Archive for the ‘Gaming To Go’ Category
Given the low price point for both games and hardware, massive amount of ports, and obvious room in the market for clones, portables were not hard to find. It wasn’t until the late 90s that they actually found their voice, though, starting with weak license translations and resulting in full-blown solid titles developed solely for portable platforms. At the same time, many developers would revert back to ports now that they could make long RPGs of yesteryear and games from last gen run in your hand.
Game.com – Released: 1997
Pronounced “game com” and not “game dot com”, this newest handheld from Tiger Electronics was a clear attempt to make a cartridge-based handheld version of the games they popularized in the late 80s. Much like those old school handhelds, the games shared popular licenses of the time and similarities in gameplay, but for the most part were unique creations. Think of a company that only does book adaptations to film – the concept remains the same and the characters are familiar, but it’s essentially something new. This sounds like a good idea, but for some reason Tiger always seemed to miss the point of portable games and Game.com is no exception.
At first glance the Game.com seems pretty innovative and has similar features to a primitive DS. Boasting a larger dot matrix display of 200×160, it also supported limited online functionality, a touch screen and on-board ROM with a phone book, calendar, solitaire and gaming functions. While it initially required 4 AAs for near-Gameboy battery life, a pocket version would only require 2 AAs and remain consistent with battery life. The touch screen wasn’t even as responsive as a Palm, making it a rather frustrating feature to the console. To get this guy online required you to purchase a Tiger modem, connect it via serial cable and have an available ISP to bridge the connection to the Internet. From there you could upload scores and if you had the online cartridge (sold separately) you could browse e-mail and web in a text-only format. Of course this was assuming you could figure out how to make everything work as instructions online and in the manual gave incorrect directions. Aside from all that, portability was out if you planned to get online in the least and there were so few players that the leaderboard was pointless.
As for game library, Tiger decided to produce titles internally, opting for license agreements over external development and dev kits were near impossible to get. As a result, the game library was both limited and lacked innovation. Furthermore most members of the gaming press didn’t cover the console or games so there were few resources to validate the purchase of anything that came out. Eventually the console died an undocumented death only to be “revived” by the Internet in the form of independent development and a recent emulator. Given that it sold just over 250,000 units, working consoles are harder to find and cost a bit too much (>$50) online, not to mention the rarity and cost of most titles.
Gameboy Color – Launch Price: $79.99 – Released: 1998
Many gamers think that the Gameboy Color is just a Gameboy with a color LCD. While aesthetically that may make sense, and keeping all the Gameboys straight at that time was impossible, there’s a lot more going on under the hood. It still sported the Z80 8-bit processor, but at twice the speed (8 mhz over 4 mhz) and had four times the RAM size (32 KB system, 16 KB graphics). The Gameboy Color had the same resolution as its predecessor and was fully backward compatible with Gameboy titles and lasted 30+ hours on just 2 AAs. Developers had been clamoring for a new Gameboy since the old one’s hardware was nearly a decade old, but they were probably hoping for a little more of a boost than they got with the Gameboy Color. Still, it did help to spawn a large number of unique titles and interesting ports as well as adding four color shades to regular Gameboy titles.
As you can imagine, Nintendo was responsible for some of the strongest titles – Zelda fans really got a treat with Link’s Awakening DX, which added color to the Gameboy title, and both Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons released at the same time were completely different games with intermixing storylines. The Pokemon series continued with Pokemon Gold & Silver, Pokemon Yellow, and Pokemon Crystal. Warioland 2 and Warioland 3 also continued to take the reins given up by the Super Mario Land series with impressive results. Third party developers took an early shot with Lufia: The Legend Returns from Natsume, Metal Gear Solid: Ghost Babel from Konami and Resident Evil Gaiden by Capcom. In terms of ports, however, the portable was adorned with both great and terrible recreations. Donkey Kong Country actually got ported and looked like a splotchy mess of the original. The original Super Mario Bros came out in a “DX” form that added a few bonuses and the original Mario Bros on the cart, but was the beginning of a long trend of Nintendo reselling us classics. Enix released both a Dragon Warrior I & II compilation and Dragon Warrior III ports that not only featured mild graphical changes but had a new translation that ditched the Elizabethan-style text and changed names and words to be closer to the Japanese version (Dragon Quest). Near PC-port perfect versions of Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto II released from Take-Two’s Tarantula studios. Plenty of other arcade and console ports made their way, including the “DX” versions of several Gameboy games. It may not have been the improvement everyone wanted, but Gameboy Color was definitely a step in the right direction.
