Bandai Wonderswan 101: A Beginner’s Guide

The RetroGaming 101 series is aimed at gamers who are just starting out in the classic gaming scene or are curious about an older console that they don’t know much about yet. Those of you that are especially knowledgeable about the featured console, I encourage you to add any information that you think would be beneficial into the comments section. If you are new to the featured console, and still have questions, you can also use the comments section and I will do my best to help you out.

Since I’m not entirely familiar with the Wonderswan, racketboy.com contributer fastbilly1 has taken the liberty of sharing his knowledge here. He did an awesome job writing just about every word in here. I just rearranged a few things and added some comments. Enjoy!

Background Information

  • The original WonderSwan was released in Japan by Bandai in 1999.
  • It was developed by the late Gunpei Yokoi’s company Koto and Bandai. (Gunpei Yokoi was the mastermind behind the early Game & Watch games, the original Gameboy, Kid Icarus, Metroid, and the infamous Virtual Boy. The Virtual Boy failure caused him to resign from Nintendo in ignominy, but Gunpei Yokoi remained a man with an impressive video game pedigree).
  • After a year of success, the little handheld met the same fate as all that preceded it when Nintendo released the Gameboy Advance.
  • A strong Japanese backing, and several redesigns, allowed the Wonderswan to hang on for several more years and have many amazing ports, but ultimately it was laid to rest in early 2003.
  • The Wonderswan never actually made to a retail scene outside of Japan

wonderswan-shmup.jpgHistorical Impact

  • Innovative Design: Designed by fabled Gunpei Yokoi and featuring both horizontal and vertical game controls, the Wonderswan truly was ahead of its time. (See “Control Schemes” below for more info)
  • Bandai’s Deal With Squaresoft: Versions of Final Fantasy 1 & 2 redone in a more modern graphical style really sent wind into Bandai’s sails. Though even with a big name publisher and several stellar titles, Nintendo released the Gameboy Advance shortly after and simply sunk the ship that was the Wonderswan.
  • MobileWonderGate: This web browsing and email add-on featuring NTT DoCoMo cellular phone interface was way ahead of it’s time and set the stage for the PSP and DS browsers.
  • WonderBorg: A robot kit, similar to Nintendo’s R.O.B. Sold in two versions, WonderBorg can be programmed and controlled from a WonderSwan with Robot Works game cartridge, or a Microsoft Windows PC with a serial port infrared adapter and application software.
  • WonderWitch: A game development kit including a reprogrammable WonderSwan game cartridge, MS Windows-based C Programing compiler, and a serial cable to connect a WonderSwan to a PC.

Handheld Variations

  • Wonderswan: Released in 1999, and boasting an 8-shade monochrome screen and a 16bit v30 processor it was leaps and bounds above its Gameboy counterpart in almost everything it could do (except it was still monochrome and the Gameboy Color had been released the year before). Even with more power, and a system design that catered to all types of fans, Wonderswan sold somewhat poorly until the second version.  [eBay]
  • Wonderswan Color: Sporting a slightly beefier v30 processor and color, the Wonderswan Color had one major ace over the Gameboy: Squaresoft. The aforementioned Final Fantasy remakes gave the Wonderswan Color are temporary boost in the handheld market. [eBay]
  • Wonderswan Crystal: There was one more version, the Swan Crystal, released in 2002. It is essentially the same as the WonderSwan Color, except that the SwanCrystal uses a TFT LCD, superior in response time to the FSTN reflective LCD technology used previously. This gives the screen a much crisper look during gameplay, due to sharper contrast and significantly reduced ghosting. As a result, the SwanCrystal does not possess the contrast adjustment dial found on the other models. Other notable differences are the four selectable volume settings (compared to three on previous models), and a face-mounted power button (compared to a side-mounted switch on previous models). Unfortunately, the Crystal never did catch on even with its beautiful screen and amazing 15 hours off of one AA battery life. [eBay]
  • Compatibility: Although some WonderSwan Color games are compatible with the original WonderSwan, many are designed exclusively for the WonderSwan Color and show a message such as “This cartridge is for WonderSwan Color only” when run on the original WonderSwan. This is similar to the Gameboy/Gameboy Color compatibility.

