The Atari Lynx

First, a belated happy Birthday to Mark who wrote this.

A little while ago my friend Mark went all retro and bought an Atari Lynx. The Lynx was the first handheld with a color screen and was predated by the Gameboy by one year. It’s sales were never great but has developed a avid following. Here is Mark thoughts on his new Lynx.


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LOVE OF LYNX

The Continuing Story of How I Came to Love That Quirky Handheld, The Atari Lynx

My Memory (Or Lack Thereof)

Most of the 1980s and 1990s are a haze to me, especially concerning video games. I was a young adult with a job and a car, and life was fast. Too fast, actually. Oh, I had my TI-99/4a throughout that period, and I played my favorites (Parsec, Munchman, and the underappreciated Blasto) on that system when the mood struck me. Later on, my good friend Howie, whose blog page you’re visiting right now, gave or sold me (I don’t remember which…as I said, it’s all a haze) his Atari 800XL, and I played games on that for awhile. Heck, I even bought a Coleco Gemini on which to play Atari VCS games, and there was much rejoicing in our apartment. That is, until the kid in the apartment next door broke in and stole the system and the game cartridges. But really, except for my 4-year stint from 1984 to 1988 working at Toys ‘R’ Us, mostly in the Security Department (computers, game systems, software, etc.), the TI-99/4a, the 800XL and the VCS comprised the full extent of my knowledge about video games and computers during those two decades.

I do vaguely remember Howie (that’s what I called Howard then and still do today; I hope he doesn’t mind) later on telling me some news about Atari’s last gasp for relevance in the Age of Nintendo. Howie was much more up on gaming/computer news than I was at the time, especially after I left Toys ‘R’ Us. I remember him saying that Atari had announced that it was putting all of their steadily decreasing funds and time into a fantastic new game system, the Jaguar, that was going to be the best game system ever and therefore save Atari from its impending oblivion (spoiler alert: it didn’t). But I don’t remember Howie (or anyone else, for that matter) ever mentioning to me anything about Atari’s groundbreaking venture into the handheld console market: the Atari Lynx in 1989. The Lynx was completely off my radar throughout its entire production run of about six years, and I was totally unaware that such a thing even existed, both at the time of its OEM (Original Era of Manufacture) and in the decade afterwards.

My Appreciation of Retro

Flash forward to around five years ago. My interest in retro-computing hit hard, and I made a decision to try and build my TI-99/4a hardware and software up again; I had given both it and my Atari 800XL away years earlier. I still had an 4-switch Atari VCS that Howie had given me years earlier, along with a pretty big assortment of game carts. I also had an Atari 8-bit (130XE) that I had picked up at a church bazaar, along with all of my original 800XL software. Since then I’ve steadily built up all of those collections. They’re nothing to write home about (so why am I writing about them here?), but I’m happy with them. And that brings me to last Christmas season.

In November 2016 I heard that there was going to be an Atari Flashback handheld console released. Normally, I don’t pay much attention to the Flashback consoles; I’m a purist and prefer using the original hardware. But the idea of having a retro handheld game system that I could take with me anywhere I went, even a system with which I had no prior history, intrigued me. In doing my research about it, I became acquainted (or perhaps re-acquainted, depending on what I actually remember) with Atari’s foray into handheld consoles in 1989, the Lynx. So, I figured, why buy a modern flashback? I’d rather go for the world’s first color handheld gaming console, the Lynx.

I did a lot of research. I spent a lot of time on Wikipedia and Google. I poured through the Atari Age Lynx forums. And when I was satisfied that I knew enough to make an intelligent purchase, I jumped on eBay to find my Lynx. I knew I wanted a Lynx II, which was the updated console that Atari released in 1991. It’s slightly smaller (but a little bulkier) than the Lynx I, it doesn’t suck up batteries quite as much as the first one does (5 hours standard battery life vs. 4 hours on the Lynx I), it has stereo output in the headphone jack (the Lynx I is monaural), and the cartridges slide into the back rather than inside a hinged compartment on the side. And the Lynx II looks better (in my opinion). Another thing I learned about the Lynx II is that it will not power on without a cartridge present, which is what helped me find my first Lynx.

My First Lynx

I found a listing on eBay back in January 2017 for a Lynx II that the seller said would not power up. The seller also said he didn’t have any game cartridges to go with it; just the Lynx II and a longer Lynx I pouch to go with it. I bought it for under $40 on the spot. I also found a cheap eBay listing for a single cartridge/box combo from another seller: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Not the best game in the canon of Lynx titles, I know, but I just bought it to try out my theory that the seller of the Lynx II didn’t know the requirement for the Lynx II to power on is that it needed to have a cartridge. I received both a few days later and tried out the Lynx II with the Bill & Ted cartridge. Voila! The Lynx II worked, although sporadically (the buttons seemed to stop working properly after a while). Also, the screen lens cover was scratched (not the LCD itself, though), but I knew that when I bought it. But I wanted a fully working Lynx II. I found another broken Lynx II for $20, and I purchased it simply to switch screen lens covers and perhaps the button assemblies. It came, I switched them, and neither one worked. I spent hours trying to get at least one of them working again, to no avail. Oh, well…

Finally, I found a reasonably cheap Lynx II on eBay, fully working, for about $80. It came with five games but no boxes or instructions. The seller had also had recently replaced the capacitors on the unit (capacitor degradation is a known issue with the Lynx consoles over time). When I got it, it worked great and it’s the one I still have today. I then put the two non-working Lynx II units on eBay to see what I could get for them. I sold them to a buyer for $40 (along with the Lynx I pouch I didn’t want – it’s too big). That buyer recently told me that he has since gotten one of Lynxes working, but is using the other for parts because it’s definitely shot.

