One step forward, three steps back

11 08 2009

Tiger Electronics has a sordid history of what can strenuously be called portable game consoles. Not only are they the masters behind the R-Zone, a gaming device that actually strapped to your head in its first edition, but they are also the ones behind a plethora of licensed LCD games similar to a one-screen Game & Watch.

The companies most notable and serious contribution to gaming came in the form of a portable PDA/entertainment hybrid with online capabilities. It was the

Released in September of 1997, the was ahead of its time on paper. With its aforementioned built-in PDA capabilities like a calendar, address book and calculator; Internet access and its own modem; a touchscreen and even two cartridge ports, it does things even Nintendon’t in 2009.

In its short life, the system saw a total of 20 games released for it, only two of which were Tiger-owned IPs. Versions of Duke Nukem 3D, Resident Evil 2, Mortal Kombat Trilogy and Fighters Megamix hit. There were even planned ports of Metal Gear Solid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The pack-in game, Lights Out, was a switch-pattern puzzler and probably the system’s best game. While it was no Tetris, it certainly was no slouch.

So what went wrong? Well, a lot of things.

Tiger’s earlier game offerings had been strictly LCD toys with a single-tracked mechanic. Characters would only appear on set parts of the playing field, strangling true freedom of movement, and often would have three buttons: two directions and an action. The followed this philosophy of movement (most games were programmed in-house at Tiger) but juiced the graphics.

Duke, Centipede, Joust and RE2

Duke, Centipede, Joust and RE2

As a result, the ported games were mere shadows of their console brethren and only highlighted the system’s hardware limitations and its flawed game design philosophy. Duke Nukem 3D was still a first-person shooter but was crippled by fog and didn’t allow the player to turn, limiting movements to forward, backward and strafing. It tried to get around this by letting players shoot straight and front-left and -right, but it was a silly system that showed Tiger was needlessly overstretching the system. Resident Evil 2 just looked stupid. Mortal Kombat Trilogy was perhaps the system’s second-best title, mainly because it was the closest adaptation gameplay-wise while still remaining easily visible on the screen.

The PDA capabilities, which were supposed to draw in an older crowd, were clumsily implemented and made to be a chore to use because of the device’s poor screen. Internet access was a much-touted feature, even seeping into the portable’s name, but the difficulty in getting online and a generally poor browsing experience crippled the feature. Not only did you need to buy a proprietary 14.4K modem, a not-included Internet cartridge was required as well as a contract with a ISP that cost more than it should have. If you did manage to jump through the costly and cumbersome hoops, you could upload high scores, send email and browse a text-only version of the Web like only 1997 could deliver.

On the hardware side, the system was of a beastly size for a portable. Despite the original Game Boy’s clunky nature, it could still conceivably fit in your front pocket, a luxury not graced to the The touchscreen’s sensitivity resolution was poor and most games didn’t even take advantage of it outside of menu buttons. A four-shade monochrome screen with no backlight didn’t do the system any favors either, causing constant ghosting.

The Pocket Pro fixed many of the hardware's faults, but failed to garner attention.

The Pocket Pro fixed many of the physical faults, but failed to garner attention.

Tiger released a revamped model dubbed the Pocket Pro, addressing many complaints about the device’s design by making it more compact, improving the screen slightly and adding a backlight. Taking a cue from Apple and Nintendo, the Pocket Pro was released in several different colors. Still, nobody cared.

By the time the system was laid to rest in 2000, it had sold under 300K units, thanks to underwhelming games and an insulting ad campaign that called players “idiots.” A little over a year into the system’s life, Nintendo dropped the Game Boy Color, effectively curb-stomping the ambitious device into a mess of silicone.

Still, the is not without legacy. It was the first portable games machine to incorporate a touchscreen and utilize an operating system instead of just booting into a game. The DS still doesn’t include the same PDA features built-in, although the optional browsing experience on the DSi is lightyears evolved. Fun could be squeezed from the system’s catalog, but only by the most forgiving of players. Even though most of the games were stinkers, the novelty of playing Duke Nukem 3D and Resident Evil 2 on a portable in 1997 was still enough to lure some in, yours truly included.

In the annals of history, Tiger’s will go down as another casualty of Nintendo’s portable dominance, and rightfully so. It’s novel and can claim many hardware firsts, but too many poor choices and shortcuts kicked it back from being worth bothering with. Tiger seems to have learned its lesson, as it hasn’t put forth a serious entry in the portable realm since and likely never will.




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11 08 2009 One step forward, three steps back | Console Gaming

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