It haunts me. To this day, it haunts me. The SwanCrystal, the third and final iteration of Bandai’s Wonderswan handheld console, is precisely the sort of hardware that a hardcore gaming nerd such as myself ought to possess — displaying it proudly alongside his Hello Kitty Dreamcast and his Sam Coupé — but having owned one for only a few months, I re-sold it in a fit of financial realism.
Before I go into that, allow me to indulge my history graduate persona. The Wonderswan was developed in a partnership between Bandai and Koto Laboratory, a company founded by Gunpei Yokoi, a big name in videogaming history as he developed at Nintendo the early Game & Watch games, the original Gameboy, Kid Icarus, Metroid, and, on less of a high note, the Virtual Boy. Despite that final failure, which caused him to resign from Nintendo in ignominy, Gunpei Yokoi was clearly a man with an impressive videogame pedigree.
The first Wonderswan was released in 1999 to compete with the Neo-Geo Pocket Color and the Nintendo Gameboy Color, and had a monochrome screen. It could be played held horizontally (like a Game Gear) or vertically (like a Gameboy) which allowed for different styles of gameplay, and was quickly succeeded in 2000 by the Wonderswan Color, a minor upgrade that this time came with a colour LCD screen. Finally there came the SwanCrystal variant in 2002, another minor upgrade that included a superior TFT screen, negating the need for a contrast control that earlier iterations had included. There is also a robot toy — a Wonderborg — available that uses the Wonderswan as a wireless controller.
The Wonderswan was a reasonable success in Japan, not least because it gained access to Square’s library of Final Fantasy games, but after Square and Nintendo made up, it lost that advantage and no further versions of the console have been published since. There’s a fairly large range of games available, but as the console was developed solely with the Japanese market in mind, most of these games are text-heavy Japanese-language RPGs and anime tie-ins.
And this is where I step in.
I discovered the existence of the Wonderswan through idly browsing ebay, and developed a mild obsession with it as I do with most obscure consoles. I’m particularly bad with handheld consoles as they’re comparatively cheap, take up practically no space, don’t require a television and are generally region-free (so I can play Japanese/US/European games with no issues). Eventually, I succumbed, and bought a black crystal-effect SwanCrystal, complete with Final Fantasy IV.
The console is very nice — the screen is high quality, though as the console lacks any form of internal lighting it does need to be played in well-lit conditions. It’s small, designed to fit Japanese hands, it’s not as simple as most handhelds of that generation, coming with two d-pads that can double as face buttons. It’s, you know, sturdy and solid and generally felt like a good purchase.
Final Fantasy IV looked great as well, but — and this is kind of a deal-breaker — as it was entirely written in Japanese, it was unplayable. I don’t speak or read Japanese, not even a little, and with practically the entire Wonderswan library in Japanese, this presented a bit of a problem. Occasionally I would toy with tracking down a copy of Golden Axe, one of the few games I was sure would present no language barriers, but my heart just wasn’t in it — it’s not as if Golden Axe isn’t available on a million other formats, anyway.
So, it got sold, for more or less the same price as I bought it for originally. It was, clearly, a dumb purchase.
Yet, still, I want one. It’s senseless — all I would achieve by owning one is spending lots of money on random games, hoping that the next one I picked out would turn out to be an understandable puzzle or platform game, and not another JRPG with spiky-haired, 14-year old androgynous characters. These days, I don’t even have the time or money to properly feed my DS and GBA habits so a Wonderswan habit wouldn’t even be feasible.
I know what would happen if I bought another one, it would get put in a drawer along with my original Gameboy, Gameboy Pocket and Gameboy Color, all purchased with the intention of exploring the pre-GBA catalogue, something I’ve never managed to get around to doing. Nevertheless, this still doesn’t stop me wanting one.
I think the reason why, beyond just wanting to be a hardcore collector, is that the Wonderswan represents an entire area of gaming that very little is actually known about in the English-speaking world, so it fascinates me in the same way I would be fascinated as a child, faced with a giant wall of Spectrum games in Toys ‘R’ Us — no idea which games were good and which were bad, all I’d have to go on would be the packaging, the screenshots, and my instincts. For mainstream games, I can look on Google for reviews and easily make an informed purchase (or not, as the case may be). For Wonderswan games, it’s more down to luck.
So, to conclude, I think we can all agree that a Wonderswan purchase would basically lead to an expensive, pointless, mostly-unfulfilling habit full of regrets.
I’ll let you know when I’ve got one.