Updated: Feb 26
In the last article, we investigated the birth of the Nintendo corporation. We saw its humble beginnings in 1889 making playing cards by hand. We then witnessed its rise to national success in the late 1970s, when Nintendo brought the Color TV-Game series of consoles to Japanese living rooms.
But this was only the beginning of Nintendo’s domination of Japan’s nascent video game scene. Their next innovation would free gamers from the living room by allowing them to take gaming with them wherever they went. This is the story of how Nintendo invented handheld gaming.
With the new decade came a wealth of new ideas. One of these ideas was gaming-on-the-go. Nintendo employee and Product Developer Gunpei Yokoi allegedly saw a fellow Shinkansen commuter passing the time by playing around with a pocket LCD calculator. This inspired Yokoi to create a portable handheld video game device - the 4-bit Game & Watch series.
A New Design Philosophy...
Yokoi had a design philosophy that would influence the Game & Watch series and every Nintendo gaming device that would come after. This philosophy was called ‘Lateral thinking of Withered Technology.’ This means using existing and readily available technology in a different way to do something new. In this case, using LCD screens for games.
This philosophy concentrated on novelty and gameplay instead of focusing on being at the bleeding edge of technology. The fruits of this philosophy are something we will see time and again. Nintendo’s consoles are rarely the most advanced on the market in terms of sheer ‘horsepower’ (CPU, GPU, RAM, etc.) however they frequently offer a gameplay experience quite distinct from the competition, be that SEGA, Sony or Microsoft.
...For Old Tech
The standout feature of the Game & Watch devices was their inexpensive and low power-draw LCD screens, similar to those used in calculators. Although the graphics were extremely limited - consisting of solid black areas of the screen that could only be switched on or off - they were inexpensive to manufacture and their low power-draw allowed the Game & Watch series to use standard LR4x/SR4x "button-cell" batteries. This, in turn, ensured a long battery life and enabled the Game and Watch’s compact pocket-sized form factor. If you are wondering why they were called ‘Game & Watch’ - it is due to them doubling as digital timekeeping devices.
The Game and Watch series ran from 1980 to 1991. As you would expect, later titles were notably more advanced than earlier incarnations. Compare Fire (Game & Watch) from 1980 to Super Mario Bros (Game & Watch) from 1988.
Game & Watch: Fire
Fire (Game and Watch). One of the earlier Game & Watch titles
Video by bad@chaos
Clever game design could put the relatively primitive technology to good use, creating the illusion of movement, scrolling, jumping, etc. The video below of Super Mario Bros (Game and Watch) demonstrates this well.
Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros
One of the last games made for the Game & Watch, and one of the most sophisticated
Video by Retro Dave’s Pinball Arcade
Similar to most 1st gen consoles, each Game & Watch device came with preinstalled game(s) which could not be altered or expanded. This resulted in approximately 60 game devices being released under the Game & Watch banner.
Many of these devices featured an ‘A’ and ‘B’ game. The ‘B’ game was usually the same as ‘A’, but faster and more difficult. In essence, these were early examples of selectable difficulty modes - something that would become common practice in most video games.
Two Screens, One Game
The games under the Game & Watch banner were divided into 12 distinct series, with each series possessing its own unique form factor. One of the most influential of these was the Vertical Multi Screen series. These devices featured two screens in a folding clamshell design, a form factor that Nintendo would re-visit in 2004 with their phenomenally successful DS (Dual Screen) devices.
A New Control Interface - The D-pad
The Vertical Multi-Screen series included a portable version of Donkey Kong. This device featured what was then a revolutionary control interface - the D-pad. This allowed for multi-directional controls in a compact and low-profile interface, which was ideal for portable gaming. So innovative and useful was the D-Pad (Direction Pad) that it won a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award. Nintendo would go on to patent the solid cross-shaped D-pad and use it in many of their later products. These innovations led the Game and Watch series to be a commercial success in Nintendo’s native Japan, with some 43.3 million units sold.
Note the D-Pad towards the lower-left corner
NB - apparently it is due to Nintendo’s patent of the ‘unbroken cross D-Pad’, and a desire to avoid potential copyright infringements, that PlayStation controllers have a D-pad consisting of what appears to be four separate buttons and the X-box’s D-pad is set in a circle. Gaming Historian’s video below explains this in more detail.
Who Invented the D-Pad?
Ever wanted to dissect a joypad?
Video by Gaming Historian
FYI - Nintendo’s patent expired in 2005, which explains why third-party manufacturers can now create controllers with ‘unbroken cross D-Pads’ without fear of copyright infringement.
Incidentally, the D-Pad was originally going to be placed on the right-hand side of the device, since most people are right-handed. However, since most video arcade cabinets had their joystick on the left the decision was made to follow suit as it was what gamers were used to.