The never-released 1996 Nintendo Atlantis

Handhelds that accept media, such as the Game Boy, Vectrex, PSP, etc.
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The never-released 1996 Nintendo Atlantis

Postby Zap! » Fri Feb 26, 2010 1:02 am

Back in the old days of the Internet, the online gaming news arena was a wild world in which crazy things could happen. For instance: IGN registering the N64.com domain right under Nintendo's noses...or Zelda.com being snatched up by a porn site. Ah, the frontier days. Back in those turbulent times, I was endlessly teased and enticed by a certain rumor that seemed to spread everywhere: Nintendo's mysterious Project Atlantis.

Atlantis seemed too good to be true. In the twilight days of the Game Boy (when Pokémon wasn't yet even a true hit in Japan), it promised to be an incalculable leap over any existing portable hardware. Sega's Nomad and NEC's TurboXpress were as good as it had ever gotten then, beefy console-quality handhelds that ran 16-bit games with only modest compromises. But Project Atlantis was said to be a 32-bit machine, putting it toe-to-toe with fresh new systems like Saturn and PlayStation. Naturally, unlike the venerable Game Boy (or the disastrous Virtual Boy), it would be a color system. Speaking as a gamer who'd always liked the concept of portable gaming but not the generally puny hardware, Project Atlantis sounded like a dream to me.

And it was a dream, as a matter of fact -- a pipe dream. Like its namesake, Atlantis slowly slipped beneath the surface of the news, drowned by a rising tide of dissatisfaction with the Nintendo 64 and the increasing likelihood that the 64DD add-on was en route to vaporware status. In time, Project Atlantis was forgotten, just another game rumor that never panned out; a few years later, Nintendo went live with the Game Boy Color, a modest NES-level 8-bit upgrade to their wheezing handheld that held gamers over until the launch of the 32-bit Game Boy Advance in 2001.

As it turns out, Project Atlantis wasn't just some rumormonger's wild concoction. At a Game Developers Conference panel today, Nintendo DSi hardware overlord Masato Kuwahara briefly revealed the reality behind the rumors in a slide that showed a chunk piece of portable hardware entitled the "Game Boy Advance Predecessor, circa 1995." Based on second-hand comments from Ray and Wired's Chris Kohler (the latter of whom snapped a juicy photo in his write-up, which I've shamelessly borrowed), Project Atlantis was real -- and its strange name came from the fact that it was originally slated to be released concurrent with the 1996 Olympics...which took place in Atlanta. Huh. Well, that's one mystery solved.

To my knowledge, Nintendo has never really talked about Project Atlantis, or what happened to it. Presumably it established a baseline for the GBA; Nintendo president Satoru Iwata mentioned in his keynote today that the company's game design guru, Shigeru Miyamoto, has a tendency to recycle good elements of failed projects years down the road, and that philosophy likely extends to hardware as well. (In fact, Kuwahara showed off a GBA touchscreen peripheral he had worked on that never saw the light of day but almost certainly mutated into the DS.) But the 1996 target date for Project Atlantis and the GBA's 2001 release is quite a gap. Why the delay?

My guess is: Pokémon. Game Freak's socially-driven cockfighting RPG was an unexpected end-of-life hit for the Game Boy, and its out-of-left-field success added years to the fading system's life. The popularity of Pokémon might actually have been the first time Nintendo realized that technology and profitability don't go hand-in-hand. This happy windfall let them subsist for a few more years on the far more lucrative Game Boy Color, whose components were downright ancient by the time it launched -- making for a machine that was very, very inexpensive to manufacture, and thus a much-needed way to soak up money while N64 sales fell behind PlayStation and third parties began to drift away.

That in turn gave Nintendo time to perfect their 32-bit handheld, which is likely the second issue that kept Project Atlantis from seeing the light of day. Seriously, look at that thing. It's a dang monster. That white block next to Atlantis is a DS Lite, if that gives you any idea. Given the state of portable processors circa 1995, Atlantis must have guzzled battery juice. The screen looks to be considerably larger than than GBA's. Atlantis would have seen the light of day right around the time of Apple's Newton, and it probably would have been the Newton of game consoles: overpriced, underpowered, woefully energy inefficient, and generally just a mess.

It's probably for the best that Nintendo held off on Atlantis; after the troubled Virtual Boy, they needed a sure and simple hit, not an expensive behemoth. As it turned out, no one was really ready to push portable gaming to a more advanced state at that point. The WonderSwan and Neo-Geo Pocket arrived in 1999, and the first versions of each were only moderately more powerful than the Game Boy Color -- they didn't even offer color graphics. I do wish the GBA had taken at least one specific cue from Project Atlantis, though: the four Super NES-style face buttons. The button configuration options for Metroid Fusion still cramp up my hands something awful....

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Very interesting, I honestly never heard of this.
One burning question that will remain with him until his dying days....."Was my victory really worth the price I had to pay?"

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