Neo Geo Pocket Color – Launch Price: $69.95 – Released: 1999
It would seem that the Neo Geo Pocket Color was designed specifically as a Gameboy Color killer, which is somewhat true, but this was actually a scramble by SNK to release an update to the Neo Geo Pocket released in Japan the year before. Sold exclusively by eToys in the US before hitting major US retailers around 2000, this portable gave Gameboy Color a technological run for its money. It was a portable 16-bit console with a separate Z80 8-bit processor for sound, resulting in the much cleaner soundtracks of Neo Geo Pocket Color titles. It also lasted 40+ hours on just 2 AAs, making it one of the most energy efficient portables ever released in the US.
Unfortunately SNK did a horrible job with 3rd party developers so the console is mostly made up of portable versions of Neo Geo titles. While Neo Geo Pocket Color didn’t have the graphical superiority of its console brethren, the low price and strong availability was a great opportunity for regular consumers to expose themselves to a solid library. Portable installments of Fatal Fury, King of the Fighters, Magical Drop, Metal Slug, Samurai Showdown and SNK vs. Capcom all had ports, making this the essential portable for fans of 90s fighters. It even had support for linking consoles to play these fighters against each other. The only other notable title for the console was Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure, which also allowed you to hook your Pocket Color to the Dreamcast and unlock content in Sonic Adventure. SNK suffered a collapse and folded, ending the Neo Geo Pocket Color in 2001, which most likely wouldn’t have gone on to produce much given poor third-party support. Either way, it was a decent and fitting end to the Neo Geo era.
Gameboy Advance – Launch Price: $149.99 – Released: 2001
Gameboy was clearly the portable form of the NES and Gameboy Advance (GBA) was clearly the portable SNES. Ironically, from an internal component standpoint, the GBA and SNES are quite different from one another although the heavy sprite-based library made the distinction visually difficult. An ARM processor provided a strong portable 32-bit central unit while a Z80 allowed for sound co-processing and complete backwards compatibility with the Gameboy/Gameboy color library. Additional onboard memory also allowed the Gameboy Advance to do basic 3D modeling and scaling as opposed to the Mode 7 “fake 3D” provided by the SNES. Having said all that, it was basically responsible for a heaping handful of SNES ports and thus appropriately dubbed a portable SNES.
Like the Gameboy before it, the GBA required lots of direct light to be seen and even had an anti-glare screen for direct sunlight play. This made playing under artificial light somewhat difficult without additional accessories, mostly unlicensed by Nintendo. Early Advance titles included the many remakes of Mario games in the Super Mario Advance series (don’t even bother trying to figure out the numbering system). Castlevania open-map games, dubbed “MetroidVania” by fans, started with Cirle of the Moon and continued with the much more impressive and balanced Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow. Advance Wars provided the first outing in the strategy RPG series in the US, which was addictive then as it ever was for Japanese gamers. Zelda received its next portable iteration, Minish Cap, which used the cartoonish Link and reduced the difficulty, thus splitting some fans of the series. Mario Kart Super Circuit gave gamers a portable version of the racer and returned from the roots abandoned in the N64 outing. Metroid Fusion was the next installment in the series, giving fans the first new outing in almost a decade. Of course Pokemon got two installments with Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire. This was also the console that started the WarioWare series, which I still love in every portable iteration.
