The rise and fall of the Game Boy’s weirdest rivals
The Gizmondo (2005, $400, or $229 with “Smart Adds”)
The only handheld gaming console ever—to the best of our knowledge—released by former members of the Swedish Mafia, the Gizmondo actually looks pretty good on paper. Simultaneously an MP3 player, GPS (for keeping your kids safe, see), text message device, and game console, the weird little digital potato feels smooth enough when you see it running. And if that $400 price tag seems exorbitant, well, just go ahead and pick up a “Smart Adds”-enabled model, for nearly half the cost—in exchange for watching a few streaming ads per day, of course. (This may be the most ahead-of-its-time aspect of this entire piece, now that we think about.)
Released by Tiger Telematics (no relation to Tiger Electronics), the Gizmondo didn’t even have to wait for Nintendo to come crush it; massive promotional over-spending, incredibly lax sales, and what’s been alleged to have been some fairly shady financial self-dealings led to a swift bankruptcy for the other Tiger in 2006. The DS might have gone overboard on new features, but at least Nintendo didn’t go out and buy a controlling interest in a modeling studio just to help promote the damn thing.
digiBLAST (2005, $90)
One of several devices on this list that were essentially embryonic tablets—two years before Apple finally made a decent shot at cracking the concept with the original iPhone—Nikko’s digiBLAST is a classic case of trying to do too much with far too little. Released primarily in European markets, the odd little square was as much a media player as a gaming device, allowing kids to watch (muddy) versions of their favorite TV shows on its (decidedly muddy) screen, before switching out cartridges to play blurry renditions of Rayman or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4.
In Nikko’s defense, Nintendo tried to tackle this video player idea, too, back in the GBA days. (Can we interest you in a showing of the GBA cut of Tenet?) But by 2005, the company had embraced the idea that its devices were gaming machines first, foremost, and only—maybe because it had seen so many other competitors knock themselves out of the race by trying to be all things to all kids.
Caanoo (2010, $150)
We’ve put a major focus, throughout this history, on the role Nintendo’s software library has had in pushing its handheld sales. Well, we’ve finally gotten to a system that can also benefit from all of Mario’s hard work, through the magic of, uh, stealing. (Or emulation, if you want to get specific.) Released by South Korea’s GamePark Holdings, the Caanoo was one of a handful of portables that hit the market during the DS era that distinguished themselves by being open-sourced—that is, anyone could write software for them, without worrying about getting certification from Nintendo or anybody else. These boxes, which included the Dingoo and the later Pandora, were essentially just small, portable computers that anyone could program. And what they usually programmed them to do was play old NES, SNES, Game Boy, and Genesis games, because, honestly, why wouldn’t you?
The Caanoo itself didn’t last long, but open-sourced portable platforms have only accelerated in interest, despite what Nintendo, famously intolerant of anyone screwing with its copyrights, would probably prefer. (God only knows what they make of the Arduboy, an Arduino-powered riff on Nintendo’s most famous handheld that’s roughly the size of a credit card.)