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Retroinspection: Atari Lynx

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“Grab your suit and passport.”Dave Needle looks up. It's three o'clock in the afternoon...

Published on Jan 22, 2009

“Grab your suit and passport.”Dave Needle looks up. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. 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.

The 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.”

The 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 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.

The first prototype of the Epyx’s handheld had a black-andwhite 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.”

While work progressed on the hardware, Epyx continued to produce videogames such as Chip’s Challenge and a Handy department was created. At one point it was sealed off from the rest of the building for security purposes. It was decided that cartridges would be used for the games. Although there had been reports that games were going to be loaded from tape, Mical says there was no truth in them. “We did think about hard disk a little…”

Yet by the time the machine was ready, Epyx had hit financial problems. The Commodore 64 market, which was Epyx’s core audience, wasn’t pulling in the cash any more. It had also invested in VCR games but with little success. Staff levels were falling from around two hundred at its peak to just 20 employees. If the Handy was ever going to be released it would need the backing of another company. Hence, the ill-fated journey that led the group to knock at the hallowed doors of Nintendo…

When that fell through, Horowitz decided to approach Atari, and made a phone call to Jack Tramiel, the chief executive at that time. Atari had already tried its hand at producing a portable machine, the Atari 2200, which was based on the Atari 2600. But it just couldn’t seem to get it right. As time went on, however, Atari began to ignore the growing stature of consoles and had become heavily involved in a business war against Commodore. Tramiel finally realised the worth of consoles when the NES stormed onto the market – so he was rather taken by the Handy, believing it to be a great way back to console dominance.

Soon after Horowitz approached Atari, Jack’s son, Sam, went to Epyx. He was greeted by Joe and showed around. They then sat in an office and discussed some terms. It was eventually decided that Atari would manufacture and market the handheld console and Epyx would create the videogames, getting paid by Atari for each title that was produced. However, in the contract was a clause that issued Epyx a deadline. For example, the company had 60 days to fix any bugs that Atari said needed to be rectified. Needle says: “Atari routinely waited until the end of the Epyx time period to comment on the Epyx fixes. There was then inadequate time for Epyx to make the fixes.” According to Needle, Atari decided to “punish” Epyx by withholding payment. In the end, this sent Epyx into financial turmoil, leading to its inevitable bankruptcy. Atari did hold out a lifeline – paying Epyx, but only on the condition that it handed over the Handy.

The deal obviously upset Mical and Needle. They asked their lawyers if they could leave Epyx, but they were advised that it would be seen as an overt action by them to damage Atari and that they would almost certainly be sued. The pair remained at Epyx until the hardware handover was complete, turning down an offer from Sam to work at Atari.

With Morse, Mical and Needle’s involvement in the project coming to an abrupt halt, Atari took the Handy and renamed it the ‘Lynx’. It was two years before the company released the console in September 1989 however, and by that time Nintendo’s Game Boy had also been released. “Looking back, if we had decided not to go colour,” says Needle, “We would have been a zero. The Game Boy really would have trounced us.” As it was, the colour feature of the Lynx kept the machine in the limelight, although it wasn’t plain sailing. The Lynx cost $189.95 and the Game Boy retailed for $89.95. Many felt the Lynx was too expensive at the time and there was a vicious circle of too few purchases, putting off third-party developers, which, in turn, lead to fewer and fewer purchases. As sales continued to fall, Atari tweaked the machine and created the Lynx II. It retailed for half the price of the original, and was smaller and cheaper to make and it had the addition of stereo sound, as well as better battery life and a pause option that allowed the screen to be turned off, thus saving power.

Needle wasn’t too convinced with the changes, however. “During the handover, [Atari’s] mechanical engineer made some seemingly pointless changes,” he said. “The guy told me that he always liked to put a piece of himself in any product he worked on. He changed the backlight electronics and the transformer design and reduced the battery life. But he also changed the high voltage capacitor to one with considerably more leakage at the oscillation frequency and it generated considerable heat. The new load on the batteries caused them to overheat.” Nevertheless, sales picked up and it seemed Atari was onto a winner.

Then along came Sega, who introduced us to the Game Gear in 1991. For Lynx, this meant the end was nigh. Although the Lynx remained the superior machine, the Game Gear benefited from Sega’s advertising drive and the Japanese company’s resources. What was more frustrating was Game Gear’s similarities to Lynx. “Game Gear was an interesting issue,” Needle remembers. “Sega was shown all of the Handy’s innards and schematics and specs as part of an attempt to partner with them after the Epyx marketing fiasco. And to see what I consider to be pretty much a copy of the Handy was a bit infuriating.” He continues, “I had become friends with one of the engineers at Sega, and during the last development stages of the Game Gear, after I had already left Epyx, Sega hired me to help with a few lingering product issues. I went to their Japan facility and they showed me the problems they were having. Some issues were just weak engineering on their part, showing me that they did not understand the functionality of the hardware they were copying. They had the output palette wrong, among other things.”

Despite the problems, Dave Needle remains proud of the Lynx – “always have, always will”, he says. Among his favourite games for the once groundbreaking handheld are Chip’s Challenge, Gates Of Zendocon and California Games. “It’s a matter of pride that no one created anything better for 12 years,” he adds. When it comes to what went wrong, Mical maintains that, “All the Lynx needed was low cost and a huge library of software. But I place the blame for both of these in Atari’s lap…”

 

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