It’s important to note that this was an interesting time for video game development. Many studios that were responsible for some of 2D gaming’s best titles were really sinking with the 3D gaming trend that had gone mainstream in the late 90s. With the PS2 on the horizon and no end to 3D in sight, most of these developers were working on re-released collections at budget prices. In addition the RPG, especially the Japanese RPG, was taking new shape and the traditional style just wasn’t selling, especially at $50 price tags. These developers found a new safe home on the Gameboy Advance. Treasure released a sequel to Genesis great Gunstar Heroes with Gunstar Super Heroes, just about every Final Fantasy was re-released with new translations and graphics, including Final Fantasy Tactics, Klonoa Heroes, Lufia: Ruins of Lore continued on portables and Sonic got a new side scrolling series with Sonic Advance. Tons of ports also made their way with 30 NES classics coming to the console as well as a remake of Kirby’s Adventure renamed Nightmare in Dream Land. Donkey Kong Country 1, 2, & 3, Final Fantasy Advance IV, Final Fantasy Advance VI, Final Fight One, Mortal Kombat Advance, Phantasy Star Collection, R-Type III, Shining Force, Sonic The Hedgehog Genesis, Super Ghouls & Ghosts, Super Mario World, and Yoshi’s Island plus plenty I’m sure I’m forgetting were all 16-bit console ports from the SNES and Genesis. Ports of more recent games were given limited versions like Metal Slug Advance, Max Payne, Tomb Raider, and Jet Grind Radio. Capcom also begun the way-too-large Megaman Battle Network series, which had 11 different titles (not all unique) on the console and also continued the Zero plotline from Megaman X in Megaman Zero 1-4. Despite its strong third-party support and faithful portable ports, not to mention more than 80 million units sold worldwide and even a redesign that added a backlit display (that it desperately needed), the Gameboy Advance was phased out by Nintendo in 2004 with the introduction of the DS. Needless to say, there was a lot of quality damage done in those three short years and GBA titles still sell for some high prices today.
Nokia N-Gage – Launch Price: $299.99 – Released: 2003
A hybrid between a portable gaming console and a cell phone, the N-Gage wasn’t good at either. Jokingly called the “taco phone” because you had to hold it that way during a call, no one purchased this as a cell phone. Costing nearly twice the price of a Gameboy Advance and having internal components not much different from the competitor. Sure, it was a smartphone, but given that it was more expensive than most smart phones and no one wanted to be caught talking on it, that fact was hardly a selling feature. Even worse, the cartridge slot required you to partially disassemble the console.
So few games were released on the N-Gage that it was thought of as a gimmick rather than a portable. Ports of Rayman, Splinter Cell, Tomb Raider, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Super Monkey Ball and Bomberman all cost more than the used version of the same game on consoles. No one in 2003 wanted the original Tomb Raider for $30 when they could get it used for $5. The N-Gage also had a vertical orientation more drastic than 4:3 so games looked distorted on the console. A few original titles were released, like the first person shooter Ashen, and thanks to horrendous reviews made it to the junk pile before ever being bought. I’m fairly certain that even Gamestop, EB Games, and several other used game retailers decided not to purchase or sell used copies of these games. It was a sad entry into the console gaming market and begun a trend of portable console/cell phone failures that continues today. Somehow Nokia ended up moving more than 3 million phones and kept the N-Gage on the market until 2008, but how that is possible remains a mystery to me.
Gizmondo – Launch Price: $400 (w/o “Smart Adds”) or $229.99 (with “Smart Adds”) – Released: 2005
Probably the most controversial and forward thinking device, the Gizmondo promised to be so many things at once and ended up being nothing but the worst selling portable in history. With less than 30,000 units distributed worldwide it took manufacturer/distributor Tiger Telematics (not to be mistaken with Tiger Electronics, mentioned above) less than a year to go bankrupt (March 2005-February 2006). The device was available in several ways, but in the United States it was mostly limited to mall kiosks and the official website. Furthermore there was extremely slim advertising – I never even saw any – and only 14 games released over here and those were hard to find in stock. In fact, the largest exposure the device got was when Tiger Telematics executive Stefan Eriksson was discovered to be the leader of the Uppsala mafia, a crime syndicate.