The Wonderswan family was quite popular in Japan and there are handful of variants – thanks to elultimocartucho on IG for this photo

Screen & Color Capabilities

  • The screen is high quality, though as the console lacks any form of internal lighting it does need to be played in well-lit conditions.
  • The Wonderswan Color & Crystal can put out 241 colors at once out of a possible 4096 colors
  • This compares to the Neo-Geo Pocket Color’s 146 colors on screen out of 4096 and the Gameboy Color’s 56 simultaneously on screen out of 32,768

Control Schemes

  • The Wonderswan features eight buttons on the left hand side in a double diamond style and two buttons on the right hand side.
  • In vertical mode you have dual four button diamond setups which, when used in conjunction with the Wondercoin, make a fantastic dual joystick layout for arcade games. Or simply a nice D-pad and four buttons for most any shmup.
  • In horizontal mode you still have the dual D-pads, but you rarely use more than one and the two buttons on the side, which is how the Final Fantasy games are played. If I remember correctly, the game catalog is a fair mix of the system orientation.

Accessories

  • Headphone adapter: Provides stereo output with volume dial, overriding the built-in mono speaker and volume button of the WonderSwan. Originally sold with WonderSwan-branded earbuds. (Check eBay)
  • Link cable: Connects two WonderSwans together for games that support two players. (Check eBay)
  • Battery Cover:  Not an accessory necessarily, but we wanted to point out that the battery covers for the system house the AA batteries themselves.  So if you lose your cover, you won’t be able to play the system.  On the flip side, it’s also more difficult to lose the cover for this reason, They do seem to be interchangeable however — a battery cover from a Swan Color fits on a Swan Crystal just fine.
  • WonderWave: Infrared communication adapter, used by some games to exchange data with a Sony PocketStation. (Check eBay)
  • WonderCoin: A coin-shaped disc that can be fitted over a 4-directional button cluster of the WonderSwan to create the feel of a single directional pad. (Check eBay)
  • MobileWonderGate: utilized a standardized connector on Japanese cell phones from the era that would give your Wonderswan an internet connection.  The add-on also provided a web browser. (Check eBay)
  • WonderBorg: A robot bot that you can program and control with your Wonderswan.  Definitely ambitious for a non-Nintendo handheld at the turn of the millennium.  (Check eBay)
  • WonderWitch – a development kit that let consumers program their own Wonderswan games in the C programming language.  It requires a 32-bit operating system, Serial Port and CD-ROM drive (although virtual drive could work).  Bandai had competitions for uses of the WonderWitch — Judgement Silversword (mentioned below) was actually the result of the competition. The cartridge also lets you load games onto the cartridge as well.  MiracleMage is also an emulator for the Wonderwitch, but requires older hardware or a virtualized setup. (Check eBay)

Flash Carts

Even though there aren’t a ton of Wonderswan games and most are quite affordable, there’s enough games (and some really pricey gems) that having a solid Flash Cart can be a solid investment for those that really want to explore the handheld.  (For convenience of carrying and swapping cartridges, if nothing else)

In 2020, FlashMasta started producing their WonderSwan Flash Cart.  However, it’s been tricky to catch it in stock these days.  You can often find extras of the FlashMasta Wonderswan Flash Cart on eBay though for a slight premium.

The cartridges allows you to upload files from your computer to the cartridge via built-in micro USB and play them on your WonderSwan, WonderSwan Color, or SwanCrystal console.

wonderswan-ff.jpgStrengths

  • Big-Name Backing: Namco, Squaresoft, and Bandai all lent their support
  • Flexible Control Schemes: Two ways to play, vertical and horizontal
  • Homebrew-Friendly: Wonderwitch was an official homebrew kit
  • Amazing Battery Life: 10+ hours on a single AA battery
  • Inexpensive Aftermarket Price: Can pick up a handheld on eBay for about $20 and popular games for less than $10 each.

