How the Game & Watch Handheld Console Shaped Nintendo for Generations

It feels like all we’ve been talking about lately in the gamerverse is high-tech consoles, graphic capabilities, SSDs, and launch titles. But, while Sony and Microsoft duke it out, as always Nintendo is walking to the beat of its own drum, this time getting back to its low-tech roots by releasing a modern take on its original console, the Game and Watch.

Chances are you already know what a Game and Watch is. I mean, if you grew up at all in the ’80s through the 2000s you had some sort of experience with the console or at least a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy. The Game and Watch is just that: a game and a watch with an alarm. It marked one of Nintendo’s earliest ventures into personal video game systems, and in the arcade frame of mind, it held one game that changed in speed in difficulty as players tried to beat high scores.

The LCD screen technology in the Game and Watch was nothing new, as it had been used in calculators and watches for years. In fact, according to gaming legend, famed Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi was inspired to create the console after seeing a bored businessman playing around with a calculator on his commute. Yokoi is responsible, through the Game and Watch, for a design principle still seen today: “Lateral thinking with withered technology”—or, combining “matured tech” (a.k.a. old and easily understood tech) with new principles to make something functional, simple, but still innovative.

Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros.

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$ 49.99

Nothing Yokoi did was revolutionary in terms of invention, but rather revolutionary in design. He wanted easy and affordable devices, with a heavy emphasis on fun, accessible gameplay and price. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Nintendo still largely holds tight to these principles today. While PlayStation and Xbox consoles are racing for high frame rates, competitive landscapes, and 4K and 8K resolution, Nintendo used this gen to create a system with graphics that on paper won’t blow you away, and yet support Breath of the Wild, revered as one of the most beautiful games of all time. But, back to the Game and Watch.

While the Game and Watch in its original form may be a cooler collector’s item than actual entertainment, it’s kind of neat how Yokoi, who passed in 1997, is still influencing Nintendo’s controller styles, gameplay dynamics, and gaming builds all these years later. It also acts as a time capsule to show just how far we and the gaming industry have come in 40 years.

The new Game and Watch: Super Mario Bros. launches today. But, what even is a Game and Watch? I’m so glad you asked. Let me put on my gaming historian hat and take you on a visual trip, courtesy of some exclusive photos, through Nintendo’s oldest handheld, which was not much more than a glorified calculator but shaped Nintendo for years to come.


game and watch ball

Nintendo

The first ever Game and Watch game was Ball, released in 1980. It launched the Silver series, which refers to not only the color of the faceplate, but also the LCD screen. Ball in particular featured a left button and right button, and saw players working with rhythm and timing to juggle a, yes, ball. The system also introduced the Game A and Game B buttons to change the difficulty. Game A was traditionally easier, while Game B amped up the speed and other variables. The Silver series consisted of five different games, released through 1981.

game and watch lion

Nintendo

Following the Silver series came the Gold series, and you guessed it, they had gold faceplates. But the biggest difference was the inclusion of still color, which worked with the LCD movement to make for a more vibrant and interactive experience. This series only consisted of three games, including Lion.

game and watch widescreen

Nintendo

After the Gold series limited run came the Widescreen series later in 1981. This utilized the still color seen in the Gold, but with, yep, a wider screen. This model also introduced third-party licensing, including Mickey Mouse, Popeye, and Snoopy titles.

game and watch vertical

Nintendo

The Vertical Multiscreen series was extremely influential. Not only did this coin Nintendo’s flipping form factor, later seen in the Game Boy Advance SP, and act as clear inspiration for the Nintendo DS, it also began implementing the traditional Nintendo D-pad and two-button combo, as seen on the NES controller. More third parties joined, along with the likes of Zelda. Most notable was a popular Game and Watch version of Donkey Kong Arcade. This series included a group of 12 different consoles. Shortly following the Vertical Multiscreen came the Horizontal Multiscreen, which as you probably assumed opened like a book instead of a DS.

game and watch

Nintendo

game and watch

Nintendo

Game and Watch drifted out of the portable console world with the Table Top and the subsequent (and slightly more portable) Panorama series, with full color displays. The Table Top series utilized a joystick and buttons similar to an arcade cabinet, and the Panorama used a seesaw button. While these were super cool (and collector’s items you better believe I’m sniping on Ebay tonight), the lack of portability led to not-quite-stellar sales.

super color

Nintendo

Next came the Super Color in ‘84, with just two games released: Spitball Sparky and Crab Grab. So at least we’re getting more creative with the names. And, it was more colorful.

micro vs

Nintendo

If this guy looks eerily similar, it should. The Micro VS series, also launching in ‘84, made room for multiplayer portable games with detachable controllers. While Nintendo has never outwardly mentioned it, the design behind it definitely feels like a 36-year-old version of the Switch. Yokoi’s idea of “withering tech” comes to full fruition here.

crystal

Nintendo

In 1986, Nintendo brought out the Crystal Screen series, which had a see-through screen, which was wild. That being said, it made games slightly harder to play, and the Game and Watch was easier to damage. But if these even loosely inspired the N64 crystal controllers, then everything was worth it.

mario the juggler

Nintendo

The final Game and Watch consoles were all part of the new Widescreen series, which saw eight releases spanning 1982 to 1991. They were essentially the Widescreen line with better art and more complex games, the most popular of which was a Donkey Kong Jr. console released in 1982. Two years into the Game Boy’s lifespan, Nintendo released a farewell Game and Watch system that featured a gorgeous callback to the original with Mario the Juggler, a reskinned Ball with color overlay for an impressively detailed Mario.

game and watch 2020

Nintendo

Aside from being Mario’s 35th anniversary, 2020 is also a convenient 40th anniversary for the Game and Watch systems. The new Super Mario Bros. Game and Watch features the original Mario Bros., Mario Bros. 2 (known as The Lost Levels in the West), a clock with a ton of easter eggs, and everyone’s favorite, Ball. The new system has an LCD color screen, and while it may only display 8bit, it looks crystal clear. And yeah, it plays great.

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