80s handheld game design
The evolution of gaming in the 80s is particularly fascinating, not only for the brisk pace at which new technology was developed but the fact that it all seemed to happen simultaneously. Dozens of enterprises and studios rose and fell over the years, and certain platforms and types of games came along only to quickly go out of fashion but by the end of the decade you could still play in the arcade, in the lounge-room, on the computer, and while in transit or on the toilet with your phenomenal new handheld device.
In the interest of complete historical accuracy, handheld gaming officially began around 1977 when Mattel introduced Auto Race, a game in only the most generous sense of the word, and virtually impossible to find in working condition today. Essentially you could control a bright blip on a tiny screen that was meant to represent a race car, and your goal was to race against the computer in the shortest time possible. To win, your time had to run under 99 seconds, as this was as high as the two-digit game timer display could go.
A few years later board-game giant Milton Bradley released the very first handheld console with interchangeable cartridges – the Microvision. Jay Smith’s design was a massive leap forward from Auto Race, and despite the fact that it made an appearance in ‘Friday the 13th Part 2′, technical issues and lack of software support meant that it was taken off the market only a short time later in 1981. The Microvision design effectively looked like a miniature arcade machine, and featured a mini joystick at the base of the device for game control.
In 1980, Nintendo began releasing its ‘Game & Watch’ series of handhelds. Created by designer Gunpei Yokoi, each device featured a single game on a dual LCD screen and a clock with an alarm – hence the name “game” and “watch”. Yokoi’s design featured a cross shaped directional pad (D-pad) for controlling characters within the game, a feature that would become standard on gaming consoles across the industry. Despite the limitations of the device, the series proved to be immensely popular, and Yokoi eventually began work on a followup device that, like Milton Bradley’s Microvision, would feature interchange game cartridges. After years of development, that device was released in 1989 under the name Game Boy.
The success of the Game Boy was unprecedented. In the U.S it sold a million units within weeks of its release, and to date over 118 million Game Boy products have been sold worldwide. Initially bundled with the puzzle game Tetris, hundreds of titles were released for the Game Boy, including many of the classic Nintendo franchises like Super Mario Brothers.
The design featured many similarities to Yokoi’s Game & Watch, including the D-pad, rounded B & A action buttons (similar to the G&W jump/start button) and select and start buttons, which were essentially elongated versions of the G&W Game A, B and time buttons. Overall, the Game Boy’s design was typically stylish and minimal, while also being slightly bubbly and cartoon-like. The design also featured a trademark rounded right corner, which housed a stereo speaker. Like all their consoles, Nintendo’s Game Boy was a singular and unique design, unlike anything else on the market.
While the Game Boy was ultimately the most successful of the handhelds in the 80s it wasn’t the only device on the market, in fact many of its competitors boasted superior technology and features, not the least of which was a colour screen. Almost ten years later, a colour Game Boy would be released, but the original device was given a simple square screen with dot matrix graphics in four glorious shades of grey.
The Atari Lynx, an early Game Boy competitor, had a large, backlit colour screen, and a wide body with similar controls, however sales were hampered by poor battery life, an expensive price tag and a lack of compelling titles. The Sega Game Gear improved on all those fronts, however it simply couldn’t compete with the overwhelming hype surrounding the Game Boy. Sega infamously tried to battle this with an anti-Game Boy ad campaign but despite decent sales, they simply couldn’t overcome the console giant.
Sega – Anti Gameboy Ad
The Game Boy series also saw numerous ad-on hardware and upgrades which kept users engaged with the device, including a link cable for multi-player sessions, a printer and a camera. The success of handheld consoles and the demand for mobile entertainment continues today. The Game Boy has since evolved into the Nintendo DS, and new handhelds like the PSP and the iPhone have again revolutionized the industry.