Today we’re going to take a look at the history and development of the Bandai WonderSwan, It’s a black and white console with a unique design which allows games to be played both horizontally, and vertically and was released in 1999.
It was designed by Koto Laboratory, a company founded by Gunpei Yokoi, the designer of the Game & Watch, and co-creator of Game Boy at Nintendo, alongside Satoru Okada.
Thanks to this collaboration with Gunpei Yokoi, some people like to think of the WonderSwan as the true successor to the Game Boy.
There were two revisions of the console over it’s short lifetime, with the WonderSwan Color arriving in 2000, and a final model, the SwanCrystal, with a much improved LCD screen in 2002. This model here has an aftermarket front lit screen, but the original SwanCrystal wasn’t lit at all.
The three systems combined sold over 3.5 million units in Japan, and actually had a very impressive lineup of games from companies such as Squaresoft, Namco, Capcom and more!
In a future post, I’ll cover some of the defining games for the system, but in this one, we’re’ going to go back to Bandai’s roots to discover the context around the development and release of the WonderSwan, beginning in 1950…
Bandai’s story begins in 1950, originally founded by Naoharu Yamashina selling licenced toys and model kits. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s Bandai released many toys and models, their first big break came with the Astro Boy licence, and later with their Gundam model kits, Power Rangers toys and more, all of which are still proving to be very profitable to this day!
We’re here to discuss video games though, so lets skip forward a few years to 1997, and their first foray into the digital world…
In 1977, Bandai released the TV Jack 1000, a first generation TV game which was a basic Pong clone.
They created several follow up’s, but the most interesting was the Bandai Super Vision 8000 in 1979, which was the first console in Japan to support multiple cartridges!
During these early years, they also released some personal computers, such as the Bandai RX-78 micro computer in 1983.
Most interestingly, is the release of the Digi Casse in 1986, a portable game console with interchangeable cartridges, although, unlike the WonderSwan, these were simple LCD games that you could put into the top of the console, similar to the Tiger R-Zone LCD games that came a bit later. Surprisigly, this did actually get a release in the UK, unlike the WonderSwan, and the majority of Bandai’s other hardware.
Other consoles followed in the 90’s such as the Playdia in 1994, a console designed prediminantly for educational purposes, and the Apple collaboration Pippin in 1996.
Both of these systems were commercial failures for Bandai, and the company mostly got by thanks to their popular line of toys, and anime merchandise, as well as other ventures into adjacent industries.
Up until this point, Bandai hadn’t had much luck breaking into the video game market, outside of licencing some games for Nintendo, all of their own efforts in creating consoles had failed.
That was until In 1996, when Bandai found huge success with it’s new Tamagochi line, designed by Akihiro Yokoi and Aki Maita, Tamagochi was a simple, yet addictive virtual pet which lived inside an egg shaped handheld with a small LCD screen. I’m sure everyone who grew up in the 90’s had one! I certainly did!
The story of the WonderSwan also begins in 1996, when Gunpei Yokoi, the developer of the Game & Watch, and Game Boy left Nintendo to start his own company, Koto Laboratory in September 1996.
Contrary to popular beliefs, Gunpei Yokoi didn’t actually leave Nintendo because of the failed Virtual Boy, which he also helped develop, he actually left of his own accord to persue his own passions before retiring.
Unfortunately, Gunpei Yokoi passed away only one year after starting the company, and didn’t get to see the final release of the WonderSwan. I plan to share his full story in a future documentary.
Thankfully, he did get to see the release of two games with the company before he passed away. Going back to his roots, they were two Game & Watch style LCD games.
