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Nintendo's Portable History: Part 1, Game & Watch

We dust off the history books to investigate Nintendo's past
Product: History of Nintendo | Publisher: Nintendo | Format: DS, PSP
History of Nintendo Multiformat, thumbnail 1
If you stop 100 people in the street and ask them what brand springs to mind when considering the pastime of portable gaming, it's highly likely that an overwhelming percentage will mumble "Nintendo" before scurrying off to avoid the strange individual asking random strangers questions about video gaming.

Ever since the concept of taking interactive entertainment out of the living room and on the road was devised, Nintendo has comfortably dominated proceedings with its particular brand of mobile gaming.

But did you ever wonder how this supremacy came to be? If the answer is yes, allow us to take you on a trip down memory lane as we hop into our Flux Capacitor-enabled Nissan Micra and punch in the co-ordinates 1-9-8-0...

Back in the late '70s hotshot designer Gunpei Yokoi was one of Nintendo's leading lights. Starting as an assembly operative in 1965 he managed to gain the attention of Nintendo bigwig Hiroshi Yamauchi by creating a simple 'grabbing' toy which he used to entertain himself on long shifts.

Desperate for a killer product to turn around the ailing fortunes of the company (prior to video games, Nintendo produced playing cards), Yamauchi took a massive risk and brought this unusual item to retail.

It promptly sold 1.2 million units worldwide and understandably bagged Yokoi a fat promotion. With a new development team and immense resources at his disposal, he set about creating even more unique ideas.

Having made the shift from playing cards to toys, Nintendo eventually started to wake up to the potential electronic entertainment. During a routine train ride in the late '70s Yokoi experienced a seemingly inconsequential encounter that would change the history of video gaming forever.

He spotted a fellow businessman absent-mindedly punching the keys of his electronic calculator in a vain effort to engage himself during the dull trip. Yokoi's imagination went into overdrive and out of this chance event the Game & Watch range of portable games was born.

Based on LCD technology - which was still fairly impressive back then, yet highly affordable - this assortment of handheld games essentially wrote the rulebook that mobile gaming devices still slavishly adhere to even today. They were lightweight, extremely compact, highly portable and, most importantly of all, addictive as hell.

The first wave of titles appeared in 1980, and although they didn't sell spectacularly Nintendo stuck with the concept and later models started to pick up speed. The range was groundbreaking in many ways; for example, 1982's Donkey Kong Jr was the first game to feature four buttons for directional movement (as opposed to a joystick).

These buttons would later be fused to form a complete 'cross' shape, and in doing so Yokoi had invented the Direction Pad or 'D-pad', a design element that is still in use today.

The use of 'Button Cell' batteries - up to this point used primarily for pocket calculators and watches - was also a massive factor in the success of the concept. These small and inexpensive power units ensured that Game & Watch titles retained their slim, portable appearance and granted plenty of play time when on the road.

Of course, 'Game' was only one part of the experience. As the 'Watch' portion of the range's title would suggest, these tiny slabs of technological brilliance had a dual purpose: they featured fully functional clocks that allowed users to see exactly how much of their lives they had wasted playing each feverishly compulsive game.

When considering the usefulness of such a feature, you have to remember that back in the early '80s LCD wrist watches were still a fairly cutting edge luxury that young gamers might not be blessed with. All of the games (with the exception of the debut 'Silver' range) also showcased an alarm function, which made the device even more appealing.

The Game & Watch range ran from 1980 to 1991 and saw several different revisions on the concept. Think the dual-screen design of the Nintendo DS is revolutionary? Hardly - the company had dabbled with the idea back in 1982 with the 'Multi Screen' range, which allowed the action to progress from one LCD display to the next.

Not all of Yokoi's experiments were a success - the 'Tabletop' range seemed to go against the Game & Watch ideal; these units may have featured bright and colour visuals but they were bulky and disappointingly un-portable.

During the lifetime of the series Nintendo released the 8-bit NES home console to massive critical and commercial acclaim, and the company's focus predictably shifted back into the living room.

The Game & Watch was entirely forgotten and key franchises such as Super Mario, Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda all made appearances in LCD-form, but as the 1990s approached the technology was looking outdated and primitive, regardless of the fact that no one had successfully come up with anything to better it.

That didn't happen until Nintendo released its next console in 1989. It was called the Game Boy, and we seem to recall it did quite well.

Tune in next week to see how well.


Reviewer photo
Damien McFerran 8 January 2009
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