Year Released: 1999
Original Price: 4,800 yen
Buy It Now For: £10+
Associated magazines: None
Why The WonderSwan Was Great: Its large battery life, stylish design and wide range of software from the likes of Date East, Squaresoft, Capcom and Konami means that there are plenty of hidden gems to discover.
Bandai was originally founded in 1950 by Naoharu Yamashina under the name of Bandai-ya. The Japanese pronunciation of the phrase is Bandai fueki, meaning “eternally unchanging”. In those days, Bandai was responsible for manufacturing toy cars and plastic models. During the Seventies and Eighties, Bandai manufactured hundreds of LCD handheld games based on popular TV programs, branching out into the world of toy figures such as Digimon, Gundam and Astro Boy. It is also well known for its series of Tamagotchi virtual pet games. A merger between Bandai and Sega was rumoured but nothing came of it, with Bandai choosing to enter the videogame market alone.
While at Nintendo, Gunpey Yokoi was famed for creating the original Game Boy and producing titles such as Metroid and Kid Icarus. When Gunpey Yokoi came up with the Virtual Boy, which spectacularly bombed, he left Nintendo to form his own company in 1996. It was while at his new firm Koto that he was approached by Bandai to create a new handheld to compete with his previous creation, the Game Boy Color. Sadly in 1997, Gunpey Yokoi was involved in a car accident, which had a fatal outcome. While examining the damage of two motor vehicles at the side of the road with businessman Etsuo Kisō, another car driven by Iwao Tsushima slammed into them. Iwao Tsushima, his wife and Etsuo Kiso all survived with minor injuries but Gunpey Yokoi did not, depriving the videogame industry of one of its leading lights.
On 4 March 1999, the WonderSwan launched in a variety of colours including Pearl White, Skeleton Green, Silver Metallic, Skeleton Red/Pink, Blue Metallic, Skeleton Blue, Skeleton Black, Camouflage, and Gold, with special two tone models Frozen Mint, Sherbet Melon and Soda Blue. These colours were chosen as a result of an online poll at Bandai’s website, with the metallic models and Pearl White discontinued on 22 July to make room for the special tone models. Interestingly, the Skeleton Pink colour wasn’t popular among the Japanese, often selling at a discounted price to shift stock (proving that pink isn’t necessarily the answer to attracting more gamers).
The WonderSwan itself is a nice sized system, proving fairly portable with a reasonable button layout that makes it comfortable to hold. For the first time since the Atari Lynx, the handheld features two sets of controls for horizontal and vertical play, which means that games like Magical Drop can be played in portrait mode as intended. Despite its mono display, graphics are clear and sharp (superior to the Game Boy) although it does suffer from some blurring during lots of movement. Sound is controlled with one button and has just three settings, a contrast wheel for the screen display and a power button. Using one AA battery (that sticks out of the enclosed casing) over 40 hours of play can be enjoyed, the longest of any handheld machine to date. An expansion port is included for use with other devices.
The system itself has its downsides; the control system isn’t ideal for left-handers, the lack of a headphone jack means an adapter has to be purchased to experience decent sound quality and the AC port is noticeably missing, meaning it is a battery-only machine. It’s also physically impossible to play a two-player link up game with the headphones in place, as there is only sufficient space for one lead. Due to its low price, the casing is like a cheap plastic, although later releases would improve on this area. The weirdest aspect of the WonderSwan and all its models is that it doesn’t do anything when you turn it on without a game inside, giving the wrong impression of the machine being broken. Sometimes the pins of WonderSwan games have to be cleaned with an alcoholic-based solution, as they are prone to slipping out slightly from the console.
Facing steep competition with Nintendo, the original WonderSwan model managed to sell 1.55 million units, an impressive figure given it was only sold in Japan and some import stores. Weekly sales from Magic Box at the time stated that the WonderSwan was second to the Game Boy Color, with the Neo Geo Pocket/Color and earlier Game Boy iterations lagging behind. On the game’s launch, Densha De Go sold over 200,000 copies in one week and made it one of the bestselling titles in Japan at the time. Makaimura (known as Ghosts And Goblins in the West) and Detective Conan games were also popular, selling out upon their launch.
In 2000, Bandai signed an agreement with Mattel to bring the handheld to North America, but the dominance of Nintendo prompted a change of heart. Later that year, the WonderSwan Color was announced after Nintendo Spaceworld, promising a 2.9” screen that could use up to 241 colours, implementing backwards-compatibility with all WonderSwan releases working on the handheld. The recent unveiling of the Game Boy Advance, however, meant it had a tough fight to compete from the outset. For a time it was rumoured that black and white games played in a colour model would be updated visually like the Game Boy Color but this never occurred, with any mono games displayed as originally intended. Interestingly, at a trade show, Bandai showcased the WonderSwan’s link up mode with the PlayStation 2 (the WonderWave), although it was never made clear as to what this would involve or what titles would support it. Net access through a mobile phone network was also possible like its predecessor. Bandai’s plan to sell at a much cheaper price point than the impending Game Boy Advance (6,800 yen to the GBA’s muted 9,800) was aimed to attract as many new gamers as possible and give the machine a head-start. Promises of re-makes of Square’s Final Fantasy titles were also very enticing to an RPG mad nation.
Launched 30 December 2000, the machine proved popular and Bandai managed to take 8% of the market share in Japan due to its cheap price tag. Machines were available in Crystal Glass Black, Crystal Glass Blue, Crystal Glass Orange, Pearl Blue and Pearl Pink. Designed exactly the same as its predecessor but with a colour screen, display suffers from the same visibility problems as the Game Boy Color in inadequate lighting. Buttons are re-labelled for ease of use while battery life shrinks to 20 hours on one AA.
The Bandai WonderSwan Crystal was released on 7 December 2002 and updated the model by using a TFT screen instead of FSTN for a much brighter display, removing some of the motion-blurring present in previous versions. Colours launched were Wine Red, Blue Violet, Crystal Black, and Crystal Blue. Its casing was also made smaller out of more durable materials and refined with revamped buttons. The power button is now a slide switch, preventing accidental knocks to the machine from turning it on or off. Battery life was about 15 hours which was still quite impressive, although not as impressive as the original’s mammoth 40 hours. Unlike the WonderSwan Color which was a new console in its own right, the Crystal is merely a redesign and doesn’t have any machine-specific titles. The machine’s brief advantage was soon demolished with the arrival of the Game Boy Advance, and with Squaresoft joining forces with Nintendo again, sales of WonderSwan machines dramatically declined. In 2003, Bandai announced that it would cease producing game hardware because of less than impressive demand. A backlit machine was rumoured but never came to fruition. Things were not looking good for Bandai’s console…
Four Great WonderSwan Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 36, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
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