As you look down at your iPod Touch and bask in the simplicity of the many games and apps at your instant disposal, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when children (and adults) could be entertained on rainy days successfully with little more than water and a few bits of plastic. It’s difficult to argue for them being one of the first game consoles per se, but such water ring games do serve as a handy base layer for what was deemed to be sufficient handheld entertainment just 20 years ago. However, our story starts a little earlier than these aquatic awes, as they were actually pre-dated by several electronic models of handheld consoles, the successes of which are debatable. Here is a brief overview of the evolution of handheld gaming consoles:
Mattel and Milton Test the Water
First up were the clunky LED games of the very late Seventies that brought to life a number of early models from Mattel. Being the very first console games, there was no competition for names, and as such classic titles such as Football, Baseball and Basketball were dreamed up by Mattel’s creative department.
Success was limited, and as Milton Bradley jumped into the early market with their classic Microvision handheld, they too were beset by technological limitations and their own delicacy.
Nintendo Join the Party
Consumers needn’t have feared though, for a little-known Japanese games company was about to enter the market. In 1980, Nintendo released the first of their Game & Watch series, with familiar names such as Donkey Kong and Mario Brothers cropping up soon after. The games themselves were little more than up, down, left, right and jump – though they did also give a glimpse of the future possibilities with a clock and alarm built-in.
Other models from suppliers followed, including Epoch’s Game Pocket Computer in 1984, but once more it was Nintendo who blew the market away with the introduction of the Game Boy just before the end of the Eighties. Supported by the mind-blowingly simple and yet brain-crumblingly addictive Tetris, which still maintains strong sales today, the Game Boy became – and remains – the most successful handheld games system of all time. The Game Boy Colour followed to much acclaim 9 years later.
Sega and Atari Add a Splash of Colour
Nintendo wasn’t the first to reach colour games though; that honour was left to Atari and their Lynx videogame system. With multi-player functionality and even 3D capabilities, the Lynx was bulky but groundbreaking and ultimately suffered due to Atari’s inability to get big enough games to drive sales.
A year later, the Sega Game Gear followed the Lynx into lucky children’s hands, a console that enjoyed the enhanced options of the Lynx without the same limitations on games. Sega didn’t always have success though; their Genesis model – released in 1995 – flopped due to its high price and bad timing.
Handheld gaming consoles began innovating in different directions. Nintendo tried to crack the 3D world with their Virtual Boy, but sales were stunted by the clumsiness of goggle requirement and limited ‘parallax’ technology. In 1997, Tiger Electronics broke the boundaries of touch screen technology with their own game.com model, even enabling internet connections – at the time the 14.4kb/s modem was deemed ‘zippy’ – but again this failed to make any significant ground in the market.
Nintendo vs Sony
Since then in the Western World, handheld console success has generally mirrored the success of their larger parent consoles. The Game Boy Colour eventually was released in 1998 and updated in 2001 with the Game Boy Advance version. The Game Boy name was eventually retired in 2004 with the birth of the dual-screened Nintendo DS.
With its wireless capability and touch screen technology, the DS was the first to combine all the innovations of the past at a time when technology actually allowed users to enjoy them smoothly and was followed up by a 3D model in 2011 which gathered substantial sales over time.
Sony has attempted to rival Nintendo’s dominance – with some success – through their Playstation Portable (2004) and Vita (2011) models which display the incredible gulf in technology that even just 5 or 10 years in the handheld console market has brought about.
The Future of Handheld Gaming Consoles
So where to next? It’s not time to sell Nintendo 3ds just yet, but phones are likely to gradually infiltrate the mini-console market over time as battery life and screen technology improve. The simplicity of the old games still remains, and the smartphones of today have no trouble going retro to enable them.
Nintendo is said to be already planning for their next handheld device, and Sony is undoubtedly keen to keep following up their successful Playstation models. Whether any open source systems from outside the main Japanese rivals can infiltrate the market remains to be seen, but time will tell.