System Shock: Gizmondo!
Originally, I was going to write up a brief history of the rise and fall of Tiger Telematics' Gizmondo for this month's column, but the ins and out of that particular story might make a better screenplay than a bimonthly games column. Anyway, rather than focus on every single tech spec or the unusual extracurricular antics of some of the folks behind the system's untimely demise, I decided to talk about the system and games from a player's perspective with a smidgen of collector's info salted in for good measure. For those of you who know me, you know I don't suffer from any sort of system bias, so I'm not going to sit here and compare the handheld favorably or unfavorably to anything else on the market past or present. Still, if you're one of those like-minded open-minded collectors, welcome aboard and enjoy the tour. If you're new to Gizmondo and curious enough to want to pick one up, eBay seems to be the best bet unless you happen to luck out and find a complete unit and games at a flea market or wholesaler who happens to score a case or three in the future.
Before we get started, here's a little about what the system is and isn't. Gizmondo is a handheld gaming device that plays games, applications; video and music media stored on common SD cards. The system also has a VGA digital camera, SMS/MMS/e-mail message capability, Bluetooth multiplayer functionality and a GPS that's unfortunately, unusable as of this writing. The system launched at two price points: $399.99 for a standard unit and $229.99 for a "Smart Ad(d)s"-enabled unit. The big difference in price was due to Smart Adds units dropping in pre or post game advertising that couldn't be skipped, a small trade off for the decreased price. Given that this less expensive model is exactly the same and would need its sim card to be activated in order to enable ads, there's no difference in the two models other than the outer box. The handheld is quite powerful and like the GP32, the open architecture allows for quite a bit of fun for dedicated home brewers who've already cooked up a bunch of console emulators, PC ports and updated utilities for the unit. Although it uses a sim card and can send/receive text messages, Gizmondo isn't a cell phone at all. Nor is it cheaply built or any relation to Tiger Electronics' game.com handheld, in case you were about to ask.
From a practicality standpoint, some things about the unit are a bit odd, but the same could be said for the first iteration of any handheld system. It boots up and shuts down like a computer (expect to wait about a minute when you press start and about three seconds when you power off) and battery life is brief, clocking in at about 3-5 hours per charge. For review purposes, I was able to get my hands on a Gizmondo with 13 of the 14 launch titles shortly before its October 2005 launch and was pleasantly surprised as well as a bit disappointed. The system was (and is) nicely designed (save for the lack of a cover for the camera lens) easy to use and definitely makes for a conversation piece when I'm on line at the post office. As for the games, there's where most of the disappointment lies. While there are a few excellent launch titles, most of the games look and play as if they were ported from cell phone or PDA games while others seem closer to glorified Java browser games cooked up over a weekend by a caffeine-fueled techie. None of the games really takes advantage of the processing power of the unit, although from a few of them, on can certainly see potential for third parties to have made some truly killer games. From best to worst, here are my takes on the official Gizmondo lineup:
POD (Point of Destruction) - An update of Mastertronic's C64 classic P.O.D. (Proof Of Destruction), this new POD is to the Gizmondo what Geometry Wars is to the Xbox 360: simple in concept, but supremely addictive fun. A bit of Space Invaders mixed with Asteroids but updated with a driving techno score and rendered visuals, POD's 100 stages will appeal to shmup fans as well as anyone looking for a decent amount of challenge. Move and blast a variety of alien ships in increasingly difficult waves as you try to snag power-ups and points. Dying in this game is truly aggravating in the higher stages as your ship loses all its power-ups and you're trapped in bullet hell with a single shot peashooter. Still, once you start playing, you'll be grooving on these grids for hours at a time.
Trailblazer - Another C64 remake, this new Trailblazer takes its visual aesthetics from games like Wipeout, yet keeps the gameplay simple and like POD, it's addictive (and sometimes frustrating) as hell. The aim of the game is to guide your wheel-shaped craft to the end of the stage, but this certainly isn't a driving game by any means. Between the jumps, tricky gap-filled or narrow courses with assorted barricades and boost strips and other hazards, the game swings from exhilarating to aggravating often in milliseconds as each course after the first few easy levels brings the pain. Still, there's a Zen-like moment in each play session where you start nailing the tricky bits and rack up a few tracks in a row without screwing up. For sheer sadism, pass your Gizmondo to a friend who's never played this one before and watch them go from smiley to angry to hooked in about a minute or less. Like POD, if this were on the DS or PSP, people probably wouldn't stop talking about how cool it is.
