It’s About the Size of Four Pop Tarts, but It’s Got Power to Spare
118.69 million. That is the combined number of Nintendo’s Game Boy consoles sold worldwide (including the original, Pocket, Light and Color models) since the line launched in 1989. Roughly 54 million of those sales were made before the fiscal year of 1998 began. In the portable games space of 1997, the closest competition to the Game Boy was Sega’s Game Gear, which managed to move slightly over 10.62 million units over the course of seven year run (ultimately being discontinued in April of 1997). The term “distant second” does not begin to describe.
To compete against the Game Boy in the late 90s was a foolish endeavor. It didn’t matter if your portable’s hardware was a tad bit more powerful — just ask the Atari Lynx, Neo Geo Pocket, or Bandai WonderSwan how far that got them. To have even stood a chance against the Game Boy behemoth, you would’ve needed a combination of significantly improved system specs, massive third-party developer support, and a highly intuitive form factor. Also, having some trendy “next-gen” gimmicks on top of that couldn’t hurt. To all of this, the Tiger Game.com boldly proclaimed, “One out of four ain’t bad, right?”
This is the story of a handheld that no one asked for, as produced by a company that had seemingly no clue what it was doing. It’s a tragic tale of corporate incompetence: Starring a piece of hardware that dared to dream, with a supporting cast of less than 300 thousand consumers who decided to ride the Tiger. We’re going to discuss what exactly the Game.com was, how it came to be, and whether or not it even had a chance.
It Speaks! Begs to Be Touched! Wires You to the Internet!
Tiger Electronics are perhaps best known for their Game & Watch-esque LCD handheld games, adapting various film and television licenses (as well as the occasional arcade or home console game) as simple standalone game devices. They were cheap to produce, easy to play [for the most part], and actually managed to sell loads. Sure, they were limited in scope and in no way compared to proper console or arcade games of the era, but in the time before Nintendo’s Game Boy hit the market they were arguably the best you could get for on-the-go gaming: Milton Bradley’s “Microvision” line of handhelds never truly caught on, and the aforementioned Nintendo Game & Watch line lacked the flashiness of Tiger’s products.
Of course, when the Game Boy did eventually arrive on the scene, it quickly took over as the predominant portable games device. But Tiger still had a niche they were adeptly filling: Their handhelds were as cheap to purchase as they were to produce. The Game Boy was a quite pricy thing at launch, running American consumers $90 in 1989 dollars (around $170~ in today’s economy) for the console alone, while games for it would typically run you $30. Comparatively, one standalone Tiger handheld would only run you $20, give or take a few bucks. Yes, there was less to do and see in a typical Tiger game versus a Game Boy game (though there were certainly some content-light Game Boy games that could have just as easily worked as Tiger handhelds), but the value proposition was compelling enough to keep the line going well into the late 90s.
That being said, Tiger must’ve felt some pressure to evolve their products — to put something out that could compete directly against the Game Boy rather than simply running as the “cheaper alternative.” After all, they had tried and failed before to put up a cheap knock-off against their competition. When Nintendo released the ill-fated Virtual Boy in 1995, Tiger countered with the R-Zone that same year: A visor-type portable console that played a small library of swappable LCD games. I’m realizing we’re gonna need whole articles to explain both of those fiascos, so I’m going to gloss over that part of history for now. The key point here is that Tiger had taken on Nintendo directly before, and was willing to do so again. Only this time, they were looking to show up their competition, rather than merely offer a cheaper and technologically inferior alternative.
By the mid-90s, the Game Boy hardware was already showing it’s age, and manufacturing a more powerful portable was not as pricy a proposition as it was a few years prior. Not only that, but the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) fad was in full swing, and the time was ripe to capitalize on it. Also beginning to take shape around this time was the “dot-com bubble,” which would make their console look that much more cutting edge if they could find a way to connect it to the internet. A roomful of executives could easily convince themselves that it was very much possible to “beat the Game Boy,” by offering a more powerful and potentially practical product.
Of course, the problem was that Nintendo as a brand was ubiquitous with the games industry, and we were still in a period of time where the word “Nintendo” could often be heard used in place of “video games” in general. Similarly, “Game Boy” had become shorthand for all manner of handheld games devices, among many parents buying games for their children or teachers confiscating games in the classroom. To make themselves stand out, Tiger were going to have to use their licensing powers to secure some big names for games. If they could come out the gate with some strong, recognizable launch titles, surely the momentum that would generate would continue to carry them.
