How Nintendo defined handheld gaming

With the 3DS XL out now, we take a look back to see how Nintendo, more than any other company, defined handheld games...

Handheld games, it could be argued, are Nintendo’s very foundation. After all, a pack of playing cards is the ultimate analogue handheld game – portable, and playable almost anywhere, assuming you have a steady surface to lay them on. And it was as a manufacturer of playing cards that Nintendo first began way, way back in 1889, and, to this day, a plaque that reads, “The Nintendo Playing Card Company” still hangs on the old company headquarters wall in Kyoto.

In English, Nintendo means “Leave luck to heaven” – a further hint at its origins as a maker of Hanafuda playing cards. But with more than a century’s successful business behind it, much of it solely dedicated to creating games of one sort or another, it’s fair to say that Nintendo’s had more than its fair share of luck, as well as dozens of moments of inspired creativity.

It was in the late 1950s that Hiroshi Yamauchi, the grandson of the company’s founder, began to steer Nintendo down a more diverse path of business. Although the playing card manufacture continued (with licensed Disney characters brought in to drive sales), its fortunes were dwindling, and ventures into such odd avenues as instant noodles, taxi firms and TV stations failed to make up for the shortfall.

But in the mid-60s, a 24-year-old chap had joined Nintendo straight from university. His name was Gunpei Yokoi, and as a former electronics major, his job was to work on the assembly line which printed and laminated Nintendo’s Hanafuda cards. Nobody knew it at the time, but this unassuming young man would do more to define the way we play handheld games than anyone else in the world.

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Gunpei Yokoi

Although Yokoi worked primarily as a maintenance man and all-round janitor, he had a restless mind. In his spare time, he constructed an odd-looking piece of paraphernalia made up of interconnected pieces of plastic arranged like a pantograph. Called the Ultra Hand, it was operated by pushing together a pair of grips, which in turn would operate a pair of pincers at the opposite end. Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi saw the potential in this odd little toy, and when it went on sale in the late 1960s, the Ultra Hand was a huge Christmas hit, selling over a million units.

While apparently tangential to the history of handheld gaming (although the Ultra Hand was handheld, if you want to be pedantic), it was this toy that gained Yokoi the promotion from maintenance man to toy designer, and put Nintendo on the path to games manufacture.

Other hit toys followed, all designed by Yokoi. These included the Ultra Machine – essentially a ping pong ball launcher – and a strange electronic device called a Love Tester, which featured a sensor that somehow measured a couple’s romantic compatibility. Curiously, this latter device is still in production.

Game & Watch

As the silicon era dawned, Yokoi began designing various electronic gun games, including the Laser Clay Shooting System. It was in the late 70s, during a long journey on a Shinkansen bullet train, that Yokoi had an idea which would affect Nintendo’s design thinking for decades to come. As he sat there, he noticed a fellow passenger idly pressing the buttons on a calculator to while away the time.

It was here that Yokoi first thought about what would become known as the Game & Watch – a combination of videogame and digital timepiece. Nintendo wasn’t the first company to bring a handheld LCD game to the marketplace; rivals such as Mattel and Milton Bradley had both brought out their own rudimentary devices in the late 70s, which were mostly simplified variations of arcade hits such as Breakout.

The Game & Watch series was, however, rather different. For one thing, their form and function was deceptively brilliant, with even the earliest handheld device, simply called Ball (1980), displaying a sophisticated level of design. The buttons were responsive, and the device was perfectly sized to fit comfortably in the hand. The games, although simple, were often highly addictive, with many of them showing the same humour and character design that would later become a Nintendo trademark.

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With each successive Game & Watch release, Nintendo played around with the handheld format. Where Ball offered little more than a single screen and left and right buttons (along with three other ancillary buttons), Oil Panic offered something completely new: dual LCD screens, which expanded the play area and the scope of the game itself; the player controlled an addled petrol station worker had to catch drops of oil from a leaking pipe and pour them into a vat on the second screen.

1982’s Donkey Kong was even better. With its dual screens mimicking the upright display of the arcade original, it was everything a game-obsessed young kid in the 80s could have wanted: a hit coin-op in the palm of the hand. What’s more, its cross-shaped four-way joypad predated Nintendo’s Famicom (or Entertainment System) by a year, establishing an instantly recognisable control system which would remain consistent across its handheld devices and consoles for the next three decades.

Across a total of 60 titles released between 1980 and 1991, the Game & Watch series was a huge hit across the world, and at their peak in the early 80s, some of the games were selling over a million units.

Aside from controls and design, Nintendo established something else with the Game & Watch series: a marketable link between the games it released in arcades, on its hugely successful home console, and its portable devices. At the time, no other manufacturer could claim to have a hit game like, say, Mario Bros or Donkey Kong available to play in an amusement arcade, as a handheld device, and later, on the Famicom.

Okay, so not all of the games were exactly alike (some were similar in name only), but this joined-up approach to its games that was unusual in the early to mid-80s, and would serve Nintendo well over the next few years, when the relatively crude Game & Watch devices were replaced by something startlingly new.

Game Boy

By the late 80s, interest in the Game & Watch titles began to wane, and the market was due for a shake-up. The Nintendo Game Boy, although a logical progression from the Game & Watch series with its familiar cross controller, functional layout and relatively crude monochrome LCD screen, its interchangeable cartridges made it the first true handheld console.

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Released in April 1989 in Japan, not everyone was impressed by its small screen and simple 8-bit processor, and some predicted that the Game Boy would be eclipsed by the more powerful Atari Lynx, which featured a full-colour display. Once again, however, Gunpei Yokoi and his fellow designers had been rather cunning, and the design of the Game Boy revealed an understanding of the marketplace that would prove to be a masterstroke.

