WonderSwan


I got a WonderSwan basically because of my interest in Buffers Evolution and because I saw a choice: a) I could watch a longplay, or b) I could get the full experience, hold this stuff in my hands, and THEN watch a longplay if I sucked too hard. YouTube is nice, but the promise of holding this thing in my hands with its unique button setup made the decision really easy.

Wonder-what?

WonderSwan never hit US shores, but it’s a fantastic little handheld. The one I got looks great, with a green monochrome screen and "Skeleton Black" as its color, which fills the rest of the system out with translucent black plastic and a bit of silver around the screen, with gray buttons. The thing looks like if a Black Ranger got turned into a toy by some toy-themed monster of the week. None of the buttons on the WonderSwan actually have any text on them, though later revisions of the hardware added some. It’s not the issue it could be because the buttons all have clear shapes to them, since all of them are basically a 4-slice pizza except for the pizza where 2 slices were already eaten. If that sounds bizarre, well, just look it up. It’s a really interesting arrangement that allows for games to be played either horizontally or vertically, or in some cases both depending on what you’re doing, with one game going so far as to make you play diagonally just to be extra. In horizontal mode, you have directional buttons on the bottom left corner and a couple face buttons on the bottom right. In vertical mode, turned to the left, those directional buttons become a quartet of face buttons, with a different set of directional buttons in the new left bottom corner position. The design is peak late ’90s ridiculousness and it’s wonderful! Maybe it’s just because I’m a ’90s kid, but this is the same logic behind the N64’s trident controller, where you can use one unified interface in multiple ways.

WonderSwan was a rising star ultimately crushed by Nintendo’s stranglehold on the handheld market. Designed by the same guy who came up with the Game Boy, Gunpei Yokoi, and his independent company, Koto Laboratory, created after he left Nintendo, in cooperation with Bandai, it would be his final work due to his tragic death in a traffic accident in 1997, only a year after Bandai approached him to design the device pretty much immediately after he left Nintendo and two years before the WonderSwan hit store shelves. It would ultimately be a much better swan song than the disastrous Virtual Boy, being the greatest challenger to Nintendo’s handheld market dominance up to that point. Announced in late 1998 and released in early 1999, the WonderSwan has a monochrome screen, though unlike the Game Boy, it has 8 greens to work with rather than 4. This and the fact the WonderSwan could go for 40 hours on a single AA battery due to extremely efficient hardware made it an impressive competitor to the Game Boy line, despite the Game Boy Color releasing the year prior. This wasn’t initially seen as an issue, since at the time, GBC sales were being far outpaced by Game Boy sales, and to the WonderSwan’s credit, it quickly started outselling both of them, kicking off with a fairly comfortable launch. They came out with the WonderSwan Color the following year regardless without doing much, or really NEEDING to do much, to beef up the hardware, since it was actually already a much more powerful system than the competition. The WonderSwan Color was basically the exact competitor they needed: cheaper than a GBC, backwards compatible with WonderSwan games, and still ran on a single AA for an impressive 20 hours!

The only other item of note for the specs are that the WonderSwan line forewent a squarer screen in favor of one that was more or less a golden rectangle at 224×144 px at 2.49×1.6", giving it a bonkers by today’s standards 14:9 aspect ratio most akin to the 16:10 computer screens we’re probably all familiar with. This also makes the screen shorter than a Game Boy’s with the same vertical resolution, meaning the pixel density is greater at a convenient 90 DPI more like a GBC, where a Game Boy is more like 86 DPI (85 for Pocket). A standard modern LCD monitor is 96 DPI, so you can probably imagine how much crisper the screen is than the intended competition, especially with more intermediary colors to anti-alias with if desired. The sound was done in 4 32-sample, 4-bit PCM channels, which is enough to give a decent sine wave, unlike the much stricter square waves of the Game Boy and GBC, and much more akin to something like the Sega Genesis. Some of the music is therefore absolutely fantastic if you’re using headphones since you can do basically any basic waveform you want or even get fancy with something like scratchy synthesized speech.

What happened?