As a portable gaming device the Gizmodo actually featured some decent hardware and built-in software. A 400 mhz ARM processor by Samsung ran the device with 64 mb RAM, an nVidia GoForce 128-bit 3D accelerator, and 320×240 color display capable of over 65,000 colors. It featured an SD slot for storage and was capable of playing MP3, MP4, Windows Media Player 9, GPS and GPRS for location and mapping, bluetooth wireless communication, SIM card for GSM cellular technology and a digital camera, because “why not?”, right? The device featured “Smart Adds”, which was a misspelled way of delivering location-based (via GPS) advertisements to the home screen of the device, which reduced the purchase price. If you had money to burn and didn’t care for ads on your home screen, you could purchase Gizmondo without “Smart Adds” for nearly twice the price. In truth, you should have gone with the “Smart Adds” version because they were only online for around 10 months. A huge number of games were slated to release on the console but only a handful did – although I’ve heard that an SD card and a quick torrent search can net you the entire library of games, both released and unreleased. Of these games, I’ve heard none of them are really worth mentioning save for Colors, an unreleased GTA-style game that is most notable because you can get out of prison by performing sexual acts on a prisoner. For those thinking they can grab an SD card and a Gizmondo cheap, good luck – I rarely see the system for sale and when I do it’s either broken or more than $200.
That wraps up our coverage on the history of portable gaming. Sure, the DS and PSP released quite some time ago, but given that there’s nearly no library for the 3DS combined with the Playstation Vita’s uncertain future – it hasn’t released yet – both the DS and PSP are still considered “current generation” in my eyes.
For more than 10 years various portable games came and went, mostly focusing on a single title in custom hardware, then in 1989 it all hit at once. With such a small gap between releases it was clear that multiple companies were developing cartridge-based portable consoles. Most portable systems in history moving forward had one simple goal: to port home console games to handhelds as faithfully as possible. While some gems of creativity did spawn from portables that were clearly not ports, the main goal of many developers was always about getting those console ports in the palm of your hand.
Gameboy – Launch Price: $89.99 – Released: 1989
In every way shape and form, the Nintendo Gameboy was designed to be a portable NES. The brainchild of Gunpei Yokoi (Game & Watch series) and Nintendo Research & Development 1 (R&D1), known best for the creation of Metroid, the Gameboy was defined by one game: Tetris. Not only was the portable 8-bit console looking as promising as the NES – complete with launch titles Super Mario Land and a handful of all-too-familiar titles that launched the NES like Baseball and Tennis – but Nintendo picked the ultimate pack-in. With the Gameboy, Nintendo linked to a more casual market as well as the NES and gamer faithful, which was no more clear than the inclusion of Tetris, not Super Mario Land, in the box. Tetris fever was rampant in the United States at the time, some six or more versions were floating around on various platforms by 1989, and the Gameboy was a convenient and relatively inexpensive (Tetris was around $40 in most software versions) way to get a versatile version of the game. Starting in 1990, after many children and adults alike received a Gameboy for Christmas, it was not uncommon to see people in public grinding away the hours on a Gameboy. What was unique is that they almost always were playing Tetris and nothing else.
