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Remembering The Atari Lynx

I’ve had this picture in the back of my head for the past 20 years or so of me in total, portable gaming bliss with my very own Atari Lynx. It’s an image that has remained fantasy until only a few days ago, when I finally bought one on eBay.

I’ll admit, most of my fantasy revolved around being this kid. I wanted to be that kid, so bad. All I needed was a totally bitchin’ jean jacket with cut-off sleeves and an Atari Lynx, and I’d be the cool kid, forever. Oh, yes! Yeah! Oh, yeah! I’m in the tube!

Of course, at the time, I hadn’t noticed the physical size of the Lynx. Watch this part again, and take notice of the aircraft carrier that emerges from his pocket. Also, where the hell did he get the plug from?

Just to confirm the girth of this beast, here are some additional shots I took of mine, compared to a Sega Game Gear and a Nintendo Game Boy.

It’s quite a massive piece of kit. I’d be surprised if we didn’t find some island in the Pacific where natives worship and make human sacrifices unto it. I’m keeping both eyes on mine, just in case it ever works up the urge to climb the Empire State Building and swat at passing airplanes.

The crazy thing is, as I wondered whether or not this was the largest handheld console in history, I made the sick discovery that it’s not. In fact, the unit I own is a Lynx II which was REDUCED in size from the Lynx I. I guess Atari realized that not everyone owns a jean jacket with bottomless pockets.

Now, you might be wondering, with a console that dwarfs the original “Duke” Xbox controller, how massive must the games be? Prepare to be amazed. Here’s a photo comparing the Lynx cartridge to a Game Gear and Game Boy cartridge.

I guess size isn’t everything.

As you can plainly see, the Lynx was about as discrete as a siege cannon, but once you take a peek under the hood, you begin to appreciate what Atari had wrought.

It blows my mind that this thing sports 16-bit graphics. Remember, the Lynx debuted in 1989, a month after the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, and while the graphics aren’t quite on par, they’re certainly a far cry better than what Nintendo was offering on the Game Boy in the same year. It would be almost 2 years until Sega released their color portable, and even the technology in that couldn’t touch the power Atari had already packed into the Lynx.

To get an idea of what this machine was capable of, watch this video of the game Blue Lightning. Notice the Mode 7-style visuals, the trademark scaling and rotating that the Super Nintendo made heavy use of. And then there’s this prototype of Alien Vs. Predator, a first-person shooter that never made it to production.

Unfortunately, the Lynx does have a few flaws. The most obvious flaw is the awful LCD screen with a maximum resolution of 160 x 102. While it may be difficult to view, at least it was big, a whopping 3.5 inches. Not only that, but it was in color and back-lit — two features that Nintendo wouldn’t be able to squeeze into a handheld until the release of the Game Boy Advance SP in 2003.

Also worth noting is the dismal battery performance. 6 fresh AA batteries would last about 4 to 6 hours which, while much better than what the Game Gear could boast, was a lot less than the 10 hour lifespan of 4 AAs in a Game Boy.

Lastly, because the system failed to pull in any significant third-party developer support, all you’re really left with are ports of arcade games. As a result, I’ve been playing a lot of Paperboy. Like, a lot. It also doesn’t help that the only games I want to play on the system also just so happen to be arcade ports. RoadBlasters, Xenophobe, Klax, etc.

My impression of the Lynx is that it was just too far ahead of its time. If they could have found a better display, made it smaller and more energy efficient while keeping the cost low, it might have stood a better chance of beating the Game Boy. Instead, it remains a long-lost, nearly forgotten piece of gaming history.

About Dale Culp

Dale has been writing about video games since the days of the Dreamcast. He got his first taste of being a professional game critic when he had reviews printed in "The Atari Times." He currently has a bi-weekly column in TheWeekender.com and blogs professionally for GoLackawanna.com and AndroidRundown.com

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