The Game Boy Advance happened, driving the entire thing into a brick wall after the specs announcement in 2000 and grinding the machine to a screeching halt when it hit store shelves in 2001. While a deal had been struck with Mattel to bring the WonderSwan to US shores, Mattel saw the writing on the wall after the GBA was announced almost immediately after and neglected to follow through on it. Pokémania in the US made the Game Boy line the system to have, making any competitor a hard sell, and other competitors already were in a failure state. Finding an alternative manufacturer in the US market was effectively impossible and one failed to materialize.

This alone could have been mitigated. The problem was lack of developer interest, leaving it mostly with Bandai’s IP (including quite a bit of Digimon and Gundam with other Sunrise anime) and sprinklings of other surprisingly desirable outside anime licenses developed internally, plus actually a fair bit from the ever-generous Square, who are pretty notable for lending support to new upstart platforms, but in this case had burned some serious bridges with Nintendo after skipping to the PlayStation camp as part of that habit and had few alternatives. A sprinkling of smaller studios lent their support early on. The problem was nobody else really joined them, with the vast majority of the games ultimately being first-party or outsourced and published through Bandai directly or its various subsidiaries for variety, the leaders of major third-party support being Square with a whopping 15 titles (4 sadly canceled) and Sammy Corporation (later bought by Sega) with 8. Bandai otherwise outsourced 8 games to TOSE (one of which is a Chocobo game and could be just as easily be considered Square’s 16th offering) and a sprinkling of others to other devs including Koto Laboratory for Buffers Evolution and 3 flavors of their killer puzzle game Gunpey, named in honor of Gunpei Yokoi, only the earliest of which Koto claims any ownership of. In short, if you do any kind of digging on Wikipedia, you quickly realize that Bandai ended up throwing basically every arm they had at managing a bunch of mercenary studios.

In 2002, Bandai released another hardware revision called the SwanCrystal to compete with the GBA that added a better screen and a more robust case and served as a slightly more premium device without deviating from otherwise being a WonderSwan Color, but by mid-2002, Square’s announced merger with Enix got them back in Nintendo’s good graces and they shifted development focus there, costing the WonderSwan the only developer left propping them up with significant effort, with Capcom working with Bandai to squeeze out a couple pity games in the first half of 2003, perhaps a poetic end after licensing Mega Man & Bass as a launch title. In total, only 11 WSC games were released in 2003, mostly by Bandai. Demand and support were both at their end.

Bandai packed up and went home, unable to market the SwanCrystal as a cheaper device with a decent screen or the WSC as a dirt cheap alternative with an extra 5 hours of play that already had a back catalog of some 200 or so games, plus a cool customizable and programmable beetle robot called the WonderBorg, an ameteur-oriented devkit called the WonderWitch, an IR blaster called the WonderWave that communicated with other WonderSwans and the insanely popular Sony PocketStation, a Digimon Digivice connector to connect with their own incredibly popular Digimon standalone devices, a freaking cellular Internet connection via the WonderGate and a cell phone that could be used for email and online games, the WonderSwan MP3 (a notable add-on for the cartridge slot with its own volume control), and the aptly named WonderSwan GPS (though sadly unreleased despite Namco having made 3 games for it, one a golf game with its own accelerometer to measure your golf swing), and lacking any desire to come out with more powerful hardware to compete with the frankly much more powerful GBA. All prior Game Boy models likewise ceased production in 2003, with the GBC only having enjoyed 2 years in the spotlight before Nintendo more or less tossed it aside for the next generation to flounder for the latter half of its lifetime. The last 2 WSC games, both from outside developers, managed to release in early 2004 after the system itself was defunct. Bandai exited the handheld console market, never to return, probably pouting nightly for months.

