Notorious Gangsters and No Games: The Gory Story of the Gizmondo

A decade ago, a new handheld emerged to rival the DS and PSP. But the system didn't simply suck—the entire enterprise was utterly corrupt.

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Mar 9 2015, 4:00pm

In 1981, an auto shop worker living in Uppsala, Sweden, went down for three months on robbery charges. Seven years later, he found himself back behind bars, this time for drugs- and arms-related convictions. But prison didn't stall Stefan Eriksson's pursuit of wealth beyond legal means, nor his lust for regional power imposed through a campaign of violent intimidation. Come the early 1990s, he headed what the domestic media came to call the Uppsala mafia. Further jail time followed, as is to be expected when you've attempted to defraud the Swedish Bank Giro Central out of 22 million krona.

Eriksson is a career criminal of the purest kind, unfalteringly chasing a payday by all and any nefarious means – but not a particularly successful one, as his lengthy arrest record serves as a testament to. In 2006 he was arrested in the US, where he'd bought a property in Bel Air, on suspicion of grand theft auto and cocaine possession, among other ill doings. He went down again. But between spells in the can he found the time to invest in a brand-new gaming console – one that "celebrates" its tenth anniversary in March 2015.

Fellow Swede Carl Freer founded a tiny electronics distributor in 2000, called Eagle Eye Scandinavian. A wholly improbable merger happened in 2002 when Freer joined forces with Michael Carrender, the director of a carpet retailer in Florida. A new company was born, Tiger Telematics Inc, with Freer as its CEO. Its mission: to take on the giants of Nintendo and Sony and launch an innovative handheld machine that would change the face of gaming on the go. But Tiger needed capital, which is where Eriksson and two other executives, Peter Uf and Johan Enander, came into the already somewhat suspicious picture.

Setting up shop in Farnborough, an unremarkable town just off the M3 linking Southampton to London, Tiger was immediately presented with a second-tier competitor as Nokia unveiled its freakish console-in-a-phone N-Gage in October 2003. Around 3 million of these "frankenphones" were sold, qualifying the N-Gage as a greater success than the Atari Lynx but an outright failure beside Nintendo's market-dominating device of the time, the 2004-launched DS.

Tiger's response to the N-Gage reaching retail was to post details of their own contraption online. At the time named the Gametrac, this "lifestyle" product was pitched at the seven-to-15-year-olds market, packing MP3 playback and SMS compatibility beside 3D gaming and GPS functionality so, get this, "parents concerned about their children's whereabouts" could keep tabs on them. The concept pitch became a working product at January 2004's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and soon enough the system's technical director Steve Carroll was talking the talk like an industry pro.

"Affordably priced, pocket-sized and seriously sexy," is how Carroll described the Gizmondo to games trade site MCV in the summer of 2004. It was certainly small when released in March 2005, especially if you were still rocking baggy jeans, but sexy? That's a matter of taste, I suppose. Affordably priced, though, the Gizmondo certainly wasn't. After a shower of celebrities-supported launch events and advertising featuring Formula 1 driver Jenson Button, it retailed for a hardly pocket-money-friendly £229 – or close enough to $400 in the States, where a considerably slighter promotional campaign led to incredibly poor public visibility. That's £100 more than Nintendo's DS had launched for, and that handheld had Mario, Rayman, Pokémon and more. The Gizmondo debuted with Trailblazer. And that was it.

Trailblazer wasn't terrible, at all – a high-speed racer of sorts, it looked like a rhythm action game like Amplitude mixed with the PlayStation classic Wipeout, but was actually a souped-up rework of a game that'd come out for the Commodore 64 in the mid-1980s. But the Gizmondo wasn't going to get by on a fancily clothed clone of something that'd earned a high score in Zzap!64. More titles were needed, fast, and when the system's own Regent Street store opened up, its coming-soon shelves indicated that plenty were expected: ports of Worms World Party and Carmageddon, the "world's first GPS video game" Colors, and bizarrely titled affairs like Milo and the Rainbow Nasties and Momma I Can Mow the Lawn. Bankable franchises were dangerously thin on the ground, but progress was being made.

