News Article

The Nintendo Phone Almost Happened A Decade Ago

Posted by Damien McFerran

Ex-Danger employee reveals how Game Boy games nearly came to mobile

Everyone seems to be telling Nintendo to get its games on mobile phones these days, and yesterday's news that the company would be announcing some kind of smartphone strategy seems to suggest that it is listening to such advice.

However, a former employee at Danger Research — the company which came up with the popular T-Mobile Sidekick phone and was co-founded by Andy Rubin, who would later help create Google's Android OS — has revealed that way back in 2004 the prospect of Nintendo games on a mobile very nearly became a reality.

In a post on Medium, Chris Salvo explains that a prototype device called the G1 was created which sported Danger's ground-breaking "hiptop" OS and could run Game Boy games:

In 2004 there was a skunkworks project within Danger to merge a color Gameboy with a hip top—we called it G1. The hiptop’s color screen was manufactured by Sharp and happened to be the same one used by the Gameboy Advance. There were other common components as well. So we figured that if we had virtually the same hardware as a handheld game player, why not play those games?

We extracted a Gameboy Advance chipset and built it on to the backside of the hiptop’s main board. We then developed a custom chip that would let us mix the video signals of the Gameboy and the hiptop so that on a per-pixel basis we could decide which to show on the screen. We made hiptop software that would let us start and stop the Gameboy, or play/pause a game, etc. The Gameboy inputs came from the hiptop’s d-pad and four corner buttons.

This let us do the following demo: start a Gameboy game and be watching regular Gameboy video. Then you’d receive a phone call and the Gameboy game would magically pause, and a hiptop alert window would display over top of the Gameboy video asking if you wanted to answer the call. As soon as the call was over the game would resume.

Interestingly, the team at Danger also came up the concept of digitally distributing games before iOS, Android or the eShop even existed:

Since we had our network, and an app store, that seemed like a great way to distribute Gameboy ROMs. We got all of that working too. You could browse Gameboy games in the app store, pick one, buy it, download it, and be playing it in seconds with no need to haul cartridges around with you.

The most exciting part of this tale is that Danger actually showed the project to Nintendo, and the company's high-ranking staff came away impressed. Sadly, that's where it all ended:

The executives at Nintendo were blown away. They absolutely loved it. Unfortunately…Nintendo’s license for all of the games in their catalog didn’t include rights for electronic distribution. That, coupled with the need to take new screenshots, and write new catalog copy in electronic format, determine pricing, etc. meant that there was just no way we could have gotten a big enough catalog of titles built up in time for Christmas that year. The next window would have been graduation season the following year. The whole project fizzled out and died, but damn it was cool.

So we could have been playing Nintendo games on our phones way back 2004, years before the iPhone even existed. You have to wonder what the gaming landscape would be like today had Nintendo embraced this concept a decade ago. Would the DS have even been made? Would Danger's mobile OS have become dominant, thus locking out the market to Apple and Google? We'll never know for sure, but it just goes to show that Nintendo has been open to such ideas for years, despite what current "industry experts" may suggest.


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User Comments (35)



StarDust4Ever said:

Kind of glad, for some bizzare reason, that this did not happen. It would have definitely hampered te DS's development.



vattodev said:

Sometimes I wonder why some people like to twist the words and say something completely opposite.
Remember that quote from Iwata? That one saying that it's not so simple as putting their games on cell phones? Then why did you write this:
"Everyone seems to be telling Nintendo to get its games on mobile phones these days, and yesterday's news that the company would be announcing some kind of smartphone strategy seems to suggest that it is listening to such advice."
Isn't that spreading false rumours?



Artwark said:

good thing this didn't work out else the DS wouldn't exist which would've meant the 3DS and Wii and Wii U as well.....



PorllM said:

@vattodev Every sign seems to be pointing towards Nintendo's move into phones being announced very soon. A rumour may turn out to be false in the future, but if it's spoken on a lot and has evidence to support it, it is a reliable rumour for now. Plus Iwata has made countless statements that have turned out to not be true shortly later, and that quote was made ages ago.



Mahe said:

@Artwark Changing the course of the 3DS and Wii U wouldn't have been such a bad thing.

Maybe they would have been 2DS and Wii 2 instead, and that would have been better for gamers and Nintendo.



vattodev said:

@PorllM @Mahe The quote is from the last meeting with the stock holders. And Nikkei's source tells that they are NOT going to put their games on mobiles. That's why I'm calling false rumours. The rumour started by Nikkei is about demos and marketing, not about "get its games on mobile phones" as written in this article.
IMO it's more likely that Nintendo releases it's own phone with DS/3DS characteristics than it moves to Android/iOS.



Artwark said:

@Mahe probably but still......After seeing the success of Nintendo's hardware, i wouldn't like the idea.....



alLabouTandroiD said:

If they had released this instead of the DS and added a touch-screen things could surely be different today. With a great killer app smartphone gaming could've become a place known for games that don't have to shy away from the very best handheld titles ever made. And it would've been associated with the name Nintendo.
Will the market ever really want such a device though?



vattodev said:

I still wonder if these devices will ever be popular. Would you really take out your phone in the middle of a business meeting and proudly show your d-pad and buttons on it? There is still a lot of prejudice against gaming in many countries, so I don't think most people would risk their careers with such device. But you can walk with a 3ds folded on your briefcase and no one would care.
If gaming on phones become popular enough to have high quality games then I think an add on with d-pad,analog and buttons for the phone would be a better option.



