Portable electronic gaming began in the late 1970's with bulky, LED-based handhelds that allowed one to pretend glowing red dots were football players, basketballs, and the like. These were not only rather silly (though sometimes fun), but tended to go through nine-volt batteries like a hot knife through butter. In 1979, Nintendo of Japan's president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, declared that the company would have a new focus on video games, of the arcade and home variety. Gunpei Yokoi, a product designer with the company, hit upon the idea of using the the LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) technology which had made digital watches a realistic possibility only a few years earlier to make handheld games. Thus was born the Game & Watch, named because it was a video game that also kept time for two or three years on a set of button batteries. Production would continue until 1991, making the G&W truly a videogaming icon of the 1980's.

If you've never seen one of these beasts, and especially if you are only familiar with flashy new games, the concept might be kind of hard to deal with. Instead of having any animated characters or objects per se, every part of the game was represented by an LCD shape either being transparent or blackened. Thus, to show a falling banana, the screen would have four or five discrete images of the banana, which would darken in succession as the banana fell. LCD use also meant that no two objects could occupy the same space at the same time, and in fact that a one millimeter or greater gap would be required between all "cells" of object animation.

While designing games around this limitation was probably quite daunting, the results were always playable and some are even now quite fun. One of the ramifications was that the player's image had to be quickly recognizable among all of the black dots, leading to the big head and curved arms of the (what has now come to be called, as it was nameless in the actual games) Mr. Game & Watch character. Characters with very distinctive shapes, like Donkey Kong and Mario could also be used, as well as licensed characters such as Mickey Mouse and Snoopy. Another characteristic that has moved into cliche was the games' backgrounds, which were printed in great detail with lots of colors, in order to hopefully make up for the monochromatic nature of the games themselves.

Common to all of the regular Game & Watch revisions were buttons to choose the game and a button to display the time. There was also a recessed ballpoint-push type button marked ACL (and if anybody knows what this means, I'd love to know) which darkened all of the LCD cells at once, to test the screen or some such. Additional controls will be outlined under the individual revisions below.

Game & Watch revisions:

Silver Series: These came in a brushed chrome case with two to four big red control buttons. The internal clock was brain damaged and only kept twelve hour time without AM, PM, or alarm. All of its games were released in 1980.

  • Ball
  • Flagman
  • Vermin
  • Fire!
  • Judge

Gold Series: All of the silver series games were re-released in 1981 in an anodized aluminum case that with a gold tone. All of the internals were identical as well, though three new games were released. The gold series was also the first to have printed backgrounds rather than just silvery-grey LCD.

Wide Screen Series: While the controls remained roughly the same, the screen on these releases was a good thirty percent wider than the Silver and Gold series. Also, the "watch" half of Game & Watch grew up, bringing a clock with Military, AM, and PM displays, as well as an alarm clock. Unfortunately, instead of the game pausing when the time button was pushed mid-game, it exited the game completely. Cases were either anodized gold or black.

Multi Screen Series: These featured a clamshell design, where the game was played two LCDs, one on each side of the "shell". Most of the time the action was simply split between two screens showing the same scene, giving a bizarre three centimeter gap to avoid paying attention to. In a few games each screen showed something completely different from the other, and while I haven't played one I can't imagine this being anything but confusing. Oh well, people seemed to like the games Just Fine, and this series is the one most often seen at flea markets and the like.

These games also debuted the d-pad in late 1982, Yokoi's attempt to provide joystick-like flexibility in a flat package. This design was amazingly great, and would go on to be used in the NES controller, the Gameboy, and every other Nintendo platform since, and be copied by every other home video game company since.

Tabletop Series: I don't believe these should really be called Game & Watch games, though Nintendo thought otherwise. They have a funky 1977-is-the-future shape to them, and are made to sit on a table and be gazed into. Each has a cute little joystick and a single button, and they take (IIRC) four C-cells to run. Display is bright, colorful VFD (Vacuum Fluorescent Display), though as far as "sprite" functionality goes it has the same drawbacks as LCDs. All of these were released in 1983.

Panorama Series:Strangest of all the Game & Watch releases, the panorama series had features common to both the handheld and the tabletop games. To play, one had to fold out the game's display, which was a mirror supported by a strut on each side. The mirror reflected and rectified an upside down and distorted VFD, which the game was played upon. Fragile and expensive, though not quite as expensive as the tabletop models.

New Wide Screen Series: Same as wide screen, though some adopted the d-pad. Came in all sorts of random colors.

Super Color Series: Used some polarization trick to make the LCD look like it was in color, but only along horizontal or vertical stripes. Not impressive now, and probably not even impressive in 1984. The screens had an interesting aspect ratio, twice as tall as they were wide; in fact, the whole game package was tall and thin. Both releases from 1984.

Micro Vs. Series: Wow, these are the peak of strange 80's handheld tech. Games are made of a lozenge-shaped screen, with two puck-shaped controllers, one for each player. These controllers are wired to the central unit with wires that unroll from inside of it, and each controller has a d-pad and a single control button. The game can be played alone with selectable handicap for the computer player, or played with another person. Also, the screens are wide like frames of a 70 millimeter film, about three times as wide as they are tall. All were made in 1984.

Crystal Series: These have completely transparent screens, without any colored backing. Some have a colored film layer in them, to give the appearance of clouds or whatever. This rather pointless feature (useful for, what, seeing your table through the game?) means the battery holder and game logic had to be pushed out to the sides, making the games rather wide and chunky. These games were released in 1986.

YM-901 Special: Finally, we come to the rarest and strangest of them all. This is a yellow-cased copy of Super Mario Bros that plays identically to the New Wide Screen series version. However, it was never offered for sale but instead distributed to winners of Nintendo's F-1 Grand Prix tournament. One webpage said 11790 units were made, one said 10000, but in any case it was nowhere near the millions of units of all other G&W games. This game came packaged in a plastic box that folded open, modeled after the Mr. Disk character who advertized the Famicom disk system. Very odd, and very Japanese.

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