But there was one more piece to the puzzle. With inspiration coming from PDA products, Tiger decided that incorporating a touchscreen into their console’s design would be the design decision that would put them over the edge. This would be the first games console to incorporate a touch screen, not to mention the first to explore what benefits such a design could bring to games. There was one problem though: Touchscreens were still a relatively new technology, and were therefore expensive. To Tiger’s credit, they knew well enough not to price themselves as a premium product, and so they decided to scale down rather than cater exclusively to the upper class.
Unfortunately, they decided to cut corners rather than cut the ill-advised feature entirely, leaving the Game.com without backlighting and with only a 12 by 10 grid-based touchscreen to show for it.** And while they were at it, they also made the value decision to not opt for a color display, though the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear had both done so years ago. Instead, you get the same four-color monochrome palette of the original Game Boy, albeit across a slightly larger display with the capacity for larger sprites. Perhaps Tiger determined that color displays hadn’t benefitted Atari or Sega’s portables, and so why waste the production costs on a feature that hadn’t outshone the grayscale simplicity of the Game Boy?
This left one more decision to take into factor: How would Tiger choose to market their new hardware? Primarily through television commercial spots, they determined. While two of these commercials were relatively benign – one featuring a pair of angels in Heaven being tempted by the Game.com, another flashing gameplay snippets in typical epileptic 90s fashion – their third commercial would end up rubbing consumers the wrong way. This third spot featured a little person wearing a hideous orange suit insulting an audience of potential customers while cynically extolling the virtues of the Game.com. Apparently, the intent was to parody over-the-top aggressive marketing campaigns of the era (as most notably demonstrated by Sega). However, they played it completely wrong by not showing “the competition” using the tactics they’re attempting to make fun of, instead showing their own Tiger spokesperson using the aggressive approach and being punished for it. All it serves to do is make it look like Tiger is stooping to the same lows as their competitors, with the added benefit of coming across as if they are literally calling their own customers “idiots” and “morons.” Smooth.
What was done was done: The console launched in September 1997, priced at $70 with games to be priced between $20 and $30. Not counting two pack-in titles, four titles would be made available at launch,*** with eight more already scheduled to come over the course of the next several months building up to the holiday season. And with that, the Game.com’s fate now laid in the hands of the players. Would they welcome it with arms wide open, or crush it between their fingers? Only time would tell. But for the time being, we should probably examine what exactly consumers were holding in their grasp.
** Quick bit of math here: With a screen resolution of 200 by 160 pixels, that gives the Game.com 32,000 pixels worth of screen real estate. The 12 by 10 grid laid on top of these pixels allows for only 120 recognized points of interaction, measuring roughly 16 by 16 pixels each. This effectively renders precision touch recognition such as handwriting and drawing effectively impractical, as well as seriously restricting how interfaces could be designed if they wanted to incorporate touch-based interaction.
*** These launch titles being Batman & Robin, Indy 500, Wheel of Fortune and Williams Arcade Classics.
Plays More Games Than You Idiots Have Brain Cells
The original model of Tiger’s Game.com is a curious beast. For starters, it’s a rather bulky bit of hardware, even compared against the rather large original model of Nintendo’s Game Boy. As a Chicago Tribune article circa September 1997 so eloquently put it, “It’s about the size of four Pop Tarts, but it’s got power to spare.” I reckon it’s roughly the size of a Sega Game Gear, but perhaps utilizes its size more effectively than Sega’s portable by adding extra buttons and space for the included stylus. Still, if it could fit in your pants pocket it would only just barely do so, and so the ideal way to carry it around was probably inside of a bag or backpack. Realizing this themselves, Tiger added an additional cartridge slot to the Game.com, allowing you to load either one of two games inserted into the system and spare yourself having to carry around a loose cartridge with you.
