Evolution of handheld gaming, Part 1

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.

Nintendo's creation of the cross-shaped pad changed gaming forever; indeed, every subsequent Nintendo game system has used the same basic shape, which has become an industry standard for gaming consoles. (The clamshell look incorporated in later designs of Game & Watch systems would also prove to be timeless.)

Was the Game & Watch a pioneer that paved the way for modern handheld technology? Maybe. The “& Watch” part of the system name referred to the platform's inclusion of a fully functional watch, featuring an alarm. That may have inspired future designers to include additional features to improve a product's selling points through multifunctionality–a forerunner of today's PDAs or BlackBerrys. Or maybe I'm overestimating the impact of the platform's simple digital watch feature.

A look at the primary board for the original Nintendo Game Boy.
Click on image to enlarge.

The Game & Watch systems had a short shelf life because the simple design made for repetitive play and somewhat unimaginative action. Understanding that the gaming audience was moving away from the Game & Watch but not from videogames (as evidenced by surging sales of the NES console), Nintendo's chief designer, Gunpei Yukoi, began brainstorming on the next phase of portable gaming.

Tapping his development experience with the Game & Watch systems, Yukoi envisioned a handheld device that would simulate the playing experience of the wildly popular NES console (marketed in Japan as the Famicom), released by Nintendo in 1983. In 1989, Yukoi's vision came to fruition with the introduction of the Nintendo Game Boy.

A look inside the original Game Boy reveals the simplicity of the design. A single chip provides most of the system processing power. On the primary board, the chip labeled DMG-CPU and featuring Nintendo markings is actually a Sharp-designed variation on the Zilog Z80 processor, but with a register set similar to Intel's 8080 microprocessor. The DMG-CPU features 256 bytes of ROM inside the CPU die and a core speed of 4.19 MHz.

The other main chips of interest are two ICs manufactured by Sharp (and, unlike the processor, bearing the Sharp brand). Both ICs are 64-kbit SRAM chips with the markings LH5264TN-L; one is used for video RAM and the other for CPU RAM.

The board also features an amplifier chip, labeled DMG-AMP IR3R40, that drives the Game Boy's internal speaker (or external headphones). Decapping did not reveal the device's manufacturer, and there were no telltale logos, artwork or text to confirm the maker; but judging by the IR3R40 nomenclature, this was most likely a Sharp part as well.

The IC monopoly is completed by Sharp on the secondary board, where a Sharp IR3E02 IC is found beneath a flex cable connected to the display. Judging by its position on the board, this was most probably an LCD voltage generator IC for the display.

What is intriguing about these findings is that Sharp had achieved major design wins in a single product that would end up selling in the millions of units over its lifetime.

The Game Boy's dot-matrix display, in all its gray-black and green glory, was a simple reflective LCD panel with 160 x 144 pixels. The screen was capable of displaying four shades of gray-black hues and, despite looking quite archaic today, had enough contrast differentiation to make characters and scenes on the screen look impressive at the time.

Reversed engineering schematic of the circuitry behind the Nintendo Game Boy. Source:
Click on image to enlarge.

Though the technology of the Game Boy was state of the art for its time, what established the system as the preeminent handheld portable was a shrewd business move by Nintendo. Through some clever negotiations and well-researched lawsuits, Nintendo scored a coup by being the only company to license what was, at the time, the world's most popular videogame: Tetris.

As a result, Game Boy units flew off the store shelves. According to Giles Slade's book Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America , Tetris alone brought Nintendo more than $80 million in revenue. Figuring a price of $35 a unit for the game, you can do the math and estimate how many units of the actual console were sold. To this day, my colleagues and I still hum the “Nintendo Tetris Theme” whenever we have some timely, menial work to get done.

The Nintendo Game Boy was a success from the moment it launched, warding off numerous contenders throughout its nine years on the market. Atari released the Lynx in the same year as the Game Boy but failed to make any impact because of hardware issues and a lack of support from game developers (most having chosen to align with Nintendo). Nintendo also fended off competition from systems such as NEC's TurboExpress (released in 1990) and the Neo Geo Pocket (released in 1998).

Only Sega's Game Gear (released in 1990) was able to make a significant dent in Nintendo's market dominance, selling 11 million systems over an eight-year span. Compared with the 75 million-plus Game Boy units sold worldwide, Game Gear rarely posed a threat to Nintendo, but Sega was happy to run a distant second.

Perhaps what was most amazing about the Game Boy's run was that the competition all featured color screens and, in some cases, much faster processors and better graphics–and yet Nintendo still outsold them. The common denominator among the Game Boy's competitors was that design issues and a lack of game developer support had resulted in a short shelf life.

Nintendo achieved success with the Game Boy by using a simple design featuring a fully tested microprocessor and a power management system that enabled a much longer battery life than the competition (seven to nine hours on four AA batteries for the Game Boy, vs. three to six hours for completing platforms). The Game Boy reigned supreme until 1998, when Nintendo finally decided to take the system into the world of color.

For the Game Boy Color, Nintendo largely stuck with the design formula that had worked for the first Game Boy. In fact, if you were to place an earlier Game Boy next to the color version, you wouldn't notice any difference in the physical look of the systems.

For the newer system, Nintendo again went with a Sharp-manufactured microprocessor, based again on the Zilog Z80 architecture. The device, labeled CPU-GBC, doubled the clock speed from the original Game Boy's processor, to 8 MHz, to account for the processing required for the addition of color. Total SRAM density was increased to 32 kbytes, and the two SRAMs, labeled LH52CV256JT-10LL, were again provided by Sharp.

Sharp again scored major design wins in this next iteration of Game Boy, providing the LCD voltage generator (IR3E06N) and the audio amplifier (IR3R53N) in addition to the aforementioned parts. Sharp maintained its goodwill with Nintendo to see continued use of its ICs in the highly successful series of handhelds.

The dot-matrix display was replaced with a reflective LCD screen that offered the same resolution as its predecessor (160 x 144 pixels) but was capable of displaying up to 56 colors. The strength of the Game Boy brand name, a large catalog of game developers and backward compatibility with the original Game Boy games let Nintendo score another success in handhelds with the Game Boy Color.

But the color version, though popular, couldn't match the sales numbers of its predecessor. By 1998, the graphics of the system (which were similar to the original Game Boy graphics) seemed outdated compared with the graphics being seen in home consoles such as the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64. People were beginning to ask for more from the handheld gaming experience.

Thus, Nintendo very quietly began development on a handheld system that would stray not only in look but also in technology from the tried-and-true Game Boy model.

In Part 2, I'll investigate the technological changes Nintendo made for the next generation of Game Boy.

Allan Yogasingam is a technology analyst for TechOnline, a division of TechInsights. He holds a bachelor's degree in computer engineering from the University of Manitoba.

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