Handheld games have been the commuter's best friend for longer than you may think. The Nintendo DS's pedigree goes back to 1980, when a Nintendo employee named Gunpei Yokoi developed stand-alone handheld games after noticing the boredom suffered by his fellow Japanese commuters. Here's a brief history of the Game & Watch, a series of pint-sized games that helped mold the Nintendo DS into one of the best-selling video game consoles of all time.
The Man Behind the Games: Gunpei Yokoi
Though the gaming community generally recognizes big-name developers working in the industry today, Gunpei Yokoi's name doesn't often generate the impact it deserves. Born in 1970, Yokoi graduated from Japan's Doshisha University with a degree in electronics and began working with Nintendo in 1967. He maintained the conveyor belts that the company used in the production of its hanafuda cards (Japanese playing cards), and showed a particular knack for figuring out how gizmos worked. Yokoi's affinity for toys and gadgets would eventually revolutionize the way the world played video games.
In 1970, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi challenged Yokoi to come up with a hit toy. Yokoi designed the “Ultra Hand,” a wooden “arm” that extended and grabbed thing when its handles were pushed together. The Ultra Hand was a hit, and Yokoi was assigned to his own creative team, the Research and Development 1 group (R&D1), which still develops games and invents creative properties for Nintendo.
In 1980, Yokoi boarded a bullet train for home and noticed a nearby commuter fiddling with the buttons on his calculator for entertainment. Yokoi wondered if other commuters would buy handheld electronic games to keep themselves entertained during the long ride to and from work.
Birth of the Game & Watch
Thus was born the Game & Watch series, a library of self-contained games. Each Game & Watch unit had a liquid crystal display screen that gave the illusion of primitive animation by cycling from one sprite to another (or by “scrolling” background graphics) on a single-screen illustration. The first Game & Watch game, Ball, featured a simple variation of juggling: the player threw three balls into the air and tried to catch them successfully. A miss meant a lost life.
Other original Game & Watch titles included Chef, wherein the player flipped morsels of food in a frying pan to keep them airborne, and Fire, a rescue game that required the player to save falling people from a messy death on the pavement by bouncing them on a trampoline to an ambulance.
The Game & Watch series maintained its popularity over 11 years and 59 games. Nintendo properties that became hot in the arcades and on the Nintendo Entertainment System, like Donkey Kong, Balloon Fight, Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda would often be ported or re-imagined in its own Game & Watch title.
Though initially nameless and featureless beyond a pudgy black body and bulbous nose, the paper doll-like star of the original Game & Watch titles became “Mr. Game & Watch,” a selectable fighter in Super Smash Bros. Meleefor the Gamecube (2001) and Super Smash Bros. Brawlfor the Wii (2008). Mr. Game and Watch draws his attacks from the games that birthed him: He can bounce on a trampoline strung between two firemen, or flip sausages in the faces of his opponents.
How the Game & Watch Left Its Mark
Gunpei Yokoi and his Game & Watch titles were revolutionary for reasons beyond their size. Yokoi developed the thumb-sized D-Pad for the Game & Watch, reasoning that arcade joysticks were far too cumbersome for a portable game system. That cross-shaped button still sits at the left hand of today's game controllers (or near the top, in the case of the Wii remote), and remains the most familiar means of controlling a character in-game.
Nintendo's first dual-screen handheld wasn't the Nintendo DS, but rather the Game & Watch title Oil Panic. In Oil Panic, the player caught oil leaking out of a pipe, then dumped his or her bucket into an oil drum. Another multi-screen Game & Watch game was 1984's Life Boat, which opened horizontally, like a book.
Each Game & Watch also came equipped with a clock and alarm function (hence “Watch”), a standard feature on most handheld electronics today, including the Nintendo DS and most cellphones.
Game & Watch titles remained popular even as more advanced and expensive technology surfaced in electronics. Yokoi reasoned that affordability and long battery life were more important than building cutting-edge machines—a philosophy Nintendo stuck fast to when color-screen competitors threatened the Game Boy.
The Legacy Lives On
Sadly, Gunpei Yokoi was struck by a car and killed in 1997 at the age of 56. His unfortunate death occurred before the Internet was adopted by the mainstream as a means of communication, meaning his name never had a chance to establish itself in America and hold fast to the recognition it deserves. But Yokoi has since received honors in the gaming industry, and was the posthumous recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at 2003's Game Developers Conference (GDC).