The WonderSwan (ワンダースワン WandāSuwan?) is a handheld game console released in Japan by Bandai. It was developed by Gunpei Yokoi’s company Koto Laboratory and Bandai. Released in 1999 in the fifth generation of video game consoles, the WonderSwan and its two later models, the WonderSwan Color and SwanCrystal were officially supported until being discontinued by Bandai in 2003. During its lifespan, no variation of the WonderSwan was released outside Japan.
Powered by a 16-bit central processing unit, the WonderSwan took advantage of a low price point and long battery life in comparison to its competition, Nintendo’s Game Boy Color and SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket Color. Later improvements took advantage of quality upgrades to the handheld’s screen and added color. The WonderSwan is playable both vertically and horizontally, and features a unique library of games, including numerous first-party titles based on licensed anime properties, as well as significant third-party support from Square, Namco, and Taito. Overall, the WonderSwan in all its variations combined to sell an estimated 3.5 million units and managed to obtain as much as 8% of the Japanese handheld video game console market before being marginalized by Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance. Retrospective feedback praises the potential of the WonderSwan despite its low sales and its brief time holding its own against Nintendo in the marketplace.
Founded in 1950 by Naoharu Yamashina, Bandai was originally a manufacturer of toy cars and plastic models, but became a major player in the toy industry through the licensing of popular anime characters beginning with Tetsuwan Atomu in 1963. In the 1970s, Bandai manufactured both LCD games based on television programs and dedicated consoles. In 1982, the company released the Intellivision in Japan, and in 1985 it became one of the first third-party licensees on the Family Computer. The company’s greatest success in electronic games, however, was the Tamagotchi virtual pet first released in 1996. Despite plans for Bandai to merge with Sega to form Sega Bandai Ltd. in 1997, the merger was called off suddenly. Bandai’s board of directors decided to oppose the merger less than a week after approving it, and Sega in turn decided to accept Bandai’s actions at an emergency board meeting later that day. Bandai president Makoto Yamashina took responsibility for failing to gain the support of his company for the merger. As a result, Bandai entered the market without outside support.
Engineer Gunpei Yokoi was known for creating the Game Boy handheld system at Nintendo. After the failure of the Virtual Boy, however, he left the company in 1996 in order to create his own engineering firm, Koto Laboratory. It was then that Bandai approached Yokoi to create the WonderSwan to compete with the Game Boy. Yokoi was involved in development of the new handheld, but died in 1997 in a car accident before it was released.
The WonderSwan was officially unveiled in Tokyo on October 8, 1998. Bandai chose the name of the system to highlight its aesthetics and technical capabilities because the swan is recognized as an elegant bird with powerful legs to help it swim. The company promised a 30-hour battery life, a low retail price, and a launch lineup of roughly fifty games
The WonderSwan launched on March 4, 1999 and was available in nine casing colors: Pearl White, Skeleton Green, Silver Metallic, Skeleton Red, Blue Metallic, Skeleton Blue, Skeleton Black, Camouﬂage, and Gold. Three limited edition two-tone models were also released in Frozen Mint, Sherbet Melon and Soda Blue. These colors were chosen through an online poll at Bandai’s website, with the metallic models and Pearl White discontinued on July 22 to make room for the special tone models. Despite Nintendo’s release of the Game Boy Color five months before, Bandai remained confident that the WonderSwan and its monochromatic screen would perform well because the original black-and-white Game Boy had previously been more successful than its color-screen competitors, the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx, on the basis of its battery life and the quality of its game library. With a retail price JP¥4,800, the WonderSwan was also cheaper than its competition. In 2000, Bandai signed an agreement with Mattel to bring the handheld to North America, but ultimately decided against a Western release. The exact reason for this is unknown, but the crowded handheld video game console market has been suggested as a factor.
Later that year, Bandai announced the WonderSwan Color (ワンダースワンカラー WandāSuwan Karā?) which would incorporate a color screen while retaining backward compatibility with the original WonderSwan. It was released on December 9, 2000 in Japan and was available in Pearl Blue, Pearl Pink, Crystal Black, Crystal Blue, and Crystal Orange. The launch was a moderate success, with the system selling 270,632 units in under a month after its release. Before the WonderSwan Color could be released, however, Nintendo announced the Game Boy Advance, which featured superior hardware. The WonderSwan Color still retailed at a lower price point at ¥6,800 compared to the Advance at ¥9,800, but despite peaking at 8% of the handheld market share in Japan, the WonderSwan’s sales never recovered after the Game Boy Advance reached store shelves in March 2001.
A redesign of the WonderSwan Color, titled SwanCrystal (スワンクリスタル SuwanKurisutaru?), was released in Japan on July 12, 2002 for ¥7,800, ¥1,000 less than the Game Boy Advance. Once again, Bandai held a poll on its website to determine casing colors and released the system in Blue Violet, Wine Red, Crystal Blue, and Crystal Black. Despite its low price and an improved LCD screen, the SwanCrystal was unable to compete, so Bandai announced the discontinuation of the WonderSwan line in 2003 due to low demand and backed out of producing video game hardware altogether. In all, the handheld sold 3.5 million units, of which 1.55 million were of the original WonderSwan and at least 1.1 million were of the WonderSwan Color