Boy's screen is hard to see under all but the best lightning. The block resolution doesn't help, either. Game Boy games look rough, and the characters are sometimes tough to make out. Don't expect anything close to the clarity of a Nintendo game which you flip the switch on a Game Boy.

Three things sold over 3 million Game Boys in its first 18 months in the U.S.: its $90 street price, a flood of game cartridges, and million of kids hooked on the Nintendo name.

It's no surprise then that classic Nintendo characters like Mario made it to the small screen in cartridges like Super Mario Land and Dr. Mario. Sports games like Baseball, action movie spin-offs like Robocop, and arcade games like Pipe Dream help fill out Game Boy's roster of over 60 titles (double that by the end of the year, Nintendo claims). Puzzle games like Tetris (included with Game Boy) and Ishido arguably make the best use of the machine, since they don't depend on fast-moving targets or detail, two things Game Boy's screen has trouble delivering.

But because Game Boy games span a larger, more diverse audience than the other portables--from children's choices such as DuckTales to adult entertainment such as Chessmaster--it's good for all-around family fun. Both Game Bou and its games are inexpensive (games generally sell for around $20), a real consideration for these frugal financial times.

Nintendo estimates 10 percent of American households will own a Game Bou by the end of this year. They must be doing something right.

Lyrnx Up

An electronic eon ago, a company called Epyx published great games and caught the ambition bug. The disease ran its course; the first color hand-held videogame was the result. Unfortunately, the toll was too high, and Epyx's machine ended up at Atari, renamed the Lynx.

Lynx still struggles for respect. Overshadowed by newcomes like NEC's TurboExpress and Sega's Game Gear, Lynx fights for recognition and a reputation. Many thought it on its deathbed until Atari got smart and dropped the price to $100. That's only ten bucks more than Game Boy.

For that extra Hamilton, you get a color screen and 16-bit gameplay. The box is bigger, too. You use both hands to run the Lynx's convenient controls, with the cursor pad on the left and fire buttons on the right.

Lynx games look good, too. Not great--just good. Though the machine touts a 4096-color palette, the screen looks washed out. Even in a darkened airplane, Lynx's screen can't match that of Game Gear or TurboExpress.

But Lynx's real Archilles heel is its shallow play list. You'd think a system sold since 1989 would offer more than 16 games.

Still, some good titles play on the Lynx. Blue Lightning is an excellent jet fighter game, complete with missiles, cannons, and swarms of enemies. Klax, an intriguing puzzle game that puts you under as much pressure as Tetris, and Shanghai, a more thoughtful solitaire game, are great entertainment for the older set. And if you like wasting aliens, try Xenophobe or Zarlor Mercenary.

Atari promises another 25-30 games by year's end, including the don't-miss-it race game, Hard Driving', and the WWI flight simulation, Warbirds. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Fidelity Ultimate Chess Challenge are two more to watch for.

If Lynx delivers a collection of 40 + games by New Year's, it'll be a contender, even if those games play best to action addicts.

For only $10 more than Game Boy (without a bundled cartridge), it's a good alternative if you can live with the smaller software library.

Still, with Atari's track record, you'd be wise to adopt Missouri's slogan, "Show me."

Gear up for Gameplay

Sega made news last year when it grabbed a bigger piece of the home videogame market with its Genesis system. Hot on the heels of that success comes Game Gear, Sega's new hand-held game machine.


Released in limited markets in April and available nationwide only this summer, Game Gear shows some Lynx-like traits, including a wide body and a 4096-color palette. But Game Gear goes one up on the Lynx in several key area: Its screen is sharper and brighter under more varied light conditions, an important consideration if you plan to play anywhere you can. It fits better and more comfortably in you hands, and it pinches battery power to get longer life from its six AAs. Sounds better, too, especially when you jack in headphones (all the hand-helds let you listen with headphones).

Most important, though, is Sega's place in the videogame world. The company wants to push Nintendo hard and has the marketing money and muscle to do that far bettern than Atari. Like Atari, Sega promises a bounty of game cartridges by year's end. Sega seems more likely to keep the promise.