Further adding to the value of the console were a handful of built-in applications; including a calendar, calculator, contacts list, and even a pre-installed copy of the classic card game Solitaire! Sure, it’s not really a great version of Solitaire, completely lacking in options and somehow managing not to control very well, but it’s at least functional. As you might expect, the contacts list allows you to curate a list of people and pertinent information on them, while the calculator allows you to do basic maths. The calendar is exactly what it sounds like: A calendar which shows you what days of the week will land on which dates in the future or the past. Unfortunately, it’s not actually a day planner, which would allow you to write down stuff like upcoming appointments or special occasions on given dates. This wouldn’t have been an impossible feature to include: The Game.com does utilize battery backup in storing a list of high scores across Game.com games you may happen to play, and it did provide enough screen space to present an on-screen keyboard (as seen in the internet terminal).
Curiously, the oft-touted internet connectivity functions were not built into the Game.com. Instead, they required further investment, in the form of additional cartridges and a dedicated Game.com modem. The modem, which ran you $50, came bundled with the Tiger Web Link cartridge which allowed you to upload your game high scores to a [long-since defunct] dedicated Tiger web server. If you wanted to connect to the magical world of the internet, you would need to purchase the additional Game.com Internet cartridge (priced $20), and subscribe to Tiger’s own “Delphi” ISP for $2.99 a month. Having jumped through all these hoops, you now had the power to launch websites in text-only mode and maybe access your e-mail account. Sure, it’s easy now to scoff at all this, but let me assure you: It was just as easy to dismiss back in 1997 as well. The internet features of the Game.com were so infrequently used, the later Game.com “Pocket Pro” model (more on that later) would omit the com port from the unit entirely, effectively making internet features impossible to use on it.
Rather than list off the rest of the technical specifications and try to describe the myriad issues of the Game.com hardware, I figure it’d be more interesting to pick a handful of games and briefly describe the experience of playing them on the console. We’ll see mighty quick what the hardware excelled at (if anything) and where it fell short, while also showcasing the variety of games Tiger attempted to make available on their platform.
Lights Out (Tiger, 1997)
By virtue of serving as the original pack-in cartridge for the Game.com, Lights Out is the top-selling Game.com title. That being said, it probably should’ve just been the pre-installed game in place of Solitaire, or in place of any other one of the useless in-system applications.
Lights Out is based on the handheld toy by the same name, released by Tiger two years earlier. It’s also similar to a 1970’s toy released by Parker Brothers called Merlin, with the primary difference being grid size. In Tiger’s variations on the game, you are given a 6 by 6 grid of tiles that can be either black or white, with predetermined patterns creating puzzles for the player to solve. The goal is to put all the lights out, leaving you with an all-black panel. Of course, it’s not just as simple as only having to tap the blocks you want to change: Changing one tile will also change all four adjacent tiles facing in the cardinal directions, meaning you may sometimes have to activate black tiles and turn them white while in the process of changing some other tile to black. As such, the challenge is to solve the puzzle in as few moves as possible, planning ahead in order to avoid undesirable changes.
Are there any variations on this basic formula present in the Game.com version of the game? Of course not: That would’ve required at least a modicum of care or effort. Clearly, there was none of either to spare on the one game almost every console owner was guaranteed to play. I mean, it’s not as if they were still competing directly against Game Boy’s massively successful version of Tetris, right? Oh wait, they were? Whoops.
I’ve heard some argue that Lights Out is perhaps the stand-out game on the Game.com, and a demonstration of what kind of game the handheld best excels at. Whether it’s the best game on the console or not is subjective. As for it demonstrating that the Game.com was best suited for simple, minimalistic puzzle games? I’ll agree one-hundred percent. Most of the other games I’d describe as “competent” on the Game.com also happen to be the other puzzle / non-action games for it, including a decent version of Jeopardy and a quiz game by the name of Quiz Wiz.
The problem, as we will soon discover, was that Tiger weren’t content to market their hardware as a dedicated puzzle games platform, and tried publishing other games on the Game.com that had no business being on it. As for Lights Out? For as small and simple a game as it is, I reckon it’s a fine little time waster. Definitely would’ve benefitted from variation game modes like time attack or diagonal tile-swapping, but it’s at least functional and easy to pick up and play. I should also mention that it’s one of the few games on the Game.com to actually utilize the touchscreen during gameplay, rather than simply relegating it to menus. So, there’s getting your money’s worth right there.
