Handheld Gaming – #GCOretro

Today I was a little bored. Sat waiting for a friend in your standard green-tinged coffee shop chain, my new affinity for black coffee being challenged by the steaming mug of liquid in front of me. My bag was at home, I didn’t think I needed it today. I knew it also contained many of the things I could use to make myself look occupied, a book, a notepad, countless receipts for snacks consumed on the road.

Instead I fished out my phone. No messages, no requests or notifications. No Wi-Fi signal either. A few moments later I was pushing numbered tiles around making multiples of three. A glance around the coffee shop revealed many more individuals in a similar situation.

This is modern handheld gaming for the majority of us. A timewaster on the bus, in downtime between meetings, something to play with while the adverts scroll past. Occupying downtime with a short burst of puzzle solving and play. The impact of smartphones and tablets on our leisure and pleasure time should not be understated as nearly everyone carries these portable, internet connected computers in their pockets with access to hundreds, if not thousands of games and applications. Some of the biggest media hits in recent years have sprung from the games millions of people play daily, on their phones, I don’t need to name names, but its hard to not walk down the street without seeing disgruntled avian cartoon merchandise, or notice a freind has become usually obsessed with sweets on Facebook.

It is worth remembering that until 2007 there was no such thing as an iPhone, until that time, if you wanted to play a game on the move, you needed a dedicated device in your pocket, or more likely, bag. (As we will see, many of these gadgets often challenged the word ‘portable’) So grab a pack of AA batteries (or steal them from the TV remote), and follow me for a little history and personal experience of gaming on the go and how its changed through the decades.

 

The Beginnings

It would be rude to not acknowledge the very first handheld device. Released in 1976, Mattel Auto Race was the very first electronic handheld game which was played entirely on the built in ‘screen’. Unlike the later handheld devices which came to popularise the technology, the Mattel Auto Race was infact a series of LEDs underneath a plastic film. The goal of the game is to overtake as many cars as possible within 4 laps, other cars represented by red lights, your own being yellow. It was simple stuff. There was a switch to change the speed of the game, making it more difficult to master, but there were no additional levels, nor various game types that arcade games were enjoying at the time.

 

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LCD Screens

The Liquid Crystal Display (or LCD for short) screen marked a mini revolution in handheld computing. The technology first became used for small devices such as calculators and watches yet was quickly picked up by toy manufacturers to bring video gaming into the home. The first games began to pop up towards the end of the 1970’s. These again were simple, single game devices, until 1979, when the Microvision was released, which had interchangeable ‘cartridges’ which contained different games.

My first memory of these LCD games comes a little later, and a trip around the internet revealed my very first gaming device, the 1989 Batman game by Tiger Electronics.

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The goal was simple, throw batarangs at goons, then the joker would turn up and beat me. I can’t say it left much of an impression. These single game, LCD based games were quick and easy to produce, and many franchises were granted their own editions. I still remember swapping these around the playground to play the different games, and quickly learning that many were simply the same mechanics, only with swapped artwork.

While the Batman game I owned has long since been lost/donated/destroyed, the internet again comes to the rescue and Pica Pic has provided a wonderful site with emulations of many of these LCD machines. Why not give some a go? Maybe that game you remember has been digitised and reborn!

Tiger, Mattel and others released many of these devices over the years, and continued to do so until the mid-2000’s, one Japanese company leapt upon the idea to create new franchises and games with the technology.

Utter the words ‘handheld gaming’ and often only one company springs to mind. Nintendo. While there is a lot to dive into with the legendary game company, Nintendo’s LCD handheld consoles, released under the ‘Game and Watch’ banner featured many characters that are still popular today, and the games themselves have mechanics which have been echoed across many subsequent titles. Between 1980 and 1991, Nintendo released over 49 different Game and Watch titles and sold over 49 million copies worldwide. Impressive numbers yes, but what Nintendo did next changed the gaming landscape, and defined the handheld gaming landscape for decades to come.

For more on the complete history of the Game and Watch visit Nintendo Life

The Game Boy

In September 1993 I was a very, very jealous child. I have an older sister you see. I was 8 years old, she was turning 11. My parents surprised her on her birthday with a present and as she unwrapped it and I looked in, she revealed something that looked like it has been mailed from the future. A glowing red grid over a dark plain and  digital hands clasped on to what looked like a prop from a sci fi movie. I didn’t know what it was. But I knew I wanted it.

