In between my sessions with Chrono Trigger and the superior powers of the Nintendo 3DS, I decided to dedicate a good chunk of my gaming time in May to the failed, Japan-only handheld console, the WonderSwan Color.
What I found was a pretty solid experience most Americans are not exactly familiar with, but definitely a system in which the hardware far outshines the software available for it. Those who enjoy a perfectly designed handheld platform that can fit comfortably in any pocket, look no further. This is your future right here.
What the heck is a WonderSwan Color?
First, a little history. The WonderSwan was originally released in 1999 in Japan by Bandai, shortly after the Game Boy made the leap to the Game Boy Color and the release of the NeoGeo Pocket. Despite coming to the party a little late, the WonderSwan had three really important selling points to help give it an edge in the crowded market:
- It was designed by Gunpei Yokoi, formerly of Nintendo and the man responsible for the Game Boy. Shortly after he resigned from Nintendo because of Virtual Boy fallout, Bandai snagged him up to be a competitor against his former company. Yokoi was tragically killed in a traffic accident in 1997, but his designs made it into the final product that you can enjoy today, his swan song and his lasting legacy.
- It was dirt cheap. When it launched on the market, the WonderSwan was just 4,800 yen, or roughly $39 at the time! Gunpei Yokoi's main philosophy about games were they had to be fun, efficient, and cheap. Indeed, the game cartridges were almost just as much as the console itself!
- It was produced by Bandai, and with that branding came a stream of popular anime licensed software that couldn't be bought anywhere else for a while. Japanese kids who wanted to play anime games needed to pick up a WonderSwan. Plain and simple.
With those three selling points, the WonderSwan racked up about a million and a half units sold during its first year of availability in Japan, and the WonderSwan Color also sold about a million when it launched the following year for 6,800, or about $60. Not nearly enough clout to put the Game Boy out of business, but enough to push Nintendo into making a few changes.
A third model was also released in 2002 called the WonderSwan Crystal with a better screen, but the brand was already dead by then and officially discontinued in 2003.
So, if I played this historical footnote of a console for a whole month and it sold almost three million units during its lifetime, then it couldn't have been that terrible, right? No, in fact, it's not a horrible little device at all.
What games can you play?
Without a doubt, the weakness of the console was its library, which mostly consists of anime licensed games. Because it was developed by Bandai, the handheld had access to a wide selection of shonen manga that were popular at the time like Inuyasha, Hunter X Hunter, Shaman King, Digimon, and Gundam. The WonderSwan played docking bay to a whole lotta Gundam games.
It was good business practice selling popular anime in game form to kids at the time, but in retrospect, while digging for lost gems or any sort of relevant game, you're going to have to plow through a whole lot of crud first.
Most of these games are awful cash grabs aimed at kids that even fans might have a hard time enjoying. Much of the WonderSwan's library would be better off being buried in the sand, which is actually what I did! I bought a few anime games for about $.80 each, took them to the beach where I do my retro gaming hike, played them, hated each and every one of them, dug a hole, and left them there in the sand to hopefully to roast away until the end of time. No lie. Many of these games are just that plain bad.
Luckily, a few decent titles managed to leak out over the years.
Without question, the best partnership to emerge during this time period was with Square, before the merger with Enix and after the bad break-up with Nintendo. Squaresoft wanted to make portable games but didn't want to work with Nintendo on the Game Boy Advance, meaning the WonderSwan Color scored a whole lot of classic ports and remakes.
These Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy IV, and Front Mission remakes have all been released in the West on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS by now, making the remake of the first SaGa game, known to us as Final Fantasy Legends, the only one that importers might want to hunt down.
The only original game to come out of Squaresoft from this deal was called Blue Wing Blitz, its first portable strategy game even before Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and it was created by controversial designer, and one of my favorites, Akitoshi Kawazu of SaGa fame. I really want to give this one a more serious try, but the language barrier is a little too high to fully enjoy all that this game has to offer. I bought it cheap at least, so I have an obscure addition to my Squaresoft collection.
Nope, my main focus was the Final Fantasy remake, the first modern one to ever be produced. Final Fantasy is a nice, simple game that doesn't rely too much on text, so the language barrier can fly right out the window. I know it like the back of my hand anyway. This version looks and sounds great. Even playing in Japanese, I was able to lose myself in the 16-bit graphics with little difficulty, and the soundtrack had lot of charm thanks to the simple capabilities of the WonderSwan.
I like Final Fantasy Origins' arranged soundtrack a lot, but this just hit that perfect blend between old-school chiptunes and a modern arrangements.
This port can be bought in the States as Final Fantasy:Dawn of Souls for the Game Boy Advance, and it's my favorite version.
Another game I picked up and enjoyed during this time was Gunpey, named after the fabled designer himself. The WonderSwan has the ability to be played both horizontally and vertically, meaning some games need to be rotated to play, and Gunpey is a simple puzzle game which takes advantage of the vertical mode. Simply make connected lines that extend from one side of the screen to another by swapping tiles and get points. Not really deep, but it is addictive in a way that Tetris was.
Gunpey is available to Americans through the PSP if you want to check that out, but much of the charm also comes from the original's black and white character art. This version has a lot more soul.