The End

Nah, just kidding, they went swimming in their American money. Bandai had been raking it in since getting Gundam Wing onto Toonami in 1999 to sell Gunpla and other anime properties from their extensive Sunrise catalog (much of which ended up flooding Toonami), plus their other successes in Digimon as a multimedia franchise and Power Rangers toys, the latter of which was already airing its 11th season in 2003, providing a hungry market for repackaged Super Sentai toys from last year’s show in a deal that would last until 2019 when US rights would pass to Hasbro. Bandai was in no dire straits for cash, but the will simply wasn’t there. The original WonderSwan had 70 games in 1999 from a variety of sources, and there were 49 between the WS and WSC in 2000. 2001 saw interest abruptly dry up with the GBA out, with only 39 WSC games looking like the last dregs of a market finishing up their contractual obligations except Square. The next 3 years saw 27, 11, and the final 2, most of them from Bandai. It doesn’t take a genius to see what happened. The GBA had been leaked as early as 1999 at Space World with confirmation a month later and the entire thing was laid bare in 2000 with full specs. There was plenty of time for Bandai to do something better than the SwanCrystal, seeing as the WonderSwan itself only took 3 years to go to market. With all the physical design work done and with obvious time to set up new production lines, the SwanCrystal could have probably come out in 2003 at the latest as a next-gen machine, more or less right on time to end up competing with the DS, which certainly would have made for some brutal debates. Points if they’d given it a backlight, which would have given everyone a feature that Nintendo had been refusing them for years and obliterated the GBA. Conversely, if the WonderSwan had somehow hit market 1-2 years earlier, it would have had more time to acquire market share without any serious competition other than Nintendo and may have made a splash on foreign shores provided Bandai could have positioned Digimon as its answer to Pokémon on the system with more advanced games to stand beside the digital pets. That said, making a new system is far from a matter of waving a magic wand and any system crapped onto the market with less than a year of planning would inevitably be lesser for it and I’d probably be writing about a far less interesting device despite its interesting shape.

Some accuse Nintendo of rushing the GBA out in response to the WonderSwan to crush some of the most promising competition they’d ever faced, though of course Nintendo would probably give anyone who admitted to that or leaked company memos surrounding it cement shoes. Some also accuse Bandai of being shockingly meek over the entire thing, which it certainly feels like given they were pushing units faster than anyone else at the time before the GBA and only managed to release a screen and shell upgrade in the face of a processing power gap when they could have come out with a much better answer as the WonderSwan itself had represented. If Bandai had actually been interested in competing, the SwanCrystal would have been a stopgap poor enough to give even Sega pause, and Sega had already gone through the 32X debacle in 1996 for all the world to see. It’s pretty clear they threw in the towel. Maybe the creativity and heart just wasn’t there without Gunpei Yokoi. Maybe the pencil-pushers ran the numbers and decided they’d already come out with a rapid succession of systems and thought they were in too much danger of losing the market they had by releasing a follow-up too soon. Maybe the entire thing had more or less been supplemented by their other successes and it just wasn’t worth it to keep the platform afloat. Maybe the SwanCrystal was a scam all along banking on people being attracted to the better screen and design without realizing it didn’t come with extra power, hoping the new name would imply a real upgrade, with the whole plan being to cash out by riding the wave however far it would take them. Maybe they were truly that naïve that they thought the problem was really in the aesthetics. Regardless, Nintendo used its iron grip on the market and Bandai let them.

The WonderSwan brand never got more than 8% market saturation, though in context this is impressive considering the decade-plus Game Boy had to achieve total saturation from its birth in 1989, where the WonderSwan grabbed that 8% effectively in only 2 years, and as far as competition goes, WonderSwan is definitely taking home the bronze for its general time period, after the PSP taking silver starting in 2004, the literal year after the WonderSwan’s discontinuation, but systems live and die on games and Nintendo was seen as the safe bet to the notoriously conservative Japanese developer market. Bandai had so much else going on making them money it’s easy to see why they didn’t care to get into an arms race. It’s also worth noting that the WonderSwan line outsold the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx by a wide margin in Japan, with those failing to reach even 5% and 2%, respectively, despite the Game Gear doing well elsewhere. Given more time to do it in, or a power boost to challenge the GBA, it could well have become the dominant force in the market. Ultimately, the WonderSwan did do something: it got Nintendo off their comfortable laurels to release a major system, when before they’d done very little to iterate on what by that point was an 11-year-old piece of tech as competitors with superior hardware not only failed to unseat them from their throne, but dropped like flies in the Japanese market. If you count the DS launching in 2004 as a grand experiment, one could also accuse it of forcing Nintendo to innovate. Bear in mind, the reason it’s the "Nintendo DS" instead of the "Game Boy DS" is because Nintendo legitimately didn’t know if it would take off and didn’t want to sully the Game Boy name if it didn’t.