Now that doesn’t mean the Gameboy remained a Tetris console, not at all. As time went on plenty of games received the Gameboy treatment with varying results. One of the biggest problems was that the LCD screen had a lot of issues with blur, making images, pixels, and moving characters (namely the person you’re controlling) difficult to control. To add to this issue was the fact that it wasn’t backlit, so you had to find that happy medium between enough light to see and not too much to cause glare (like sunlight). The games themselves also had issues with sprite size, making characters too big for the screen. While large sprites on the Gameboy did look good, the side effect was that you wouldn’t be able to see dangers around you and therefore died often with enemies and/or traps above and below. Metroid II, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan, and just about all the Mega Man games suffered this issue. On the other hand, Wario found his place in the Nintendo multiverse thanks to the Super Mario Land series (and eventual Wario Land) and the SaGa series was born in the form of Final Fantasy Legend. Not to be mistaken with Final Fantasy Adventure, another popular title on the Gameboy, Final Fantasy Legend helped start the strength of RPGs on portables. Arcade titles also had their shot on the portable with games like Alleyway (Arkanoid clone), R-Type, Donkey Kong ’94 (an amazing sequel to the original arcade), Qix and oh so many more with varying results. Even later arcade titles, mostly fighters, made appearences on the portable with Pit Fighter, Street Fighter II, and Mortal Kombat, which were all pretty terrible.
Gameboy not only had a large influence on the birth of portable gaming but it also lasted what is essentially forever. Several different versions released including the “Play It Loud!’ see-through model in 1995, the Gameboy Pocket in 1996, the Gameboy Light in 1998, which doesn’t even cover the Gameboy Color line (discussed later in this article). Despite several options, including newer generations of Nintendo portables, being on the market, the Gameboy stayed strong well after its time. This is due mostly to two major factors. The first is the failure of the Virtual Boy, which released in 1995 and was supposed to be the 3D successor to the Gameboy. Unfortunately the Virtual Boy wasn’t really portable, cheap, or popular and even caused vision and balance issues with some consumers. For that reason the Virtual Boy will receive its own article separate from either home or portable consoles, and the Gameboy was expected to pick up the reigns of the portable market in 1995. In addition a little licensed title called Pokemon breathed new life into the already dated system and had a whole new audience picking up Gameboys again. Gameboy was already nine years old in 1998 when Pokemon Red & Blue came out in America, but that didn’t stop everyone from getting Nintendo’s handheld as a Christmas gift yet again. While it did have support for those that moved on to the Gameboy Color, the traditional Gameboy support allowed a huge audience to appreciate it, many spending about the same amount for the game as the cost of a used Gameboy. There’s no telling exactly when the Gameboy officially died, but with more than 118 million units sold worldwide, it definitely stands as the portable platform of the 90s.
Lynx – Launch Price: $189.95 – Released: 1989
Atari’s portable is interesting because it was technologically much more impressive than the Gameboy, came out at the same time as the Gameboy, boasted a backlit color screen and Atari had no home console to copy games from. Unfortunately, the Lynx did not sell for a number of reasons, the strongest being a weak software library. Aside from that the price alone was discouraging – you could purchase a Gameboy for $90, an NES for $100, and a Sega Genesis for the same price in 1989. Power consumption was also a major and expensive issue with 6 AAs only lasting about 4 hours compared to the 10-12 hours of the 4 AAs in a Gameboy, and although there were AC/DC cords the concept of portability was completely lost. Finally the Lynx suffered distribution issues during the holidays in 1989, which resulted in a miniscule stock of the Lynx alongside the wall of Gameboys at less than half the price. Those that had the money or were gifted the console also noted that it was very bulky and as I remember nearly impossible to move around.
If you can get past all those flaws, the console itself was impressive with a 4 mhz 8-bit processor (about the same speed as an SNES), 4 channel sound, a 3.5″ 4,096 color LCD display with 16 simultaneous color support and up to 2 MB cartridges. Many of the titles are ports including the launch title California Games, often praised as a very faithful version of the Commodore 64 release. Arcade classics like Ninja Gaiden and Double Dragon suffered from the fact that they were faithful ports from their coin-op classics and thus the inferior versions when compared to the NES releases. Plenty of other games are great on-the-go versions of home games but the Lynx truly proves that portable versions of home/computer games isn’t always as good as it sounds. A canceled version of Aliens vs. Predator might have been cool, especially when you consider the developer was Rebellion, who was also known for the Jaguar and later versions of the series. As it stands, the Lynx died a slow and painful death as both portables and consoles released around its potluck library that never saw much 3rd party support.
