Feature: The History of the Nintendo Game & Watch
Posted by Damien McFerran
We take a look at the LCD range that sparked a portable revolution
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 suggests that Nintendo’s renowned Mario was named after the landlord of the company’s US offices, who happened to bare an uncanny resemblance to the Italian plumber. Whether or not these stories 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 these incredibly popular ideas can be born from such humble beginnings.
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 salary man absent-mindedly fingering his pocket calculator whilst travelling to work. If the story is true then 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 ‘Ultrahand’ 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 videogames and it was during this time that Yokoi had his aforementioned chance meeting with the bored businessman and his calculator. It was ideal timing; LCD technology was cheap and videogames were big business. However, up to this point quality gaming was restricted to either the arcade or the home. Although several companies had already produced portable games, but 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.
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 of Withered Technology’. Freelance journalist and all-round Yokoi admirer Lara Crigger explains: “Essentially, Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology boils down to using mature technology in novel or radical applications. 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. 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 recent hits such as the DS and Wii.
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.
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 player and mechanic, and that's it.”
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.
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. 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% 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 Nintendo DS.
Released in 1983, the Tabletop series was something of a departure for 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. 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.
Nintendo’s seemingly insatiable desire for colour gaming culminated in 1984’s ill-advised Supercolor range, which was in fact just a standard LCD display with a colour overlay. Only two games were ever produced, making this the least successful entry in the Game & Watch canon. 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 detachable controllers.
Also in 1984 the final hardware revision was released in the shape of 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 worldwide distribution of early Game & Watch machines was handled by other companies. These included Mega (USA), CGL (UK), Ji21 (France), Videopoche (Belgium) and Futuretronics (Austrailia). Many of these firms would re-package the devices and in some cases remove the Nintendo logo altogether, instead 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 videogame 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. It was the end of an era, but with the new-fangled Nintendo wooing gamers the world over, few seemed to mourn its passing.
This feature originally appeared in its entirely in Imagine Publishing’s Retro Gamer magazine, and is reproduced here with kind permission.
Special thanks to Andy Cole for providing exclusive hardware photography.