Over the holiday season we'll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This legacy feature was originally published in 2010 and revisited in September this year when Nintendo celebrated Mario's 35th birthday with a wide range of products, including the brand-new Game & Watch handheld based on the iconic LCD range from the '80s. Enjoy!
When you look back on the history of video games, it’s not uncommon to discover amusing anecdotes regarding defining moments in the industry. For example, rumour has it that Namco’s Pac-Man was conceived when creator Toru Iwatani glanced at a pizza with one slice missing, and there’s an equally famous tale that claims Nintendo’s renowned Mario was named after the landlord of the company’s US offices, who happened to bear an uncanny resemblance to the Italian plumber. Whether or not stories such as these are actually true is a moot point, but it’s impossible to deny that they lend our hobby a sense of wonderment and it’s remarkable to think that such incredibly popular ideas can be born from such humble beginnings.
Yokoi was tragically killed in a roadside incident in 1997, and although he would gain worldwide fame and adoration as the creator of the Game Boy, many view his earlier LCD legacy with the most fondness
The genesis of Nintendo’s Game & Watch series is recounted in an equally whimsical tale. According to legend, Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi came up with the concept after observing a bored Japanese salaryman absent-mindedly poking at the buttons of his pocket calculator whilst travelling to work. This seemingly innocuous encounter ultimately gave birth to portable video gaming as we know it today. Yokoi was tragically killed in a roadside incident in 1997, and although he would gain worldwide fame and adoration as the creator of the Game Boy, many view his earlier LCD legacy with the most fondness.
Yokoi started working at Nintendo in 1965, assuming the modest role of an assembly line engineer. The Nintendo of that era was a very different beast to the one that we know today; the main focus of its business was ‘hanafuda’ playing cards. According to yet another of those irresistible yarns, Yokoi created an extendable arm in order to amuse himself during the long working hours and this device happened to catch the eye of company president Hiroshi Yamauchi, who was inspecting the factory at the time.
Yamauchi was on the lookout for a product that could turn around Nintendo’s fortunes; the playing card market had slumped badly in the mid-'60s and the president had tried all manner of different tactics to turn a profit. The rechristened ‘Ultra Hand’ proved to be a runaway success, shifting more than 1.2 million units worldwide and would prove to be the first in a long line of popular toys to spring from the mind of Nintendo’s new star employee.
Towards the end of the ‘70s, Nintendo started to disregard toys in favour of video games and it was during this time that Yokoi had his aforementioned chance encounter with the bored businessman and his calculator. It was ideal timing; LCD technology was cheap and video games were big business; fusing the two made sense. However, up to this point, quality gaming was restricted to either the arcade or the home. Although several companies had already produced portable games, they were usually rudimentary LED-based units with uninspiring gameplay and were too bulky to be deemed truly mobile. Yokoi watched the efforts of companies like Mattel and Tomy with interest; he had his own ideas for the portable gaming industry.
At the time of the invention of the Game & Watch, LCD technology was everywhere. It was a well-understood process and because prices for individual components had dropped so much, integrating LCD into a product was relatively inexpensive
It was during the development of the Game & Watch that Yokoi laid down principles of hardware design that would echo through Nintendo’s history right up to the present day, dubbing it "Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology" (there is some debate as to whether or not he meant 'Weathered" or "Withered", but the meaning is largely the same). Freelance journalist and all-round Yokoi admirer Lara Crigger explains: “Essentially, Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology boils down to using mature technology in novel or radical applications. At the time of the invention of the Game & Watch, LCD display technology was everywhere. It was a well-understood process and because prices for individual components had dropped so much, integrating an LCD into a product was relatively inexpensive. Some people at Nintendo wanted to use fancier technology in the Game & Watch, technology that would have reduced battery life and raised costs, but Yokoi insisted that affordability was key and that the player cared more about fun gameplay over flashy technology.” Yokoi would later apply this philosophy to the production of the Game Boy, and Nintendo has taken a similar stance with subsequent systems, such as the Nintendo DS, Wii and Switch.
