The Epyx Collection: Handheld review

Until a few years ago, experiencing Atari Lynx games either involved acquiring original hardware or resorting to emulation. Today, almost half the handheld’s catalogue is available to play legally, albeit in drips and drabs. Atari 50: The Anniversary Collection included a handful of titles – albeit not many synonymous with the system – while the two Evercade Lynx carts offered a decent spread. Additionally, Chip’s Challenge recently gained a standalone Switch release. Now we can add this Epyx collection to that list.

While it doesn’t cover new ground, featuring six titles also found on Evercade Lynx Collection 2, they’re presented in a new light here on Switch with rotatable recreations of the boxes and carts, digital manuals, and modern day features such as a five second rewind tool and save states. The main menu uses a muted white and grey colour scheme that’s easy on the eye, and each game is introduced with a text boxout. A few different screen filters are present (LCD, CRT, etc) but there’s no way to alter the screen size – they’re presented in full screen, resulting in jumbo sized pixels. This isn’t much of an issue; given the choice, most would opt for full screen anyway. Emulation appears faultless, running smoothly.

This collection is interesting for historical reasons too. Epyx was responsible for the Lynx itself, pitching the handheld to Atari back when it was known as the Handy Game. The original deal involved Epyx creating games for the system (duly rechristen as the Lynx) while Atari handled manufacturing and marketing. As such, Epyx – who sadly went bust a few years into the Lynx’s lifecycle – knew the system inside and out. The games here reflect this, utilising its sprite scaling tech. Although not quite on par with the SNES’ Mode 7 abilities, most Lynx games had large sprites, zooming effects and flashy intros with rotation, all of which were impressive for the time. You’ll see a lot of that here, as this collection mostly consists of Lynx launch games that were clearly intended to show off its abilities to woo the press.  

The Epyx Collection: Handheld review

The six games here are Blue Lightning, Gates of Zendocon, California Games, Todd’s Adventures in Slime World, Zarlor Mercenary and Electrocop. All of these were released in either 1989 or 1990. Blue Lightning is the standout, being technically impressive while also sporting a surprising amount of variety. It’s often compared to SEGA’s Afterburner, and while it’s easy to see why, it’s also far less arcade-like as each stage has objectives and some sections also loop until a target quota or similar has been met. One level is set within canyons and involves weaving in and out with skill (the rewind tool is very helpful here!) while another entails shooting down spy planes and dropping off documents at landing strips. Blue Lightning is often touted as one of the Lynx’s best games, and it’s hard to argue. Even now, it holds some magic – the way the backdrops alter and pan is impressive technically.

California Games is another synonymous with the system, often featured within adverts. Skateboarding, surfing and BMX’ing were vogue at the time, and California Games capitalised on these trends. It offers a stripped back selection from the console versions with just four events, all of which were, curiously enough, programmed by different people. This gives each its own look and feel. All four are tied together by a high score table making your efforts count collectively. California Games has always been a peculiar thing; it’s instantly appealing, but instead of teaching how to play with a tutorial, it merely informs what you did wrong. This means there’s a steep learning curve, with only footbag/hacky sack being intuitive. The controls are at least responsive, especially during BMX, so you’ll never be cursing for that reason. If your barely clothed participant ends up in a crumpled mess, it usually your fault. It’s merely a case of working out why.

The Epyx Collection: Handheld review

Then there’s Todd’s Adventures in Slime World. Because edgy and attitude filled mascot platformers were yet to happen (Sonic was still a year away) we’re instead introduced to the quintessential ‘90s hero Todd, with his sunglasses and funky walking animation. Innovative for it’s time, it’s set in a slime covered labyrinth and involves looking for an exit while climbing walls, battling aliens, and using water pools to remove surplus gunk. If Todd becomes fully smothered, he’ll die – a novel approach to a health bar. The labyrinth like level design shares similarities with today’s Metroidvanias, and using items proficiently (jet packs, shields, mega bombs, etc) can make some locations a breeze, which is rewarding. The only downsides are that the screen positioning is sometimes erratic, not always giving the best view of the action, while the game itself is short. I saw the ending in around thirty minutes, rewinding infrequently.  

Gates of Zendocon and Zarlor Mercenary fall into the shoot’em up genre, with the former being horizontal and the latter being vertical. Both have their own gimmicks too. In fact, there are more noteworthy elements present than in some modern indie shooters. Gates of Zendocon is the better of the two, featuring a brief docking mini-game that sees your ship repaired. Should your craft become damaged, it loses its main cannon, leaving secondary fire only – which increases the challenge. It can be tense until docking again. It becomes quite twisted as it goes on, with later stages having warped alien lifeforms to blast. Zarlor Mercenary meanwhile is surprisingly chaotic, edging into ‘bullet hell’ territory. It has large sprites – the first boss is a sizeable UFO with shielding that must be destroyed completely – and weapons can be bought and sold mid-stage. A clever use of shadows gives the illusion of depth. Although unfairly difficult at times, the rewind tool makes it a more palatable experience nowadays.

The Epyx Collection: Handheld review

This leaves us with Electrocop, seemingly influenced by RoboCop. Whereas that film’s villain only gave you thirty seconds to comply, Electrocop gives you thirty minutes. That’s the amount of time given to escape its maze, blasting enemies with lasers and shoulder-mounted canons, and playing hacking-based mini-games. The concept here is neat – it’s essentially a primitive, sprite based, third-person shooter. Even now, it’s easy to see what the developers were aiming for. After just a few minutes though, frustration creeps in – having to duck to kill certain enemies is finicky, especially when they must be on the same plain as yourself. This also slows the pace. Become surrounded in enemies, and Electrocop will soon cop it. Kudos for Epyx for trying something new though. They could have created a generic run ‘n gun 2D platformer. Instead, they gave Lynx owners something original. Today though, it’s reduced to curio status.

When I first loaded up this collection I expected a mixed bag, believing fewer than half the games here would be worth revisiting. When I finally put the Switch down, I was left more than satisfied. The majority of games hold up remarkably well, with only Electrocop being worth no more than a ten minute fiddle. Even then, it’s still interesting conceptually. While the Lynx would later emerge to be a great way to play Atari’s arcade hits on the go – the platform holder’s backup plan for when Epyx crumbled – this collection still gives a good taster of what the handheld had to offer, even without any genuine arcade conversions. Hopefully one day a definitive Lynx collection releases – as mentioned earlier, the format’s catalogue is infuriatingly scattered. Until then, this is a great way to experience a little bit of Atari Lynx magic.

Pixel Games UK’s The Epyx Collection: Handheld is out now on Switch. Developed by Imagine.