If there’s one thing that modern gaming history has shown, it’s that it’s damn hard to get a new platform out there. During 50 years, in which 10 generations of consoles saw the light of day, the market has matured. It is a multi-billion dollar business that leaves little room for small players to gain a solid market share. Many (former) established names such as Magnavox, Atari, Philips, Intellivison, 3DO, SEGA (and many more) have gone bankrupt, got out of the gaming market or were forced to abandon their hardware aspirations.
In every console generation, there are still companies that think they can get a foot in the door. Often with the idea that they can really differentiate themselves in comparison to the established order. A few years ago it was the Ouya with their dedicated Android console. More recently, Google with its Stadia service. Despite a significant marketing budget and sufficient media coverage, both initiatives failed miserably. Gamers turned out to be homegrown and reluctant to embrace an entirely new platform.
We also saw such attempts a little further back in time. In this story, we go back to 2005. In that year, the Gizmondo was introduced. The device was the first attempt to produce a handheld by the company Tiger Telematics, not to be confused with the well-known Tiger Electronics. The Gizmondo was a true European handheld. One of just a few. After the demise of the Philips Videopac, perhaps the first serious attempt by a European company to compete with the American and Japanese console giants.
A daring idea
With the Sony PSP (2004) and Nintendo DS, the market for 7th generation handhelds seemed saturated. A market segment previously dominated by Nintendo received a promising runner-up with the launch of the PSP. There seemed to be no room for a third player. Tiger Telematics thought otherwise. The British company first announced their ‘Gametraq’ on their website in October 2003. Strangely enough, it was not the PSP or Nintendo DS that they primarily targeted, but the recently introduced Nokia N-gage.
The reason was simple. The Gizmondo was initially aimed at children. More specifically, in a pre-Apple-Tag era, head designer Carl Freer wanted to develop a device that made it possible for parents to track their children via GPS. But the technology was not evolved enough to enable a GPS tracker to be, for example, small enough so that it could be sewn into your children’s jackets. The device therefore had to appeal to children so that they would voluntarily take it with them. The solution was to make a mobile phone with a built-in GPS-tracker because mobile phones were in great demand among the youth. To make the device even more appealing, Tiger planned not just to introduce a GPS device annex mobile phone, but the device should also play games. When this proved technically possible and commercially viable, Tiger saw opportunities to broaden the market, by focussing not only on kids but also the gaming market as a whole. This interest shift brought Tiger into the waters of the N-gage and to a lesser extent the Zodiac1.
The N-gage, the Zodiac 1 and the Gizmondo were all players new in the gaming market. Nokia, of course, had popularized the mobile phone and the company behind the Zodiac 1 (Tapwave) was founded by ex-board members of PDA powerhouse PALM. Only Tiger Electronics, with its Gametraq, was brand new in any sector. All three devices thought that renowned brands such as Nintendo, Sony and Sega were not innovative enough and therefore missing the boat by focusing purely on gaming. The general public, who increasingly had a mobile phone or PDA in their pocket, wanted a device that combined the best of all worlds, right? In addition, the gaming market had become more mainstream and had outgrown its young target group. Therefore, all three companies adopted a similar philosophy by combining a mobile phone, a PDA and a gaming handheld that was aimed at a more mature audience. But, was the consumer really waiting for such a hybrid device?
The Gametraq was first shown at CES in Las Vegas in January 2004 and at CeBIT in Germany in March 2004. Due to a dispute with a Formula One team over the name Gametraq, and to avoid “further” legal hair splits, in April of that year, Tiger decided to rename the handheld to Gizmondo (not to be confused with the tech website Gizmodo).
Advertise does sell!
Initially the Gizmondo got a lot of media-attention as well enthusiasm from the general public. The handheld was equipped with a, for the time, fast ARM9 processor at 400 MHz and the potent Nvidea GForce 3D 4500 chip. Furthermore, the handheld had a 2.8 inch TFT screen with a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels and 128 MB Ram. The Gizmondo was also equipped with a camera, GPS and a SIM Card slot. These additions would even give it the possibility to enable Augmented Reality in games. At least according to Tiger. The whole device ran on a customized version of Windows CE. The specifications left the Nintendo DS far behind and were on par with the PSP. At least on paper.
Not only the technical power was considered the unique selling point of the Gizmondo. Telematics also managed to advertise the handheld well by connecting celebrities such as Busta Rhumes, Jodie Kidd and Pharrel William to the device. The company paid them a lot of mony to performe at a specially organized party in London’s expensive Regent Street, where a special Gizmondo Store was opened. Formula One director Jenson Button also lent himself to a magazine advert and licensed his name for racing games for the Gizmondo. But it didn’t stop there. Tiger also produced and broadcasted a television spot for the handheld and Gizmondo executive Stan Eriksson even participated in the 2005 edition of the 24 Hours of Lemans race, racing in a fully Gizmondo sponsored Ferrari 360 Modena GTC. So, no expense was spared to gain a foothold in the competitive gaming market. By displaying the Gizmondo as a modern high-end handheld and by connecting celebrities to the console, they hoped to gain the favor of the general public. However, it also meant that the new console had to sell significantly to return the investment. And there, but not just there, was where the shoe pinches.