Yokoi faced a tricky conundrum when it came to deciding upon the best interface for his new product. He quickly decided that a conventional joystick would impede on the Game & Watch’s portability, so he began looking for solutions that would take up less space. Many of the early machines simply possessed a couple of buttons with which to control the game, usually corresponding to simple actions such as moving left and right or jumping, but 1982’s Donkey Kong changed all that. It featured what we now know as the 'D-pad', or 'directional pad'.
This was a development of truly seismic proportions, as Crigger acknowledges: “The entire portable games industry wouldn't exist if it weren't for the invention of the D-pad. It was that first, necessary invention that made all portable gaming devices possible. It comes down to basic ergonomics; the D-pad eliminates the need for a joystick, thus streamlining the controller interface and facilitating portability. A controller with a D-pad simply takes up less physical space.”
There was also an element of convergence with this new range of handhelds. Although it seems like a trifling addition in today’s technologically advanced world, the inclusion of a digital clock in each game (thus giving rise to the name ‘Game & Watch’) was a major selling point back in the early ‘80s. Although LCD watches were commonly available, they were outside the reach of most children, so the Game & Watch was a useful device as well as a source of entertainment. A handy alarm feature was also available in units produced from 1981 onwards – possibly to wake up the owner after a particularly heavy night of LCD-gaming.
There was little room for design screw-ups. If the game mechanic wasn't simple enough, or addictive enough, then the game failed. It couldn't hide behind flashy FMVs or intricate story-lines. It was just the player and the mechanic, and that's it
Arguably the most vital piece of the hardware puzzle was the choice of power source that would bring these tiny games to life. Yokoi opted for ‘button cell’ batteries, previously seen in digital watches and calculators. Not only were these cheap to replace, they were also small and therefore fitted snugly within the machines without breaking the sleek, straight lines of the casing or adding any additional weight that might hinder portability. Yokoi’s desire to ensure his products would be inexpensive to run and not require a constant supply of fresh batteries played a vital part in ensuring the success of the range – a fact he was sure to remember when he came to create the Game Boy almost a decade later.
But there was much more to the appeal of the Game & Watch range than just mere interface design and long-lasting power. Because LCD technology granted the developers a very limited amount of on-screen real estate in which to place their action-packed gaming experiences, the games themselves tended to be extremely focused. “There was little room for design screw-ups,” says Crigger. “If the game mechanic wasn't simple enough, or addictive enough, then the game failed. It couldn't hide behind flashy FMVs or intricate story-lines. It was just the player and the mechanic, and that's it.”
Mindful that each Game & Watch handheld could only offer one game due to the limiting nature of the LCD display, Nintendo decided to include two different difficulty settings for many of these products and thereby increased their long-term appeal. Known as ‘Game A’ and ‘Game B’, the player had to press the corresponding button before starting play to decide which challenge they wished to face. Game B was usually a faster and more demanding variant of Game A, but there were exceptions – Flagman, for example, featured two different games and the ‘B’ variant is generally regarded to be the more enjoyable. Multi-Screen release Squish is another and in Judge, Game B is actually a 2-player version of Game A. Although it was an undeniably neat concept and no doubt added hours of playtime to each release, not all titles carried this feature – Climber and Super Mario Bros. do not possess Game B options, for example.
The experiences offered by the Game & Watch may seem primitive by today’s standards, but that very same simplicity was a major factor in the ultimate success of the lineage and it’s a testament to the concept that the games are still eminently playable even today. “They’re appealing for the very same reason that Tetris will never really die: Simplicity is addictive,” comments Crigger. “People love activities that are easy to learn, but hard to master.”
The first Game & Watch title was the simplistic Ball. Released in 1980, this endearingly basic game showed only faint glimmers of the kind of depth later Game & Watch titles would possess; the screen was completely blank, the gameplay was unsophisticated and the LCD characters somewhat crude – clearly a case of the developer finding its feet with new technology. Sales weren’t astonishing but the game seemed to strike a chord with consumers and this was enough to persuade Nintendo that it was worth creating further titles.