Weaknesses

  • Initially Expensive: Games were often $30-40 and the system was only slightly more expensive.
  • Few Long-Term Exclusives: Most of the big Wonderswan games were ported to other systems
  • Relatively Hard to Find: Even eBay has a limited selection
  • Only Released Commercially in Japan: Most games are in Japanese, so non-fluent readers will mostly have to stick to games that aren’t text-heavy.

Recommended Wonderswan Games

  • Importing Reminder: A bit of forewarning, the vast majority of games on the system do not have English text options. So unless you have a firm grasp of Kanji, I wish you good luck. However, even with that in mind, many of the best games do not require that much knowledge of the language, some simple menu commands should suffice.
  • Judgement Silversword: Best looking and playing shump (one of the best games overall as well) on the system. As you can see from this video, this game proved that the Wonderswan had the potential to be the best shump handheld with its vertical controls. (Check eBay)
  • Crazy Climber: One of the best dual stick arcade games finally got a faithful handheld port. The entire object of the game is to climb a building, using the controls to operate the sides of the characters body. Sounds stupid in concept, but it is a good bit addictive once you get the hang of the controls. (Check eBay)
  • Guilty Gear Petit 2: One of the best portable fighters created. Sure it only has two attack buttons, but the team that created this did everything the way a portable fighting game should be done. The visuals and audio are amazing, controls are tight, and the gameplay is simply fun.  (Check eBay)
  • Klonoa: Moonlight Museum: Set after the first game, Moonlight Museum set the standard for the later 2D Klonoa games. It may seem like you standard fair action platformer, but it has a lot of heart in there in uncommon in newer games. (Check eBay)
  • Gunpey: Named after the fabled handheld king Gunpei Yokoi, this little puzzler is like Klax, Tetris, and Polarium all had some sort of offspring. The object of the game is to create solid lines across the five space field. This is accomplished by aligning the fragments you get in, well a line.  Game eventually came out on the PSP as well.  (Check eBay)
  • Front Mission, Final Fantasy 1, and all the other Squaresoft Ports: it is simply stunning the amount of power they cranked out of this machine to make games this pretty. They are really the reason the majority of American collectors have sought after it, namely the FFIV special edition console.
  • Ganso JajaMaru-kun: Remake of NES/Famicom classic, Ninja Maru-kun, a cool little platformer that has a bit of a Donkey Kong feel.(Check eBay)
  • Tane-o-Maku Tori (Birds Saw the Seeds)- fun little puzzle game in which you control a water droplets to feed plant.  Also cool that you play vertically.  (Check eBay)
  • Buffers Evolution – a neat action platoformer  (Check eBay)
  • Rhyme Rider Kerorikan – rhythm game with platforming elements similar to Vib Ribbon on the Playstation.  (Check eBay)
  • Rockman (Megaman) EXE WS – challenging entry in the MegaMan family that is special to the Wonderswan.  (Check eBay)

A Wonderswan Color running Guilty Gear customized with a IPS screen upgrade installed and photographed by iFixRetro

Emulation of Wonderswan on Different Platforms

  • Emulation Status: There are several emulators available and most games with high compatibility.
  • Best Classic Windows PC Emulators: OSwan and WSCamp are the highest recommended emulators at this time. WSCamp is an all around a fantastic emulator, is considered the best by many. However, I personally use OSwan. There are two version of OSwan: The original and the continuation by PmHacks. Both are fantastic and have a high compatibility rate. The continuation, of course, has better compatibility and better emulation. I prefer the original version, but have a more recent PmHacks version installed in case the game I want to play is not compatible, ie Judgment Silversword.
  • Emulators for Mac and Linux: Mednafen and higan are both multi-system emulators that support Wonderswan.
  • Emulation with Retroarch: Mednafin and higan both offer a Libretro core that will emulate the Wonderswan platform on Retroarch emulation ecosystem.
  • FPGA Emulation on MiSTer: We now even have a Wonderswan core released on the MiSTer FPGA (for more accurate hardware-based emulation).
  • Emulation on DOS: Cygne – An early emulator and even with the enhancements over the years, it has been surpassed by the others. However if you still are running your emulators in DOS look no further.
  • Wonderwitch Emulator: Miraclemage – Has an English patch, unless you really want a challenge and try and code in Japanese. Worthwhile for the download just to see how well made the emulator and Wonderwitch are.

