The Hysterical History of Portable Consoles «

Not to sound like an old fogey, but — oh, what the hell: kids these days are spoiled, what with their Nintendo 3DSes and their iPads. The best portable games are now only a notch or two below the quality of console and PC games, to the point where the average person probably couldn’t tell them apart. In the ’80s and ’90s, though, handheld gaming was a luxurious novelty, on par with staying up late on weekends and birthday parties at Discovery Zone. While Nintendo’s Game Boy was a somewhat affordable system that had plenty of good games and eventually dominated the market, some kids had to wrest them from their parents’ hands. Many just didn’t have one at all, and had no choice but to settle for cheap, dinky LCD games from Tiger Electronics and its contemporaries.

But those early days of portable gaming were also when a grand fantasy started to become real. Gamers with wild imaginations dreamt of portable systems that could play their console games — NES, Super NES, Genesis, and whatever else — and instantly leapfrog the Game Boy. Wild as it was, some manufacturers decided to give it a try, shrinking home consoles down into handheld units with color LCD screens that would, ostensibly, provide the same quality of entertainment, only on the go. Though they all failed in their own ways, the idea (and the technology) slowly advanced through to the present day, when games of the ’90s are now “retro,” and carry the same sense of novelty as portable-only games once did. This is the story of the utterly weird evolution of the so-called portable console.

Pardon the ‘Express’ion

In 1990, the first commercial portable console was NEC’s TurboExpress (PC Engine GT in Japan), a handheld version of their TurboGrafx-16 system in a Game Boy-like form, but with an almost-three-inch color screen and, like the Game Gear, supported a TV tuner accessory for catching local broadcasts. The screen itself was an “active matrix” LCD, which at the time provided a reduction in screen blurring that made the Game Boy look almost unplayable in comparison. The compromise was that the screen didn’t display every line of resolution that the TG16 did, meaning that games looked literally rough around the edges. And like seemingly every handheld that wasn’t the Game Boy, it required six AA batteries to run. Top that with the system’s overall round, rubberized look, and the TurboExpress resembled a piece of game-playing diving equipment.

TurboExpress Spot Art

On paper, the TurboExpress made perfect sense just by virtue of the TG16 game cards, which truly were plastic wafers that could hold some good-looking games and easily fit in a wallet (though actually sticking them in your back pocket wasn’t advisable). And the original PC Engine was tiny to begin with, so it would have been silly not to try to shrink it down further and slap an LCD screen on it. NEC seemed to have a knack for coming up with hardware that was at least a few years ahead of its time, and producing and selling it, too. The TG16 was the first console to get a CD-ROM drive (unusable with the TurboExpress, naturally), a five-player adapter, and a few additional system models at least in Japan that all padded out the product line.

The TurboExpress was probably the most appealing of all of them, but being ahead of its time also meant a price from the future: it debuted at $299, the same number for a 3G-enabled PlayStation Vita from 2012, but technically more, considering inflation. NEC not only priced the Express out of the market, but cemented it as the handheld system of choice for discerning adult gamers who were probably already madly in love with the TurboGrafx to begin with, or rich kids who wanted to attract friends the easy way. (A price drop to $199 did little to relieve that.) Some years later, NEC gave the idea another go, and made the Japan-only PC Engine LT, a bulkier, flip-top unit that still played the same game cards and could get TV signals, but now had a bigger, comparatively better screen, plus the ability to connect to a PC Engine CD-ROM drive. But it, too, was a couple of years too early, and NEC made a relative handful of units. Now it’s one of the holy grails of TurboGrafx fans, but those with their heads on their shoulders will probably just stick with the Express.

PC Engine LT Spot Art

But what about Nintendo? Sure, the Game Boy was cute and inexpensive and introduced millions of people to Tetris, but the prospect of taking your existing NES or Super NES games on the go would, on the surface, be more appealing than spending extra money on a Game Boy and its own games. The problem is that Nintendo game cartridges were the biggest of all, particularly the NES ones, so any portable-ization of their systems would have to compensate for the relatively huge carts.

Nevertheless, some companies tried to do just that in the early ’90s, to varying (yet still low) degrees of success. For a brief moment, there was Biederman Design Labs, a tiny industrial design business — quite possibly just one guy in a garage — who developed a prototype portable NES called the “Express” (no relation to NEC’s). The Express was shown to Electronic Gaming Monthly in 1991, but even calling it a “prototype” would be too generous, because the Express looked like nothing but the guts of an NES stuffed into a wooden box and fitted with a screen and two controller ports (because plugging in the pads was more practical than trying to wrap your hands around the thing). That’s fine if you’re doing it for fun like well-known console modder Ben Heckendorn; not so much if you’re trying to take the thing national.

 

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