Sales weren’t astonishing but the game seemed to strike a chord with consumers and this was enough to persuade Nintendo that it was worth creating further titles
Ball marked the first release of the ‘Silver’ series of Game & Watch titles, so-called because of the colour of the metallic faceplate. The next step was the ‘Gold’ series, which was fundamentally the same machine but with a different faceplate and a smattering of static colour on-screen to make the games seem a little more vibrant, as well as the ability to set an alarm using the unit's built-in clock. This range spawned a mere three titles before it was superseded by the ‘Wide Screen’ variant in mid-1981. As the name suggests, the display was a whopping 30 percent larger than the one seen in the Silver and Gold range.
The limitations of the LCD display meant that Nintendo was always looking for ways to innovate, and the next logical step was to add another screen to double the amount of gameplay each title could potentially offer. The Multi Screen series kicked off with Oil Panic in 1982, but it was the release of Donkey Kong that really cemented the success of the range. Easily the biggest selling of all the Game & Watch titles up to that point, Donkey Kong was a startlingly faithful representation of the arcade smash hit. Iconic in design, the Multi Screen range would go on to be a major influence in the creation of the clamshell Game Boy Advance SP and the Nintendo DS many years later, with the latter system even copying the dual-screen concept.
Released in 1983, the Game & Watch Tabletop series was something of a departure from the norm. It sacrificed portability for more impressive colour visuals and ran off bulky ‘C’ batteries. Sales of this machine were steady, but nowhere near as impressive as its Wide Screen and Multi-Screen cousins, and therefore only four Tabletop titles were ever produced: Donkey Kong Jr., Mario's Cement Factory, Snoopy and Popeye. A refinement of the technology resulted in the more mobile Panorama series a few months later, which used a foldout mirror to enhance the Vacuum Fluorescent Display. Again, these didn't sell as well as the LCD Game & Watch titles, and only six games were released: Snoopy, Popeye, Donkey Kong Jr., Mario's Bombs Away, Mickey Mouse and Donkey Kong Circus.
Despite the Tabletop and Panorama ranges failing to reach the same heights as their LCD siblings, Nintendo was clearly keen to add some colour to the range and this culminated in 1984’s Supercolor range, which used an LCD display with a colour overlay to give the impression of colour visuals. Only two games were ever produced – Spitball Sparky and Crab Grab – making this the least successful entry in the Game & Watch canon. It didn't dampen Nintendo's desire to experiment, however; sensing that gaming was also a social pastime, Nintendo decided to publish the Micro Vs. series in the same year, which offered simultaneous two-player action thanks to a pair of small controllers stored within the body of the unit itself – a feature which calls to mind the detachable Joy-Con on the Switch, which would arrive many years later. Punch Out, Donkey Kong 3 and Donkey Kong Hockey were the three titles in this range.
It was ultimately Yokoi himself that would deal the deathblow to his beloved pocket-sized offspring. Zelda, the penultimate release in the range, hit the shelves 1989 – the same year as Yokoi’s newest pet project: the Game Boy
1986 saw yet another hardware revision – and one that proved to be the last: the legendary "Crystal Screen" machines. These were more traditional games in keeping with the Wide Screen style, but they possessed a transparent LCD display. Sadly, these screens were highly susceptible to damage. Marketed as a luxury item, the range didn’t quite achieve the same kind of fame as the more traditional Wide Screen games, which by this point had been re-launched under the snappy title of "New Wide Screen".
Although it’s strange to think it now, Nintendo didn’t really command much of a presence outside of Japan at the time, so the worldwide distribution of early Game & Watch machines was handled by other companies. These included Mega (USA), CGL (UK), Ji21 (France), Videopoche (Belgium) and Futuretronics (Australia). Many of these firms would re-package the devices and in some cases remove the Nintendo logo altogether, replacing it with their own.