A dark past
The downfall of the Gizmondo oddly enough, started before the console was even launched. The Gizmondo was the idea of the Swedish business partners Carl Freer and Stafan Eriksson. The latter was not only famous as the face of the company, but was also known for its dark past. Eriksson had been a member of the Swedish mafia (the Uppsalamaffian), and was associated with car theft and arms trafficking. This information was published by a journalist just before the introduction of the Gizmondo and contributed to a decline in confidence of the success of the handheld.
However, Eriksson himself was also not too confident in the success of the Gizmondo. An unwritten marketing rule is that you should never announce a new variant of a product before or shortly after the release of the initial product. After all, everyone will keep their money in the pocket until a better version launches (Osborne effect). Precisely this unwritten rule was ignored by Tiger Telematics by announcing a new, improved, variant of the Gizmondo a month before the introduction of the Gizmodo in the US and 5 months after the European launch. The new version would have built-in Wi-Fi, TV-out support a wide screen with 480 x 272 resolution, a 2 megapixel camera and a 500 MHz processor. It also would include tri-band GSM technology , making it a de facto mobile phone too.
Arguably, this improved version maybe wouldn’t have saved the Gizmondo, but the announcement of the new variant definitely contributed to the handheld’s downright poor sales. It was probably an indicator that Tiger Telematics was in financial trouble. Pre-announcement is often a means used far into the life of a product to increase the interest of the media and investors in the company’s future prospects and to intimidate or confuse competitors. However, so soon after the Gizmondo’s launch, it was more of an emergency, if not a stupid one, that almost completely stopped the already limited cash flow of Tiger.
Why Tiger applied this drastic measure had to do with the already dire situation in which the company found itself. The management’s extravagant spending, characterized by the purchase of luxury yachts, Ferraris, Rolex watches, along with a huge investment in the Gizmondo ad campaign and in game developers (2 million) who did not yet produce a single game, had caused a huge debt. Furthermore, the company had to settle for $1.5 million with a formula racing team that had a sponsorship deal under the former name of Gizmondo ‘Gametraq’. On top of this, Tiger had a large debt with the US government for not paying SSC commissions. All of this resulted in a total debt of $300 million.
The situation was compounded by the fact that the Gizmondo launched later than planned. The initial UK release was delayed from late 2004 to March 2005 so Gizmondo could incorporate Nvidia’s newest portable Video processor, which would make them stand out from the competition. The American release was originally planned for early 2005, but was pushed back repeatedly, eventually falling back to late September to allow developers more time to complete their games. Gizmondo’s Game library, which according to Tiger would comprise dozens of games at launch, was falling behind extensively in comparison to the PSP and DS.
In the UK the Gizmondo was at launch only available in the Gizmondo flagship store on Londo’s Regent Street, in other retail stores like Dixons and Argos and in the Gizmondo online store. In Sweden, the console was released in the summer of 2005 and sold through retailers. In the US, the Gizmondo was only available in special Gizmondo kiosks located in shopping malls throughout the US. The fact that the handheld was not publicly available through the mainstream retail network not only limited sales, but also prevented retailers from promoting the product in their stores or in their advertisements.
Smart Ads version
The introductory price was at $400/£229 which was considerably higher than the competition. To keep the price down a bit, a special ‘Smart Ads’ variant was launched for $229, in addition to the regular Gizmondo, in the US only. The idea behind this variant was that you would be presented with a maximum of 3 advertisements per day that were specially tailored to your interests. The built-in GPS in the Gizmondo would ensure that the user could receive advertisements from companies in the vicinity. Nowadays, Google and Trip advisor do the same, but in 2005 this was a novelty. Unfortunately for Gizmondo, the company went bankrupt before the ‘Smart Ads’ feature was activated. So, they have never been able to reap the benefits.
The poison cup had to be completely empty. Weeks after Tigers bankruptcy, Eriksson, still without any sense of responsibility, crashed a rare Ferrari Enzo, owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, while traveling at 261 kph (162 mph). Highway police also found a handgun in the wreckage. Eriksson initially blamed someone else, but eventually pleaded guilty to embezzlement and illegal gun possession and served two years in an American jail. But none of the above-mentioned should determine our opinion of the Gizmondo. The device can do this on its own.
In general, the device was praised for its build quality. In addition, the soft rubber-like structure of the handheld provided a nice touch. Other positives were the GPS functionality (although largely unused), SD card input, the potent graphics processor and the built-in camera.