TurboExpress – Launch Price: $249.99 – Released: 1990
This is the best example of portables having the sole purpose of home consoles ports – the TurboExpress is just a Turbografx-16 made into a portable. Selling for as much as $299.99, the price dropped to the more acceptable $199.99 within two years, but by then you could pick up a clearance TG-16 at Toys R Us for like $50. With a 400×270 2.6″ (same size as Gameboy) color LCD that was very advanced and super sharp for its time, TurboExpress demonstrated the issues with porting to handhelds. First of all there was an issue with distribution in that the Turbografx-16 was already losing steam and had very few games from a relatively small library on store shelves. Additionally the price was ridiculous, you could get an SNES and a Gameboy at the same price. The console also suffered plenty of problems with both graphics and sound – the sound could cut out from bad capacitors with the only solution to replace them on the board and the cutting edge LCDs had frequent dead pixels. It also foreshadowed another issue: small text. Since many TG-16 titles were initially Japanese, text told many a story and on such a small display with no compensation for the portable the text was completely unreadable. To no surprise the TurboVision TV tuner that included RCA inputs was an expensive and unnecessary add-on, with portable TVs being cheaper than the add-on. It was known as the “Rolls Royce of handhelds” and just like the prestigious car, it had the same size customer base.
Gamate – Launch Price: $100 (approx, see below) – Released: 1990
Virtually unknown to most people not in Taiwan and China, this Bit Corporation Gameboy clone actually saw worldwide release including Europe and the United States. I have never seen one of these in the classic gaming expos I’ve gone to, but I do know they exist thanks to sites like eBay. This was a true Gameboy clone through and through with identical LCD display (including resolution), same power consumption (4 AA batteries), and almost all of the software cloned classics like Tetris, Bomberman and Lode Runner under different names like Treasure Hunter. Fortunately the parts and assembly are also mostly cloned from the Gameboy in that they are quality and durable save for the horrendous mono speaker in the console. Software was released on credit card-style chips that resembled the Turbografx-16 HuCard and Sega Master System Cards. There is said to be a rumored 70 games, although others have claimed the true library could be as little as half that many, but due to scarcity it’s probably impossible to tell. The only pricing info I could find was an ad offering it for 60 British pounds, which in 1990 converted to $96.60, accounting for the approximate $100 launch price. Given the low distribution, obvious attempt to clone the Gameboy, and cheap look I’m not shocked that few gamers, even retro ones, are aware of this console. Bit Corp went under in 1992, less than two years after the release, but UMC/Funtech picked up the reigns for an undisclosed period of time before the console and software was discontinued.
Game Gear – Launch Price: $150 – Released: 1991
For all intents and purposes, the Game Gear was a portable version of the Sega Master System that also supported more colors and stereo sound, despite most games not taking advantage. Sega and Nintendo were definitely competing on the portable front as well as the home console front, although the Gameboy had a lot of momentum before the Game Gear hit. At the time, however, SNES was not out so Sega fans could stand proudly with the technically superior Genesis/Game Gear combo compared to the NES/Gameboy – then again, portables have proven that better tech is usually a hindrance. Touting a 3.2″ (about 30 percent larger than Gameboy) color LCD at the standard Gameboy resolution of 160×144, this beast also gulped battery life at only 4-5 hours per 6 AAs. Rechargeable battery packs were more standard at this point, so the Game Gear fortunately was a bit more manageable than the Lynx had been.
Ironically enough the Game Gear was probably responsible for the prolonged life of the Master System and ports of games like Sonic the Hedgehog given the similar hardware. There was even an adapter called the Master Gear Converter that allowed Master System carts to be played on the Game Gear. Due to the color increase, it was not possible to put Game Gear games on Master System, but most popular titles saw a Master System release as well. The console came with pack-in Columns, Sega’s version of Tetris, to continue the Gameboy trend and launched with only six games. Obviously titles like Sonic the Hedgehog and Disney licenses were the most popular, but as a Game Gear owner the controversial bloody version of Mortal Kombat was a decent portable port and early shooter Aerial Assault is still my top pick for original games. Altogether there were nearly 400 (363-390 titles depending on the source) not counting the Master System games, which is an impressive library even compared to Gameboy’s massive 800+ title lineup.
