Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Nintendo Game & Watch (1980)

Nintendo Game & Watch - original "Ball" game
Launched April 1980

Legend has it that one day Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi was observing a Japanese worker playing with a pocket calculator when he suddenly had an idea to take the basic components of a calculator and turn them into a handheld game.

It wasn’t an entirely new idea. Mattel’s rudimentary Auto Race game in 1976 was arguably the first, with the Coleco Electronic Quarterback machine of 1978 also proved popular. Both of those games were bulky and used simple LED displays, however technology had moved on and by the end of the 1970s inexpensive LCD displays were appearing all over the place – including in a range of low-cost and very portable pocket calculators. There were even pocket calculator game books which – with some effort – could make these little gadgets more entertaining.

Yokoi’s design took the LCD display, but instead of having it display numbers it could display a series of predefined graphics instead. Inside was a 4-bit Sharp calculator battery, and power was provided by button cells which kept the size and weight down. This was launched as the Nintendo Game & Watch (as it also included a clock).

The first game was simply called “Ball” and it was a simple enough game where you had to throw and catch a ball, but many more followed. Each game required its own hardware, typically with “A” and “B” variants with different gameplay. At first the games had a single screen and simple control buttons, but dual screen ones followed and in 1982 a handheld version of Donkey Kong also introduced the now ubiquitous D-pad controller. Screens also got bigger and layer ones had coloured sections printed onto the display to give a bit more visual interest.
Rare Super Mario Bros Game & Watch

Dozens of different versions came to market over the next decade or so with games titles many of which featured the Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong, plus a whole lot of Disney characters and ports of arcade games. Nintendo placed a lot of emphasis on gameplay because of the strictly limited hardware, which had the effect of making the games both addictive and relatively inexpensive.

Millions of Game & Watch devices were sold, but in the end technology had moved on. Yokoi had also designed the Nintendo Game Boy, using lessons learned from the Game & Watch but in a much more flexible package where new games could be loaded on with a cartridge.

In fact Gunpei Yokoi had been a prolific designer of products for Nintendo, starting with successful toys such as the Ultra Hand in the 1960s. Not all the products were successful, but his design philosophy of (roughly translated) “lateral thinking with seasoned technology” is still an important part of the way Nintendo designs products – in other words, using existing and inexpensive technologies in innovative ways rather than pursuing the highest technology available. Yokoi left Nintendo in 1996 to form his own company, but he was killed in a car accident in October 1997. However, his influential legacy lives on.

Today Game & Watch devices are very collectable, with rare items such as the yellow Super Mario Bros (YM-901) selling for thousands of pounds, with more common or later ones such as Donkey Kong 3 selling for less than £100.

Image credits:
masatsu via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Sturmjäger via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0

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