Bandai WonderSwan
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

With sales of just 3.5 million units, the Bandai WonderSwan can hardly be described as one of the most commercially successful handhelds of all time, but its significance in the history of video games goes beyond simple stats and figures; it was the last console to be designed by the legendary Gunpei Yokoi before his untimely death in 1997.

Yokoi joined Nintendo in 1965 as a maintenance engineer, but he soon became one of the company's most important hires as he spearheaded its shift from hanafuda playing cards into toys and gadgets, with devices like the Ultra Hand and Love Tester generating impressive revenue for the Japanese giant. However, his Game & Watch LCD handhelds and Game Boy portable console would be even more successful, helping to establish Nintendo as one of the leading players in the world of gaming – before his stock took a nosedive following the release of the disastrous Virtual Boy in 1995.

Yokoi departed Nintendo on 15th August 1996 and co-founded a new company called Koto, which not only assisted in the design of the Tamagotchi virtual pet but also led the development of the WonderSwan. Conceived as a rival to the incumbent Game Boy, the WonderSwan was designed to be cheap and would run off a single AA battery. It was also unique in that it could be held vertically and horizontally, thanks to two sets of controls. Released in 1999 – after Yokoi's passing, tragically – it initially came with a monochrome display before being upgraded in the form of the WonderSwan Color (2000) and Swan Crystal (2002).

Bandai WonderSwan
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Never released outside of Japan, the WonderSwan never really came close to challenging the dominance of the Game Boy line, and by the time the SwanCrystal arrived in 2002, the technically superior Game Boy Advance was already available. Even so, Bandai had one unlikely ally during this period, which allowed the WonderSwan to gain almost 10 percent of the lucrative Japanese handheld market: Square. The Final Fantasy owner had famously fallen out with Nintendo during the N64 era and shifted its allegiance to Sony. Keen to generate some revenue in the portable sector, Square threw its weight behind the WonderSwan, releasing several new titles as well as ports of its Final Fantasy and Front Mission titles.

200 games were released across the WonderSwan and WonderSwan Color ranges, and given the console's Japanese exclusivity, it should come as no great shock to learn that many of them are impenetrable to non-Japanese players. Even so, there are still some amazing games to be had, and we've pulled together a handful of the best below – presented in no particular order.

One Piece Grand Battle Swan Colosseum (WS)

One Piece is a huge global success story today, but back in 2002, its fame was pretty much exclusive to Japan. For that reason – and the fact that the WonderSwan never got released outside of Japan – One Piece Grand Battle Swan Colosseum flew under the radar of many people, which is a shame as it's not just one of the best One Piece games; it's also one of the best titles on the handheld full stop.

Developed by fighting game expert Dimps, it contains 13 playable characters from the manga, each equipped with a range of fighting moves. You can also grab items in the arena to increase your chances of success.

While much of the game was retooled for the GBA release One Piece (which did get a Western release), there's something pure and appealing about this WonderSwan exclusive. Even if you're not a fan of the One Piece series, there's a lot to like here – and it's a good showcase of the console's capabilities, boasting some incredible animation and 2D art.

Mr. Driller (WS)

Namco's action puzzle title began life in the arcades, but it arguably found its feet on portable devices, and the WonderSwan port was one of the first.

While it perhaps misses a trick by not utilising the console's portrait mode, it's a fantastic conversion of a thoroughly addictive coin-op and easily one of the WonderSwan's best titles. Perfect for short-burst action.

Rainbow Islands: Putty's Party (WS)

A spin-off from the Rainbow Islands series (which itself is a spin-off of the Bubble Bobble franchise), Rainbow Islands: Putty's Party is a neat WonderSwan-exclusive platformer which tasks you with getting to the top of the level before the time runs out.

Instead of Bubby and Bobby, you assume the role of the titular Putty, who has been blessed with the same rainbow-throwing ability and must traverse five different islands, each with a particular theme (including one based on the Taito shooter Darius).

Rainbow Islands: Putty's Party makes use of the WonderSwan's portrait mode to give a better view of the play area, and while it's a shame that it's not in colour, it's a neat little addition to a series which really deserves more fame and fortune these days.

Gunpey (WS)

Every handheld needs a solid puzzle title. Game Boy had Tetris, while Game Gear had Columns. In the case of the WonderSwan, it was Gunpey, a puzzler which requires you to move lines around a vertical grid in order to join them up horizontally and clear them from play.

Intended as a tribute to Gunpei Yokoi, the designer of both the Game Boy and WonderSwan, the game was followed by Tarepanda No Gunpey and Gunpey EX, with the latter adding online play via the Wondergate accessory but removing the original game's story mode.

While we wouldn't claim that Gunpey is in quite the same league as Tetris, it's still a wonderful puzzler. The series would continue with Gunpey DS and Gunpey on the PSP.

Pocket Fighter (WS)

There was something of a craze for super-deformed games back in the '90s, as evidenced by Sega's Virtua Fighter Kids and. Capcom's Super Gem Fighter Mini Mix, which was released in Japan as Pocket Fighter.

While Saturn and PlayStation got relatively close conversions of the coin-op, the WonderSwan got a scaled-down port which manages to capture the appeal of the original, despite the lack of colour and the less-than-ideal control setup.

Given the Capcom angle and the accessible nature of the gameplay, Pocket Fighter has become one of the most sought-after WonderSwan releases.

Makaimura For WonderSwan (WS)

Part of the incredibly popular Ghosts 'n Goblins franchise, Makaimura For WonderSwan doesn't really feel like a 'brand new' adventure but instead pulls in elements from previous entries, creating a unique instalment which, while not entirely up to the standard of its forerunners, remains an appealing spin-off.