By the mid-'80s Nintendo had released the NES home console and the Game & Watch range took a backseat role. As the decade drew to a close the seemingly vast reserves of innovation began to run dry, but it was ultimately Yokoi himself that would deal the deathblow to his beloved pocket-sized offspring. Zelda, the penultimate release in the range, hit the shelves 1989 – the same year as Yokoi’s newest pet project: the Game Boy. It was instantly obvious that the writing was on the wall for the video game and clock combo. The very last entry in the series was a loving homage to the game that started it all – 1991’s Mario the Juggler recycled the gameplay from Ball but showcased gorgeous screen artwork. Although several classic Game & Watch titles would be transformed into keyrings in the late '90s as part of the Nintendo Mini Classics line, these were merely licenced by Nintendo rather than produced in-house. It was the end of an era, but with the more complex Game Boy and Game Boy Color handhelds wooing gamers the world over, few seemed to mourn the passing of the Game & Watch line.
Given the durable nature of the Game & Watch range, the appealing design of the casing and the desirable Nintendo branding, it’s little surprise that a truly hardcore collecting scene has risen up over the past few years. The reasons for this differ depending on which collector you happen to speak with. “For most of today’s collectors, it’s simply nostalgia,” comments British Game & Watch fanatic Andy Cole. “People now find themselves with the resources to buy the games they lusted after in their childhood, which their meagre pocket money couldn’t buy them.” Others do it more for the love of the brand, such as Dutch collector Martin Van Spanje: “I have always loved Nintendo games and the Game & Watch series are basically where it all started for that company. I want to see them all, and find out how Nintendo made progress.”
As can be seen by the number appearing in auctions and in collections, they are still going strong, thanks mostly to their extremely simple electronics
Whatever the reason, amassing all 60 of these unique devices isn’t an easy (or cheap) task. “Even though many of the games can be found cheaply, you need lots of cash if you want all 60 of them,” explains Van Spanje. “I don't collect mint condition games and I don't care about the packaging and user manuals. If you want all of that as well, you need to at least double your piggy bank.”
Indeed, boxed specimens in pristine condition can fetch prices well into triple-figures and the elusive ‘60th’ game – a special edition of Super Mario Bros. produced in 1987 – is incredibly hard to locate. “This is the holy grail of Game & Watches and remained almost completely unknown in collector’s circles for over a decade,” explains Cole. “It was produced as a prize for a competition for owners of a NES F1 racing game. 10,000 were given away in Japan only, making this by far the rarest Game & Watch title. Only in the early 21st century, when collectors in Japan spread the word, did this game become widely recognised. Because of its rarity, its value is higher than that of any other game in the range – expect to pay about £300 pounds just for an unboxed specimen.” If you want to collect all of the variants, that's also a stern challenge; for example, Spitball Sparky was released with both silver and white casing, with the latter being much more desirable to collectors. Also, there are regional differences to consider; 1981's Helmet was renamed "Headache" by United Kingdom distrubor CGL, because 'helmet' is term that also describes a part of the male genitalia in that particular territory. Ahem.
Another aspect that makes the range so appealing today is the durability of the games themselves. “As can be seen by the number appearing in auctions and in collections, they are still going strong, thanks mostly to their extremely simple electronics,” comments Cole. “They are probably more reliable than a games console of today.” Van Spanje expands on this: “The games were intended for kids and fit inside your pocket. If you keep them safe, they will last forever even if you play them regularly.”
Has our intrepid gang of Game & Watch experts got any advice for prospective collectors? “A potential collector should first set a target,” advises expert Mike Panayiotakis. “There are many things to collect and buying everything isn’t an option unless you have unlimited money. Do you wish to collect boxed games? Do you wish to get special versions of the games? Do you wish to get all 60 games? You need to focus on specific items and create a list of things you wish to collect.”