wonderswan-shmup.jpg

Affordability of Original Hardware & Games

  • Back when we first featured this guide in 2007, you could score a Wonderswan for about $20.  While you can score the original model for $25 to $50 shipped (often from Japan — but this is pretty solid pricing considering international shipping costs have increased over the past decade) on eBay.  However,  the premium for the Color and Crystal Models have increased quite a bit.
  • Wonderswan [Original] Handheld:  $25-$55 for bare handheld,  $60-$85 for boxed versions [eBay]
  • Wonderswan Color Handheld: $40-$85 for bare handheld, $77-$155 for boxed versions [eBay]
  • Wonderswan Crystal Handheld: $88-$150 for bare handheld, $170-$220 for boxed version [eBay]
  • You can probably score better deals by shopping with some local Japanese gamers or online services.
  • You can find more detail on retro handheld pricing on our Retro Handheld Hardware Price Guide – It provides a sortable table of all different sorts of handhelds in different conditions.
  • Games Prices: You can get most any game on the system for under $10 or $20.   There are a few rarities, but most games are rather affordable.
  • A downside to the console would be that the majority of the good games were either ports, or have been ported to other consoles. So if you are a collector of rare consoles, or just a fan of kooky Japanese electronics, for the price of a new game you can get a unique console and a couple games.
  • Check out eBay for Wonderswan handhelds and games

9 Comments

splatternick says:

I brought a Wonderswan Color off eBay fully boxed for about
£7 and the few games I got were pretty fun. If I remember right, I got Cho Aniki, Final Fantasy 1, Terrors 1&2, some random Gundam game, Ghost Panic, and a few other graphic adventure games. Can’t find Judgement Silversword anywhere,
atleast not cheaper than £50.

RoushiMSX says:

the original Wonderswan’s screen was so damned impossible to see (no backlight + massive amounts of ghosting). 🙁 I remember having a complete bitch of a time trying to play through Makaimura simply because it was so damn hard to see anything. Darn good game (and probably the easiest of the series) if you give it a whirl on the crystal or through emulation, though.

Rockman & Forte also really suffered because of the screen, unfortunately. I don’t think I’ve ever beaten the second or third stage in that game, and I’ve owned it since the week it came out 🙁

kevinski says:

I’ve always wanted a WonderSwan. I honestly doubt that it’d be worth my while, though, as I can’t read Kanji, and I don’t really consider shmups to be one of my favorite genres. I wouldn’t mind playing some fighting games on it, though.

gord says:

shame about the audio quality of the system though, if you don’t mind beeps then its a great lil thing 🙂

also id recommend mednafen as a great wonderswan emulator for us linux folks (if you don’t mind using a terminal)

Chris13 says:

i managed to make a list with all games (but leaving some mahjong games out) that i believe are playable by non japanese speakers,if anyone’s interested i will write it 😉

Zombie says:

Could a list of games with English text options be added to this 101 guide

Scioneer says:

For people that have played FF1 and FFIV on other systems in English, the Wonderswan ports are quite playable, and are what the other classic Final Fantasy Ports are based off of. I’m quite far along on Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy IV on my WSC, and will be playing some more now that I’ve added a Swan Crystal to my small but growing Wonderswan collection.

Alexis-128 says:

Capcom also released some games from popular franchises, such as Rockman.EXE WS,Rockman and Forte 2(MegaMan and Forte:Challengers from the Future). Namco released Tekken Card Challenge which is damn hard.

Cory Roberts says:

Small correction: WonderSwan Color was the version that moved the power button to the face, not the SwanCrystal.

So glad I picked up a ton of these dirt cheap two years ago! $5-10 for “junk” WonderSwan colors, most of which I was able to fix.

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