The History Of Handheld Gaming

Step aside consoles! Move over arcades! We want our games to travel with us! And, so they have since the late 70's!

From old skool LED all the way up to 32 bit systems, handheld games have evolved from the most primative technology to far surpassing videogame standards of the 80's and early 90's.

But, where did it all begin, and how far exactly have we come...


The idea of handheld video games with interchangeable cartridges wouldn’t take hold for about another decade, but Mattel managed to pry video games away from quarter-swallowing arcades and dim televisions with their successful line of LED-based, single-game handhelds. Most people today will remember Football, but the company also released the creatively-titled Basebal and Basketball, as well as the non-sports titles Missle Attack, Armor Battle, and Sub Chase. Mattel also managed to jump on the retro-chic bandwagon, re-releasing Football and Baseball in 2000.



Milton Bradley, a company then better known for Hungry Hungry Hippos than video games, has the distinction of being the first to introduce a handheld video game console with interchangeable cartridges with its Microvision. The system had only a handful of games and was plagued with problems from the start, including a 16x16 pixel LCD screen that was prone to rotting and cartridges that could be permantly damaged by even a relatively small static charge. Sounds like the makings of a real collector's item, if you ask me.


Upping the ante from Mattel’s LED handhelds, Nintendo introduced their first Game & Watch handheld in 1980 and would go on to produce dozens more throughout the decade, offering a small glimpse of what was to come from the company. As the name suggests, the handhelds featured a clock and alarm but the real attraction was the games, which included titles like Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, and Balloon Fight.


It’s almost impossible to understate the impact of Nintendo’s Game Boy. The original Game Boy, in its various incarnations, is the most successful video game system ever -- handheld or otherwise. Part of its success is likely due to its reasonable price ($109 US at launch), but most of it is a result of the games and, in particular, the drop dead brilliant move of bundling Tetris with the system.

The fact that a system with a blurry, green screen and fairly lackluster graphics compared to its competitors was as successful as it was should forever serve strongly in support of the argument that it’s the games that make the system, not the hardware.

Nintendo would make some improvements to the design over the years, releasing the slimmer Game Boy Pocket in 1996, which replaced the original’s green screen with a regular grayscale display, and the Game Boy Light, which added a backlit screen but was unfortunately only available in Japan.


The first of many challengers to the Game Boy was Atari’s Lynx, co-developed with Epyx and released in 1989. The system had far better graphics than the Game Boy, in some cases riviling the console systems of the time, but it was big and much more expensive than Nintendo‘s affordable unit. Atari redesigned the unit in 1991 but Atari’s marketing efforts proved to be no match for Nintendo’s, who were already well on their way to dominating the field for years to come.



NEC managed to produce one of the most technically impressive handhelds with its Turbo Express, which was actually a portable version of its console system, the Turbgraphx 16 (a rival to the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo). The Turbo Express was about the size of a Game Boy but had a sharp active-matrix color display and could even be used as a portable TV with an optional tuner. The downside was, of course,the price which, at $299.99US, seemed to aim the device at a niche market that didn’t yet exist -- the (portable) gaming enthusiast.


The most successful of the various Game Boy challengers was Sega’s Game Gear which, like the Lynx and Turbo Express, had a color screen. But unlike those systems managed to keep the retail price down to a fairly reasonable $149. The Game Gear benefited from Sega’s advantage over Atari and NEC (the Genesis was then the leading console system) and a better selection of games, but it was still only a modest success in the face of Nintendo’s increasing dominance of the market.


For most of the 1990s, Nintendo had the handheld market effectively all to themselves, with other companies giving up after trying and failing to knock Nintendo down a few pegs. Sega was the first to re-enter the field with the Sega Nomad, a portable version of the Genesis console. It seemed like a good idea -- after all the Genesis had a huge library of titles just sitting around countless livingrooms -- but poor battery life and a somewhat bulky design helped to do it in. Even an eventual price drop to $79.99 failed to save the Nomad from being put out to pasture.


Nintendo's Virtual Boy (also known as the VR-32 during development) was the first portable game console capable of displaying "true 3D graphics". Most video games are forced to use monocular cues to achieve the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional screen, but the Virtual Boy was able to create a more accurate illusion of depth through the effect known as parallax. In a manner similar to using a head-mounted display, the user looks into an eyepiece made of neoprene on the front of the machine, and then an eyeglass-style projector allows viewing of the monochromatic (in this case, red) image. It was released on July 21, 1995 in Japan and August 14, 1995 in North America at a price of around US$180. It met with a lukewarm reception that was unaffected by continued price drops. Nintendo discontinued it the following year. The Virtual Boy is considered Nintendo's only major failure in the home video game market.


