I think it's safe to say that if any one company can be credited with not just pioneering handheld gaming, but near enough creating it, it would be Nintendo. The Game & Watch series wasn't really my cup of tea, at least not by the time I got into gaming in the mid-80's, but I was in the minority and it proved to be a big success. Towards the end of that decade the Big N unveiled the spiritual successor to the G&W series, the Game Boy, and this was an even bigger success and has ended up being one of the most successful systems of all-time, handheld or otherwise. Both Atari and Sega tried to get in on the act and both failed. Surely, someone would have to be very brave or just plain crazy to try again?
The early success of this upstart handheld can largely be attributed to a deal Bandai made with Square which would see the immensely popular Final Fantasy series converted to the new machine, and it also featured lots of Digimon games which were also very popular at the time. It couldn't last though and the WonderSwan's initial popularity began to wane. Bandai swiftly moved to combat this by releasing the WonderSwan Color, and after that the further-improved SwanCrystal, but it was too late and the machine was sadly discontinued in 2003.
It didn't go without leaving its mark on the games world though and was home to quite a sizeable catalogue of titles. The machine never made it our of Japan, I don't think it was ever intended to, so that of course means that all of its games are in Japanese and many of them feature so much kanji that they're not realistically playable by non-speakers. In order to get a feel for the machine I did a bit of research to try and find some games that I could without too much bother and to that end I have selected these games to try:
Guilty Gear Petit (2001)
Rainbow Islands Putty's Party (2000)
Golden Axe (2002)
Judgement Silversword (2001)
Most consoles are appealing to collectors simply because they exist but it certainly helps if there's some good titles available to use on them. The WonderSwan is a rather obscure release though. Its critics would say it was completely pointless whilst even its fans must concede that it was an odd decision to release it when the Game Boy Color was already out and selling like hot cakes. On top of that, for non-Japanese speakers at least, there is a rather limited selection of games that can be realistically played on it and even less that are exclusive to the system. So, are there any reasons to own a WonderSwan?
Well, technically it's a pretty impressive machine, more so than I thought before I tried it out for this feature. Its audio abilities aren't great, although it's still capable of producing lots of catchy tunes and decent quality speech, but the graphics are surprisingly good. There's a sizeable pallet of colours available on the SwanColor and SwanCrystal with some games looking really nice, and some of the original black & white games don't look too bad either. The console also has a few nice tricks such as its ability to display games horizontally or vertically which is a real advantage with some titles as you can see above. The games themselves are the usual mixed bag but for any Westerners thinking of buying one, I would only say that games for it are quite hard to come by, and that some of them are pretty pricey as a result. I actually used to own a SwanCrystal for a short while but never found copies of the few games I wanted to buy for it (like Golden Axe which, as it turns out, I would've enjoyed a lot).
It's a pretty capable little machine then, more so than the Game Boy Color, and it has got some great games hidden amongst the ones that only our Japanese friends can play, but unfortunately the release of the Game Boy Advance mid-way through its life ended any chance Bandai's machine might've had. I mean, let's face it - Nintendo's handheld market share was (and still is) so overwhelming that it would've taken something really special to put a dent in it, and sadly the WonderSwan wasn't quite up to the task. Gunpei Yokoi's final offering to the world of videogames was certainly not without its positives but ultimately it proved to be too little too late.