Portable Pleasure: Three Decades of Nintendo Handhelds – Part One: The 80’s

by on July 31, 2012

Portable Pleasure: Three Decades of Nintendo Handhelds (Pt.1: The 80's)Part one, of a four-part series, looking at Nintendo’s contributions to portable gaming over the past three and a bit decades, and how their current portable system takes elements from each of Nintendo’s previous systems.

The Nintendo 3DS XL is in the hands of gamers around the world, the latest console in a long line of portable systems from the veteran Japanese hardware manufacturer. Say what you will about the XL’s lack of a second Circle Pad, or the system’s specifications in comparison to Sony’s PlayStation Vita, you can’t deny that Nintendo know how to design portable systems. From the Game & Watch, all the way to the similar-looking Nintendo 3DS, the majority of Nintendo’s portables have been great pieces of hardware.

Over the next three articles, I’ll be taking a look at the last three decades of portable hardware from Nintendo. In Part 1 I’ll be taking a look at the 80’s; a decade that defined Nintendo as a manufacturer of gaming hardware and as developer of quality handheld software.

Portable Pleasure: Three Decades of Nintendo Handhelds (Pt.1: The 80's)

A longtime employee of Nintendo, Gunpei Yokoi was originally hired in 1965 as a janitor and technician, maintaining the machines used to manufacture the Hanafuda playing cards that the company was known for since its establishment in 1889. Yokoi was quite the inventor, and the toys he designed and created in his spare time were noticed by his employers; his creations later ending up as mass-produced Nintendo products that would move the company onto bigger and better things.

Nintendo entered the video games business in the 70’s, distributing the Magnavox Odyssey console to Japanese territories, and manufacturing basic Pong-style consoles. However, it was in 1979 that Yokoi took inspiration from his daily commute, watching a bored businessman playing with an LCD calculator, that sparked the invention of the Game & Watch; a series of small, battery powered, single-game LCD devices that (as the name suggests) offered the functionality of a watch (with alarm) as well as a simple game to play.

The first in this series, Ball, was released in 1980. This simple two-button game requires the player to juggle three balls in the air, pressing either the left or right button to catch and throw the balls in the air. Around 60 of these individual units were released between 1980 and 1991, in various different formats; from single-screen games, to the famous two-screen layouts of games like Donkey Kong, to actual watches. Due to the fact that each game was its own self-contained unit, they were practically collectables; especially as some models are rarer than others.

As primitive as these games are, it’s clear to see that many of the design principles of the Game & Watch series, have carried on through all of Nintendo’s portables. Gunpei Yokoi had spoken of a philosophy called “Lateral Thinking with Seasoned Technology”, the idea of using older, cheaper technology that was well-supported, in new and interesting ways. This philosophy was not only applied to the Game & Watch series, but pretty much every piece of hardware that Nintendo have released ever since.

A steady stream of Game & Watch consoles were released throughout the decade, even as Nintendo entrenched themselves further into the video game industry and eventually dominating it with the Japanese release of the Famicom in 1983 (and later renamed the Nintendo Entertainment System upon it’s release in the USA in 1985, and Europe in 1986). Yokoi ended up becoming an essential part of Nintendo’s strategy, heading up Nintendo’s R&D1 development team; the team behind games such as Kid Icarus and Metroid. Yokoi himself also invented the ROB (Robot Operating Buddy) peripheral for the NES.

Portable Pleasure: Three Decades of Nintendo Handhelds (Pt.1: The 80's)

If Nintendo’s NES console helped the company dominate the gaming industry, then the original Game Boy tightened their grip over it. Invented once again by Gunpei Yokoi and released in Japan in 1989 (USA in 1989, Europe in 1990), the green-screened, beige bulk of fun was the best example of Yokoi’s design philosophy.

Powered by a widely available Z80-based processor (similar to the one used in Sinclair Spectrum and Amstrad CPC models) and featuring its trademark monochrome LCD display, the Game Boy was vastly underpowered compared to competing handhelds of the time, Atari’s Lynx and SEGA’s Game Gear. However, it crushed both systems because of its whopping 10-12 hours of battery life on four AA cells (compared to the 4-6 hours of battery life on six AA batteries on the other two systems). Then, of course, there was the software.

Nintendo took a sensible approach to developing software for the new portable device. While many first and third-party series made the jump from the NES to its little brother, Nintendo did a fantastic job of not trying to port NES games to the smaller screen. Instead, they reworked their biggest franchises so that they worked on the Game Boy’s tiny screen.

Portable Pleasure: Three Decades of Nintendo Handhelds (Pt.1: The 80's)

There is absolutely no way that anyone can even speak of the Game Boy, without mentioning one of the most popular games in the world, a game which started as a launch title for the system in the West. Alexey Pajitnov’s magnum opus is still as addictive and playable as it ever was and it’s no surprise that a ton of court battles took place in the 80’s, as various software companies fought to claim who had the rights to publish the game.

In one of the best business decisions Nintendo ever made, Tetris found its way to the Game Boy as a bundled game; and from there it exploded into a phenomenon, a cultural juggernaut. You think Angry Birds is popular these days? That is nothing compared to the impact that Tetris had on the entire world in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and the Game Boy was home to arguably the best version of the game. It single-handedly sold the system to gamers and non-gamers alike; a killer app, the likes of which has never been seen since. With the Game Boy and Tetris hand in hand, Nintendo were ready for the 90’s video game market; but that is a story for another time.

In Part 2 we’ll be covering the 90’s, including a look at how a game released for a ten-year old system, single-handedly became one of Nintendo’s biggest successes.