An Interview with the men behind the machine
By John JermaineNovember 3, 2003
Note: This interview was originally printed in Electronic Gaming Monthly Issue #4 from September 1989.
(EGM Ed. Atari's new portable Lynx game system is truly an exceptional machine, even beyond its full-color game screen. While Atari continues to court developers who are interested in the machine, we sent special reporter John Jermaine, a veteran of the electronic gaming industry, on a special mission to locate more information about this lean machine and the designers who built it.)
Late in '88, I started hearing about something called the “Handy Project”. During those days, I had the following information to work with: (1) Epyx was developing a new hardware entertainment unit, and (2) the two creators of the system had also been members of the Amiga design team. Now this was definitely exciting news, but why would anyone want to produce another game machine? The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) had already established itself as the king of home video game systems, while other units were rumored to exist. If only some of those rumors were true, Epyx would have a difficult time competing with what sounded like three similar products. After playing with their unit a while, I can honestly say that the “Handy Project”, now known as the Lynx game system, is in a class by itself. I recently talked with Dave Needle and R.J. Mical (the two designers of the system) and they told me all about their new 16-bit machine, how it came into existence, and all of the incredible things it can do.
EGM: How did this project actually begin?
Needle: In August of 1987, R.J. and I went out to lunch with Dave Morse (the Chairman and CEO of Epyx). We all went down to this little cafe, near R.J.'s place, that sits on the side of a lagoon. The scenery was beautiful, the weather was perfect, and half-naked women were all around us. In case you haven't been here, that is the California version of paradise. So during the course of this great meal, we talked about developing an incredible new gaming system. It would be totally portable and unlike anything currently on the market.
Mical: Then I asked the question of the hour: Who's gonna pay for lunch? Morse said “I'll pick up the tab if you design 'Handy' for me.” We agreed to his terms and that was that. So both of us rushed home, packed our bags, moved into the office, and here we are today!
Gauntlet 3 combines
a maze adventure like the original arcade version with an
all-new first-person perspective!
Needle: We also thought working for a software company might bring a few babes our direction as well.
EGM: Did it work?
Needle: Well, at least we got a free lunch out of the deal.
EGM: What are some of the features of the Lynx?
Needle: You initially notice the machine's 3 1/2" color LCD display, the 2" diameter speaker, and a series of controls. These controls consist of two fire buttons, five function buttons, volume and brightness controls, and a thumb joypad (which closely resembles its counterpart on the NES). The machine can be powered by six ordinary “AA” batteries. Different ports allow you to use headphones (for private listening), an AC power adapter, and a special multi-player option. The unit itself measures out at a mere 4 1/2" x 101/2" x 1 1/4".
Mical: The Comlink feature really hasn't demonstrated its full potential yet. We've had four players competing in a single game, but the hardware supports up to 16 users at a time. Epyx is currently developing a road race that should be on the market by Christmas. Sixteen players will be able to link their systems together and compete against each other in the race. It's also interesting to note that a single cartridge brings the game to all of these units. In other cases, the maximum number of players is determined by the software itself.
EGM: What microprocessing chips were incorporated into the system? Why did you select that particular number of chip to power the system?
Needle: First of all, consider what we were trying to accomplish. R.J. and I developed a sophisticated silicon engine that rapidly updated graphics on the screen, generated incredible 4 channel sound, and did all kinds of incredible stuff. So we had the engine, but needed something to drive it. So we picked what was clearly the highest performing CPU (Central Processing Unit) in a certain size and price range. And that was the 65C02.
Mical: Some people believe it's less of a processor that the 68000, for example. That series of chip was used in the Amiga, but it wouldn't make our machine do things any better. In fact, it would only make the unit larger and more expensive. It's also harder to write 68000 code, so we definitely made the right decision.
Here's some additional food for thought. Our sprite engine (that creates the graphics for the Lynx) is easily 20-30 times more powerful than the Amiga sprite engine. The CPU, which controls the game logic, enemy intelligence, and stuff like that, is the same one found in the Commodore 64. But our microprocessor runs at a clock speed four times faster than the 64. In case you haven't heard of the term, clock speed tells us how many frames of graphics come up every second a program runs. On most systems you try to produce 60 frames of graphics per second. When that isn't possible, the programmer can't achieve 60 frames on the Lynx, he can run things at 59.9 frames per second. Yes, we can actually customize the frame rate of the unit.
Put all of these elements together in a case, and you definitely have a "killer" machine.
EGM: I see your system can display 4,096 colors (the same paint palette as the Amiga). Why did you put so many colors into such a small unit?
Mical: Why not? Any game machine that doesn't possess that many colors these days doesn't have a future.
Needle: Just this morning, I went down to Epyx's test lab. As luck would have it, they had the same space game running on a number of systems (the ST, C-64, IBM, Amiga, etc.). Anyway, one version of the program looked better than all the rest. And it just happened to be running on the Amiga. Why did it look so good? The presence of 4,096 colors allows you to generate striking scenery, beautiful explosions, and fantastic 3-D graphics. That's what everyone wants, and that's what we're going to give them.
Mical: We actually settled on using 4,096 colors because the LCD glass has limitations in its drivers. Dave and I thought about adding more hues to the palette, but that simply wasn't possible. Incidentally, the Lynx has a resolution of 160 horizontal by 102 vertical square pixels. It can also display 16 different colors at any given moment.