Indy 500 (Tiger, 1997)
As the first and only racing game for the Game.com, Indy 500 does a great job of showing off why there are no other racing games for the Game.com. More than maybe any other title, Indy 500 demonstrates the flaws inherent to the system, and what kept it so limited in terms of its games library potential. First on the plate, you have the frame rate to contend with. The Game.com runs at around 15~ frames per second maximum, with some games dipping into single digits. Additionally, the Game.com’s LCD display is absolutely lousy, and highly prone to ghosting** similar to the [original] Game Boy. By 1997, the revised model Game Boy Pocket had mostly alleviated these issues on Nintendo’s end, and so the cheapness of the display on the Game.com is largely inexcusable. Maybe if they had kept it to a device for puzzle games, sure, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue. But for action-intensive games like Indy 500, it’s a kiss of death.
As a point of comparison, I want to use 1990s F-1 Race for the Game Boy. It’s a similar style of racing game from a similar perspective, and even though its graphics may seem primitive when stacked up against a screenshot from Indy 500, you’ll find that it is a far more advanced game in terms of design and understanding how to effectively utilize the hardware of the console it was made for. For example: It understands that due to the limited color palette of the Game Boy, it’s necessary for the road itself to be pure white in order for the black racecar to stand out against it, especially when taking the issue of ghosting into account wherein you need to separate the most current frame from the fading previous frames. Indy 500, for comparison, utilizes dithering and gradients in the same horizontal space that your greyish vehicle occupies, which means the entire bottom half of the screen looks like a muddish mess nearly every second of gameplay while the top half looks to jitter uncontrollably.
On that note, F-1 Race understands that it has to render its vehicles at a much smaller scale due to both hardware limitation as well as practicality, since the smaller your vehicle is the more screen space it is allowed to move within. In Indy 500, your car takes up roughly one-fourth of the whole screen, and you can barely see a turn coming from 10 feet away. To reiterate here: The game on the console with three-fourths the screen resolution that came out nearly a decade earlier is the one that holds up better.
We also need to briefly touch upon the game’s audio. On the back of the box, the game advertises “Actual speech built into the game!” This is true: The game does feature voice samples at a surprising level of clarity. The problem is, these samples are heard only in the menu interfaces, and there’s no music to speak of in the game. This is because the Game.com’s sound system only features four channels,*** of which two are dedicated to playing back samples. This means that all in-game audio [outside of samples] across pretty much every Game.com game utilizes only two audio channels, one of which also has to produce all the sound effects for the game. In effect, music in Game.com games is either completely absent or abjectly terrible. Curiously though, a number of games critics at the time tried to claim that the Game.com’s audio was cutting-edge stuff, with one writer for website allgame.com remarking “It’s astounding what power comes out of such a tiny little speaker.”
In the case of Indy 500, this means that you will spend the majority of your time listening to a single audio channel replicating the sound of an engine humming, while the other occasionally chirps in to indicate that you’ve hit a hazard. And since the game controls so sluggishly and obstacles are so hard to discern on the blurry screen, you’ll end up hitting the hazards a lot. To put it succinctly: Indy 500 is not a very good game.
** “Ghosting” refers to the appearance of afterimages in the wake of any moving element on a screen. Put another way, you can see previously displayed frames gradually fade out of view, rather than immediately disappearing as the screen updates. This results in an image you’ll likely perceive as blurry or muddy, and can often make it difficult to discern where exactly your character or other moving objects in the game are currently positioned.
*** To briefly explain the concept of channels in layman’s terms: Imagine channels as instruments, but which can only play one note at a time. Given multiple sound channels to work with, a talented composer can create illusions of multiple instruments playing multiple notes at a time, and create some remarkable music given the limitations of their toolset. However, when only given one or two channels to work with, there’s very little even an audio virtuoso can do. In the case of the Game.com, most sound designers didn’t even bother trying to create music for games, and relied heavily on short samples for sound effects.
Williams Arcade Classics (Digital Eclipse, 1997)
What better way to showcase the power of the Game.com than by demonstrating its inability to replicate 80’s arcade games? Okay okay, that’s maybe a bit unfair of me to say: Williams Arcade Classics is actually a mostly competent collection of five arcade game conversions, covering Defender I & II, Joust, Robotron: 2084 and Sinistar. These are all games which could potentially function well in four-color monochrome format, and for the most part they do. All of the games even offer a variety of difficulty options mimicking arcade cabinet dip switch settings, allowing you to customize how many lives you start with and at which score milestones you earn bonus lives. The primary problems with these conversions come down to the low frame rate and ghosting-prone display, which do hamper much of the enjoyment of these undeniably classic games.