At press time (April), Sega had only two games ready for Game Gear. Columns, which comes with the machine is a puzzle game tougher than Tetris. You line up shapes and colors in rows, columns, and diagonals as they fall from the sky. Super Monaco GP puts you at the wheel of a Formula One racecar, changing gears and stomping the accelerators as you zip around 16 Grand Prix courses. It's the best racing game yet for a hand-held.

Another 20 titles are due by Christmas, including Game Gear's versions of such Genesis games as Joe Montana Football and Leaderboard Golf. With more than 100 Genesis titles logged in, Game Gear shouldn't lack good carts.

Priced at $160, with games ranging from $25 to $35, Game Gear sucks more from your wallet than Lynx, but in the long run, it's probably a safer purchase. Sega has more developers in its stable, which means more games, which means more variety for everyone in the family. This year may be a bit touch-and-go for cartridges, but if you like to look ahead and want your video dollars to last, check out Game Gear first.

Arcade Express

NEC's TurboExpress looks like Game Boy with a thyroid condition. The only color hand-held that fits in one hand (you still need two to play),it has a Darth Vader veneer. Maybe it's the hood that just out over the screen.

TurboExpress breathes quality and has a price to match. At $300, it's nearly double the cost of the next most expensive hand-held. No, it's not gold plated; in fact, its screen is smaller than Game Gear's and Lynx's, and its battery appetite is like Godzilla's taste for Tokyo. So what's the deal? The TurboExpress screen may be barely bigger than Game Boy's, but it's the clearest, crispest, and most colorful of any hand-held.

More pixels and more colors simultaneously on the screen make it a joy to look at in almost any light. An optional TV tuner turns the TurboExpress into a miniature television perfect for airport and commuter viewing.

But TurboExpress plays a bigger card than that; cartridges that slip into NEC's TurboGrafx-16 home system run on the company's hand-held. If you pop for a TurboGrafx at home anda TurboExpress for the road, you don't have to buy an entirely new game library.

TurboExpress plays some great games. Bonk's Adventure, a hilarious bop and jump game, and Jack Nicklaus Turbo Golf, a realistic and graphically dazzling sports game, top the list. Not far behind are such notable games as TV Sports Football, Super Star Soldier, and Devil's Crush (no, it's not a Satanic tutorial; it's a terrific pinball machine you hold in one hand).

More than 50 games fit TurboExpress, a selection nearly as deep as Game Boy's. Teens and adults will find plenty on the list--action, arcade, and sports games dominate--but there's only one young children's game scheduled for the year (TaleSpin). At $300, who wants the kids playing with it, anyway?

Fun at Your Fingertips

You can bring you electronic fun with you, wherever you go. As long as you've got AA batteries, you can zap monsters from space, sink an incredible putt, race the streets of Monaco, or make Mario a hero.

Game Boy fills the bottom of the hand-held food chain, but its low price, low-cost cartridges, and sturdy construction make it a perfect portable for the kids. The whole family can take turns at the Game Boy because its deep softwre list includes something for everyone. It's the pick if money's tight and you don't mind black-and-white.

Lynx and Game Gear are close competitors. Lynx has the price edge and, at least until 1992, the larger library. Game Gear's screen is sharper. Even so, my best-buy vote goes to Game Gear. Lynx has languished too long with only a handful of games to instill much confidence. Sega, on the other hand, is a major player in video-games and should deliver a steady flow of new games.

TurboExpress is in a class by itself. No other system lets you swap games between home and road. If you already have a TurboGrafx-16 or you're thinking about buying one, the TurboExpress should be your choice. The higher price is a stumblng block to everyone else, though. That price, as well as a lack of kids' games, also rules out much familywide use.

If the bottom line is fun at any price, take TurboExpress. More thrifty consumers should snap up a Game Gear. Lynx and Game Boy save you money, but for avid players, the trade-offs are hard to swallow.

Hurry up and wait? Not anymore. Now it's hurry up and play.