Supervision – Launch Price: $49.99 – Released: 1992
Another Gameboy clone, the Supervision by Watara originated in Asia and had a bit more love in Europe as opposed to the United States. With a slightly higher resolution display of 160×160, slightly smaller display and power consumption that’s nearly the same as Gameboy on 4 AAs, it’s a clone through and through. I don’t recall ever seeing these on store shelves, but then I had already traded my Gameboy for a Game Gear so it would have held no interest to me. Like the Gamate, the Supervision used altered names to clone many popular portable titles (much like the pre-1983 consoles had) but with the strength of Nintendo’s first party titles on the Gameboy, no one was interested. It was offered as prizes in the early 90s on Nickelodeon’s Legends of the Hidden Temple and the New Price is Right, but by that point in 1994 no one even noticed it existed. The Supervision lives on strongly in emulation, a fitting place for it given that most of its games are either unlicensed clones or pirate titles anyway.
Nomad – Launch Price: $180 – Released: 1995
Sega’s biggest problem with the Nomad, a portable version of the Genesis, was very similar to the TurboExpress – it was far too expensive and the Genesis was at the end of its life span. By the time of its release the Sega 32X was fizzling out, the Saturn about to release and new Genesis software was all but non-existent. Furthermore, the battery life was horrid and due to the lower voltage of rechargeable AAs (1.2v vs. 1.5v) the Nomad would run dimly or much shorter life without the expensive $80 battery pack. In addition, the big selling point for the Genesis in 1995 was the inexpensive cost of the Sega CD and 32X expansion, mostly incompatible on the Nomad, and it was pretty much pointless if it wasn’t portable. Sega decided to drop the price to $79.99 in 1996 but with the Saturn, Playstation and N64 all on store shelves no one cared. Nomad is now popular today as an alternative to a Genesis thanks to the ability to hook it up to a television, solid display and ability to play imports with little to no issue.
Most remarkable about these portables and many that followed is the fact that console manufacturers like Nintendo and Sega didn’t program regional lockout chips. This makes the import gaming scene on portables very tempting and explains why European and Japanese titles are much easier to find than their home console counterpart. Still, it’s clear that the goal of most of these handhelds was to port home games to a portable format. Thankfully all of that began to change with the next wave of portables started by none other than Nintendo with the Gameboy Color. Check it out in Gaming To-Go Part 3.
Portable gaming is almost as old as console gaming, developers attempting to harness the technology of video games in any shape or form they could. This tangential development is most likely the result of experimentation in the early days of figuring out just what and how video games would work. With the first handheld video game premiering in 1977, the same year as the VCS (Atari 2600) and about 5 years following the premiere of the Pong consoles (and clones), gaming has always had a portable option. The biggest difference between console gaming and portable gaming is that consoles require additional devices for video, audio, and often for controls, whereas a portable contains all three of those attached. Early portables, much like early consoles, were mostly restricted to a single title on very basic displays.
Mattel’s Auto Race – Released: 1977
It’s difficult to pinpoint the actual release of Auto Race, especially considering it was far less popular than Mattel’s immediate second portable, Football. According to Gamasutra, it was on store shelves in 1977 (others claim 1978) and although Football released the next year, it is often miscredited as the first handheld. The design was simple: you were given 99 seconds to get your car from the bottom of the screen to the top in a 3-lane road. Cars would get in your way and you had to dodge them while also shifting between the four gears. If you collided with a car it would push you back towards the bottom until you got out of the way. The shifter and on/off switch were located on the left side of the portable while the screen takes up the right and the lane changer switch occupies the bottom. This game was a whopping 512 bytes (that’s 1/2 KB nowadays, which is roughly 500 characters in basic text format. Since I have not found one of these myself, I don’t know what batteries it takes, but I’d imagine a AA or AAA will do the job on this basic portable. I also couldn’t find a retail price but Michael Katz at Mattel claimed more than $400 million in sales of Auto Race and Football combined. Just like Pong, many clones of both titles exist.