Defender I & II are probably the most playable of the whole lot, with decent contrast between your ship and all other gameplay elements. Like many conversions, it abandons the obtuse control of the arcade cabinet in favor of more traditional eight-way directional pad control, with the four buttons on the Game.com used for firing your laser, deploying smart bombs, entering hyperspace, and activating the cloaked “Inviso” mode (in Defender II only). As a conversion of the original two games, it is fundamentally solid, hampered mostly by horrid display issues. At the very least, they’re recognizable as versions of Defender, and functionally playable.
Joust is another decent conversion, which replicates the original game in a mostly faithful manner. Underneath the layers of ghost frames, it pretty much looks the part. It mostly feels the part as well, though I’d contend the collision detection for stomping on enemy knights is slightly less forgiving than the already-unforgiving original. If you were one of the “lucky” few to own the Game.com’s compete.com cable, you could even play the game co-operatively with a friend; one of the key selling points of the original game. Again, the major complaints here come down to the Game.com’s display issues, which at least the ghosting is less of a worry of in this single-screen game.
Robotron: 2084, on the other hand, does suffer from another major issue: Crippled control over your character. The original game utilized a dual joystick configuration to allow firing of your laser in eight directions. This made the game hard to replicate on consoles with one or two button controllers, and thus kept many from even making the attempt. The Game.com, fortunately, does feature four buttons, which should theoretically allow for some semblance of aim independent from movement. The problem is, the buttons on the Game.Com are arranged in a slightly angled 2 by 2 square formation, rather than the “diamond” formation that is most commonly seen on controllers in modern day. What this means for someone like myself is that it takes some amount of getting used to which buttons correspond to which directions I fire in. If you can overcome that hurdle, it’s still not a very authentic conversion of Robotron: 2084 in terms of gamefeel or control. (You shouldn’t be able to outrun your own projectiles!) Also, the lack of color does somewhat handicap your ability to discern characters from one another, rendering the whole conversion a confusing mess.
At least it fares better than the final game including in the compilation, Sinistar. Sinistar on the Game.com controls like a janky mess, with imprecise firing aim and movement. On top of that, the collision detection seems incredibly off, where it’s anyone’s guess whether you’ll fly through an enemy or explode on contact with them. Add to that a stilted frame rate where the background and foreground take turns updating on alternate frames, and you’re left with the least playable game on the cartridge by my estimation. Hey, at least they retained a few of the original voice samples from Sinistar himself, so they can go ahead and tick that box off the Tiger checklist! Other versions of Williams Arcade Classics for various other consoles additionally included or replaced various games in the collection with other such titles as Bubbles, Spy Hunter, and Root Beer Tapper. Perhaps Sinistar in the Game.com version would have better fared by being replaced with Bubbles or Tapper? (I shudder to think how Spy Hunter would fare on the Game.com’s display)
Resident Evil 2 (Tiger, 1998)
After failing to convert a series of decade-old arcade games, you probably wouldn’t expect much from a conversion of a contemporary game on the Game.com. Not only that, but a fully polygonal 3D game designed for the Playstation! Surely, there’s no way the Game.com could produce anything that even remotely resembled the original, right? Right?
Of course it can’t! The Game.com wasn’t powerful enough to render 3D. However, that being said, Resident Evil 2 on the Game.com is still a technically impressive piece of software that punches above it’s weight. While it obviously can’t reproduce the original pre-rendered backgrounds of the original game, it does still manage to recreate almost every room and location, albeit in a more simplified grayscale and without the “creative” camera angles that defined the original Resident Evils. There’s a respectable level of detail put into each background, and the contrast works well enough that characters and objects effectively stand out from the environment. As it bears repeating, ghosting is still a distracting issue, but the game is paced and presented in such a way that it actually isn’t as big an issue in Resident Evil 2 as it is in other action-intensive games for the system.
