April 28, 2020
The First handheld Electronic Games
Decades before anyone had ever uttered the phrases Angry Bird, Temple Run, Word’s with Friends, or Candy Crush, the first wave in digital gaming had arrived in the States from Japan.
On April 28, 1980, a then unknown manufacturer by the name of Nintendo, launched the first of its 4 ½ by 2 ½ handheld electronic game series in the US. And thus the Game and Watch was born, a precursor to the iPhone and Android games of today.
For less than $20 a consumer was able to buy a device which featured – usually – two different games played by pushing tiny buttons to move items around on the screen. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“The Game & Watch brand is a series of handheld electronic games produced by Nintendo from 1980 to 1991. Created by game designer Gunpei Yokoi, each Game & Watch features a single game to be played on an LCD screen in addition to a clock, an alarm, or both. It was the earliest Nintendo video game product to gain major success.
The units are based on a 4-bit CPU from the Sharp SM5xx family, that include a small ROM and RAM area and an LCD screen driver circuit, although prior to the emulation in MAME there was a misconception in that every unit used a custom ASIC instead of a proper microcontroller.
The series sold a combined of 43.4 million units worldwide.”
Yokoi is said to have conceived the idea while on a bullet train when he observed a fellow traveler playing with his calculator. He reasoned that a small device which would also serve as a clock and alarm and allow the person to play a game could fill the desire for entertainment when unable to do other things.
In all, there were 59 different titles sold. It wasn’t until Nintendo established offices in the United States when the Game and Watch distribution became more widespread in this country.
Our family were early adopters of Game and Watch for one very good reason: The hubby went to work for Nintendo soon after they established their headquarters in Tukwila, Washington. (Yes, it’s true. Their first Washington address was there and NOT Redmond.)
I don’t know why, exactly, we bought all those Game and Watch games, except that Nintendo had an inventory and there was likely an employee discount. Regardless, soon we had friends and family asking for the games and we obliged.
The first one released was called Ball and featured a character later dubbed “Mr. Game & Watch” who juggled balls. He is according to the Infallible Wikipedia: “a generic amalgam of black, open-mouthed, big-nosed cartoonish stick figure silhouettes.” That first game – and three others released in quick succession – sold fewer than 250,000 games worldwide. Two other early games – Vermin and Fire – each sold about a million.
Which is where we enter the story. At the Nintendo warehouse in Tukwila there must have been stacks and stacks of unsold games. It is likely the first one we ever had was Fire and it was one of my favorites. We referred to the game as ‘Burning Babies.’ Yes, politically incorrect but in those days no one had ever uttered that phrase.
My description of the game Fire: On screen you see a cartoonish ambulance on the right side of the screen and a burning multi-story building on the left. Two Mr. Game and Watch characters carry what looks to be a safety net. Their job is to catch the ‘people’ who are literally leaping from the burning building. It starts out benign enough with one tiny person jumping and you must move the firefighters left and right with their net to stop the jumper from hitting the ground. You must then bounce the burning baby across three sections from the building to the ambulance. As the game progresses, a second jumper leaps soon after the first and you must now figure out which one to catch first. It’s like a bad juggling game where soon there are as many as four jumpers on the screen at once! Drop one and you get a tiny little angel icon indicating a lost life. Truly, you have not known stress until you’re frantically trying to save the tiny burning babies. Oh, and as your score increases, so does the speed with which they jump. Yes, that’s me playing the game in the short video below. Yes, it still is stressful when the babies splat on the ground!
Soon, the hubby was bringing home more Game and Watches. The titles included Parachute, Octopus, Fire Attack, Manhole, and Turtle Bridge. Each one seemed to include violent ends to the poor little electronic people or critters if you didn’t do your job. (Which is the common element for the four listed on the FB page!) These were followed by Nintendo’s own characters of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong, Jr., and Mario’s Cement Factory, as well as licensed character games featuring such cultural icons as Popeye, Mickey Mouse, and Snoopy.
We gave my mother Snoopy Tennis for Christmas in the early 1980’s. It was the perfect game for her as she was a lifelong tennis player and got a real kick out of the tiny Charlie Brown wielding his tiny tennis racket to serve balls to Snoopy who had to jump up and down tree branches to hit it. If he missed, a happily sleeping Woodstock awoke and squawked about it. In the alarm feature, Lucy and piano player Schroeder make an appearance. The best part is that with Snoopy Tennis no tiny imaginary people died.
My mother absolutely owned that game. I think her high score was in the ten thousands and, boy, did those tennis balls come fast and furious. She worked those controls like a boss. Everyone who watched her play was awed. At some point her thumbs got too overworked and she had to give up the game. It bubbled up out of a box when we were going through my parents’ house last summer so we now have two of that game. Hers is the one shown here.
I think about how far electronic games have come since then. I prefer games where when I lose, nothing dies. Which is why I love Candy Crush. Having completed over 5000 levels, I’m in rarefied territory and know of only one friend at a higher level. Like my Mom, I kinda own the game. But I think if my Mom had ever played Candy Crush, she would have given me a run for my money.