In the last few months, we’ve seen a lot of counterfeit items appearing. It’s mostly boxes and instructions – having a box, especially one in good condition, adds greatly to a game's value
Cole gives similar guidance: “The answer I always give to this question is to go slowly, as it’s possible to get a complete collection of every title can be done in as little as a month or two if you have the money, but where’s the fun in that? Decide on a goal before you start; for example, decide if you want loose or boxed games, special or regular editions, then stick to your goal and be patient to wait for the right games to come along. My collection took me about five years to complete but I got some extremely good bargains and that is more satisfying than blowing a few grand all in one go.”
As is the case when any product becomes valuable, the Game & Watch market is highly susceptible to fakes. “In the last few months, we’ve seen a lot of counterfeit items appearing,” reveals Cole. “It’s mostly boxes and instructions – having a box, especially one in good condition, adds greatly to a game's value.” These high-quality reproductions of original packaging have caused a serious headache for dedicated collectors.
“Most collectors look for mint items and have paid great amounts of money to acquire them,” explains Panayiotakis. “Finding original Game & Watch boxes intact isn’t an easy task, but if someone starting selling perfect counterfeit boxes or games, your collection would be instantly worth one-twentieth of what you had paid for it because the market would be flooded with perfect items.” However, at this stage, the problem is isolated to boxes and instructions. “To my knowledge, nobody has been able to produce a fake game successfully – yet,” says Cole. If fake machines were to appear, Panayiotakis is in no doubt as to what effect it would have on the collecting community. “Perfect counterfeit items would make the task of collecting authentic games very difficult,” he says. “I don’t think there would be any point in collecting the games after that, if such an event ever occurs.”
Should the idea of splashing out loads of cash on original Game & Watch machines not appeal to you, then you can always invest in one of the excellent compilation packages that were released for Nintendo’s Game Boy machines. The series made its debut in 1994 (in Europe and Australia only, bizarrely) with Game Boy Gallery, complete with particularly dire box art. The sequel, Game & Watch Gallery, followed in ’97 and tied in more closely with the LCD originals; it was also thankfully granted a global release. The third and fourth games were released on the Game Boy Color in ’98 and ’99 respectively, and a Game Boy Advance instalment hit the shelves in 2002. In many cases, the games featured in these collections were visually upgraded variants of the originals; sticking with the Game Boy hardware, the Game Boy Camera came with a version of Ball which allowed you to place your own face on the body of the main character, while the Nintendo e-Reader – which launched for the Game Boy Advance in 2002 – was bundled with a version of Manhole; there were plans to make more Game & Watch titles available, but they sadly never came to fruition.
More recently, Nintendo has released the Game & Watch Collection (2006) and 2 (2008) for the Nintendo DS (sadly limited to members of the now-defunct Club Nintendo service), which, between them, feature the titles Oil Panic, Green House, Donkey Kong Parachute and Octopus. Furthermore, Japan-only Japanese-to-English dictionary title Kanji Sonomama DS Rakubiki Jiten had secret versions of Ball, Judge, Flagman and Manhole, while 2006's Cooking Guide: Can't Decide What To Eat? (Personal Trainer: Cooking in the US) contained hidden versions of Chef and Egg. Starting from 2009, Nintendo also released several Game & Watch titles individually for its now-defunct DSiWare service; these were Ball, Flagman, , Judge, Helmet, Chef, , Mario's Cement Factory and Manhole. For fans of truly obscure Game & Watch releases, the Japan-exclusive Nintendo DS TV Tuner accessory came with three games – Octopus, Fire and Lion – and it appears there were plans to allow more.
With the release of the Mario Bros. Game & Watch in 2020 to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the series, there is renewed interest in the Game & Watch range – and it's relatively easy to understand why. These pocket-sized games are from a period before many Nintendo fans were even born, and despite their humble gameplay and primitive technology, they're wonderfully tactile objects which have almost become works of art in their own way. Could we see Nintendo release more "modern" Game & Watch handhelds in the future? Well, it's Zelda's 35th next year, so who knows...
This feature originally appeared in its entirety in Retro Gamer magazine and is reproduced here with kind permission.
Special thanks to Andy Cole for providing exclusive hardware photography.