These games were released by a company called Hiro as part of their Hiro LCD Keychain Series
The first game was Kunekunetchyo, which was a Snake style game, and the second, Professor Henoheno, was an original puzzle game where you move lines up the screen to connect all the way across before they disappear, would later become a launch title for the WonderSwan as a tribute, titled Gunpei. Gunpei has since been released on other consoles too, including WonderSwan Color, DS, PlayStation, Arcade, PSP, Japanese mobile phones though NTT DoCoMo, and most recently on iOS and Android in 2017! Unfortunatly, that version was discontinued and can no longer be played… Don’t you just love modern gaming…
Back to Bandai now, and in early 1997, they began drafting plans for a dedicated handheld console after the success of their Tamagochi LCD games, similar to how Nintendo transitioned from the single game Game & Watch series, to the original Game Boy with it’s interchangeable cartridges. So what better person, and company, to team up with than Gunpei Yokoi and Koto Laboratory!
Interestingly, Gunpei Yokoi and Koto Laboratory almost didn’t have anything to do with Bandai. The original plan was for Bandai to work with Sega, but that fell through at the last minute due to financial difficulties, and a clash in business styles. Of course, a few years later in 2005, a similar merger would go through, this time with Namco, to form the Bandai Namco we know and love today!
This year also saw Makoto Yamashina step down as CEO, with Takeo Takaso becoming president and Yukimasa Sugiura becoming the new CEO and chairman.
1997 also saw the launch of Bandai’s Pokemon competitor, Digimon, originally released as a variation of Tamagochi, it would of course go on to become it’s own massive franchise, with many games releasing on the WonderSwan in the years to come!
Development was underway with the WonderSwan, it sported a 16-bit NEC V20 CPU, which was much more powerful than the Game Boy, the design only included a Black & White display, despite that, it could support twice as many shades as the Game Boy, and on one AA battery, it could last up to an incredible 40 hours!
At this point in development, the Game Boy Color hadn’t been released, so there wasn’t any need to create a competitor with a color screen. The same thing happened to SNK with the Neo Geo Pocket in the same year, which I covered in a previous video.
Around this time too, Pokemon has begin to take off wordwide, and sales of the Game Boy were stronger than ever, so Bandai were facing an uphill battle before it has even reached store shelves.
The WonderSwan was finally revealed to the press at a special event the day before Tokyo Game Show opened to the public, on October 8th 1998.
Apparently, Bandai’s target demographics was 15-19 year olds, so a slightly older audience than Nintendo’s Game Boy, despite the toy like appearance of the console.
A Japanese website called NLab had a detailed news story form the event, including a rundown of the press release by Takashi Mogi, who was the president of Bandai at the time.
A launch window of March 1999 and price or 4,800 Yen was revealed, as well as some of the companies that were on board, including Namco, Taito, Data East, Jaelco and Koei. The cost of games was announced to be between 3000 and 4000 Yen, and that 10 games were going to be ready for launch, and a total of 50 games would be released by the summer that year!
They also shared some plans for future integrations with mobile phones and computers, and despite it’s short time on sale, all of this did come to fruition!
Unfortunately, at the same event, SNK also revealed their new handheld, the Neo Geo Pocket, and most importantly, earlier in the year, Nintendo had finally revealed the Game Boy Color. Immediately making the Neo Geo Pocket and WonderSwan obsolete in the eyes of the consumers at the time, before they were even on sale… They knew they would be facing an uphill battle against Nintendo already, but the impending release of a brand new Game Boy made their chances of success even more challenging!
The Game Boy Color launched on October 21st 1998 in Japan, 5 months before the WonderSwan, and only 13 days after the announcement.
After two years in development, the WonderSwan launched later in March 1999, retailing for only ¥4,800, which equates to only around £30, incredibly cheap considering the Game Boy Color would launch that same year for ¥8,900 or around £80!
Despite it’s power, good set of launch games and cheap price, it couldn’t hold it’s own against Nintendo, despite Bandai releasing several upgrades and many impressive game releases in the following years, as well as it’s own dev kit which allowed fans to create their own games, and even the chance to get it published and released physically! Nothing could save it from Nintendo…
Next time, I’ll be take a deep dive into these console variations and share some of the most interesting games and accessories released for the system, as well as the legacy that the console left in the years following it’s discontinuation in 2003.
Thanks for reading part 1 of the WonderSwan Story, and a massive thank you to Quang from AsobiTech for lending me his WonderSwan collection and some games for these posts!
Watch a video version of this post here: