Take a Deep Dive into the History of Handheld Game Consoles

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Handheld game consoles have left an indelible mark on the gaming landscape, captivating generations of players and redefining the way we experience interactive entertainment. These portable gaming devices represent more than just technology; they embody a journey of innovation, nostalgia, and unbridled passion for gaming. For decades, handheld consoles have been a source of joy, offering players the ability to carry entire gaming worlds in their pockets. From the early days of simple LCD-based games to the cutting-edge, high-resolution devices of today, the evolution of handheld gaming has been nothing short of extraordinary.

In this exploration, we embark on a journey through time, delving into the rich history and enduring significance of handheld game consoles. We’ll trace their humble origins and pivotal moments, from the iconic Nintendo Game Boy to the modern Nintendo Switch and PlayStation Vita. Along the way, we’ll uncover technological advancements and the unwavering devotion of handheld gaming enthusiasts.

What Is a Handheld Game Console?

A handheld game console, also known as a handheld console, refers to a compact and portable video game device that integrates a built-in screen, gaming controls, and speakers into a single unit. [1] These devices are notably smaller in size compared to home video game consoles. Their design encompasses all the necessary components for gaming, enabling individuals to conveniently carry them and enjoy gaming experiences whenever and wherever they desire. 

Moreover, handheld game consoles offer a versatile and on-the-go gaming solution, providing users with the freedom to engage in their favorite games without the need for a stationary gaming setup. This mobility and self-contained nature make them ideal for people seeking entertainment during commutes, travel, or downtime. Whether on a bus, in a park, or simply at home, a handheld console offers the convenience of immersive gaming at your fingertips.

The History of Handheld Game Consoles

The roots of handheld game consoles can be traced back to the handheld and tabletop electronic gaming devices of the 1970s and early 1980s. These gadgets were pretty basic, capable of playing just one game, and they were small enough to fit in your hand or place on a table. They used different types of screens like LED (Light-Emitting Diode), VFD (Variable-Frequency Drive), or LCD (Liquid Crystal Display). [2

Back in 1978, Popular Electronics magazine called these devices “nonvideo electronic games” to distinguish them from the ones that needed a TV screen. The idea of handheld electronic games has its roots in a mix of earlier handheld and tabletop electro-mechanical devices, like Waco’s Electronic Tic-Tac-Toe from 1972, Cragstan’s Periscope-Firing Range dating back to 1951, and the emerging market for calculators with fancy displays in the early 1970s.

The turning point came in 1976 when Mattel decided to create the world’s first handheld electronic games. The project was kickstarted by Michael Katz – Mattel’s director of new product categories, who challenged the electronics team to make a game the size of a calculator, using LED (light-emitting diode) technology.

1970 – 1980’s Start of Handheld Game Consoles

Mattel launched their first handheld game, Auto Race, in 1976, and they followed up with Football later. These two games were incredibly successful, collectively turning into a massive $400 million category, according to Michael Katz, a key figure at Mattel. [2] Mattel’s innovation in handheld game displays earned them recognition in the industry. Following this success, other companies such as Coleco, Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, Entex, and Bandai began introducing their own tabletop and handheld electronic games.  

In 1979, a significant development occurred with the release of the Microvision, a handheld game console by Smith Engineering and distributed by Milton-Bradley. It was the first handheld console to use interchangeable game cartridges. The game Cosmic Hunter (1981) for Microvision introduced the concept of a directional pad (D-pad) for controlling on-screen characters using the thumb. This feature would become standard in the gaming industry.

Around the same time in 1979, Gunpei Yokoi, while traveling on a train, observed a businessman passing the time by playing with an LCD calculator. Inspired by this, he came up with the idea of a watch that could also function as a miniature game machine. Starting in 1980, Nintendo began releasing a series of electronic games designed by Yokoi known as the Game & Watch games. These games leveraged the technology of credit-card-sized calculators and featured a digital time display on the screen’s corner. For more complex Game & Watch titles, Yokoi introduced the iconic cross-shaped directional pad (D-pad) for character control. The D-pad innovation not only became standard on game console controllers but also became widespread throughout the video game industry.

On the other hand, in 1982, Bandai introduced the LCD Solar power, the first solar-powered gaming device. Some of its games, like Terror House, employed two stacked LCD panels to create an early 3D effect. In 1983, Takara Tomy’s Tomytronic 3D used two LCD panels that were backlit by external light through a window on top of the device, making it the first dedicated home video 3D hardware.