After GBA hit shelves, WonderSwan in all its forms flooded used game stores on trade-ins towards a GBA and stayed easily accessible for all 3 people who knew about them and wanted one. Many WonderSwan games still in the works were ported to GBA to salvage them and some were just ported anyway, further reducing the need to own a WonderSwan. WonderSwan units until recently were quite easy to get on the cheap, but renewed interest has sent the price for WonderSwan Color and SwanCrystal units skyrocketing. Koto Laboratory somehow managed to survive largely as a consultant designer of toys, but like, barely, with their own site claiming they’re valued at ¥20 million in share capital on the Japanese stock market, or under US$160,000. Which is to say they’re tiny, but the fact they still exist at all is a miracle.

Hands-on experience

Well, the unit I bought needed a little more TLC than I had initially anticipated. Nothing that can’t be done easily, mind you, but let me explain. When I bought it, I hadn’t actually read the description: totally my fault. It IS a working unit as advertised, but with a couple caveats: 1) the polarized filter needed to be replaced, and 2) it needed a replacement battery pod. Both of these are relatively easy fixes, not that I do much DIY. The WonderSwan has an issue where older units when left in the sun get a little wonky with their polarizing filter, but the good news is all you really need to do to fix that is buy a new sheet of polarizing filter, remove the old one by carefully peeling it off, clean up the adhesive with isopropyl alcohol, and slot the new one in. The battery pod is as simple as buying a non-functional unit for parts and slapping it on with a battery in it.

That said, I initially felt it would be more prudent to just get a SwanCrystal, so I got some hands-on with that. More on that in a bit.

As for the unit itself…

For the original WonderSwan, missing battery pod notwithstanding, it arrived in the condition described and had a couple surprises. First of all, the buttons don’t have printed labels, but they do have raised labels on the plastic around them. This hasn’t come through in any image I’ve seen online, but they’re plainly visible just looking at it, with the A and B buttons labeled and the X and Y groups given a diagonal letter in one corner and 1-4 nubs at the edge of each button to indicate the number of the button in that group. It also has a contrast wheel like the original Game Boy – something I don’t think I’ve ever seen mentioned online. All the text is in English. All of it. Including the instructions for how to remove the battery pod, though putting them in the battery pod slot seems like an oversight. I had heard the cartridges called "black" in the same breath as "like Game Boy cartridges," but that’s untrue: they’re the same translucent black as the black of my system, allowing them to become almost a part of it, blending in very satisfyingly. The whole thing feels very much like a cohesive unit. The Skeleton Black is both fun and in a way not childish. I wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen playing it as an adult, with everything merged so seamlessly together. I wouldn’t call it classy, but it’s safely at least cool enough for teens of the era or an adult who doesn’t have anything to prove. Given all its useful add-ons, most of the more serious of which make it unsuitable to a child’s pocket, an adult could fairly easily argue its merits as a tool.

It slides into a pocket so naturally I did it instinctually before panicking and pulling it back out so it doesn’t get scratched on the metal bits of my phone case. Twice. In ten minutes. In fact it seems to almost find its way in there on its own like a black cat curling up in a warm, cozy hole and simply vanishing. I ended up having to hold my phone in my hand to keep the two away from each other. It’s far more a pocket system than the Game Boy Pocket ever was, speaking from experience. You could technically cram one in there and waddle around with a massive bulge sticking out, but God help you if you had to try to lift your leg enough to climb stairs. The DMG Game Boy was something you threw in a backpack and could break a floor. This is light and slim and basically disappears at your side. It doesn’t feel flimsy, though the buttons have a light rattle to them, though most handheld systems of the day did. They have a shockingly comfortable, long press to them, though. The cartridge slot has guide rails for the cart itself, which sits flush with the back, but with exposed contacts, I can’t say I trust the cartridges without a case. The cartridge itself is held in by a generous friction force, but the cart cases, if they can really be called that, make use of the clips near the bottom edge, snapping in securely as a sort of envelope rather than a snap-open case like Game Boy cartridges have. The battery pod also has guide rails and locks in with a snap tab. How anyone could lose one is beyond me. The expansion port looks dangerously like a double sided USB tab with a larger hole.