GuSolarFlare said:

@vattodev that's exactly why this kind of device is popular for gaming to the people who aren't dedicated gamers. it's far less awkward to say "it's a phone that plays games" than using an actual gaming device in such a situation.
though people like me who don't care about being judged by carrying a videogame around still have a preference for machines made especially for gaming.



6ch6ris6 said:

i would love if the next nintendo handheld would also be able to do the main features of a cellphone. like phonecalls and sms. make it like the danger phone with sliding display and 2 proper circle pads. BOOM best handheld ever



LostHeaven said:

Good God, if this ever became a reality at that time, it would be Nintendo's piece of hardware that aged the worst. It looks butt-ugly!
Then again, it wouldn't really be a Nintendo hardware, it would simply run its software, which is pretty much the buzz that has been going around as of late.
The point is: it's pretty amazing how most of Nintendo's hardware seems to have aged so well, aesthetically speaking.



Gold_Ranger said:

Nintendo WON'T make their own phone!
They got rid of SWAPNOTE! because people were adding random people left and right and a few bad seeds ruined it for everyone!
A phone is SWAPNOTE to the EXTREME!



GuSolarFlare said:

@Kaine_Morrison except they have no responsibility over what the user does with a telephone(this resposibility is passed on to the operator that uses a lot of contracts that throw the resposibility right back to the user, so it's the parent's fault for giving a kid a cellphone chip if such things happen) but that's only true because cellphones nowadays don't have the communications right out of the box they need chips



2Sang said:

It would have been more awesome than that old Noko or whatever that gaming phone console was.



Morph said:

I really dont think theres any great demand for a phone that plays nintendo games, it didnt work for sony. Plus there doesnt seem to be anything wrong with nintendos handheld side of the business anyway, there might be some mileage in a handheld that has some mobile functions, but again sony tried that and it didnt work either.

Nintendo's next step needs to be some sort of hybrid handheld/home console i think something like that would clean up



MixMasterMudkip said:

I'm totally fine with Nintendo making a phone. As long as they aren't making games for iPhones or Androids.



Kyloctopus said:

There's this whole idea of smartphone gaming being a lesser type of gaming it's not! I've played some really good games on smartphones. This ignorance has to stop.



AlbertoC said:

A Nintendo spokesperson has told GameSpot that they won't be releasing minigames for smartphone. So that definitely leaves out games. (phew)

EDIT: @Kyloctopus Due to the nature of the platform and the hardware, games must be designed differently: to be played at shorter intervals, using just the screen and gyroscope as controls, have limited file size, leading to limited graphic / video assets, and they usually have ads on them or have microtransactions. And personally, i don't like any of that in my games (except for the small file size).

The limited input options leaves me the impression that some games are playing themselves, such as racing ones. And generally speaking, you can't have a full-fledged, open world Need for Speed, or play a Smash Bros-like game properly / confortably. You can't run complex operations on mobile devices because that leads to overheating and lower battery life, so the AI and graphics are usually lower quality. Or when playing shooters: i own Dead Space for android, and i can't play it on my phone because the screen is too small for seeing what's happening, nor in my tablet because the device itself is too big to use the motion controls, so that game was basically just an expense.

In conclussion, there are some genres that suit small screens (such as puzzle games and some RPGs), and there are others that are definitely better played on other hardware (fighting and racing games, shooters).



Goginho said:

Definitely glad this didn't happen. Those are two different worlds that shouldn't mix.
Agree with AlbertoC. Some games are decent for phones, but most are not suitable to be played on phones. I mean, it's called a phone. What does that mean? What does a phone primarily do? Everything else is extra, and extra can never be on the same level with something whose primary intent is the phone's extra. Deal with that concept.
Sure, today's phones have got cameras, music players, video players, video games...etc. but there are exclusive devices for all of those things, which clearly preach their practise better, and I don't need all of that in my pocket at all times.



Zero_Revolution said:

While I do prefer having all of Nintendo's later consoles and hope they never go into the smartphone business, it would be kind of interesting to see how this would've worked out.



Zombie_Barioth said:

Fantastic explanation, definitely agree.
Mobile gaming can be great, you can get some really great games, including console ports for long periods of downtime. The problem is though, how often do you have such downtime when out n' about?

If your away from home for long periods where having a charger or battery pack on hand is useful, like long commutes or business trips, absolutely. Even then a more dedicated device might be better if its that important to you. Just look how short the 3DS and Vita's battery life is compared to the games they run. If you'd regularly drain their batteries, why would you want to do that on your phone?

People but dedicated devices because they care enough about an activity to need one. They're usually more powerful and cost effective for what they do. A smartphone is like an electronic swiss army knife, and you certainly wouldn't use one of those in place of a kitchen knife, would you?



Darkness3131 said:

If you think about it though the views from then to today can change things. It would have been a fairly innovative move had it worked out at the time, and we all know that Nintendo has taken some innovative steps. Now that games are all over the smartphone market, it is probably not as appealing as it was before.

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