Every room is laid out effectively like a perspective grid, with three vertical planes which you [and enemies] can move up and down into and horizontally across. Attacks can be directed in any of the four cardinal directions, items require you to be standing directly on top of them in order to pick them up, and doors often require a very specific alignment in order to register as wanting to enter them. It’s not a perfect system — in fact, it can be downright frustrating sometimes when the game wants you to be standing in an exact pixel-perfect location in order to interact with an object. That being said, it’s just about the only way I could imagine a game like this functioning on the Game.com, other than something like a top-down or isometric perspective.**
What’s sadly missing from the game are any of the familiar characters, including the likes of Claire, Ada, any member of the Birkin family, or anyone else who you might remember having a line or two of dialogue. The game is populated entirely by Leon Scott Kennedy and the monsters who want to eat him, with none of the story beats or cutscenes in any way intact. The only goal is to follow the path from the streets of Raccoon City through to Umbrella’s secret facilities, without any real indication of where you should go or what motivation you might have. As such, you’ll probably want to have played some other version of Resident Evil 2 before attempting the Game.com version, to provide yourself the precious context this game so lacks. Then again, if you’ve played and enjoyed Resident Evil 2 before, I would suggest continuing to enjoy it on any other platform than the Game.com.
While possibly the most technically impressive / substantial game on the Game.com, it’s still a slow-moving and generally ill-conceived slog of a game that is equal parts “interesting” and “infuriating.” To be honest, it kind of feels like… Well, I was going to say “an LCD handheld version of Resident Evil 2,” and I kind of just realized how much sense that actually makes given the developers behind it. Hmm.
** A conversion of the original Resident Evil that very nearly came out for the Game Boy Color was able to replicate the perspectives of the original game. For as cool a novelty as that was, it came at the cost of truly terrible controls. But hey, at least they still managed to recreate the character interactions! For a properly released example of Resident Evil done right on fifth generation portable, check out Resident Evil Gaiden for the Game Boy Color, which switches between top-down exploration and pseudo first-person combat. It’s a genuinely solid installment in the series, and comes highly recommended.
Sonic Jam (Tiger, 1998)
So, while Resident Evil 2 attempts to punch above its weight with a swing and a miss, Sonic Jam can be described as aiming low and somehow managing to trip over itself. In terms of misleading the consumer on what exactly is on offer, Sonic Jam is damn near deplorable. The back of the box entices players to “Play classic levels of Sonic 2, 3, and Sonic & Knuckles.” What the box neglects to mention is that “classic levels” means loose adaptations of only the first zones of each given game — unlike the Sega Saturn version of Sonic Jam, which did offer these games in their entirety (plus the original Sonic the Hedgehog). If you bought this Game.com version expecting to have so much as some decent slices of the three listed Sonic games, you would surely be sorely disappointed.
After picking which “game” you’d like to play, you’re given the choice between playing as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles (yes, you can even play as Knuckles in Sonic the Hedgehog 2). What the game neglects to tell you is that Knuckles lacks the ability to glide or climb walls for some reason, so obviously Tails is the only real choice here. With your game and character selected, you’re off to the races! And by “races,” I mean possibly the slowest-moving Sonic game aside from Sonic Labyrinth on the Game Gear — the plot of which literally has Sonic stuck wearing a pair of “Slow-Down Boots.” God, Sonic Labyrinth was such a bad game idea all around. Another future article, perhaps?
Due to a combination of slow frame rate, sluggish control, limited screen space and hideous ghosting, Sonic Jam is a game where maintaining a high speed is nearly impossible. Add to that momentum-killing shuttle loops that sometimes fail to function properly [even when approaching at max speed], and you’re left with a game that fails to provide in anything you’d expect from a classic Sonic game. Hell, they didn’t even bother to include the new power-ups featured in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, because what’s even the point if all you have to play is the first zone? For whatever reason though, they felt obligated to include the “Blue Sphere” special stage hidden in Angel Island Zone, which they hilariously have to refer to as “Black Spheres” due to the limitations of the Game.com. Naturally, the screen renders this stage nearly completely unplayable, since turning left or right causes the entire screen to devolve into a blurry indiscernible mess.