Here are some of the handheld game consoles released in these years: [3

  • 1975 Quiz Kid
  • 1975 Tomy Pocket Game
  • 1976 Unisonic Casino 7 calculator
  • 1976 Texas Instruments Little Professor
  • 1977 Unisonic Jimmy the Greek 21 Pocket Blackjack Computer
  • 1977 Invitica Electronic Mastermind
  • 1978 Atari Touch Me
  • 1978 Parker Bros. Merlin
  • 1979 Tiger Rocket Pinball
  • 1980 Mattel Computer Chess
  • 1981 Mattel Dungeons & Dragons Computer Fantasy Game
  • 1981 Sharp WN-100 Wondertopia
  • 1982 Super Barcode Wars
  • 1983 Casio Game & Radio Shuttle Bomber
  • 1984 Palmtex Portable Videogame System (Super Micro)

black game gear with games at the background

Late 1980’s – Beginning of 1990’s of Handheld Game Consoles

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we witnessed the emergence of the modern handheld game console industry, following the discontinuation of the Microvision. A notable shift occurred during this period as newer handheld consoles with backlit LCD screens and color graphics came into play. However, these advancements came with a trade-off – they consumed a substantial amount of power, making them less battery-friendly compared to the original Game Boy, which featured monochrome graphics and offered more extended battery life.

At this juncture, rechargeable battery technology hadn’t reached maturity, which put advanced consoles like the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx at a disadvantage. These consoles didn’t achieve the same level of success as the Game Boy, despite third-party rechargeable batteries being available. These batteries used a nickel-cadmium process and required complete discharge before recharging for optimal efficiency. Lead-acid batteries were an option but lacked portability. [4

It’s worth noting that NiMH (Nickel-Metal Hydride) batteries, which didn’t have the same discharge requirement, weren’t introduced until the late 1990s, years after the Game Gear, Atari Lynx, and original Game Boy had already been discontinued. During the era when technologically superior handheld consoles faced strict technical limitations, batteries had a very low mAh (milliampere-hour) rating, mainly because high-power-density batteries weren’t yet readily available. The increased mAh rating of alkaline batteries since the 1990s means that relatively few batteries are needed to power devices like the GP2X.

During the late 1990s, Nintendo’s product line saw limited innovation, which opened the door for the development of more advanced systems, such as the Neo Geo Pocket Color and the WonderSwan Color, to gain prominence in the market.

Here are some of the handheld game consoles released in these years: [3

  • 1984 Bandai Digi Casse
  • 1984 Electronika Igra na ekrane: Mickey Mouse
  • 1989 Nelsonic Super Mario Bros. Game Watch
  • 1990 Game Plus
  • 1990 NEC TurboExpress
  • 1991 Atari Lynx 2
  • 1991 Sharp IQ-7200
  • 1992 Watara Supervision
  • 1993 Welback Holdings Mega Duck
  • 1994 MGA Game Wizard Star Wars
  • 1995 Sanyo Giocatraduci
  • 1995 Bandai Paluseata (Variant of Design Master Denshi Mangajuku)
  • 1998 Cybiko
  • 1999 Bandai Wonderswan
  • 1999 Sony Pocketstation

Gray-colored GameBoy and Tetris

Year 2000 of the Handheld Game Consoles

The early 2000s marked a pivotal period of technological innovation in the gaming industry, with several groundbreaking advancements that paved the way for the sophisticated game consoles and experiences we enjoy today. Notably, this era saw the release of iconic gaming devices and titles that left a lasting impact.

In 2001, Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance (GBA) revolutionized handheld gaming. It introduced features like two shoulder buttons, a larger and more vibrant screen, and increased computing power compared to its predecessor, the Game Boy Color. This leap in technology set the stage for portable gaming’s evolution. Two years later, in 2003, Nintendo further refined its handheld gaming offering with the Game Boy Advance SP (GBA SP). This compact, clamshell-designed device not only protected the screen but also incorporated a front-lit color display and a rechargeable battery. Despite its smaller size, the screen remained generously sized, ensuring an immersive gaming experience. The GBA SP was a clear example of how innovation in form factor and display technology enhanced the gaming experience.

Additionally, Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP) made a significant impact during this era. Released in 2004, the PSP introduced a high-resolution screen, robust multimedia capabilities, and a broad library of games. It bridged the gap between console and portable gaming, demonstrating the potential for console-quality experiences on the go.

The mid-2000s also witnessed the rise of online multiplayer gaming, with titles like “Halo 2” on the Xbox Live platform and “World of Warcraft” on the PC. These games showcased the power of online connectivity and multiplayer experiences, foreshadowing the online gaming dominance we see today. As technology advanced through the late 2000s and into the 2010s, the gaming industry continued to flourish. Consoles like the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and later the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 pushed the boundaries of graphical fidelity and processing power. [4]

Furthermore, the innovations of the 2000s were pivotal steps in the ongoing evolution of gaming technology. They not only enriched the gaming experiences of their time but also laid the foundation for the advanced game consoles and experiences enjoyed by the present generation of gamers. This constant drive for improvement and innovation continues to shape the future of gaming, promising even more exciting developments in the years to come.

Here are some of the handheld game consoles released in these years: [3

  • 2000 Bandai WonderSwan Color
  • 2003 Tapwave Zodiac
  • 2003 Timetop GameKing
  • 2003 P5-336 Game
  • 2003 Nokia N-Gage
  • 2004 Nokia N-Gage QD
  • 2004 Timetop GameKing 2
  • 2005 Capcom Megaman Advanced PET
  • 2005 Nikko digiBLAST
  • 2005 Tiger Telematics Gizmondo
  • 2005 Gamepark GP2X
  • 2006 PDP G Pocket
  • 2009 Dingoo A320
  • 2010 GamePark Caanoo
  • 2016 Arduboy Tetris

8 Best Handheld Game Consoles of All Time 

1. The GameBoy – Often regarded as the founding father of all handheld consoles, solidified its status as such when it debuted in 1989. The Nintendo GameBoy, often affectionately referred to as the true pioneer among handheld consoles, undeniably established the category when it made its debut in 1989. Additionally, it introduced Tetris to countless individuals for the first time. While it wasn’t the inaugural version of the game, it certainly stood out as the most captivating and widely embraced one. As we discuss this, the nostalgic tunes of its music still resonate in the minds of many. Numerous versions of the GameBoy were introduced in subsequent years, including the GameBoy Color. However, it’s the classic, robust, gray original that will forever hold a special place in the hearts of gaming enthusiasts.

GameBoy with Tetris, Pokemon, and Donkey Kong Land

2. The Sega Game Gear – It made an impression with its color screen, but its disappointing battery life was a significant drawback. A year after the introduction of the GameBoy, Sega introduced a competing device that excelled in nearly every aspect except one critical factor. Its 3.2-inch backlit screen displayed vibrant colors, but it suffered from atrocious battery life. While a GameBoy could provide up to 15 hours of gameplay on four AA batteries, the Game Gear struggled to last for more than three hours using six AAs. Nonetheless, despite this limitation, those who owned a Game Gear held it in high regard. It could accommodate almost full versions of games originally designed for the Sega Master System on its compact cartridges. The handheld’s rendition of Sonic The Hedgehog was particularly remarkable given the technology available at the time and the hardware constraints.

The Game Gear close-up photo

3. The Atari Lynx – Introduced to the gaming world in 1989, made waves with its cutting-edge color graphics and ergonomic design. It was a handheld console, offering games showcasing visually impressive graphics, such as “California Games” and “Ninja Gaiden.” Despite its remarkable features and capabilities, the Lynx faced fierce competition from the Nintendo Game Boy, which also made its debut in the same year. The Game Boy’s monochrome screen and the allure of Nintendo’s franchises posed significant challenges to the Lynx’s market share. However, the Atari Lynx has persevered as a cult favorite among retro gaming enthusiasts. Its unique combination of vivid visuals and ergonomic design left a lasting impression on those who experienced it. Over the years, the Lynx has gained recognition for its contributions to the handheld gaming landscape, offering an alternative and innovative gaming experience during a time when monochrome screens were the norm.

The Atari Lynx close-up photo

4. Galaxy Invader 1000 – While the early 1980s witnessed the release of numerous one-game handhelds, few have left as lasting an impression as the Galaxy Invader 1000. This vibrant yellow device was licensed by Tandy – a company that had its own version called Fire Away. However, it’s likely that more people still harbor memories of CGL’s version of the game, possibly stashed away in their attics. The gameplay was elegantly simple, resembling a streamlined fusion of Space Invaders and Galaxians. The screen utilized fixed LEDs, offering limited positions for the invaders and your spaceship. Yet, its simplicity was its charm, proving to be as addictive as the arcade machines of that era. For many kids, finding a Galaxy Invader 1000 waiting under the Christmas tree was a genuine treat, and the memories of those gaming moments continue to bring smiles to faces even today.

