Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Gaming To-Go Part 1: Single Game Devices

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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.

List of Microvision games

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!

Written by Fred Rojas

December 8, 2011 at 1:47 pm

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