While it recycles many things from the other games in the bloodline, there are some cool features, such as a level that forces you to rotate the WonderSwan 90 degrees, as well as pathways that split between stages.

Sadly, the game's Japanese exclusivity and the fact that it's part of such a beloved series mean that it's quite pricey on the secondary market these days.

Judgement Silversword -Rebirth Edition- (WS)

The WonderSwan's TATE mode makes it ideal for vertically-scrolling shooters, which makes it so surprising that more weren't made for the console.

Judgement Silversword was created by indie coder M-KAI as part of a coding competition held by Qute for its WonderWitch development kit, with the promise that the winning entries would get official releases.

Due to its low print run and high quality, Judgement Silversword is perhaps the WonderSwan's most desired title – but if you don't fancy spending an arm and a leg to play it, then you can always opt for the Steam version, which was released in 2018.

Kaze no Klonoa: Moonlight Museum (WS)

Developed alongside the PS2 title Klonoa 2: Lunatea's Veil, Kaze no Klonoa: Moonlight Museum is the portable debut for Namco's cute platforming character, and is an admirable attempt to transfer the appeal of the series to Bandai's monochrome marvel.

The game sees Klonoa and Huepow trying to piece together the moon, which has been shattered by the nefarious members of the Moonlight Museum.

As is the case with many of the WonderSwan's best games, Kaze no Klonoa: Moonlight Museum is now quite a valuable item on the second-hand market.

Tetris (WS)

Tetris is naturally most famous for accompanying the release of the Game Boy, but the series also got an outing on the WonderSwan, and it's an absolute gem.

One of the first Tetris games to adopt the "Tetris Guideline" specification, it makes excellent use of the console's portrait mode, giving you a zoomed-in view of the playfield which is missing from many other editions of the game.

Boasting Marathon, 40 Line, 3 Minute and VS modes, there's plenty here to keep you busy, making this one of the best handheld versions of Tetris you can get – it's a shame that it never saw release outside of Japan.

Guilty Gear Petit 2 (WS)

WonderSwan has not one but two pint-sized versions of the Guilty Gear series, and this second offering – which benefits from being in colour – is effortlessly the best of the pair.

While the combat mechanics have naturally been dialled down to accommodate the console's simplistic control setup, it retains plenty of depth and is surprisingly fun to play. There are plenty of characters to master and the visuals are simply fantastic.

Those expecting an experience close to the arcade and home console iterations are naturally going to be disappointed, but this is a brilliant spin-off that is perfectly suited to the limitations of its host platform.

Beatmania For WonderSwan (WS)

An early release for the monochrome WonderSwan, Beatmania is notable for shipping with a clip-on turntable accessory, which, when 'scratched', would depress the 'B' button. While this gimmick is perhaps slightly pointless, it at least gives the game some degree of connection with its arcade parent.

Based on the track listing of Beatmania 3rd Mix, Beatmania For WonderSwan showcases some surprisingly high-quality music, at least in relation to what other handhelds were producing at the time. The songs have been sampled at the maximum possible quality for the console, and while they sound pretty dreadful to modern ears, it was something of a revelation back in 1999.

The downside is that the limited space on the cartridge means that only ten songs make the cut, but that doesn't prevent this from being a fun diversion, especially for fans of music games.

Final Fantasy IV (WS)

When Square shifted the development of Final Fantasy VII from the Ultra 64 (N64) to the PlayStation, it triggered a massive falling out between the company and Nintendo – a rift which wouldn't heal for a few years.

Final Fantasy, a series which began life on the NES, was therefore without a portable home for a brief period, so Square – up to this point a solid supporter of the NES, SNES and Game Boy – threw its lot in with Bandai and ported several classic Final Fantasy entries to WonderSwan.

Final Fantasy IV is perhaps the greatest of these ports; widely regarded as one of the best video games of all time, it showcases an epic tale packed with memorable characters.

The WonderSwan port considerably updates the visuals of the NES / Famicom original, resulting in the best version of the game at the time of release. Naturally, there's no Western version, but an unfinished translation patch allows you to at least understand the game's menus.

What's a WonderSwan?

The original WonderSwan, released in 1999, is a monochrome handheld device intended to rival the Game Boy. Powered by a single AA battery, it offers 40 hours of battery life and was sold for just ¥4,800 (£25 / $32).

The WonderSwan Color, released in 2000, includes an FSTN colour screen and originally cost ¥6,800 (£36 / $45).

The final iteration, the SwanCrystal, has a superior TFT colour display and sold for ¥7,800 (£41 / $52) in 2002.

How long does the WonderSwan's battery last?

A single AA battery will power a monochrome WonderSwan for 40 hours. A WonderSwan Color will last for 20 hours, while the SwanCrystal will last for 15 hours.

How many games are on WonderSwan?

In total, 200 games were released across all WonderSwan hardware variants.

109 games released on the original Wonderswan – these are also compatible with the WonderSwan Color and SwanCrystal.

The WonderSwan Color has 91 games, and these are only compatible with WonderSwan Color and SwanCrystal units.

How powerful was the WonderSwan?

The WonderSwan's CPU is a 16-bit NEC V30 MZ, which makes it more powerful than the Game Boy and Game Boy Color in terms of processing power. The Game Boy Color uses an 8-bit Sharp Corporation LR35902, which is a custom hybrid between the Intel 8080 and the Zilog Z80.

Is WonderSwan region locked?

No, because WonderSwan was only released in a single region, Japan.

Was WonderSwan a failure?

The WonderSwan, WonderSwan Color and SwanCrystal sold an estimated 3.5 million units in Japan, which didn't really put much of a dent in Nintendo's market share. However, compared to its close rival the Neo Geo Pocket, which sold around two million units, it could be seen as more of a success.