My sister was thrilled. She’d asked for a Game Boy. In years to come I realised she wanted this because the game console we had previously owned and been given together, the NES, was basically my territory. She wanted something for herself. I just wanted to play more games. Many fights were had over this Game Boy, its batteries and the games we played. Eventually, over the years, like the NES, the Game Boy was found more and more in my bedroom, sometimes hidden, other times brazenly displayed as a trophy to my want to play video games when I wanted to, where I wanted to. I like to think I am a little more balanced now, sorry Amy.

Nintendo’s Game Boy was released in the US and Japan in 1989, and made its way over to our shores in early 1990. If you have never held a Game Boy, with its full compliment of AA batteries, the device was as heavy as a small hardback book, with a small 6cm x 6cm yellowish brown LCD screen occupying the top half. Unlike the fixed artwork, this was a 2-bit 160×144 pixel screen which could display 4 shades of grey. As a quick comparison the latest Samsung S5 has a screen resolution of 1920×1080 pixels and can display over million colours.

Unlike the LCD game systems that had come before, the Game Boy had cartridges which contained different games. This was nothing new in home console market, but as a handheld device, this felt revolutionary. Quickly I flash back to school trips where cartridges were swapped between us on the coach, and eyes strained as the dim screen was washed out by any form of sunlight. These cartridges could also save your progress. Now, today having a game that forgets you have ever played it every time you switch it on sounds a little frustrating, but in 1990 this was the norm. Game cartridges which could save your progress allowed for bigger games which you could pick up, progress then put down again.

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My favorite game? The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. This was a game where you play as a small boy washed up on a strange island. You speak to the residents, get given quests by owls, explore dungeons, pet dogs, smite evil and work your way around a huge map of puzzles, all the while discovering the story of the island and the eventual tragic fate of the world you are fighting to protect. All of that, told on a screen smaller than a post it note.

My preferences aside, there was one game that made the Game Boy the hit is was, and it came packed in every box.

Tetris.

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A simple game, which actually had been on PC’s and home consoles, and based on a traditional Russian board game, found a natural home on the Game Boy. Shapes fall, you need to make them into lines, more shapes fall, everything speeds up, points are scored, how long can you hold out? What’s your high score? A round could be over in 10 minutes, you could play on the bus, on the sofa, on the toilet (I have a friend whose family still have a Game Boy balanced on the cistern and a notepad of scores), anywhere you had some downtime. It became a small phenomenon, Tetris-fever, it even inspired a top ten UK chart hit.

The popularity of this simple game propelled handheld game into the hearts and minds of people who otherwise would have never played a videogame before, or since. The Game Boy went on to sell 118 million units worldwide, and iterations make it smaller, lighter, a colour screen and better battery life. Games such as Super Mario Land, Tetris and Pokemon buoyed the system along for many years and the Game Boy was so successful it was not discontinued until 2003.

 

Getting Creative

Are you the type that enjoys the camera on a mobile phone? The Game Boy offered a digital camera in 1998 which, when coupled with a Game Boy printer, let you take pictures of yourself or friends and edit and share them. It was much like Instagram, only far more analogue!

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One of the more curious uses of the Game Boy has been as a musical instrument. Many electronic artists have grown so attached to the simple chirps and sounds the Game Boy can produce that they have taken them to the stage and designed custom hardware and software to push the small device to its audible limits. Curious? Check out the documentary ‘Reformat the Planet’ for an indepth look at the ‘chiptune’ scene.

 

The Game Gear

The wild success of the Game Boy inspired many competitors, and as a child of the 90’s, there was only one video game argument in the playground. Nintendo or Sega? Sega’s Game Gear, released in 1991 was their answer to the Game Boy and it was pitched as ‘bigger-better-brighter’. The Game Gear was almost double the size of the Game Boy, it had a full colour screen, you could even plug in a TV aerial and watch one of the four channels, provided you could find the signal. This ‘power’ came at a great cost and owners of the Game Gear quickly found they were tied to power sockets as the device ate batteries and a lot of them. While the console hosted competent versions of Sega classics such as Sonic the Hedgehog, the Game Gear was not the hit that Sega needed against Nintendo and while it was the biggest competitor to the Game Boy, the Game Gear only sold 11 million units by the time is was discontinued in 1997.

