Game & Watch

Game & Watch

For close to a century, the Japanese company Nintendo busied itself making playing cards for the popular game Hanafuda. Off and on, they would dabble in other toy and business interests, but it wasn’t until the dawn of the video game age that the erstwhile humble company would make international history. One of Nintendo’s contributions to the gaming world was the Game & Watch, a handheld electronic game that put the power of video games into the very portable palm of the hand.

The first of these games was called Ball, a simple game in which the player tried to keep a juggler juggling for as long as possible. Every Game & Watch had a tiny liquid crystal display screen and two buttons used to put motion into the juggler’s arms. Other buttons let the player choose difficulty, view the timer, or even set an alarm.

Initially, each Game & Watch had only one game programmed into it. Because of this, the design of each player could vary slightly depending on the game. Most Game & Watch controllers resembled the later Nintendo 8-bit controllers with a directional pad and two action buttons, plus the Time, Alarm, and Game buttons located up in the corner. In 1980, the same year Ball made its debut, four other Game & Watch games came out, among them Fire (a rescue game) and Judge (a one-on-one mallet fighter… naturally). While not as versatile as the cartridge-based Atari VCS or Intellivision, Game & Watch was fairly cheap and could go anywhere a kid could go, causing back-of-the-bus clusters and classroom disruptions everywhere.

A year later, in 1981, Nintendo successfully broke into the arcade racket and found a way to squeeze the sensational Donkey Kong into a new dual-screen Game & Watch. With its clam shell design, players now flipped open their Game & Watch and helped Mario scale the girders of the bottom screen only to watch him appear at the bottom of the top screen on his way to rescue Pauline and thwart the marsupial menace. Several of the multi-screen Game & Watch handhelds such as Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye while other Nintendo favorites like The Legend of Zelda and Mario Bros. transmogrified to the miniature handhelds. Other hits soon came in mini-arcade Tabletop versions while two-player games became a possibility with wired mini-controllers for games in the “Micro Vs.” series like Donkey Kong Hockey and Boxing.

In all, Nintendo created about sixty Game & Watch handhelds before the innovations of video gaming outpaced the novelty. The series came back to its roots for its last hurrah with Mario the Juggler. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Nintendo dug back into the archives and released the Game & Watch Galleries for their new handheld flagship Game Boy Color. Mini-Classics like Tetris and Snoopy also enjoyed a revival as Nintendo released a special set of LCD oldies.

Having passed the quarter-century mark, the Game & Watch technology is now considered a relic. Nevertheless, few from the video game generation can resist the sharp blips and beeps as these games sing their siren song for attention.

Were you the proud owner of one of these early handheld gaming devices? We’d love to hear your memories of the Nintendo Game & Watchin our comments section below.

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