Based on: The best of intentions, spoiled by harsh reality and inept boardroom politics.
Article by Ben Langberg | May 18, 2009
Released the same year as the Game Boy, the Atari Lynx was impressive for a portable game player. Its backlit LCD screen could display 16 colors out of a palette of 4096, and its graphics chip could scale and rotate sprites long before Mode 7 became a Nintendo buzzword. Its four channel sound processor was about average in terms of tone generation, but made liberal use of high quality samples. Other progressive features included flipping the unit for right or left-handed play and hypothetical networking for up to eight-player gaming. I say "hypothetically," because I never knew another kid who had Lynx, let alone seven. Hi, my name is Ben, and I'm an Atari fan.
I still had my 2600 hooked up to my T.V. in 1989, so the Lynx was a much more attractive proposition to me than the Game Boy. It took me a year to save up for a Lynx of my own, and I wasn't disappointed. Let’s face it, other than Tetris?, the initial Game Boy lineup was weak. Most of the quality cartridges didn’t arrive until 1991 or so. Meanwhile, the Lynx had Blue Lightning, an incredible 3D arcade flight combat game, at launch. I plugged it in eagerly and played.
Hours later, my six AA batteries died.
For all its power, the Lynx was too battery-hungry to be practical for portable gaming. Six hours is about what you’d get from regular alkalines. Rechargeable batteries lasted even less. I finally settled on getting the AC adapter, defeating the whole purpose of a portable system. Add Nintendo’s firm grip on third party developers, and the Lynx never got enough market share to be truly successful.
Still, truly portable or not, the Lynx saw its share of quality gaming. While by no means comprehensive, my personal memories of Lynx represent many of the system's highlights.
Games by Epyx
The Lynx was actually developed by Epyx, a popular computer software company in the '80s. Having run out of capital, they partnered with Atari to release the system and concentrated on game creation. As the original designers of the hardware, it should be little surprise that they released some of Lynx's most impressive creations.
At first glance Blue Lightning seems to be an Afterburner clone, but it veers from the style of Sega's fast-paced arcade game to focus on a more varied mission structure. Some levels feature straight dogfighting while others involve flying through canyons, undertaking bombing runs, and launching stealth attacks. With detailed pseudo 3D graphics, it’s a showcase for the system. Just flying around and climbing into the clouds is fun in itself. Too bad it only has nine levels.
California Games was the pack-in for the Lynx and features four sports inspired by the Golden State: surfing, half-pipe skateboarding, BMX and hacky sack. The other three events are fun enough, but surfing is the main draw. Once you figure out how to land 360s off of the wave without wiping out the game really opens up, challenging you to best your high score.
Chip’s Challenge is puzzle game on the more cerebral side. Your goal is to find keys, open doors, collect microchips, and get to the exit. It starts out easy enough, but quickly ramps up in complexity after the tutorial levels. While the graphics are utilitarian, figuring how to clear each of the 144 levels without dying is a daunting and time-consuming task. As a kid, the game proved too challenging for me well before the halfway mark, but I spent more time than I care to admit playing around with the game’s hidden easter egg: a fractal generator.
Games by Atari
While the Atari arcade division was a separate company by 1989, the Lynx did see a number of high-quality arcade ports.
Klax can’t compete with the simple elegance of Tetris, but it’s a solid and fun example of the falling block genre. The 100 levels are variations on matching three or more tiles in a row of the same color. Some involve making a certain number of “klaxes,” while others demand specific shape or score requirements, and yet others require simply surviving the onset of a certain number of tiles without filling up the bins. The Lynx version is played by holding the system vertically and makes heavy use of the system’s sample capacities for humorous sound effects. I actually beat this as a kid—using a few of the “big X” level warps—and I was pleasantly surprised to see the game has an animated ending sequence.
Rampart combines Tetris with cannon fire; either castle-to-castle in multiplayer, or castle-to-ships in single player. The Tetris-like aspect comes into play between rounds as you rebuild your castle walls as quickly as possible. You can surround other castles to increase your territory (or to stay alive if your main castle’s walls are too tricky to repair). You can also add more cannons provided they'll fit inside your castle boundaries. In single player, you begin by defending one shore line from invading ships and eventually move up to defending peninsulas with multiple coasts. The final level is a small island that I've defended valiantly on many occasions yet never fully protected. The Lynx version was an impressive port, featuring sampled speech and sound effects as well as short animations between stages, all carried over from the arcade version. Fine-tuned for home play and more than a straight port, Rampart is at its best on Lynx.
S.T.U.N. Runner was an early arcade precursor to Wipeout with less emphasis on racing and more on combat. Players drove a hover car through futuristic tubes, avoiding or destroying enemies. Helpful boost pads would briefly max out the car's speed, F-Zero style, making it temporarily invulnerable. Memorizing the locations of these pads was imperative to finishing later levels within the alloted time. The arcade game’s 3D visuals might make one think it had little business being ported to the Lynx, but clever use of sprite scaling and rotation resulted in a surprisingly unmatched and nearly definitive home port.
Other decent arcade ports include Rampage, Roadblasters and an unexpectedly playable version of Hard Drivin'. The Commodore Amiga was the development system for the Lynx—a fact that surely irked Atari management at the time, given the two company's complex and intertwined history/rivalry—a number of computer games made their way to the Lynx largely intact. In particular, Shanghai, Block Out and Lemmings all turned out to be fun, faithful renditions of their larger cousins.
While the Lynx itself is long dead, the system gave rise to a vibrant homebrew community—one of the first to develop for any console, in fact. This has added years to the system's life thanks to both previously unreleased professional games that never saw the light of day for want of a publisher (or a bit of coding polish), as well as a number of original efforts, many of which rival professional efforts in quality.
The Game Boy's instant domination of the portable gaming market meant that Atari's Lynx was destined to become a footnote in gaming history. Perhaps if Epyx had been able to launch the system sooner, or if Atari had been successful in securing all the rights to Tetris, things would have turned out differently. Certainly those coups would have bought Lynx some time. Yet even if it hadn't come first with Alexey Pazhitnov's famous falling block game in tow, Nintendo's Game Boy probably would have won regardless. They knew that portable gaming needed to be truly portable to work, even if the tradeoff was less impressive technology. Or more succinctly, they knew that sometimes, slow and steady wins the race. They knew tortoise beats hare.