I was a little late to the game when it came to playing the Atari Lynx. But then again, I never really owned a handheld gaming system until the Game Boy Color. That’s right: I missed the dawn of the first generation portable war.

That’s not to say that the Atari Lynx didn’t eventually catch my attention. As a kid, I would see the games on the store shelves of my local Babbage’s (before it was devoured by Gamestop), and had always wondered what it was like to play one.

I remembered it being a colorful system, having decent graphics, and a nice lineup of arcade ports. But it didn’t carry the Marios and Castlevanias and Mega Mans of the Nintendo era that caught the gaming craze of the time. I was then all about my NES and Master System, and even if I had changed my mind, the system only graced store shelves for a short time before Game Boy conquered all.

It was years later when I really got a chance to experience the Lynx. I was reminded of the system through the AtariAge Lynx Database, and after a few eBay searches, ended up with system in hand.

While not as prevalent as it was two years ago, I was surprised by the number of Lynx games that could still be found new in packages for a reasonable price. This really gave me the full “new system” experience for a system that definitely wasn’t. I ended up with the Lynx II, and while a bit unwieldy by modern standards, provided a full gaming experience.

The Lynx was nowhere near the media darling that Nintendo was, but Atari provided the superior system, hands down. I was surprised by how well attempted the Lynx did to recreate the arcade experience. And while there wasn’t a lot of third party support, Atari took great care to license several hits from Midway, Namco, Tecmo, and its own stable of arcade hits. There were even a few computer ports such as California Games and Shadow of the Beast, and some original content like Dracula the Undead and Todd’s Adventure in Slime World. The Lynx even scored a few movie properties, such as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Batman Returns, the latter of which they promoted heavily:

At one point, Lynx was even set to have titles such as Alien Vs. Predator, Mortal Kombat II, and an RPG from Telegames called Guardians.

The ports of Paperboy and Ms. Pac-Man are particularly excellent, as it one of the few home ports of A.P.B. and S.T.U.N. Runner. Batman Returns looked and sounded excellent, but it had control issues and was unreasonably difficult. A few simple fixes could have made that a truly excellent game. And you knew anyone else that had a Lynx (a rarity in itself), you could link up other consoles for up to 18-player action.

So what went wrong? A number of factors. From pricing, to battery drain, to even Atari itself causing its own demise. A lot of consumers at the time were still wary of the Atari name, and with good reason. The company was instrumental in the “Great Crash” of the early 1980’s, and Atari’s marketing of itself was suspect at best, as evidenced by games on both the Lynx and Jaguar. Atari was still “whole” at this point, not having sold its assets off to Midway, Hasbro, and Infogrames, so it held an incredible stable of both home and arcade titles to choose from. And yet… it barely scratched the surface of either.

While Nintendo held on with total near exclusivity to every up and coming third-party publisher, franchise, and popular license of the time, Sega and Hudson/NEC still managed to find some content to work with. What new content Atari did manage to create in a time where mascot characters were at the height of popularity, their ideas weren’t the attention grabbers that Nintendo and Sega had created, and couldn’t reach the audience.

It makes one wonder what could have been possible for the Lynx had they secured more ports or publishers. Curiously, the NES version of Ninja Gaiden III was translated to the Lynx, making one wonder if a Mega Man or Castlevania could have been possible. What if they secured Activision as a third-party publisher? What if they had ported Tempest 2000 and Doom from the Jaguar? Or a 4-player arcade version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Or multi-console titles like Street Fighter II, Battletoads, or Earthworm Jim? Or more titles from their small stable of third-party licenses like Splatterhouse, NBA Jam, and NARC? What if they had delved more into their own backlog and released Toobin’, Primal Rage, Crystal Castles, or Marble Madness? All of this is pure speculation as to “what could have been”, but there were potential options to at least attempt.

Ultimately, it comes down to the idea that Atari had a great system on their hands, but really didn’t know what to do with it. This was coupled with the creation of the Jaguar, where they had even less of a plan.

Regardless of “what happened”, or “what could have been”, the Lynx, even today, is a remarkable piece of hardware for its use of color, sound, and tech. The system was technically superior to the Game Boy and Game Gear in every way, and it’s closest competition was the Game Boy Advance, released 13 years later in 2001.

The Atari Lynx will always be a system of “What ifs”, but is worth the play if you want to find an excellent handful of “arcade to home” ports on a handheld system. Had Atari been a little more confident and aggressive with the system, we might have seen some iteration of the system today.

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