For one thing, the Game Boy was small; unlike the Atari Lynx, it could fit easily into a child’s schoolbag or, at a push, a ladies’ handbag. Its cheap components made it cheap to manufacture and therefore more affordable than its rival. Better yet, four AA batteries would last for as much as 12 hours; the energy-hungry processor and display of its rival could only wring around four hours out of a set of six batteries. Unlike the Lynx or Sega’s Game Gear – another chunkier full-colour console launched in 1991 – the Game Boy was a truly portable console.

And then there were the games. On launch, the Game Boy had Super Mario Land, a rather unusual yet wonderfully playable platformer. But Nintendo’s biggest coup was undoubtedly Tetris; a game whose path to the Game Boy is so full of intrigue, brushes with the KGB, trips to Moscow and strange business deals that its story deserves an article all to itself (there’s a fascinating documentary, in fact, about the history of the game called Tetris: From Russia With Love which is well worth a watch).

It was with Tetris that handheld gaming enjoyed another, and perhaps its ultimate, defining moment. Here was a game that felt absolutely perfect for the hardware; that felt not like a cut-down version of a home console title, but a game designed to be played on the move. It was simple enough to pick up and enjoyed for a few minute bursts while waiting for a bus, yet it was compelling enough to play for as long as the batteries would last.

The combination of an affordable device and an addictive game proved irresistible to consumers almost everywhere, and the Game Boy sold a staggering 118.6 million units in its lifetime – and 30 million of those came with a pack-in copy of Tetris.

With Pokemon, launched in 1996, the Game Boy received another boost, as this portable RPG rode the crest of a global multimedia phenomenon. It was this game, perhaps more than any other to emerge for the Game Boy, that made compelling use of its Link Cable function; with it, players could swap characters and battle one another on separate screens. At a time before wi-fi or widespread online gaming, it was a revelation.

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Game Boy Advance

Gunpei Yokoi left Nintendo in 1996, and tragically died in a car accident one year later. In what might be the ultimate compliment to Yokoi’s ideas, the Game Boy’s successors all retained the late designer’s distinctive ideas. The Game Boy Advance, launched in 2001, looked uncannily like an early Game & Watch device, even if the full-colour LCD display and processor inside it provided something of a quantum leap.

These devices also remained faithful to Yokoi’s “lateral thinking and withered technology” ethos, where innovative ideas were favoured above cutting-edge components. At the same time, the various iterations of the GBA – whether it’s the clamshell-style SP, which protected the screen from scratches in your pocket, or the Micro, which shrunk the original design to an adorably miniature size – repeatedly responded to the new millennium desire for sleeker, more compact products.

By the early years of the 21st century, of course, portable gaming was no longer the sole preserve of Nintendo. The increasing power of mobile phones meant you could do more on them than play variations of the game Snake. What the handheld game market needed was another spot of agitation.

Nintendo DS

Launched in November 2004, the Nintendo DS was inarguably another defining moment in handheld gaming. Once again, Nintendo’s designers looked back to the work of Gunpei Yokoi, and comparing the design of the Nintendo DS to the dual-screen Game & Watch, it’s remarkable how similar the two devices look.

The visual similarities, of course, didn’t tell the whole story. Aside from the dual screens, which gave game designers a very different canvas to make their own, the DS featured touch-screen controls as well as conventional buttons, marking Nintendo’s new approach to how games are controlled, paving the way for its remote-waggling Wii in 2006.

The DS’ stylus and touch screen opened handheld gaming up not only to a whole world of new ideas, but also to a barely-tapped audience; the console could be enjoyed by a generation of players who didn’t necessarily want to play games based on reflexes or complex control systems. To get an idea of how diverse the audience for the DS became, just look at the biggest selling titles for the system, and compare those for the top sellers on the Game Boy Advance.

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Where the latter was dominated by Pokemon sequels and Super Nintendo ports, the DS’ range of popular software is far more mixed. Among New Super Mario Bros and Mario Kart and Pokemon, there are casual games about looking after dogs, and puzzle games such as Brain Age, Big Brain Academy and Professor Layton.

Once again, these are titles tailor-made for gaming on the move, but they’re also games that can be enjoyed by a range of different players, from the mature to the very young. By capturing such a broad market, the Nintendo DS became the biggest-selling handheld device to date, shifting 152 million units as of June 2012.

The present

Right now, the handheld gaming market is more competitive than ever. But in the face of this competition, Nintendo continue to offer what most other mobile devices can’t: a system designed from the ground up for games. Launched in 2011, the Nintendo 3DS offered a subtle evolution on the design of the outgoing DS, but contained more powerful hardware, a stereoscopic screen, and a circle analogue pad as well as the traditional cross-shaped controller. The 3DS XL is its latest iteration, which offers larger screens and improved battery life.

One year into its eighth generation of consoles, and it’s Nintendo’s ability to stay true to its defining principles while responding to shifts in the market that has seen it remain so successful.

Although the 3DS is inevitably lightyears ahead of those Game & Watch devices in terms of power and functions, it’s still recognisably a Nintendo machine. And most importantly, Nintendo’s still making games that are perfectly suited for playing on the move, whether it’s a simple pet simulation game like Nintendogs + Cats or an absorbing action RPG like Monster Hunter Tri G.

Interestingly, the 3DS even comes prepacked with a little deck of cards, which, when viewed through the 3DS’ camera, provide a portal into an interactive augmented reality world. It’s at once an innovative, modern idea, and a reference back to where Nintendo began all those years ago.

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