Richard Burns Rally - Although he's not a household name in the states, across the pond, the Richard Burns Rally games are seen by some as the toughest ever made. Making great use of Gizmondo's 3D capabilities, this off-road racer combines arcade-like elements with ultra touchy handling and a moderate damage model for quite a challenging racer. The unforgiving time constraints in Arcade mode make unlocking new tracks very difficult for those new to rally games, but even some veterans might have trouble getting to the finish line without a bit of practice. While the game only has eight officially licensed rally cars, the 10 stages with four courses each will take some time to finish, thanks to the brutal save system implemented here. You'll need to be deft with the D-pad to make progress in this game, but a few more modes and stages would have made for an even better experience.
Hockey Rage 2005 - Bloody good ice action on the Giz with this fast-paced arcade hockey game. While you don't get any licensed teams, both the visuals and gameplay are slick enough to keep you playing for a while. The controls are extremely easy to pick up, which may make those looking for a more complex game a bit ticked off. However, this ease of play allows for players of all ages to jump in and enjoy the multiplayer action, should both of you have this card and a Gizmondo to play them on. Some over the top blood effects give the game a bit of an edge (ba dum bum), but this isn't as gory (or funny) as EA's classic Mutant League Hockey by a long shot.
Classic Compendium 1 & Classic Compendium 2 - Sure, you could get the games in these two collections for free on game download sites all over the place… if they're not already installed on your PC, that is. But from a player/collector's standpoint these simple games (1 has Chess, Checkers, Backgammon, Reversi, Four In a Line, while 2 has Shogi, Chinese Checkers, Chinese Chess, Tai Pei and Gomoku) all play excellently and allow anyone from novices to expert board gamers to jump in and go at it against each other or the skilled AI players. You definitely won't be buying these for graphics, however, there's a nicely familiar tone to the visuals that' makes the games here timeless. Sometimes, simpler is better.
Sticky Balls - Nasty sounding name aside, this cross between billiards and Bust-A-Move manages to creep up on you and become a nice, tasty treat. Aim and shoot your colored balls at others to wipe them off assorted playfields. Bright graphics and snappy music make up for some initial control confusion, but once you get a few minutes of gameplay under your belt, you'll be grinning away for as long as you have this card in your Gizmondo. The biggest problems here are no multiplayer modes (boo!) and only about 30 stages total before you're done. Still, this is one of those cool sleepers that would be fun on any handheld system.
Toy Golf - Miniature golf set inside a house offers some really tricky courses and occasionally exasperating shots throughout. Since all the courses are set across multiple heights with no boundaries on the edges of objects, overpowering your shots will cause the ball to roll or fly out of bounds, making the sound of grinding teeth part of each gameplay session. Both the controls and camera can get a bit touchy, but once you're in the zone, expect to make a few miracle shots every now an then. This one could have used a few more courses and better music, but overall, a nice game to pack when you're hitting the road for a real golf trip.
SSX 3 - Yep, there was major third party support for the handheld. Electronic Arts made two launch games for the system, but other than some stellar sound design, neither title lives up to the pedigree of the console versions. This conversion of the popular snowboard game suffers a bit from chunky PS One-quality visuals and less speed than its console cousin. However, the gameplay is pretty responsive overall, the music is good and in a way, the game does an excellent job of showing what would have happened had EA made a game in the hugely popular series for Sony's no longer in production first console. You'll need to track down another Gizmondo owner to partake in the Bluetooth multiplayer action, but there's certainly enough to do here with about a dozen courses to stunt and slide down.