The negative points were the absence of Wi-Fi, the ‘Smart Ads’ functionality, the price that was higher than the PSP and DS, the long start-up time, the lack of analog triggers and the heavy operating system Windows CE, which was not optimized for mobile gaming.
Most reviews concluded that on paper, the Gizmondo is a great handheld with excellent performance, but that it didn’t come close to the quality of the PSP or DS. Too many of the proposed features were insufficiently developed. The device did not work intuitively, the game controls left something to be desired, and people feared that the device would become a nice product at best. The Windows CE operating system turned out to be too heavy for the mobile processor, causing the start-up time of games and even menu operation to be noticeably delayed. The supplied software, including the audio and video player, alarm clock and contact list, were very basic and lacked many features. In addition, the video player only played the obsolete WMV formats.
All in all, the Gizmondo didn’t live up to its promises of a futuristic new handheld that could rival the big boys. Above all, the early reviewers agreed that the presence of exclusive games would make the device stand or fall, and it was already recognized that this would become a major pain point for the Gizmondo from its launch.
They were right. By launch in the UK, only one game, Trailblazer, was available. By the time it was launched in the US, there were only 8 titles available. Six other titles were released exclusively in Europe. This brings the total to 14 titles. A further 30 titles were known to be in development, but never saw the light of day. Simply because the console did not catch on, but also because Tiger Telematics filed for bankruptcy in February 2006.
The quality of the games was average to fair. The Nvidia graphics processor made it possible to display beautiful 3D images, but the games were not always well-thought-out and limited in scope. The Gizmondo lacked must-have titles, and games were highly derivative. The PSP and DS, on the other hand, offered titles that rivaled those on home consoles, whereas GIzmondo mostly offered games that originated on the internet. Even the Nokia N-gage had more appealing games with Sonic, Tony Hawk, Call of Duty and Tomb Raider. The controls of the games on the Gizmondo were also severely limited by the lack of analog triggers.
Unquestionably the most (and perhaps only) recognizable game on the system is SSX 3. However, this Gizmondo version was so downgraded that it passed for a web-based version of the game. Not exactly a great showcase for the system. Positive exceptions were Sticky Balls, a challenging puzzle game where you have to bump balls of the same color against each other using the environment (sort of billiards), and Trailblazer, a racing/puzzle game in which the player must navigate a grid with a light wheel while avoiding traps. Trailblazer in particular looked particularly good for its time, and the techno music gave the game the right atmosphere.
In general, none of the Gizmondo titles are killer apps, though in some ways Sticky Balls came close.
The Gizmondo was a special device. It was the first serious handheld from European soil (not counting N-gage) and thought it could conquer a place between the Japanese dominance of Sony and Nintendo. The Gizmondo tried to distinguish itself by its fast graphics processor, GPS functionality and multimedia applications. However, all distinctive features had received insufficient attention and were therefore very limited. Due to the relatively heavy Windows CE operating system, the device had a slow user experience, long loading times and ultimately the game performance was disappointing. The final blow for the handheld, however, was its limited launch lineup. The console simply didn’t get enough traction because of this. Add to that the limited presence of the device in retail and the manifestations of the managers of Tiger and you could almost speak of a textbook example of a console launch-fuck up. Despite all good intentions.
The Gizmondo has gone down in history as the worst selling handheld ever, and occasionally finds its way into ‘Top 10 Worst Consoles’ lists. It’s a shame because the perspective of a European handheld with a bit of a rebellious image as a counterpart to the Japanese giants really appealed to me. Over the years, a few design failures have also come to light that could not yet be included in the first batch of reviews. Although the handheld has only been on the market for 15 years, few Gizmondo’s are functional today. Almost every unit has broken batteries. Since the handheld will not work without a battery, and since the batteries are console-specific, this significantly reduces the life of the device. Gizmondo owners, if they haven’t thrown away their battery already, can only use the handheld with the failed battery in the device and the charging cable attached. Due to this major shortcoming, existing Gizmondo batteries (dead or not) are being sold for high prices.
A second major problem that has come to light is that the previously acclaimed soft rubbery material on the outside of the device wore out rapidly and gave off a glue-like substance. Many Gizmondos, especially after intensive use, have lost a lot of their shine as a result.
What still makes the console a sought-after collector’s item today is the special story about the creation of the world’s worst selling console, including the juicy history about the mistakes of the Tiger executives and the limited numbers of existing units. This means that if you take a Gizmondo out of your pocket, you probably have a suitable icebreaker for a special conversation about the device. And that’s something the PSP, DS, and Ngage haven’t achieved.
|CPU||ARM 9 – S3C2440 processor at 400 MHz|
|GPU||Nvidia GForce 3D 4500|
|Display||-72 mm (2.8 inch) TFT|
-320 × 240 pixels