You can’t fault Tiger Electronics for their ambition. Their handheld, as the name suggests, attempted to bring Internet access and PDA functions to a gaming handheld. Unfortunately, it didn’t do any one thing particularly well: its disappointing games were made even worse by the unit’s outdated screen, and its "Internet access" only let you check email and browse the web in text -- nope, no online gameplay here. Still, as with many of these systems, communities of die-hard gamers have found refuge on the web with other like-minded individuals, devoted to breathing some new life into their late, lamented handhelds.


Mention the name Neo-Geo to any gamer over the age of 25 or so and you’ll likely get a knowing smile. A lucky few may have owned the pricey home system that made the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis look like yesterdays news, but most will be familiar with Neo-Geo from their arcade games -- especially fighting games like the Samurai Showdown and King of Fighters series. Attempting to build on their reputation, Neo-Geo branched out into the handheld space in 1998 with the Neo-Geo Pocket, but got off to a rocky start, releasing a black-and-white unit first before correcting things just a year later with the Neo-Geo Pocket Color (or NGPC). Despite some solid games, the system never got much support from third-party developers and failed to attract enough gamers to legitimately challenge the still dominant Nintendo.



Nintendo introduced its first major revision to the Game Boy in 1998 with the Game Boy Color, which, not surprisingly, offered a color screen, case, and better graphics capabilities while still being backward compatible with the enormous library of Game Boy titles. While the system was successful, it proved to mostly be a stopgap measure from Nintendo, who had bigger plans in store.


Released in 2001, Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance was by far the biggest thing to shake up the handheld space since the original Game Boy was released over ten years earlier. On the technical side, the GBA was the rough equivalent to the Super Nintendo making ports of titles from that system easy, but the GBA also benefited from some wildly original games like Advance Wars. In 2003, Nintendo released the completely redesigned Game Boy Advance SP which, most importantly, added a front-lit screen, attempting rectifying the one major problem people had with the original GBA. Recently, Nintendo released yet another GBA varient, the Game Boy Micro, with a small and sleek design aimed in large part at an older, iPod-totting audience.




Before they introduced the N-Gage, Nokia wasn’t a company that anyone would associate with gaming -- and now, a few years later, they still haven’t really managed to get gamers to take notice. The N-Gage (and it’s most recent revision the QD) is a fairly capable system but it seems that most people still prefer to keep their phoning and their gaming separate. Nokia, however, is hoping that'll change in the next couple of years, and intends to incorporate N-Gage gaming capabilities into future smartphones -- not just game-phones.



Ever since the first concept designs appeared on the web, the Nintendo DS was met with skepticism. To many, the design seemed like a step backward after the elegant GBA SP, and the dual screens and stylus input seemed more like novelties than the revolution in handheld gaming Nintendo was promising. But gamers were slowly won over as more and more great games kept coming out for the DS, including what are arguably some of the most innovative titles on any system -- the built-in WiFi doesn’t hurt either, which they've used to finally move on pervasive portable online gameplay. And of course, in the last few weeks the subsequent announcement and Japanese launch of the DS Lite, a smaller, thinner, lighter version of the same device.



The most technically advanced handheld system to date, Sony’s PlayStation Portable seems to be holding on to its (comparatively smaller) piece of the market in the face of Nintendo’s array of handhelds, despite its high price tag and relatively few stand-out games. Sony also keeps pushing the UMD format for movies, although many users have opted for more practical means of viewing content on their PSPs. And if you can keep your firmware versions straight, you can even get in on some homebrew action.


Things aren’t looking good for Tiger Telematics and their Gizmondo, their jack-of-all-trades (but master of none) handheld. The system is fairly powerful and has some nifty features like GPS and built-in camera, but with no compelling games and a premium price it faced an uphill battle from the start. And don't even get me started about the internal (mis)direction of the company; Tiger later tried to entice gamers by offering the system at a discount if they agreed to watch a few ads with a system called Smart Adds, but that idea seems to have fallen flat with users. They've since filed for bankrupcy in Europe



For many, the GP2X (and the GP32 before it, and the forthcoming XGP and XGP Mini) is the holy grail of handheld gaming. With a memory card and some emulators, you can play just about any game from a number of the systems above, as well as thousands of arcade and console games. That’s enough to make any old-school gamer giddy with delight, and enough to send companies running to their IP lawyers. If you actually own a copy of the game you’re emulating you may be better off, although even that is up for debate. Of course that hasn’t stopped most people from getting their retro kicks.




It doesn't stop there. Now-a-days people are taking games on the go on their cell phones and PDA's. It appears that the whole world is video game crazy, and everyone has their favorite games at their finger tips.

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