I like to imagine that it was during development and playtesting of this game that Tiger realized the Game.com was doomed. If not, it was certainly proof enough to players that this console was in no way capable of handling action-intensive games, and that they were better off sticking with their nearly decade-old Game Boys. Not to say that the Game Boy would have had an easier time running a game as fast-paced as Sonic, but most developers for Nintendo’s hardware at least knew well enough to not make the attempt. It’s clear “quality control” was not a term in Tiger’s dictionary, and that they were more than content to put out half-baked games in a desperate attempt to fill out the console’s tiny library. Sonic Jam is honestly a despicable piece of software: Misleading, brand-damaging, and thoroughly unplayable. In my opinion, this is the worst game on the Game.com.
Oh, and they butchered the music too. Unforgivable.
Could I Tempt You With a Little… Game.Com?
In grand total, a meager 20 games were released for the Tiger Game.com over the course of its short three year lifespan. 12 of those titles were released between September and December of 1997, with releases immediately slowing to a 4 games a year crawl for both 1998 and 1999. To the public at large, this read like Tiger had already given up on their new console. In effect, they had: I’d speculate that a poor showing for the holiday season of 1997 forced them back to the drawing board, where they chalked up the biggest of their issues to the Game.com’s terrible form factor. In September of 1998, they released a hardware revision that they hoped would turn the tide back in their favor: The Game.com Pocket Pro, which came complete with frontlit screen and a slightly more effective display that mitigated some of the ghosting issues. As a trade-off though, it ditched the internet connectivity and dual cartridge ports, which helped rein in the price to a more cost-efficient $50.
Needless to say, this wasn’t the cure for their ailments they hoped it would be. The lack of software support had already indicated to consumers and critics that Tiger had already thrown in the towel. Tiger tried to insist that they were still hard at work on Game.com games development: They sent a schedule for upcoming releases to the gaming press, hyping new titles such as Holyfield Champion Boxing, Madden Football, Deer Hunter and NASCAR Racing. These names would be among the many eventually cancelled Game.com releases, of which no article or list I can find seems to actually list all of them in the same space. On that note, here is my attempt to list all of the announced-but-unreleased Game.com games in the same space:
- A Bug’s Life – Would’ve served as a games tie-in to the Disney film of the same name. Probably would’ve been a generic side-scrolling platformer.
- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – If Resident Evil 2 is representative of the template Tiger was using for PS1 conversions, the Game.com version of Symphony of the Night would probably omit the few story beats from the original game. But hey, maybe they might have included all the original locations from the game at the very least.
- Command & Conquer: Red Alert – I can almost see a real-time strategy game working on the Game.com. Keyword, “almost.” I can’t imagine the 12 by 10 touchscreen grid did development for this conversion any favors.
- Deer Hunter – A hunting game that probably would’ve been simple enough to convert. The Game Boy Color would host a conversion of it in early 2000.
- Holyfield Champion Boxing – Likely to be based on Evander Holyfield’s “Real Deal” Boxing for the Sega Genesis and Game Gear, which was a fine boxing game for the era. Whether it would have made for a fine Game.com game, we may never know. (But probably not)
- Furbyland – Well, at least we dodged this bullet.
- The Legend of the Lost Creator – Also known as “that game wot has the dragon in it,” which featured in a lot of promotional material for the Game.com. Truth be told, a turn-based RPG on the Game.com might’ve been alright?
- Madden Football – Ain’t no football like a John Madden football, ‘cause a John Madden football don’t stop. Can’t even imagine this with the level of ghosting on the original model of Game.com.
- Metal Gear Solid – Now, this would’ve been absolutely fascinating to see in action if it had actually come out. Would they have included any of the character conversations? Could they even recreate scenes like the Sniper Wolf and Hind D boss battles? My guess is “probably not in any satisfactory capacity.”
- NASCAR Racing – I like to imagine a NASCAR brand representative took one look at Indy 500 and responded “Nope” before making a left turn and walking out of a boardroom.
- NBA Live / Hangtime – I’ve seen different sources use either the “Live” or “Hangtime” name in reference to this game. If it had come out, it would’ve most likely been as NBA Hangtime, due to rights issues over the Live branding as then owned by Acclaim.
- Shadow Madness – A mediocre tactical RPG for the PS1, which – let’s be honest here – probably would’ve made for an even worse Game.com game. The most interesting thing about Shadow Madness is that it was considered for a Game.com conversion in the first place.
