Thursday, 26 April 2012

Gaming Memories - Part 8

I know this series of features here at Red Parsley is entitled 'Gaming Memories' but I'm really struggling to remember when, why, or even how I obtained my Atari Lynx, but own one I did. This last part is especially confusing as I'm sure I was at college at the time which means I had no money to speak of. I seem to have a vague recollection of receiving the sizeable console in the post though, which suggests I conned/nagged my mum into ordering it from her catalogue. That takes care of the 'how', albeit rather inconclusively. That also helps me place the time of the purchase somewhere in the early 90's which is further verified by my certainty that it was the original and larger version of the Lynx that I owned to start with. So, that just leaves the 'why'. What is it that made me so desire this new handheld so much?

I suppose that decision was probably reached in the same way as many other decisions of my earlier and far less responsible years, which usually had something to do with the tantalising coverage and images in the magazines of the day. Atari's name still carried a little weight in those days and news of their first foray into the world of the handheld console, a market newly revealed and duly exploited by Nintendo, was met with a great deal of interest from press and gamers alike. However, Nintendo's marvellous little machines truly was a handheld whilst the beefy Lynx, originally conceived and developed by American software house, Epyx, before being sold to Atari, was much larger, heavier, and had a crippling power-usage (six 'AA' batteries would last around two or three hours!). As a result, for me as well as probably most other Lynx owners, it was almost exclusively a machine to use at home with the mains adaptor or take to friends houses to be used with a similar power source. Unless your dad worked for Duracell or something of course. Mine didn't, and I soon discovered how much of a hindrance this would be.

I'm quite sure I remember my Lynx arriving on a Saturday. A Saturday I had planned to go on a fishing trip with an old friend, no less. I took my new acquisition with me, obviously, and I distinctly remember powering on the unit for the first time in my friend's dad's car. After dazzling my friend, and indeed myself, for a couple of minutes though, the batteries had already died! This remained one of only a handful of times I tried to use the mighty console without the benefit of a plug socket but it was nonetheless a machine I used enthusiastically and shared with my friends for a fun-filled while, and these were the games that occupied our time:

California Games (1989)

The Game Boy came bundled with the time-draining Tetris, the Lynx had this 'radical' multi-event sports title, unsurprisingly made by Epyx themselves. It was already a well-known and mostly well-liked title by the time the Lynx was released but it still made for a pretty good pack-in game. Well, I certainly enjoyed it at least! Whether by design or because of system limitations, however, it's something of a cut-down version of the classic, featuring only four or the six original events - surfing, BMX, footbag, and the half-pipe, with the roller-skating and frisbee events missing. Luckily, the events that did make it are superbly represented and are the most enjoyable interpretations that I've played on any system. The BMX is a bit of a memory test but I spent many happy hours with the surfing and half-pipe in particular, passing the console around friends, each trying to best each others scores. Great times!

Gates of Zendocon (1989)

Another one developed by the original Lynx designers, Gates of Zendocon is quite a rare treat in that it's completely exclusive to the bulky handheld marvel. It's also quite original for a spacey-shmup. The action is viewed from the side and places you in control of a nifty-looking ship with a powerful laser and bombs which must slice its way through an impressive fifty-one stages of unique spacial environments, or 'universes'. Travel between the stages is via the warpy 'gates' of the title, each of which has a password. Despite that, I've still never seen every single stage and I still try now and then as well! The graphics and sound really show off what the Lynx is capable with bold, bright, and imaginative sprites and fantastic music and sound effects - quite a achievement for such an early release - and it's a superbly enjoyable slice of portable blasting too, which took up probably more of my time than any other Lynx game.

Chip's Challenge (1989)

Today's handheld consoles are nearly as powerful as their non-portable relatives but in the era of the Game Boy and Lynx they were much more limited; so one type of game that was well suited to them and therefore featured prominently was puzzle games. Chip's Challenge was Epyx's effort to this end and, while also featuring on (many) other systems, it's spiritual home has always been on the Lynx. Its features many stages (148 supposedly, although I've never beaten them all!) of fiendishly designed switch/key/block-based puzzles whose small, neat graphics suit the Lynx's resolution perfectly. Like Gates of Zendocon, each stage also has its own password so even if you're caught short of battery power, you won't lose all your progress. Unless you forget to make a note of them, of course. Never happened to me, obviously! :|

Qix (1991)

I suppose the Lynx was bound to get a conversion of this age-old classic, which goes all the way back to the days of Atari's successful console. Qix is, after all, a game that's been ported to pretty much every format ever created in one form or another, but it's possibly slightly less well-suited to the handheld behemoth than some other puzzle games. As everyone in the world must already know, the object is to guide a marker across the playfield and 'mark off' a set percentage of it without your marker or the line that it's drawing being touched by the sparks that orbit the playfield or the 'Qix' that occupies the interior (the whirly colourful lines). The only problem is of course the Lynx's small screen and comparatively low resolution which makes things a little cramped. It's still an enjoyable and very addictive game though, just one that made me extremely angry on more than one occasion! Grrr!

Desert Strike (1992)

The prospect of a portable version of this, one of my all-time favourite MegaDrive games, was an exciting one. It looked good enough in the magazines for me to give it a try and, upon actually playing it, initial impressions were fantastic. Obviously it loses some detail in the graphics but more or less everything was where it should be. So it's a tremendous shame that Telegames (who ported it) ruined my enjoyment of it with such a stupid oversight. Flying your Apache over land causes it to gradually eat up fuel but, as veterans of the MD version will know, flying it over water does not. Apparently those in charge of the Lynx conversion weren't aware of this though as fuel is lost no matter where you are. Makes more sense from a logical point of view I suppose but it also makes the game much harder and incredibly frustrating. Typical - a nearly flawless port, technically, and they mess it up with something like this? Quite incredible incompetence (or stupidity if it was intentional). Bah!

So, despite some great initial releases and some really top-drawer arcade conversions during its short life, this was and remained pretty much my entire Lynx collection. This could be attributed to many things, notably the short battery life and bulky unit size meaning poor portability and the rapidly dwindling coverage in magazines of the day meaning those who did buy one weren't exactly flooded with details of new or forthcoming releases, but ultimately I think it's just because I never really embraced portable gaming generally. I've owned all of the major handhelds so far (except the PC Engine GT, and 3DS and Vita of course - far too modern for me!) and none of them have really gotten me hooked.

The Lynx was a fantastic machine though, make no mistake. Technically it was very impressive for its day, perhaps too impressive, and it retains a loyal fan base to this day, some even releasing new games for it, but with a few more companies releasing games for it to start with, and a less power-hungry architecture, it could've been an all-time great. Oh well, it's a great system to collect for now. I'm tempted myself now that I think about it...

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