Progress pulled a muscle. In total, only 14 games were commercially released for the Gizmondo – more a clutch of crap than a catalogue of classics. Many were deplorable. Of the titles that weren't, the chuckle-worthy puzzler Sticky Balls earned an iOS rebirth in 2014 and was regarded as a must-have for Gizmondo owners, and Gizmondo Motocross 2005 was an enjoyable, Super Skidmarks-recalling isometric racer with plenty of fart-like motorbike emissions. A couple of EA titles, FIFA 2005 and SSX 3, also transferred to the console, although you'll be lucky to find anyone who owned a copy.

Because the Gizmondo made N-Gage's meagre sales look like an industry conquering achievement. Fewer than 25,000 units were shifted, and the fact that all of its games came out between March 2005 and October of the same year tells you everything about its longevity, as Tiger struggled to impress against more-established competitors. A £100 price cut just a month after launch couldn't improve its fortunes dramatically, and the Gizmondo was killed off in February 2006 – the same month that Eriksson crashed a $2 million Ferrari in California at such speed, reportedly around 162 mph, that the car was torn in half. The resulting investigation developed into the charges that put the Gizmondo partner back in prison later that year. On release in 2008, he was deported back to Sweden to face the music for crimes committed in his homeland, including aggravated assault.

The console never recovered – not from its first-year flop, or its ties with the main man of the Uppsala mafia. A proposed widescreen version with WiFi connectivity didn't make market, but its announcement meant that American consumers yet to see the original go on sale simply waited for the better machine, completely killing the system's chances in the territory. (A classic case of the Osborne effect.) Tiger Telematics went out of business in early 2006, as previous collaborators lined up to aim lawsuits at the company, including Formula 1 racing team Jordan and MTV Europe. When the dust had settled, liquidators found nothing of value left at Tiger, with losses in the first nine months of 2005 said to amount to half a million pounds per day against total sales revenue of under one and a half million.

Freer had resigned in October 2005, when reports first surfaced of Tiger's connections with known criminals. He resurfaced in 2007, announcing his intention to revive the Gizmondo brand. But a new system would never come out, with Freer offering excuses when he could. "The delay is due to the economic climate in the US, as well as the rest of the world," he told Swedish writer Hans Sandberg in late 2008, and in August 2012 he spoke to Eurogamer about the project, saying "of course" he was still hoping to launch it, and doing so against all odds would be "any entrepreneur's' dream" – "I've learned more from my mistakes than from any success I've ever had."

Perhaps the first mistake Freer made was getting into the console business – the second being getting into bed with Eriksson and his cohorts. Prior to the Gizmondo, several examples existed of newcomers to the industry crashing disastrously against the era-dependent rocks of Sony, Nintendo, Sega and Microsoft: Apple and Bandai's Pippin, Trip Hawkins' 3DO and Philips' CD-i all tried and failed. (Yet, as the Ouya and Valves's Steam Machines illustrate, pretenders will forever step forth to challenge the reigning champions.) Today, the Gizmondo is not only the lowest-selling handheld console, but also regarded in some quarters as the absolute worst gaming system of all time, ever.

A deserved reputation? Probably. The deals made by Eriksson to suppliers were promises that the tiny company could never hope to fulfill, and its fate was sealed before the console ever reached Regent Street, with salaries in 2004 amounting to way more than Tiger would ever see in sales revenue. Its discontinuation was pain-relieving release, its very presence in the games world a black spot beside shiny gold teeth and rainbow plumes, to swing off some appropriate pirate imagery. Carroll says the Gizmondo was "ahead of its time," but the truth of the matter is that the entire enterprise only earns its place in video gaming history because of its corrupt-to-the-core backstory. Happy birthday, you stinking piece of shit.

@Mikediver

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