As I sat patiently in the boarding area of Boston's Logan International, waiting to catch a flight back to Ottawa, I couldn't help but notice what the gentleman seated to my left and the young boy seated to my right had chosen to do to pass the time. The man was watching a movie on a Sony Playstation Portable, specifically the PSP-2000 (I could tell because of the art deco Darth Vader on the back). The child was playing a videogame on Nintendo DS--one that required tilting the unit to direct the path of "marbles" around holes on a "board."
It struck me that I was seated along a figurative timeline of handheld gaming. At one end was a man who had probably been playing videogames since the days of the Atari; at the other was a child absorbed in his own game, probably unaware of all the technical advances that had led to the platform he was now wielding to battle boredom in an airport lounge.
The realization got me musing about how far the portable gaming industry has advanced in 20-odd years.
Nintendo's popular "Donkey Kong" hand-held game from the Game & Watch series.
Click on image to enlarge.
Though there were other toys that were similar in design, Nintendo's Game & Watch, released in 1980, was the first handheld videogame "system" to resonate with consumers. Sales of the device helped fund Nintendo's development of its first home entertainment console, the NES, continuing a change in the path and direction of a company that had gotten its start as a manufacturer of playing cards.
I wrapped "system" in quotes because the Game & Watch wasn't a system in the true sense of the word. It was capable of playing only two games, at most, and those games could not be swapped out for other titles. In most cases, the second game (usually titled Game B) was a variation of Game A, offering a slight bump-up in speed or difficulty of play.
The Game & Watch made use of a segmented LCD display, preprinted with an overlay that acted as the background of the game's main screen. The games were based on a controller-and-button scheme that manipulated the LCD segments so that button and keypad combinations would change LCD segments to simulate movement or action. It was a simple handheld, powered by a typical 1.5-volt button-cell alkaline battery.
The cosmetic design of the system was what spurred its sales. The Game & Watch was the first videogame system to use a cross-shaped control pad. Before that, videogames were controlled with joysticks or just buttons.