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The 2000’s

In a way the Game Boy was so successful that it choked the handheld market until the early 2000’s. Nintendo’s follow up, the Game Boy Advance, while still a big hit, did not set the world on fire. At the same time the home console market was reinvigorated by the then upstart Sony, riding high on the overnight success of the Playstation and the even bigger Playstation 2.

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It wasn’t until 2004 when the handheld markets received a double shot of espresso and made a significant leap forward. Sony pitched their Playstation Portable (or PSP) as an all in one media device in your pocket. It could play full 3D games, play back MP3’s, read comics and watch movies on the strange UMD format discs which looked somewhere between a CD and a floppy disc. Nintendo on the other hand released the Nintendo DS, which had a unique new feature, a touch screen. Unlike the Sega – Nintendo ‘war’ of the 90’s, both consoles saw big successes, but again it was Nintendo who was crowned the victor through unique software which challenged the idea of games on the go. The DS did not only have standard running, jumping, punching, racing games, but also it saw the introduction of Brain Training, a huge hit where players were tasked with simple maths challenges on a daily basis to improve their skills. The touch screen allowing for an easier pick up and play experience and encouraging players to write and interact with the screen.

 

Beginning of the end?

In 1998 Nokia released the 5110 mobile phone. At this time phones were nothing new, however the market was growing slowly and the handsets began incorporating new features. The 5110 was a flagship phone, the pinnacle of Nokias range. Yes it was a phone but it could also send text messages, it had a calendar built in and it had a game installed called ‘Snake’.

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In Snake you guide a perpetually moving snake around a field or maze, towards food, as it eats the food, it gets longer, and your job gets harder and harder until you run into yourself.

Snake became, in my secondary school at least, the symbol of having a ‘good’ phone rather than a ‘bad’ one, if you had a phone at all. Snake, for me and my peers, was a benchmark, and new phones meant new iterations of the game. Soon other games started cropping up, and they became a huge selling point for many phones.

 

Before phones got ‘smart’, there were several attempts at phones that were also handheld games consoles. In 2003 Nokia again went all in with its N-Gage, a phone that could play 3D games like Tomb Raider and FIFA, and was also a phone. While the intention was there, the N-Gage was not a very good phone. You couldn’t change a game without removing the case and battery and the speaker and microphone were located on the side of the device. This meant you essentially held the phones side against your face to make a call. Safe to say, the N-Gage disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared.

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In 2007 Apple introduced the iPhone. It was a small, black, subtle device which (like Nintendo’s DS) sported a large touch screen. At the same time Apple launched the App Store. This proved to be a complete game changer (if I’m allowed to use that term). No longer would you have to go to the shop to buy a new game for between £15-£30, no the iPhone could download a game for 69p, or even free. These games did not need a cartridge and could be developed by anyone with the programming skills. Within a few short years the iPhone was the most popular gaming device on the planet. Since its release smartphones have continued to improve their screens, power, feature sets and the games have grown with them. I can now play Grand Theft Auto on my phone, I can flick birds towards heavily defended pigs, I can run old emulations of classic games.

 

Sony and Nintendo’s latest handheld consoles however, have failed to capture a wider audience. The Playstation Vita and Nintendo 3DS represent what may be the last dedicated handheld consoles. Both are great devices with unique experiences, yet the march of progress has pushed them to the sidelines. It makes me wonder. The success of these consoles has always been about the games. The games that catch the public eye are often the fast, quick experiences yet the games I remember are the epics, the Legend of Zelda’s, the games with stories. Tetris, Angry Birds, Threes!, Cut the Rope. These games offer a brief slice of gameplay, a fun mechanic to toy with, but this fits in with the smartphones purpose. It’s only a games console until the next social media notification pops up or the unlikely event the phone actually rings. Then you are distracted, then you are taken back to another interaction. So maybe like how video didn’t actually kill the radio star, smart phones won’t kill handheld gaming for good and we will continue to see dedicated gaming devices, loaded with interesting games, creative interactions and tales. I certainly hope so.

So, over to you. Did you catch Tetris fever? Did you hunt for batteries late at night? What games kept you coming back for more? Were you one of the reported 800 people in the UK who bought an N-Gage? We would love to hear your memories about gaming on the go!

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