5. Game & Watch – Nintendo introduced the Game & Watch during the 1980s as an experimental foray into the handheld gaming market, and it turned out to be a resounding success. With over 40 million units sold, it’s considered a pivotal moment in the history of handheld gaming. The unexpected demand for the Game & Watch sparked the idea for Nintendo’s future hit, the Game Boy. These devices featured a single game displayed on a small LCD screen, with the added functionality of serving as an alarm clock, although a rather loud one if you desired to be awakened by it in the early morning hours. Moreover, the Game & Watch units were typically adorned in Nintendo’s iconic gold and red color scheme, including left and right buttons for gameplay. Various editions were released, each featuring different games such as ‘Octopus,’ ‘Fire,’ and ‘Ball,’ with the same control layout but distinct LCD screens tailored to the specific game.

Game & Watch – SAFEBUSTER

6. The Neo Geo Pocket Color – This garnered a dedicated following among hardcore gamers during its brief existence. The Neo Geo Pocket Color had a relatively short lifespan, only lasting for a couple of years around the turn of the millennium. Nevertheless, it became a beloved choice among dedicated gamers of that era, particularly those who had a penchant for SNK’s shoot ’em ups and beat ’em ups. This color version followed the monochrome Neo Geo Pocket, and interestingly, the inclusion of a better screen didn’t appear to negatively affect its battery life. Some even reported being able to enjoy a couple of days of continuous gaming without needing to recharge.

The Neo Geo Pocket Color close-up photo

7. Nintendo 3DS – In 2011, Nintendo introduced the Nintendo 3DS, a groundbreaking handheld gaming device that offered glasses-free 3D gaming experiences. This innovation was a significant leap for the handheld gaming market, allowing players to immerse themselves in three-dimensional worlds without needing special glasses. The Nintendo 3DS boasted an extensive game catalog that featured beloved titles such as “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D,” “Pokémon X and Y,” and “Super Mario 3D Land.” These titles showcased the device’s capabilities and drew in a dedicated fan base of Nintendo enthusiasts. However, it’s worth noting that while the 3DS found great success, some users experienced motion sickness when playing games in 3D mode. This issue prevented it from achieving an even higher position on the list of beloved gaming consoles.

a person holding a Nintendo 3DS

8. Sony PSP/PlayStation Portable – It was a standout in the world of handheld gaming, primarily due to its impressive 4.3-inch LCD screen and a library of great games like God of War. Sony’s initial venture into handheld gaming materialized with the release of the PlayStation Portable, or PSP. It debuted in Japan in 2004, arriving in the UK and the US a year later. The PSP delivered an exceptional gaming experience, primarily attributed to its sizable 4.3-inch LCD screen and the availability of popular PlayStation titles like WipeOut and God of War. However, it had its shortcomings. Some of the early PSP consoles had issues like dead pixels on the screen, which led to replacements for certain users. Additionally, the UMD (Universal Media Disc) games had an unconventional shape and size that posed challenges when it came to storage.

Sony PSP/PlayStation Portable close-up photo

Conclusion

Contemporary handheld game consoles, with their rich features, owe their existence to a shared history that spans back to the 1970s. While today’s consoles offer challenging and high-tech gaming experiences, it’s essential to remember the joy brought by the first-ever handheld game consoles. Despite the complexity and sophistication of modern gaming, there’s an enduring appreciation for the simplicity and nostalgia of those early handheld experiences. They represent the roots of a thriving industry and a source of enduring delight, reminding us of the humble beginnings that paved the way for today’s gaming marvels.

References

(1) D 4.1 – Standards and technology monitoring report [revised version] Archived June 30, 2013, at the Wayback Machine. University of Maribor. Sixth Framework Programme (European Community). April 24, 2007. p. 20. 

(2) Demaria, Rusel; Johnny L. Wilson (2002). High Score! The Illustrated History of Video games. McGraw-Hill. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-07-222428-3. 

(3) https://padandpixel.com/a-history-of-handheld-gaming-in-one-photo/ 

(4) https://www.engadget.com/2006-03-03-a-brief-history-of-handheld-video-games.html 

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