Powered by a 16-bit central processing unit, the WonderSwan took advantage of a low price point and long battery life in comparison to its competition, Nintendo's Game Boy Color and SNK's Neo Geo Pocket Color. Later improvements took advantage of quality upgrades to the handheld's screen and added color. The WonderSwan is playable both vertically and horizontally, and features a unique library of games, including numerous first-party titles based on licensed anime properties, as well as significant third-party support from Square, Namco, and Taito.
Overall, the WonderSwan in all its variations combined to sell an estimated 3.5 million units and managed to obtain as much as 8% of the Japanese handheld video game console market before being marginalized by Nintendo's Game Boy Advance. Retrospective feedback praises the potential of the WonderSwan despite its low sales and its brief time holding its own against Nintendo in the marketplace.
Founded in 1950 by Naoharu Yamashina, Bandai was originally a manufacturer of toy cars and plastic models, but became a major player in the toy industry through the licensing of popular anime characters beginning with Tetsuwan Atomu in 1963. In the 1970s, Bandai manufactured both LCD games based on television programs and dedicated consoles. In 1982, the company released the Intellivision in Japan, and in 1985 it became one of the first third-party licensees on the Family Computer. The company's greatest success in electronic games, however, was the Tamagotchi virtual pet first released in 1996. Despite plans for Bandai to merge with Sega to form Sega Bandai Ltd. in 1997, the merger was called off suddenly. Bandai's board of directors decided to oppose the merger less than a week after approving it, and Sega in turn decided to accept Bandai's actions at an emergency board meeting later that day. Bandai president Makoto Yamashina took responsibility for failing to gain the support of his company for the merger. As a result, Bandai entered the market without outside support.
Engineer Gunpei Yokoi is known for creating the Game Boy handheld system at Nintendo. After the failure of the Virtual Boy, however, he left the company in 1996 in order to create his own engineering firm, Koto Laboratory. It was then that Bandai approached Yokoi to create the WonderSwan to compete with the Game Boy. Yokoi was involved in development of the new handheld, but died in 1997 in a car accident before it was released.
The WonderSwan was officially unveiled in Tokyo on October 8, 1998. Bandai chose the name of the system to highlight its aesthetics and technical capabilities because the swan is recognized as an elegant bird with powerful legs that aid its graceful swimming. The company promised a 30-hour battery life, a low retail price, and a launch lineup of roughly fifty games.