Pocket Ping Pong 2005 - Korean developer Netdol takes a cue from Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball with a bevy of bountiful babes bopping tiny balls at each other across a ping pong table. Some great visuals and music definitely get the party rolling, but the game does take a bit of getting used to in the control department. Since you're playing in first-person mode, you'll find yourself bobbing and weaving your head from side to side as you tilt the Gizmondo to make shots. The game isn't all that difficult despite the initial control issues. It takes about twenty minutes to get the hang of things, but expect a few of the girls you'll face off against to whip out some miracle shots every so often. A smattering of cute mini-games allow you to train by smacking out letters in timed sections, but the game is a wee bit too brief- just like the bikinis the polygon babes are wearing.
Fathammer Classics - Three games on one card ranging in quality from decent to rushed. The clear star of the set is Angelfish, a top-down space shooter with a great-looking hand-drawn style. A bit too short and easy, shmup vets will want to play this on the hardest setting only. You'll also get Super Drop Mania, a falling piece puzzle game that looks as if were ported from a cell phone (but it's fun nonetheless) and the frankly ugly looking racer Stuntcar Extreme. Not exactly a showpiece for the Gizmondo's graphical capabilities, but if you turn your brain off and just play for a while, you'll probably get some enjoyment out of this collection.
Interstellar Flames 2 - Sequel to a mobile 3D space shooter, this Starfox-inspired rail shmup looks absolutely great but suffers from assorted technical woes. When your ship clips through a giant enemy battle cruiser or a building wall, it definitely shatters the illusion, but not as much as the way too slippy controls. It's a bit too easy to slide right into enemy fire and worse, it seems as if the hit detection is a wee bit off (as in a funky Astron Belt manner). Still, the variety of locations and special effects are there to keep you playing, so pack a patience pill in your space helmet and buckle up for a wild ride. If you're too annoyed or lazy to finish the game, feel free to pop the SD card into your PC's card reader and watch the CG opening and ending.
Gizmondo Motocross 2005 - Good looking but fatally flawed version of a PDA game, the most painful things about this one are the supremely touchy controls and isometric viewpoint. It's just too hard to make pinpoint turns and power slides without crashing into a barricade or flying too far off a jump. Then again, if the view were zoomed out any more, it would be hard to see what's happening onscreen. Given the choice (and more development time), a behind the cycle 3D viewpoint would have been far better, period. Still, this is one of those games that I can see someone mastering and gloating about on message boards about how "easy" it is. Me, I'll just keep this one on the shelf in its case, thank you much.
FIFA Football 2005 - While the gameplay and sounds are acceptable, the fact that this looks like pretty much straightforward port of the cell phone version of the game knocks FIFA to the back of the pack. The miniscule players animate well, but the big pixels that make up the crowd are far too distracting to enjoy the action. Still, if you can put up with the looks, you'll find a feature-packed chunk of footy guaranteed to give you a few weeks of fun. Of course, you'll need a friend with a Gizmondo and the game in order to partake of some Bluetooth fun, so feel free to go make some new friends if you're a fan of the sport.
There were also a number of Gizmondo accessories made plus about 15 other Gizmondo titles in development plus a dozen or so more planned before Tiger Telematics went bust. In terms of games, from the GPS enabled gang-banging multiplayer action of Colors, to a portable version of Conflict Vietnam and the road racing game Chicane, it looked as if the library would have gotten more impressive over time. As far as I can tell, only five games were completed or close to completion. The first of these, Hit & Myth, was actually released in a limited run of 35 copies with no case or manual. From the screenshots I've seen and information garnered from a few months back, the game is a Gauntlet inspired dungeon hack, which makes it one of those games I'd definitely hunt down once I have the time and cash to spare. There's also a Gizmondo Kiosk Demo SD card with 13 games on it that's worth looking for as it has Hit & Myth and Colors on it along with 11 of the launch titles. I'm not sure how many were made, but one sold recently on eBay for just over $170. Not bad for a system that got bashed in the mainstream press, no? If you're looking to complete your official software collection, be on the lookout for the Gizmondo Navigator 2006, which was to turn the handheld into a talking car GPS navigation unit with a 3D map on the small screen. Given that this product was produced for the UK and Ireland only, you'll have to look to an overseas seller to get one for the collection. So there you have it- enough to get to psyched and hopefully started on adding a new addition to your collection of obscure handhelds with potential.