Since Brian's story earlier about the tragic death of former Nintendo great Gunpei Yokoi, I figured today would be a good time to take a look at the last thing he ever worked on: the WonderSwan handheld gaming device.
While Yokoi will always be remembered as the man who created the Game & Watch, Metroid, Game Boy and the ill-fated Virtual Boy, there's always been something uniquely interesting about the WonderSwan, which unlike any of the things above was never so incredibly awesome or such an incredible failure.
Yokoi left Nintendo in 1996 after the Virtual Boy, a 3D gaming device he championed, crashed and burned, making it Nintendo's only major and significant failure in the home video game market. In the same year he founded Koto Laboratory, a new company with which he partnered with Nintendo rival Bandai and set about creating yet another new video game handheld.
This device was to be called the WonderSwan, which would eventually be released in 1999, two years after Yokoi's tragic passing in 1997. While this means his involvement in the project was more limited than it was with, say, the Game Boy, Yokoi still had a hand in its development, and in many ways you can see not just his experience with Nintendo handhelds shining through, but also some unique ideas for the future of handheld gaming.
The WonderSwan ended up a quirky little thing, a handheld that was never truly a success like his works with Nintendo but which had enough unique features to earn it a significant - and lasting - following. First released on March 4, 1999, the most immediate thing you notice about the WonderSwan is its strange button layout.
Because the device had been designed to be able to play games either vertically or horizontally, the WonderSwan included ten identical buttons that also doubled as d-pad inputs. The original model shipped with a monochrome screen, and in a move aimed squarely at competing head-on with Nintendo, was priced cheap, at only ¥6800 (USD$80).
It also included a neat feature that you only usually saw on home consoles at the time: the presence of a settings menu, where you could not only adjust system settings but also enter personal information.
Yet despite being available in a ton of colours right off the bat and featuring a decent library of games, including - crucially - updated re-releases of old Final Fantasy titles (including some snazzy bundles), the WonderSwan's release came only a few short months after Nintendo dropped the Game Boy colour on the market, which suddenly made Bandai's handheld (and fellow struggler the Neo Geo Pocket) look decidedly last-gen.
In December 2000, then, Koto and Bandai released the WonderSwan colour, which not only boasted a bigger, colour screen, but which also looked more like a gaming console and less like a cheap children's calculator.
By now, the WonderSwan was doing OK! It wasn't battling for market dominance with Nintendo, but it was approaching a 10% stake in the Japanese handheld market, which for a newcomer from two relatively small companies was an impressive feat!
And then, only three months after the release of the WonderSwan colour, Nintendo dropped the Game Boy Advance. The increased horsepower, vibrant screen and enormous game library of Nintendo's new handheld effectively killed off all competition in Japan, including the WonderSwan, and ensured a near monopoly in the market until Sony's PSP would be released.
As a last-ditch effort, a third WonderSwan was released in 2002. Called the SwanCrystal, it was essentially the same device under the hood as the last two models, only this time it had a fancy LCD screen. Against the might of the GBA, it could do little, and it would be the last WonderSwan the world would ever see (though it remains a favourite of collectors and handheld fans to this day).
All three models of the WonderSwan were only ever released officially in Japan.
It's a shame that Yokoi did not live to see the WonderSwan duke it out with Nintendo. Because while it ended up - like so many other handhelds - crushed beneath the feet of the industry giant, it tried some pretty unique and interesting things, and put up a much sterner fight than most other handhelds ever managed.
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