There are a couple design flaws, but as a cheaper alternative to the Game Boy line I feel like it mostly passes muster as a toy, if not really as feeling like a premium system. I’d expect it to survive a reasonable fall easily due to its light weight and adequate construction, though I wouldn’t expect it to not get scratched on a rough surface, especially the screen. The exposed contacts on the cartridge make me nervous and it’s basically just the PCB with a thin layer of plastic on the back. There’s no way for it to collect dirt, but no protection from damage, either. I know Japanese gamers are used to English letters all over and basic instructions like "Press Start Button" in games, but the instructions printed on the case either mean Japanese children have a better command of English than I would have expected or maybe that more appropriate explanations were in the manual. It makes me question whether the plan to bring it Stateside wasn’t in motion far earlier than reports otherwise indicate. The system is almost entirely enclosed except for a pair of slots in the cartridge port, but there are plenty of open holes for lint to collect that would be difficult or nigh-impossible to clean even spotted a pair of thin tweezers.

Holding the unit diagonally is shockingly comfortable, though I only know of one game that uses it that way. Holding it horizontally feels like something I could do for at least an hour at a time before my hands seized up, which compares favorably to really any other handheld system I prefer. My hands are not great and while they’re not huge, I normally prefer large controllers. Holding it in portrait orientation is INCREDIBLY cramped, though. I can’t see playing that way for even 30 minutes. It’s definitely a system intended for small hands and small pockets, and would have been an excellent addition to any playground, but it’s not meant for an adult.

The overall shape is peak late ’90s/early ’00s fun, with 2 straight sides for the cartridge and expansion port, a rounded side for the power switch, and the final side briefly straight before swooshing into a rounded bulge, and it feels like the button layout and shape couldn’t be any other way for it to still work, though despite lacking the creativity to make it work myself, I would have liked the bulge to have somehow been used to give more room to the portrait controls rather than wasting it on a bevel. And this thing has no shortage of bevels. It’s almost mind-bending with them, tricking the eye with some that are INSIDE the plastic to emphasize a desired shape and even having bevels on top of bevels. The more I look at it, the more I notice and the more fascinated I become.

Surprisingly, the SwanCrystal’s battery pod works perfectly well, though it does leave an odd corner sticking out. The sound has been described by others as being the quality of a greeting card speaker, but I feel that’s unfair. It is a coin speaker, yes, but as far as coin speakers go, it’s not the worst. High tones are certainly shrill, and noise is surprisingly muffled in comparison, but while it’s not as good as a Game Boy speaker, it’s not a deal-breaker, either, and the Game Boy had the benefit of a deeper and larger body to fit a bigger, deeper speaker in, which will always be better for sound quality. That’s why nobody needed sound bars in the era of CRT TVs; there was practically space enough to cram the original performers in and speakers that could fill that same void sounded fantastic for peanuts because speaker technology hasn’t changed since the things were invented.

After getting it in my hands, I made a decision to fast-track my repairs of it and bid (not incredibly seriously) on a junk unit for a battery pod with the right color, and bought an acceptable polarizing filter. I had been thinking that I’d be most interested in the SwanCrystal, but the pure aesthetics of this thing, especially with the way the cartridges blend so seamlessly into it, have made me instantly fall in love with it. There are few things I would describe as "perfect or close to it," but this manages to make that list.

Repair process

Just to record my repair experience, there’s an excellent tutorial on YouTube as a first Google hit, but it glosses over a bit of the process. Getting the system open is easy and getting the main board out is very quick, but getting the screen out takes a lot more doing than implied, just to get a wallet-sized card under the screen, which is, however, mercifully aided by a sort of dot of what I assume is resin that helps glue the layers of glass together. Once you do manage to wedge something in there, it’s pretty easy to peel off, though. Getting the original polarized filter off takes quite a few minutes and you absolutely need to use a card to do it. I was able to pick a corner up with a fingernail, but I have thin nails. The best favor you can do yourself is to start on a corner that’s not all the way to the edge of the glass, peel it up, and start working your plastic card or guitar pick under to form a bubble, then peel the edges by hand, then cycle that way until you can peel the rest off. The old glue will smell like vinegar and your fingers will be sore because the glass is rough-cut and while not sharp like a broken shard, is still sharp enough that it’s not really intended for human handling. The lion’s share of the residue will be left around the edges, or maybe I lucked out, because his looked way worse, but those 2 Q-tips he flashed? Yeah, haha, no! I used 70% isopropyl alcohol and it took me 58 and even then I gave up on most of the edges since I determined they wouldn’t actually be visible. You can make your life easier by using your fingernail or maybe your plastic tool from before as a scraper. Dissolve the goo enough to get it to pill, then brush it away when it’s dry enough. This will easily take you the longest of anything in the process, and it’s tedious. Once that’s done, you can pretty much just stuff the corner of the filter in the corner of the plastic that holds the screen and eyeball it – no precision required. Just bear in mind you need to remove the filter from whatever protective slip it’s in or else things will be super light. After remedying that little obstacle, the screen is a nice, pleasant emerald green, and while it may be because I wasn’t gentle enough with it trying to scrub off all the gunk, I will say the end result of mine is playable, though it seems like the actual adjustment response is maybe half of what it should be on the contrast wheel. But playable is playable.

