Sunday, April 09, 2017

Welcome to WonderSwan World: the WonderSwan Color system

Before I start sharing my experiences with the many WonderSwan and WonderSwan Color games already in my collection, I thought I should say a few words about the WonderSwan system.

Actually, I can't say anything about the original, black-and-white WonderSwan system (released all the way back in 1999), as I've never played one. For the same reason, I also can't say anything about the third piece of WonderSwan hardware, the SwanCrystal, which hit Japanese store shelves in 2002. (I plan on buying one of the latter in the next few months, by the way, so hopefully I'll be able to chat about it soon.)

What I can talk about here: the WonderSwan Color system. It made its debut (in Japan, of course) in late 2000--just a year and a half after Bandai shipped the original model of its GameBoy Color competitor.

As its name implies, the WonderSwan Color added a color screen to the mix. That screen is a tad larger than the one built into the original WonderSwan, by the way--2.9 inches (diagonally) compared to about 2.5 inches.

Actually, the WonderSwan Color hardware as a whole is a bit bigger than that of its predecessor as well. I can't pass along the exact dimensions of either system right now, but the WonderSwan Color is approximately the same size as two iPhone 5Cs stacked on top of each other.

Besides that, the WonderSwan Color is powered by a single AA battery (which allows for around 20 hours of play) and, mostly importantly and intriguingly, offers users a bevy of buttons and control inputs.

The most curious of those input options are the pair of split directional pads situated along the left side of the system. To be honest, I have a feeling they're not really split d-pads. Instead, they're probably just buttons arranged to look like and simulate a pad. Regardless, you use them to control movement while playing WonderSwan games (and quite adroitly, I might add), so I guess it doesn't matter if they're really split directional pads or not.

At any rate, the cool thing about this particular grouping of buttons is they let you play a WonderSwan system horizontally or vertically. (When the system is held vertically, the left set of buttons act as the system's d-pad, while the right set act as action buttons.)

Now, you can't just switch between the two willy-nilly. Most games stick to one orientation for the entirety of the experience, with the majority forcing you to hold your WonderSwan horizontally, like a GameBoy Advance, PSP or Vita. Don't fret if the ability to play handheld games vertically has you excited, though; a good number of WonderSwan titles require you to hold your system in that position. (A handful of examples from my own collection: Puzzle Bobble, Rainbow Islands: Putty's Party and Tane wo Maku Tori.) Also, a select few--including Kaze no Klonoa: Midnight Museum and Makaimura--incorporate both orientations into their gameplay.

Some words of warning about playing WonderSwan games with the system held vertically: it's not all it's cracked up to be. Don't get me wrong, it's unique and interesting, but it's not always enjoyable or comfortable, mainly because the system is so small. (If your hands are tiny, you may not have any problems holding it. But if your hands are on the larger side, prepare for some uncomfortable moments while playing vertically oriented WonderSwan titles.)

Still, experiencing portable games in this manner is such a breath of fresh air that I think it's worth dealing with the occasional hand cramp it's bound to cause.

That's nothing compared to the main issue associated with using a WonderSwan Color, which is its screen isn't illuminated. Although recent portable game systems like Nintendo's DS and 3DS, or Sony's PSP and Vita, feature backlit screens, all three of Bandai's WonderSwan models follow in the footsteps of older handhelds--like the GameBoy or the Neo Geo Pocket--by utilizing screens that are only visible under plenty of ambient light. (And in the case of the original WonderSwan as well as the WonderSwan Color, you have to futz with the system's contrast wheel before you can see anything clearly, even in perfect lighting conditions.)

This may not sound so bad if you've never tried playing a handheld without a backlit (or frontlit) screen, but believe me, it can be a challenge. I often feel like I have to squint to see what's going on even in perfect lighting.

Given that, I can't exactly recommend everyone run out and buy a WonderSwan Color along with a pile of WonderSwan cartridges, as I imagine most people who are used to more modern portable gaming hardware will find it difficult to fully enjoy Bandai's offering.

If you've spent plenty of time with a GameBoy or GameBoy Color or GameBoy Advance in recent months or years, though, and as a result you're basically aware of what you'll be getting into with the WonderSwan Color, go ahead and buy one. (Or, better yet, spend the extra cash needed to pick up a SwanCrystal, as it supposedly sports the best screen of the bunch.)

Before you do that, though, you may want to wait until I've written about a few of its games. Thankfully, I'm planning to publish "Welcome to WonderSwan World" posts about a slew of titles--such as Clock Tower, Engacho!Puzzle Bobble and Rainbow Islands: Putty's Party--over the next couple of weeks.

See also: more photos of my WonderSwan Color system and collection of WonderSwan games

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