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Atari Lynx

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Year Released: 1989
Original Price: £199
Buy It Now For: £15+
Associated magazines: No dedicated magazines, but there were many fanzines such as Wild Cat and Portable Atari Gaming System
Why The Lynx Was Great: With its great full-colour screen and addictive games, Lynx was ahead of its time. And although it had poor battery life, titles such as Chip’s Challenge, California Games and Klax were worth charging them up for

AtariLynxII“Grab your suit and passport.” Dave Needle looks up. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon and standing in his office is David Morse, the CEO of Epyx, with an urgent look on his face. “I need you to join me on a flight to Japan. The plane leaves in three hours.” Needle glances at his watch and then dashes home. Uncertain of exactly what is happening, he nevertheless grabs his best suit, takes his passport from his drawer and heads to San Francisco airport.

Morse and Epyx board member Joe Horowitz are waiting for him. They board the plane, making their way to the upper deck of the half-empty jumbo jet heading for the Land of the Rising Sun. As the plane takes off, Morse begins to explain what’s happening. A private meeting has been set up with Nintendo head Shigeru Miyamoto, with one simple goal: selling the ‘Handy’. The handhand console that Needle and colleague RJ Mical have been working on needs to be sold. Epyx doesn’t have the available finances to take the product to market and it might just be possible that Nintendo can be persuaded to buy it and put it out as one of its own products.

As they snack on shrimp, cheese and caviar, Needle begins to feel uneasy. Something isn’t quite right. 20 years on, he recalls exactly what he was thinking, “We didn’t have a planned presentation”, he says. “I felt it wasn’t the sort of pitch that you made off the cuff. It would take a lot of work to present it properly. It was Japan. I’d dealt with this sort of stuff before, and if we were going to be on their playing field we must play by their rules.” Needle’s instinct was right. Horowitz was convinced that they would be able to force their way into Nintendo’s pocket. And while Morse remained sceptical, he was powerless to call a halt to proceedings. The flight to Japan was to prove lengthy.

backtThe meeting had been set up by Henk Rogers, a Dutch-born videogame designer and entrepreneur known for successfully winning the handheld and console licences of Tetris from the former Soviet Ministry of Software and Hardware. Rogers had snatched the rights from under the nose of The Mirror chief Robert Maxwell. At this moment in time, however, he was helping Epyx make its pitch. He knew the president of Nintendo extremely well, and Epyx figured this would be a fundamental contact in the whole business.

What Epyx hadn’t predicted, however, was the aggressive pitch put forward by Horowitz. “We were in the presence of Nintendo,” Needle recalls. “Joe tried a hard sell, and as he spoke, David and I felt our faces turn red. It carried on for some time, and before long we were ordered out of the building. It was just too strong. Yet it didn’t stop Joe – he got even louder. Luckily, Henk intervened and put an end to the pitch. Nintendo then allowed us to remain for a moment so the reps could show us something.”

A pair of small boxes were brought into the room. They were placed upon a table and opened in front of us. Needle, Morse and Horowitz glanced across at each other nervously, uncertain of what was about to be revealed. Inside each box was a set of handheld videogame consoles. There was a communications cable that enabled them to be played together, and it was ready to go to market immediately. “We were the first non-Nintendo people to learn of the existence of the Nintendo Game Boy,” Needle says, recoiling even at the memory. “We were crushed. Joe was infuriated. The Nintendo boss left the room and we just sat there, wondering what to do next.”

AtariLynxAdvertThe Handy was an ambitious project. A full-colour, 16-bit handheld games console that was so far ahead of its time, it took 12 years before anyone bettered it. It was devised by Morse, Needle and Mical, working with a large, talented team at Epyx and had been drawn up on napkins in August 1986 while the trio were enjoying a meal in a plush little cafe in the affluent Foster City, California. They were already heavily involved in the computer industry: Morse had been the mastermind of the Amiga home computer, and RJ and Needle were members of that team and had played a large part in its creation. It was time to start something new.

“We were really intrigued by the idea of creating a handheld console,” says Needle. “We knew it was possible and so we cracked on with it straight away.” As for the ‘Handy’ name: “I can’t remember how we got the name,” says Mical. “Everyone was popping up with clever stuff in those days. They were heady times filled with promise and productivity. Man, we jammed.”

Before long, Epyx had assembled a team large enough to look after the software, hardware, industrial design and audio facilities of the console. Morse, who had been installed as Epyx’s CEO after founder Jim Connelley decided to leave, put the entire process together and led the project from the start.

HandyBoard1aThe first prototype of the Epyx’s handheld had a black-and-white screen. “But it didn’t have the ‘zing’ we thought it ought to have,” says Needle. “Many people in the group wanted us to stick to black and white. They said the cost, battery life, weight and viewability effects of changing to colour would hurt the product.” Yet Needle and Mical stuck to their guns and the project shifted to colour – 4,096 of them, the same number as the Amiga. “It was a continuation but we weren’t creating a handheld Amiga,” says Mical. “The leading-edge display was the most expensive component, so the colour choice was one of economy.” Needle adds: “If the low-cost glass and drivers would have supported a million colours, I would have done it.” It was decided that the 65C02 chip would be used since it outperformed the rest and the Handy also became the first gaming console with hardware support for zooming and distortion of sprites. It allowed for fast pseudo three-dimensional games and made life easy for programmers.

“Many engineers knew it and would happily program in assembly for it,” Mical says. “There was a large existing body of code because the 65C02 was in popular systems such as the Apple II and the Commodore 64.  Best of all, though, it was cheap and fast. Needle explains: “I invented the technique for planar expansion/shrinking capability for an arcade game I had done several years before. It was a space alien/earth attack game with a 3D rotating planet, 3D giant robots, ground-tracking shadows and was pretty cool. We also came up with a way of avoiding filled polygons by taking a triangle and sizing it as you wished. It’s not as great as a real polygon, but this way the surfaces had full texture all the time with absolutely no performance penalty.”

Four Great Atari Lynx Games

TokiScreenshotToki

BlueLightningBlue Lightning

LemmingsLemmings

STUNRunnerS.T.U.N. Runner

Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 43, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop

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