California Games, which
comes packaged as part of the Lynx package, is the best
version of the Epyx classic.
Electrocop is a combination
action-adventure-shooter that features multi-scrolling hallways
and lots to do!
Lynx's Rampage Deluxe is a souped-up version of
the original arcade classic that features side-scrolling
landscapes! (Note: This is the actual magazine screenshot.)
EGM: Would you tell me about the sound system employed by the Lynx?
Needle: It can go E-E-E or OW-W-W and sometimes plink, plink, plink. On a serious note (no pun intended), each of the four channels contains an 8-Bit digital-to-analog converter. When all is said and done, the unit produces an amazing assortment of algorithmic sounds and also plays back perfect digitized speech!
EGM: How do Lynx cartridges compare to other video game cartridges?
Mical: That's a difficult question to answer. I get amused when people advertise their 1 meg games and 2 meg games. In reality, they're talking about the number of bits in the code and not the number of bytes. So they make their product sound better by saying the cart features a 1 meg game, instead of referring to it as a 128K of code (meaning 128K bytes rather than 1 megabit). Our cartridges can store up to 2 megabytes, or using the competition's terminology, up to 16 meg! The Lynx uses card-sized game packs similar to those found on the TurboGrafx and Sega Master System.
EGM: Is it possible to interface your system with the average television set?
Needle: The Lynx wasn't designed to perform that task. In fact, it would have limited the machine's capabilities, while defeating the purpose of the unit in general. I envision children on long drives, happily playing video games for hours on end. Other people will use our unit in the air, on the water, at picnics, and on the beach. We want the dedicated game fanatic to take the system everywhere he goes. Sure, anything is possible. But we have no plans to modify our design.
EGM:Would you tell me more about the Lynx?
Needle: The Comlink serial port is also connected to a general purpose (UR) device located deep within the unit. This means other hardware peripherals may use the port for other operations. An external joystick is a definite possibility, but we really aren't worried about optional stuff right now. Getting the system into the hands of consumers is our main concern at this time. Incidentally, the port also runs at midi baud rates. So it's possible to interface your midi-type synthesizer with the Lynx. Again, there are no plans to produce such a package in the near future.
Mical: Lynx programmers can also produce unlimited sprites (at any given size) for their games. In other words, you can have any number of moving objects on the screen, and they can be as large as you want them to be. Epyx is currently developing a unique golf game, where the player sees things as the ball might see them (once it has been hit). This program features over 700 sprites, while the average home computer game usually contains several dozen sprites. After examining these statistics, it's easy to see that our golf game displays an incredible amount of detail. Here is another point of interest: the maximum clock speed of the unit is 16 mega-hertz. This means that the Epyx game system operates faster than any other video game console ever made. The Lynx also features 64K bytes of RAM (Random Access Memory). Then you have smooth visual scaling, where an object gradually becomes smaller as it moves away from your position (and vice versa). I could go on and on about the Lynx, but four factors stand out above the rest: (1) this incredible portable unit delivers high-quality graphics and sounds, (2) it's easy to manipulate the controls, (3) the games are very challenging, and (4) adults will enjoy it as much as the kids. By the way, California Games comes packaged with the system, so users have access to a great game from the moment they open the box.
EGM: As we wrap things up, would you share an amusing story about the development of this product?
Mical: Let's go back in time to this year's January Consumer Electronics Show (which was held in Las Vegas). As you already know, that was the first place we showed the Lynx to a limited number of people. Once a non-disclosure was signed, they were escorted back to a private room where the unit was set up on a table. Most of our guests didn't seem to notice a ribbon coming out of the machine and leaving the room through a hole in the wall. Dave and I were on the other side of that wall, carefully monitoring the guts of the system. In fact, we were surrounded by computers and huge breadboards of electronic components. And it got fairly warm in there too.
So why did we go to all this trouble? Dave and I wanted to create an accurate simulation of the completed product. To make things look right, we had to put all the electronic stuff in a totally separate chamber. We also had a code set up with the marketing people (on the other side of the wall). Whenever a client had seen enough of a game, they pressed a special button, and a tiny light came on in our room. Pressing it twice was the signal to skip the next game on the list. This simple arrangement worked out well until someone started pressing the button over and over and over again. We couldn't figure out what this individual wanted, so Dave and I poked our heads out the door to see what was going on We saw some oriental businessmen. talking things over with our marketing staff. But one member of the group was still observing a game on the Lynx. He had apparently discovered our secret switch and wondered what it did - it produced two bewildered game designers!
Our super reporter also spoke with Andy Marken of Marken Communications, the public relations company for the Lynx system. With some probing, John was able to get even more Lynx-related news...
EGM: What's going on with the Lynx right now?
Marken: First of all, limited quantities of the system (around 80,000) will be available in New York and Los Angeles stores by late September. Epyx also informs me that 10 new games for the unit will probably be available by Christmas. Even though no accessory items have officially been announced, an AC adaptor that connects to your car cigarette lighter, should be on the market by the end of '89.
Many thanks to R.J., Dave, and Andy for taking time out of their busy schedules to share their insights on the portable system of tomorrow that's here today!