Atari is a company primarily known for introducing console gaming to homes around the world throughout the 1980s. Though their 2600 model of home console is probably best-known, 30 years ago this year they also entered the handheld market with a quirky little device known as the Lynx.
The system was actually first developed as the “Handy Game” by Epyx in the mid-1980s. Following a string of financial struggles the company looked to partner with a bigger company; after Nintendo and Sega both declined (likely due to how both were, at the time, developing their own in-house handheld gaming system) Epyx teamed with Atari instead. When Epyx went fully bankrupt, ownership of the project was taken over in full by Atari.
The Lynx used a cartridge-based format to play games, though the way the console read the game data caused long loading times when any of the games were first booted. The system debuted in 1989 at a price of about $180, and the company considered the initial sales – about 500,000 within the first year – to be successful.
However, due to the arrival of Nintendo’s Game Boy (which hit shelves a couple of months before the Lynx did) and Sega’s Game Gear (which arrived in 1991), the Lynx struggled to keep up with these two powerful competitors. Atari eventually released a smaller, lighter and overall more compact version of the Lynx in 1991, the Lynx II. This updated system had slight upgrades to the hardware and battery life as well, and was just $99 when it launched. However, it wouldn’t ever be able to compete with the Game Boy, which eventually sold 16 million units worldwide and completely dominated handheld gaming.
Though the Lynx never made much of a splash in the market, it’s remembered for being the first full-color handheld system, complete with a backlit display and the ability to change the configuration for being either right- or left-handed. Also of note is how a Lynx game, Todd’s Adventures in Slime World, was the first game developed for eight-player cooperative gaming. Atari would later be honored in 2008 at the Technology and Engineering Emmy Awards for helping to pioneer handheld gaming at large with their release of the Lynx.