My Lynx Collection

Since purchasing the Lynx II I have now, I’ve since grown my collection of games and accessories. Now is the time to get into the Lynx, as the system is not quite old enough (1995, the last year of the Lynx, was only 22 years ago) for the prices to be very expensive. In fact, many of the 74 games released by Atari and third-party vendors during the Lynx’s lifetime, most of which were ports of popular arcade titles of the time, can still be had complete with box and manual and in original shrink wrap for under $20. So far I have 14 game cartridges, 9 of them in original boxes and 10 of them with original manuals. And I’ve spent very little on them.

The Cartridges

A word about the cartridges: they’re flat, not much thicker than the thickness of a quarter. The original launch titles were released on flat, square carts only. After complaints from consumers about how hard it was to remove the carts from the Lynx I units (nothing to grab onto), Atari and third-party vendors switched to flat carts with small bumps along the top, ostensibly to help with gripping the cart upon removal. A very short while later, the curved lip variety of cart was introduced (curved at the top for easy gripping), and most of the Lynx library of titles are housed in this type of cart. Needless to say, the non-curved lip carts are the more rare ones, though they still can be found at reasonable prices.

The Games

Now about the games: some of them are great, some of them are real dogs. Of the games I myself own, I think my faves include The Gates of Zendocon (great graphics/music, if a bit slow), Paperboy (utterly charming), Lynx Casino (I’m sucker for card games and slot machines), Ninja Gaiden (tough but fun), Chips Challenge (great puzzler), California Games (especially Surfing), and Block Out (3D Tretris clone). I still want to find (at a reasonable price) Lemmings, Robotron 2084 and Toki. And for those initiated few with unlimited funds and a generous nature, my birthday is just around the corner.

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The Accessories

Now a word about accessories: take your pick. I have in the past two months picked up a proper-sized Lynx II pouch; a Lynx carrying case; a Lynx AC adapter (NOS, or New Old Stock); a Lynx Battery Pack (NOS; holds 6 D-size batteries for around 20 hours of continuous play); and a Lynx II Sun Visor/Screen Guard (NOS; for use in bright sunlight). I will probably get a NOS Lynx Auto Cigarette Lighter Adapter in the next few weeks, and perhaps the ComLynx Cable (allowing multiple Lynx players to “link-up” and play each other on the same game, like today’s MMORPGs). But what I really want is the McWill LCD Upgrade.

Modern Upgrades and Homebrews

What’s the McWill LCD Upgrade? Well, LCD screens from any devices that are around 30 years old tend to fade over time. Additionally, their original resolution wasn’t great to begin with, compared to the LCD screens of today. In fact, the original 3.5” 160×102-pixel LCD screens in the Lynx I and II have no inherent backlighting; instead, there’s actually a light source behind the screen, which is one reason why the 6 AA batteries in the Lynx don’t last long – that light really sucks up juice. A few years back, an enterprising gentleman in Denmark known as McWill on the Atari Age Lynx forums created a new upgrade kit that replaces the original Lynx LCD with a modern-day self-lit LCD/PCB. Additionally, the kit includes a hack to allow for VGA output. Instructions on how to install the new LCD, PCB, and optional VGA output jack are included in the kit, which runs around $150 uninstalled, higher if you want to send your Lynx to McWill to have it installed. Occasionally, Northwest Retro Repair in Washington State has the kit for sale (and sometimes also offers installation for a fee). Everything I’ve read about the McWill upgrade indicates that the resulting screen resolution compared to the original is like night and day, and that the system’s 4096 color palette and scaling sprites can really be appreciated. So that’s what I saving up for.

Additionally, there is a thriving homebrew scene for the Atari Lynx right now, especially on the Atari Age Lynx forums. Some homebrew titles are simply staggering in their graphics, scale, and playability, with Alpine Games and Zaku near the top of anyone’s homebrew list. And that’s good news, because by my count, there are no less than 11 new and re-released homebrew titles scheduled to be released in 2017. Adding that number to the 74 original titles and the 44 titles that have been released since the Lynx went away in 1995, there will be 129 titles with potential availability to Lynx game cart collectors by year’s end. That’s a far cry from the over 1000 games released for the Lynx’s primary competitor at the time, the Nintendo Game Boy, but for a system that sold a paltry 3 million units as the Lynx did in its six year history, that’s not too bad.

Conclusion

I’ve really come to love the Lynx and its quirky selection of games. I take it with me to work (it all fits into the case just fine), and I play it everyday. So if you’re looking for a fun and colorful retro handheld, consider the Lynx before anything else (including the Game Boy), especially before the collectability (and therefore prices) of this amazing system start going up…you won’t regret it.

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