Hilariously, the second unit that I bought "for parts" arrived the fastest of anything and is a perfectly functional unit whose screen isn’t even half as bad as the one I paid $30 more for. I actually reached out to the seller to let them know how to check these things for functionality and even pointed them to the repair video to let them know they could sell any additional units for much more if they were just armed with a little better knowledge. I’m not sure from the reply I got that they understood, but I’m sure others have taken advantage of their inexperience and I’d like to be the last, so hopefully my simplified reply tips them off.

Unfortunately, while I was happy trying to fix the screen, and succeeding pretty well, I let the perfect be the enemy of the good and kept opening it back up to try to get various bits of fine hair out of it, which ended up totally boning me because I didn’t realize one side of the filter had adhesive on it. Every time I opened it up, I ended up making something worse, so it’s now in a state where I need to buy a whole new sheet of polarizing filter because I screwed up by trying to clean a fingerprint off what’s in there and making it all muddy because apparently the polarization is on the non-sticky side. It’s a thing that will happen eventually, but for now I feel like I need to just stop touching it and making everything worse. It’s still playable, but not quite as easily as my first attempt and I really just wish I’d left it alone, because living with a cat means fine hair gets in things very easily. When I do make another attempt, I’m going to do it in my greenhouse, since that’s the closest to a "clean room" I have.

Working WonderSwan

As for playing on it, let me get a few things out of the way: 1) the screen is green, so you WILL need adequate light, 2) the screen is ancient, so expect a LOT of ghosting, 3) the contrast, at least on my repaired unit, is VERY touchy, 4) this is a given, but the screen is TINY, and you may need to play close or at an angle that makes things look best for you in whatever lighting you’re working with. I don’t ultimately know if this is all because of a deficiency in the filter I’m using, which was recommended by the tutorial, or because the filter simply isn’t flat enough against the screen because I threw in the towel on getting it perfectly clean, but I do find it rather hard to see in indoor lighting, though in my case LED lighting may be a contributing factor, which this screen never had to contend with in its release window.

That said, it’s playable. The Game Boy didn’t have a fantastic screen, either, and it managed a following. Depending on what you can do to finagle your light, the screen is everything it needs to be.

Getting the whole thing together feels good. I did manage to lose a screw somehow despite being careful (I’m ALWAYS careful, but in this case I think I lost it trying to put the case back together and God knows where it could have gotten tracked since I was working in the living room doorway for the best light), but I can sacrifice one in a corner on the switch side.

The sound is adequate, not stellar, but if I wasn’t directly presented with a better alternative, I wouldn’t care. That said, having the headphone adapter reveals some bitonality in the sound even on system boot.

It also has some settings that are accessible if you hold Start down when flipping it on. This allows you to enter your name, birth date, gender (with a "?" option for enby folks), and blood type (with a "?" option for probably most Americans, but very few Japanese because of their belief that it can determine personality type). Sadly, the blood type doesn’t include your Rh factor (i.e. O- for "O negative), so if you’re bleeding in an ambulance, it’s not going to actually do you any good to fork it over to an EMT. Seeing as games can read all of this information, though, I’m sure it comes up in all the dating sims for the platform. It also, satisfyingly, displays your name under the Bandai logo on system boot, so in theory, if you lose it, it’s not hard for someone to figure out who it belongs to. And if it ends up in a shop somewhere, you have excellent evidence that it’s stolen provided the thief doesn’t bother to look up how to change it.

