In my article on the most underrated consoles, I mentioned that the Atari Lynx was one of those great consoles destroyed by the market dominance of Nintendo’s Game Boy. And of course, that’s true — the Game Boy is one of the best selling consoles of all time, and Nintendo’s dominance of the handheld market was never truly challenged — either by the Lynx, the Game Gear, the WonderSwan Boy, or the PSP or Vita.
But going into more detail, it’s important to look at why the Game Boy had decades-enduring success over its much more powerful rival in the Atari Lynx. The Game Boy, after all, is essentially an 8-bit console with monochrome graphics and an inability to process anything even close to the NES, let alone the Lynx, with smoothness and finesse.
The Lynx, on the other hand, is a full-colour, 16-bit console with 4096 available colours, a graphical co-processing unit, and a sophisticated sprite scaling and distortion system that allowed the implementation of pseudo-3D graphics. Forget the Game Boy, in some areas the Lynx was competing with the SNES.
The Lynx was the brainchild of European developers Epyx, specifically two engineers who had worked on the original Amiga prototypes — RJ Mical and Dave Needle. Mical and Needle moved to Epyx after Commodore acquired Amiga in 1984, and brought with them plans for a handheld console that they had worked on with Amiga head designer David Morse.
Production began in 1986, and the first prototype for the Epyx handheld was finished in 1987. That year, Mical and Needle took the system around to games and computer conventions to try to find a buyer. Epyx was in terrible financial shape by this point, and there was no way for them to develop and manufacture the ambitious product.
Nintendo, Sega, and reportedly Commodore all passed on the handheld machine, but Atari was interested. Atari acquired the flailing Epyx later that year, and this acquisition mirrored their recent purchase of Flare Technologies, who were developing secretive 16-bit and 32-bit consoles with Atari at the moment, code-named Panther and Jaguar. The Epyx team was rolled into this product line, with the name Lynx being given to the handheld prototype.
Eventually released in 1990 by a rejuvenated Atari, having just had success in Europe with their Atari ST home computer and maybe the first retro console with the successful relaunch of the Atari 5200 at the end of the decade, the Lynx was positioned to be a big global hit.
The Lynx launched to overwhelmingly positive press reception, and it sold out its initial Christmas run with no problem at all. The problems for the Lynx were more gradual, as Atari did not seem to know to do with the machine after in its initial launch.
Unlike Sega’s Game Gear, which ran on a Zilog Z80 processor similar to the Sega Master System and thus games could be freely ported over to the system (the Game Gear eventually having an add on where you could literally play any Master System cart), the Atari Lynx’s Western Design Company 65SC02 microprocessor was not similar to the Atari ST’s Motorola 6800 at all, preventing easy porting from games in Atari’s recent library; the 65SC02 was similar enough to the MOS 6502 processor that was used in Atari’s 8-bit machines and the Atari 2600, as well as the NES.
Thus, there were a number of clear 8-bit ports to the machine that did nothing to show off the power, speed and versatility the 65SC02 could handle in tandem with the 16-bit custom chipset. This would be a continuing issue for Atari, as their later Jaguar release would be hamstrung by developers bypassing its complex 64-bit custom chipset and instead coding using the 16-bit 6800 present in the machine for optimization, leading to a slew of embarrassing 16-bit ports on an ostensibly 64-bit machine .
So, the Lynx had the problem that so many consoles have: a lack of strong, optimal software for the system. Atari was not able to convince many companies to develop good exclusive content, and their own in-house team often was not contracted to develop games for the system either. With sales in the acceptable range, Atari didn’t seem to think building the machine’s life was that important, and the total dominance of the Game Boy aside, the recently released Sega Game Gear starting crushing them as well. Thus, the Lynx died its slow death.
The Lynx lasted until Atari’s unceremonious demise in 1996, bolstered only be retailers keeping the Lynx on the shelves along with the Jaguar during its launch period. In the end, the Lynx sold 3 million units worldwide — a far cry from the Game Boy’s 118 million worldwide sales (or even Tetris’ 32 million worldwide sales), or the Game Gear’s 10.6 million, but not atrocious. After all, the product lasted six years in a difficult market with Atari’s famously stingy marketing budget giving it absolutely no support.
But when you consider the total wasted potential of the machine’s power, its lack of many compelling software choices, and how Atari put no material effort into the product’s long-term success, it’s just another sad chapter in Atari’s 1990s demise.
Next week, as Atari Month continues, we will take a look at that other mysterious prototype for a 16-bit console that never the light of day — the Atari Panther.