Back in 1997, Tiger Electronics, known primarily for Furbys and those cheesy electronic handhelds with painted-on LCDs, decided to attempt to expand its product line and release a true competitor to the Nintendo Game Boy, which reigned supreme in the handheld market at the time. That product was called the Game.com.
The Game.com shared many similarities to the Game Boy of its time, such as a low-contrast grayscale screen, games on cartridges, though unlike its competitor, featured two cartridge slots. However, the Game.com also offered an array of unique and rather interesting features which its competitor lacked: a touchscreen, PIM functions, built-in solitaire, and, perhaps most interestingly, Internet connectivity.
The touchscreen, for one, allowed for a variety of decidedly un-Game Boy-like games, such as Lights Out, a puzzle game, and Tiger Casino, a generic casino game. The touchscreen also added the ability to type on an on-screen keyboard, which featured prominently in the system’s built-in address book and calendar functions, and the Game.com Internet cartridge.
Internet connectivity on the Game.com came in the form of two cartridges (sold separately): Tiger Web Link, and Game.com Internet. The former, Tiger Web Link, served a single purpose: once inserted, the Game.com could be connected to the a Windows PC’s serial port, and high scores from select games would be uploaded to the Game.com website. (Something many Nintendo DS owners are familiar with today.) The latter, Game.com Internet, presented an even stranger user experience. The package came with both a cable that allowed the user to connect the Game.com system to a serial modem, and a cartridge featuring a terminal emulator. Provided that your dial-up provider gave you UNIX-like shell access (or you paid for their overpriced Internet service provider that did), could allow you to go on the Internet with Lynx, or even check your email with Pine!
Despite these features, the Game.com was a complete flop, only selling about 300,000 units (compared to, for example, the original Game Boy, which sold 118.7 million units during its lifetime). So, why did it fail?
While the Game.com did indeed come with an impressive array of features, many of them were implemented very poorly. For example, take the touch screen, which was extremely low resolution (12×10, as opposed to the screen’s 192×160 screen). Or take the sound system, which, while notable for its ability to play PCM sound effects, couldn’t play more than one simultaneous instrument for the system’s characteristically bad music. The Internet cartridge, too, featured a whole host of issues. First of all, to use it, it not only required a working knowledge of a UNIX shell, but also could not display more than half of the screen at a time. (The Game.com’s screen was only 40 characters wide at its smallest font, whereas a terminal normally uses 80). The system was also extremely unstable; crashes were extremely commonplace, not only during games, but also in the built-in software.
Despite all this, perhaps the most significant issue of all lay within the games themselves. Despite Tiger’s marketing claim that the system featured “More games that you people have brain cells!”, only about 20 games were ever released, many of which weren’t even very good. Oddly, Tiger refused to release its SDK during the lifetime of the system, choosing instead to develop all games in-house, an approach that, evidently, detracted both from the quality and quantity of the games.
When I asked from a Game.com in the months leading up to Christmas 1998, I thought it seemed much better than the Game Boy. (The Internet cartridge, in particular, piqued my interest.) However, as months went by without any new game releases, I began to lose hope. I still have my Game.com, along with half of all the games that ever came out for it, and perhaps, one day, I’ll play Monopoly on it once again.