Milton Bradley’s Microvision – Released: 1979
Way ahead of its time, the Microvision was the first true portable with interchangeable games in the form of overlays and cartridges. Boasting a whopping 2K rom size for the cartridges and one of the first style LCD displays (16 x 16 pixels), but the processors were actually located on the cartridges, which was either an Intel 8021 or a Texas Instruments TMS1100 (a later exclusive deal would result in only TMS1100 processors for later games). Given its early design and parts the Microvision was prone to many issues including screen rot, electrostatic discharge (ESD) damage and keypad issues. Screen rot is impurities and poor sealants causing the liquid crystal to permanently darken – this will also happen if the device suffers extreme heat or is left in the sun. ESD is the result of the processors being on the cartridge and building up a lot of static electricity; since the circuit boards didn’t contain an antistatic unit it could discharge built up static electricity and fry the processor.
Each cartridge would come with a keypad overlay to process the functions of up to 12 buttons for a game, much like the Intellivision, but if the fragile keypad damaged the games would be unplayable. Thanks to the various issues that these consoles suffered, collectors typically do not power these devices up for fear of damaging them. Due to a lack of support and games, which is almost always the reason for failure, the device was discontinued in 1981.
Game & Watch Series – Released: 1980
Thanks to Nintendo innovator Gunpei Yokoi watching a man play with a calculator on a train, the Game & Watch series was born. Each unit had a clock in the corner (with programmable alarm) and used cheap calculator and watch LCD displays to make primitive games with a few buttons. Later on as the games got more complicated the first d-pad was introduced and the games would have multiple screens. It’s no accident that these units look exactly like the modern DS and 3DS models from Nintendo and feature early versions of power mascots like Mario and Donkey Kong. Although the Game & Watch series is responsible for both the d-pad made famous on the NES controller and what would later be the Gameboy, each unit was limited to a specific game. Game & Watch devices used simple watch batteries that provided a long life at a cheap price and were so durable that they hold up well even today. If you are a Club Nintendo member, you can even order a reissue of the title Ball, assuming you have the ridiculously high amount of points required. This extremely successful series featured 48 titles in total and remained on the market for more than six years, even beyond the release of the NES.
Tiger Handheld Games – Released: late 80s – early 90s
Tiger Electronics, which I recently found out was established in the town I grew up in, Vernon Hills, IL, was responsible for a slew of single handheld games. Many were licenses like Robocop, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spider-Man, and oh so many more. Not only that, but many handheld versions of 3rd party NES titles like Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania released on the market, most of them having nothing to do with its home console counterpart. Each game had a very basic fixed LCD screen, much like the Game & Watch series, along with a d-pad and a few buttons. Simplified scoring systems and concepts were par for the course and there were various designs and colors from typical to completely odd. Nowadays in a world of iPhones, PSPs, tablets and the DS these games seem like a waste of time and money but back then it was our only option. At about 1/3 of the price of a Gameboy, budget-conscious parents would often give these items on Christmas to avoid Nintendo’s much more expensive (and much more fun) handheld. I was unable to find a list of the various handhelds released, but suffice to say it was a huge list.
While these early games were great for grade school children in bored classes and on playgrounds – they were the first time a teacher confiscated a device from a child for not having it silenced in class – they weren’t exactly portable consoles yet. Although the Microvision technically applies, the need for overlays was more like alternative versions of the same game and extreme fragility didn’t make it all that portable. Still, it began fun gadgets for the more casual gamer worldwide and gave way to Nintendo’s second powerhouse invention: the Gameboy. This is continued in Gaming To-Go part 2!