The final game I played was Rhyme Rider Kerorican, a wonderful little rhythm game that stands as one of the few unlicensed titles on the platform. It was developed by the one and only NanaOn-sha, the team behind Parappa the Rapper, UmJammer Lammy and so many classic rhythm games, giving it a bit more legitimacy and legacy than the average WonderSwan Color title.
Sadly, it was also crippled by an oversight of the hardware, which I will get to in a minute.
One final game I am still on the hunt for is Klonoa: Moonlight Museum, the first handheld and second overall game in Namco's beloved cult-classic platforming series. Its sequels, Empire of Dreams and Dream Champ Tournament, would eventually come to the States as Game Boy Advance games, but this is the only one that is in black and white and the only which supports both vertical and horizontal gameplay, greatly shaking up the variety of platforming puzzles. It's a little pricey in Japan these days, but hardly out of range like the console's two most valuable games.
Two more I know I will never find but I find fascinating are Dicing Knight, an action RPG roguelike, and Judgement Silversword, a vertical shooter played in the vertical mode. Both are fan made games from a time when Bandai tried to inspire some creativity among the fanbase to boost sales, and both sell for about $1,000 these days.
Yup, not going to look for them.
So, no. Sadly, most of the WonderSwan's best games are ports that can be bought on different consoles in America or are too expensive to even consider. Is it worth four or five games to import a console that will set you back about $30? Meh, you could make worse decisions. I'd say yes, but don't expect much beyond the initial shock of owning this forgotten piece of gaming history.
But how does it feel?
The WonderSwan will be far better enjoyed by people who love hardware. Both the WonderSwan Color and normal WonderSwan feel exactly the same, meaning you can get just as much out of the $3 black and white build as you can the $30 color version.
What does it do so well? Well, for one thing, it is light! Without the battery, the color version only weighs 3.38 ounces and comes in dimensions of 5.04 × 2.93 × 9.57 in. After a few years of dragging around my PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS like a brick collection, the WonderSwan Color barely even felt like it was in my pocket while carrying it. A true mobile platform.
Speaking of power sources, the WonderSwan surpassed the Game Boy in this regards with the original version running for up to 40 hours on a single AA battery! The WonderSwan Color is just as impressive with one battery powering the machine for 20 solid hours. No lie, I haven't had to change one yet!
And what kind of performance do you get in return for such efficient power? The original WonderSwan provides eight shades of gray compared to the original Game Boy's four, and the WonderSwan Color could be compared to a Game Boy Advance in terms of graphic quality.
The buttons are also expertly laid out with two d-pads on the left and an "A" and "B "button on the right. The top d-pad on the left acts as a substitute for "R" and "L" options on the Game Boy Advance when played horizontally. When switched to vertical mode, though, the two left d-pads become the left and right cluster of buttons at the bottom.
I was also impressed with how comfortable my index fingers felt as well. I never know where to put them when playing a Vita! Putting them on the back forces me to graze the rear touch pad, often times cluttering up my commands or causing actions I don't want. Putting them across the top through doesn't give me the support I need to naturally hold up its weight.
The WonderSwan Color… no need to worry. Fingers can go anywhere you want, and it's light enough to not need a second set of appendages to hold it in place.
Not all is heaven, though. Without a doubt, the biggest flaw is the lack of a earphone jack. Seriously, who would want to play this on a crowded Japanese train without a way to personalize the music. Bandai sold an adapter for headphones, but I haven't stumbled across one yet. This is why playing Rhyme Rider Kerorican was such a pain, because I could only play at home.
In defense of the WonderSwan, though, it wasn't the only handheld to fall into this trap. The Game Boy Advance SP also required an adapter for headphones.
A portable rhythm game without headphones? Come on, Bandai!
Another complaint which is only a flaw in retrospect is the lack of a sleep mode. I failed to realize how spoiled I've become by just tapping my Vita power button or closing my Nintendo 3DS. When playing Final Fantasy on the train, I would be halfway through a dungeon by the time I reached my destination, and I wouldn't be able to save! Oh no!
I could put it in my bag leaving it on, but the WonderSwan Color's power button is also on the front and more sensitive than you might guess. Putting it in that bag is the best way to lose your progress, similar to the way we "butt dial" these days. Use the "Exit" spell and go find a save point. You and the levels you've gained will thank me.
The power button is right next to the start button as well, meaning that I turned off the device quite a few times when trying to pause. Getting used to the buttons was tough. This caused a lot of lost progress too, and it didn't make me a happy shopper. The power button was in a different place on the original WonderSwan, meaning I don't think Gunpei had any input on this stupid design flaw.
The cartridges are impressive and unique, very long and very flat with big stickers. I wouldn't categorize them with the same reverence I have for Famicom games, but there is a uniqueness to them that Americans never got to experience.
But, yes, the WonderSwan is definitely worth checking out. If you just want to see how it feels, you can probably snag the original one and a copy of Gunpey for less than $4 from Amazon.jp. If you want to see a master of design pour his heart and soul into a wonderfully crafted device, by all means start importing now. There are enough original JRPGs here as well to warrant a slightly larger investment in the WonderSwan Color.
Just don't expect a huge selection of games to go with your little discovery.