I remember going to a thrift store in San Francisco a few years back, where I met an avid Nintendo collector who introduced me to the Game & Watch. He was so obsessed with Nintendo that he used to carry all the prominent handheld consoles in his backpack. I still remember the expressions on his face when he let me hold the device.
The Game & Watch system has a glorious history – after all, it was Nintendo’s first handheld game system. Nintendo made a series of Game & Watch handhelds in the 80s. I don’t own any of those but I do have a remodelled version that matches the classic model in size and look. Although it was released in 2020 to mark the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros, I got my hands on the device only recently.
The Game & Watch Super Mario Bros brought a smile to my face. And, like many fans, I keep turning to these cultural reference points time and again to understand the place Nintendo enjoys in the gaming world.
When Game & Watch changed the handheld gaming and Nintendo
There’s a common perception that it was the Game Boy that started the handheld gaming phenomenon in the early 90s and made Nintendo the gaming juggernaut it is now. While the Game Boy is perhaps one of the most influential tech products ever, it’s clear that the Game & Watch was the first handheld gaming system ever created.
Created by Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi (he’s the same guy who created the Game Boy, Metroid and Virtual Boy), the Game & Watch were a series of handheld gaming systems mass-produced between 1980 and 1991. Yokoi came up with the idea of creating a simple, portable gaming system when he was travelling on the Shinkansen and saw a businessman fiddling with an LCD calculator to pass time. That gave him the idea of developing a portable gaming device.
The development journey of the Game & Watch has been fascinating. The principles laid out by Yokoi at that time, can be found across Nintendo hardware design even today. His philosophy was called ‘Lateral thinking of Withered Technology.’ Simply put, it means using existing and readily available technology in a different way to create something new. Yokoi somehow figured out he could use the same LCD technology in the calculator to create a miniature game that could help kill time and also double up as a watch.
The focus on fun and unique gameplay over advanced technology makes a Nintendo device different from its competition. The use of inexpensive LCD technology and its low power draw alongside the easy availability of “battery-cell” batteries ensure longer battery life.
One of the things Yokoi prioritised while developing the Game & Watch was to find a solution that replaces a conventional joystick. Keeping the Game & Watch portability in mind, Nintendo developed something called the “D-pad” or “directional pad” which is the primary way to use and make controlling directional actions in video games even today. The D-pad was first implemented on the Game & Watch unit of Donkey Kong.
The Game & Watch series ran from 1980 to 1991. Each device came with a single game preinstalled and over its lifetime, a total of 60 Game & Watch devices were released in 12 different series, with each series consisting of its own unique form factor. The gameplay was simple and addictive, and the portable form factor made the Game & Watch extremely popular only succeeded by the Game Boy. The first game ever released for Game & Watch was called Ball. Several big and small games appeared on the Game & Watch including Donkey Kong 3, Super Mario Bros and Zelda.
Paying homage to the original Game & Watch
When I asked my sister to get the Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. from GameStop roughly two years back, I was ecstatic. I knew I was getting something I will always cherish all my life. It may be a modern revision of a Game & Watch, but as a Nintendo fan, I see it as a prized possession. The gold and red colour scheme reminded me of the Japanese version of NES, also known as Famicom. The revamped Game & Watch is smaller than my iPhone 13 mini and has a 2.36-inch colour screen. The build quality and overall experience of using the device are top-notch. The face is made of a brushed metal that is very attractive, although the device is all plastic, it doesn’t pick up fingerprints at all.
The device’s colour screen is bright and I won’t say it’s accurate but playing games on it is a breeze. It does have a narrow viewing angle, so when your hand shifts a few degrees while playing a game, the colours also change. You will find a four-way direction pad on the left and red A and B buttons on the right. Its four-way directional pad is tiny but still feels great. Game, Time, Pause/Set buttons can be found on the unit’s right corner. They are made of tactile rubber and feel solid.
The modern Game & Watch ditches replaceable batteries for rechargeable ones, powered by USB-C. A cable is included, alongside the power button. Nintendo doesn’t rate how long the battery will last between charges (I believe it will last 8 hours on a single charge), but the screen automatically turns off after a few minutes when not in use. The left edge of the device holds a small slot for the mono speaker. It sounds loud for a device as tiny as this.
I love the clock…but the unit lacks a kickstand
The idea of a handheld gaming device that can be used as a clock still fascinates me. The Super Mario themed clock displays the time as different blocks, with Mario running from left to right repeatedly. It comes with 35 hidden secrets – and there’s an element of fun discovering hidden elements. It’s sweet! Click the Time button to set your clock for the included Watch mode. My only grouse with the system is the lack of a kickstand. The original Game & Watch had a small metal kickstand that could be ticked away in the back. I don’t know what made Nintendo omit that metal prop from the revamped version of the Game & Watch.
Games are fun but I wish Nintendo added more classics
One of my issues with the Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch is the limited number of games preloaded on the device. It includes the original NES Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 2 (also known as The Lost Levels) and my favourite Ball – one of the original Game & Watch games. Both Super Mario Bros. and The Lost Levels play surprisingly well on the Game & Watch. The software emulation is right, and everything feels correct… the background music, the controls and the screen is big enough to enjoy retro games.
A small touch but definitely a welcome move is how your progress is retained in-game when you switch off the unit or switch to another title, picking up from where you left off. I loved the revamped Game & Watch but I still wonder what made Nintendo include just three games, because we know it’s possible to add more games through emulation. Sure, Super Mario Bros. is classic but there is no Super Mario 3, Super Mario Land or its sequel.
A collectable that never ages
For someone who collects every major Nintendo console, it was an obvious choice to own the new Game & Watch. I bought the Game & Watch Super Mario Bros. simply because not only does a device like this evoke nostalgia but it also introduces me to a gaming era I wasn’t part of. I am not sure who asked for a reincarnated Game & Watch (just kidding), but I am loving how Nintendo likes to rework its own devices for today’s consumers. I like comfort in looking back to gaming history – and people like me see rare and collective devices, perhaps that date back to a certain era or that remind them of memories of the device when they were growing up. Although I paid only $50 for this device, you could get one for just Rs 6,000 on Amazon India. It’s a fascinating, collective device that appeals to Nintendo fans.
How big are you a Nintendo fan? Do you still own old Nintendo devices? Let us know in the comments.