SwanCrystal

As for the SwanCrystal, having gotten this in as well, it feels like this was almost the adult women’s version of the WonderSwan form factor. It’s slightly wider and just almost imperceptibly heavier, with additional height from its hourglass figure that sadly doesn’t translate into additional width between the buttons in portrait orientation like it does in landscape, though because there’s more to hold on to, it’s not the problem it could be. The "Wine Red" in person is a maybe a lighter crimson than one normally associates with the name and would make an excellent lipstick color. The back is actually a smoke white, really just a very pale cool gray that looks a lot less like food than I thought it would from the pictures. Everything but the battery pod is smooth, but the pod despite being the right shape for the model is a heavy, almost sticky matte on most, but not all of its surface area, providing some much-needed grip for playing portrait, though it does provide some oddly sharp divisions where it meets the smooth back. The Bevels have been drastically pared back, giving it a much more elegant appearance than the fun of the original. I could see an epillator or ladies’ electric razor being sold in this shape.

The screen has something I don’t actually like: a permanent sidebar that’s separated by a roughly 2-pixel black line. This sidebar has several icons in it, some of which are visible normally, others of which I can make out faintly due to their overlapping edges between LCD layers with the system off. These include:

  • an oval with a dot floating in it that’s on whenever the system is
  • something that appears to be a cartridge icon telling you the game is okay
  • a shooting star
  • a low battery icon
  • the various bits to indicate the volume
  • a headphone icon
  • two "person" icons that are used to indicate which way you’re supposed to hold the system
  • three circles of increasing size

At least some of these icons appear to be collected at the bottom of the original WonderSwan screen and on that unit have no visible dividing line; the game screen just sort of stops and they’re there in a simple void, where on the SwanCrystal, there’s an option to have them either on a black or white background, perhaps befitting the aesthetics of a given game. Otherwise, the screen may not have a backlight, but it’s so reflective it almost seems like it does, particularly with smart choices of color in games. There’s zero ghosting present and everything is incredibly crisp.

The sound is a more even affair than that of the WonderSwan, which while not as bad as some people say still can be both shrill and muffled at the same time. There’s a slight muffle on the SwanCrystal, but it’s not that bad. I did also pick up a headphone adapter for the expansion port and can only say that the SwanCrystal fails here with a wobbly expansion port connection where the original’s is rock solid. Getting an earful of extra loud static if you jostle it too much is unpleasant to say the least and the sound quality improvement really isn’t enough to justify it.

The button rattle is completely gone, though, and each button is a clear window over a white button printed with the appropriate designation. They’re a little more solid than the WonderSwan’s with a slight pop to them and equal travel distance. The power is now a button as well, with a switch that could be mistaken for power actually being a battery lock slide in addition to the clip. The power button is actually rather awkward to press, recessed and rounded to keep it from being turned on in a pocket, but without adequate space or purchase to really easily push it, with it constantly getting tilted by my fingernail. I would much rather they have just stuck with a switch. At the very least, the top should have been flatter.

Overall it feels like a unit intended more for adults, with a better fit for adult hands (at least small ones like mine) and a better appearance of luxury than its fun and kid-friendly predecessor. I guess the best comparison would be that it’s a feminine sort of unit in the same way a car could be feminine. If I’d snagged a blue model instead I might feel differently, because just looking at pictures online, it certaily looks just as sleek, but loses a bit of something and still feels like a toy, where this goes beyond that to a sense of luxury that’s hard to place chronologically.

In conclusion

The WonderSwan is a great thing to have in your hands and a joy to own. Some of them go for parts because sellers don’t realize they don’t boot up without a cartridge, but I wouldn’t rely on that for a working unit. I highly recommend the Skeleton Black color for pure aesthetics with the cartridges and will say that for a fan of the Game Boy era who knows where to find light, it’s adequate as a system for the fraction of the price of a WonderSwan Color or SwanCrystal, IF you are willing to repair it. If not, your best bet is the SwanCrystal because of the different LCD screen and just lack of ghosting and frankly just lesser light requirements, but it WILL cost you. I’m frankly happy with both, but the SwanCrystal will open up more options when I want to buy color games.