- Turok: Dinosaur Hunter – This would’ve likely played similarly to the Game.com’s version of Duke Nukem 3D, with pseudo-3D presented from an always-facing-forward first-person perspective and allowing you to advance along a grid.
- WCW Whiplash – World Championship Wrestling always did know the right horse to bet on. Couldn’t have been that much worse than WCW Backstage Assault, at the very least.
For whatever reasons, none of these games would make it to store shelves. Either development for them proved too difficult, or low console sales numbers scared Tiger away from continued development funding. The final attempt to get Game.com hardware in consumer’s hands came in the form of the Game.com Pocket — no longer “Pro,” and no longer with a frontlit screen. Needless to say, this did not turn numbers around for Tiger. Failing to move more than a speculated 300 thousand units across all hardware revisions, it’s no wonder Tiger chose to wind down Game.com development… Or, perhaps that wasn’t the only reason for their shift in priorities?
Hasbro, Inc., purveyors of fine toy lines and manner of electronic doo-dads for children, acquired Tiger Electronics in February of 1998 for a reported $335 million. Their primary interest was in Tiger’s in-development line of “Furby” toy products, which Hasbro saw big potential in. Sure enough, Furby became one of the most inexplicably in-demand holiday toy products of all time. This would result in a re-prioritizing of Tiger’s research and development, moving them further away from their games console interests. Hasbro at the time seemed to have no interest in competing in the games space, which I can understand given the complete failure that was the NEMO / Control-Vision. (You can read more on that here, in this article on the history of Night Trap) I’d speculate the lack of support for the Game.com in 1998 was in large part due to business dealings with Hasbro and re-focusing around toy-type products, which were still seen as the most stable source of income for the companies involved. The Game.com was quietly discontinued at some point in the year 2000, to the disappointment of very few. In fact, for at least one audio engineer, the discontinuation of the Game.com earned him a small fortune in a few years time:
“A few years after the game.com development had ended, I contacted the developer I had done the games for (a subcontractor of Tiger) and asked if he wanted the development system back. He told me that I should mail it to Tiger directly, postage paid (i.e. make them sign for it and pay the postage). I don’t think he had a high opinion of Tiger at that point. So I did – and they refused delivery! They didn’t want to pay the $10 to have their development kit back. The box ended up in my basement for years, and I eventually sold it on ebay in 2006. for $416 to a guy in Flagstaff, AZ. I then found the development software and he bought it for an additional $300; I may have made more from that sale than the three games!” ~ Matt Scott, Byte-Size Sound
Is there anything that Tiger could’ve done to salvage the Game.com? Did it have any potential at all? You may be surprised to hear me say it, but yes: There was a path Tiger could’ve taken the Game.com down that could have potentially made a moderate success of it. The mistake they made was in competing against the Game Boy, rather than doing what Tiger did best with it’s game lines: Presenting an parent-approved alternative. If Tiger had advertised the Game.com as a machine more specifically for puzzle games, adapting more of their properties along the lines of Lights Out or Quiz Wiz, they could have marketed it more effectively to developing children and to crossword-puzzle playing sorts of adults. Hasbro probably would’ve had more interest in keeping the line going and pledging more of their own properties for conversion to it. Hey, maybe they could’ve even found a way to utilize the internet connectivity for “correspondence chess”-style online play, taking better advantage of the functionality and genuinely moving the industry forward some. Could they have possibly eventually beaten the Game Boy? Of course not. But they could’ve carved out a nice niche for themselves and possibly have made a tidy profit.
The Game.com was the wrong console at the right time. There was an opportunity in the portable games space of 1997 to dethrone or at the very least present some serious competition to the Game Boy. But with Tiger as the only major company to take the chance that year, and with the Game.com as the challenger, Nintendo knew they had nothing to worry about. Sure enough, the Game.com would fizzle out before it could even light a fire under its rival, and Tiger would quickly move on to far more profitable business ventures. Whatever loss of face they may have suffered didn’t matter: Furby was the “it” product of 1998, and Hasbro was there to pat them on the back for it. The people who got screwed were the unfortunate consumers of the Game.com product, who were left high and dry with a sub-par portable and no games to show for it. But hey, as far as Tiger was concerned, they were all just slackers who had “nothing better to do than play games and surf the net all day,” anyway.