Handheld gaming has, in CURRENT YEAR, simultaneously reached both a high level of sophistication (many great software titles for Sony PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS) and a pathetic level of mindlessness (mobile ‘games’ of all sorts, but especially Candy Crush Saga). Today, mobile software has all but killed off what was once a popular toy category: the handheld electronic game. The reader may remember that only a few years ago it was commonplace to see such single-software devices as Yahtzee, poker, Tetris, and any number of licensed titles that tied into the current television or film craze. These handheld games generally featured an LCD screen (using very simple, watch-like display technology) and simple controls, allowing for some measure of gameplay (this varied widely, and most were terrible). For some – including this author – the inexpensive electronic handheld game was a first ‘video game’ experience outside of an arcade, while others (the geriatric set) used them to play solitaire on the toilet. But glancing at the selection that used to appear in the board game aisle of your local department store (alas, all but gone until it becomes trendy to bring them back, like vinyl records and stonewashed jeans) one may have been surprised to learn that none other than Nintendo pioneered the advancement of such handheld devices, with a line of electronic games introduced in 1980 that foreshadowed the venerable Nintendo DS handheld console. But Nintendo did not invent the category, as we will see.
In the beginning of the home game industry, so-called ‘television games’ played only one software title which was stored on some form of internal memory. Home Pong was the first; an effort to capitalize on the arcade phenomenon that essentially founded the home video game industry. But this was no handheld game, and the early efforts in that area, consisting of so-called sports and racing games – and by these I mean ‘clever’ titles such as Auto Race (1976) and Football (1977) from Mattel Electronics, which were nearly identical in their design and ‘gameplay’. Of course, these horrendous slabs of plastic and blinking red lights are once again being sold, this time to ironic hipsters with no understanding of what a video game experience should even be (of course). Another specimen from this era is the Microvision from Milton Bradley, which offered an interchangeable game experience that pre-dated the cartridge-based systems to come – and it did it in 1979. It was quite limited, with meager processing power and 16 x 16 pixel display one would expect from the time. Beyond these games of the 1970s – and long after the crash and then Nintendo Entertainment System-driven revitalization and growth of the 1980s – LCD-equipped games with greater levels of sophistication were common, with Tiger Electronics a well-known brand as the category matured. However, Nintendo – always nearby when video game history is being discussed – was the pioneer in this area, with a series known as Game & Watch, and the multi-screen variant of this looks exactly like the early first form of the Nintendo DS that it was.
Game & Watch set the standard for a modern handheld electronic game. The brainchild of Gunpei Yokoi, these games and their dedicated hardware increased in complexity over time, and produced the D-pad control present on almost every controller today (you know, other than the Nintendo Switch’s default controllers). The Multi Screen design of 1982 is nearly identical to the later Nintendo DS, and Game & Watch was the immediate predecessor to Game Boy, which of course set a new standard for portable gaming in the 1989. Nintendo, for all its sophistication and influential designs, was not the only player in the electronic handheld game space in the 1980s, and with Game Boy fully established the Game & Watch was finally discontinued in 1991, paving the way for other brands to take over the market. A company called Tiger Electronics became ubiquitous in this category, producing a number of games with simplistic LCD displays, generally over a painted background to simulate a more sophisticated experience. These titles were often licensed tie-in games for films or television programs, and the company even managed to license classic console game franchises (the Sonic and even Castlevania franchises did not escape this Tiger handheld treatment). A prime example of a listened title, and this author’s first electronic game (as mentioned above), was none other than the Star Trek: The Next Generation electronic handheld game. The game was, in a word, electronic. (I was going to say, ‘masterpiece’, but I am required to be truthful in these editorials).
Yes, Tiger’s Star Trek: The Next Generation electronic handheld game provided the thrill of space travel and a sense of adventure to probably countless children the world over. The player could steer the ship to the left and right (with one static position for each, and one center position) as asteroids impeded the player’s path. But that was not all. Romulans would emerge (or possibly de-cloak) from somewhere, flying in a predictable pattern, and would fire upon the Enterprise if not destroyed! (An obvious oversight, as Romulans do not initiate conflict unless unlawful entry into the Neutral Zone is made.) If that was not enough, eventually an away team would do battle on the surface of a planet, throwing a wrench into the works for the hypnotized player who thought it was just going to be a space battle game. (I will never forgive it for that curveball.) But this editorial was more than just an excuse to talk about my favorite handheld electronic game from 1988. Wait. Yes. It was exactly that. I apologize. If the reader has some personal favorite handheld to share, PLEASE COMMENT BELOW, if you wish. I WILL RESPOND IN KIND, if I wish. In short, comments are the threads that bind us together, just as I am bound to this infernal chair. Forever.