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With Nintendo’s handheld future on the horizon, let’s take a moment to think about its past. Though it’s hard to imagine, there was a time that Nintendo was a neophyte in the world of videogames. In the late 1970s the Kyoto, Japan-based company was more well known for toys and playing cards than digital entertainment. As the 80s began and games like Space Invaders was becoming the hottest things around, Nintendo not only started work on their own arcade games, but also found a new market by repurposing newly cheapened calculator tech and making the first truly handheld videogames in the form of Game & Watch.
Above: One of the first Game & Watch commercials
Incredibly primitive by today’s standards, G&W was a novel approach to gaming 30 years ago. Each system was dedicated to a single title, and almost all had two modes, Game A and Game B, with Game B being the more difficult of the two. It did all that plus it told you what time it was and you could set an alarm too. The earliest G&W games are especially archaic today, but by 1989, when some of the last G&W titles came out, they were surprisingly sophisticated.
Above: An early American commercial shows that even Snoopy and Popeye got on the G&W bandwagon
Though not as big a hit in the English-speaking world, tens of millions of Game & Watch titles were sold worldwide and helped cement Nintendo’s place as a reliably great game maker before the NES/Famicom hit store shelves. And G&W’s legacy is easy to observe even now in Nintendo’s current products, and we don’t just mean Mr. Game & Watch in Super Smash Bros.
Just looking at the DS beside one of the first two-screen G&W titles, you can see how the design still inspires Nintendo today. Plus the D-pad featured on that Donkey Kong unit was a revelation at the time, a whole new way to control a game. (Yes, Nintendo invented the modern D-pad. If you think that’s not completely true, take it up with the Emmys.) The head of Game & Watch development for Nintendo, the late Gunpei Yokoi, brought about this design shift and continued using this style when he began crafting the Game Boy. And if you want a more in-depth look at Game & Watch’s creation, read this fascinating edition of Nintendo’s Iwata Asks.
The single or dual screen action G&W titles fit well in the smart phone world of today, and they show Nintendo’s early commitment to making addicting, but easy to understand games that everyone can enjoy. Though many G&W titles have very similar gameplay involving switching between up and down or left and right very quickly, which makes it hard to select favorites, we chose to highlight the eight best. Are they worth paying $300 for on eBay? Hmm… maybe just wait for the next Nintendo re-release on DSiWare, or save up your Club Nintendo points.
Released in 1980, Fire was one of the earliest Game & Watch titles and it solidified gameplay that would be replicated in many G&Ws that followed. With a setting that demanded constant attention (a burning building) that challenges players to quickly switch between one of three positions, the fast and simple approach was perfect for on-the-go gaming.
Bouncing the non-descript humanoids from place to place seems straightforward, but rapidly the task of keeping as many as five different victims in the air, hurtling toward the ambulance becomes an intense experience. Compared to other early G&W releases like Judge, Ball, Vermin, or Lion, Fire is a much deeper affair that showed off the possibilities that the format would later embrace.
One of the earliest games to have Mario’s name in the title, Mario’s Cement Factory added even more depth to the G&W series. Still taking place on a single screen, you shifted a barely recognizable Mario all over the place in an industrial setting, hastily moving cement mixtures from funnels on down to the awaiting trucks, taking special care not to overload them and bury your fellow worker in building material. It really played to Mario’s working class roots.
Above: You can also download Cement Factory for DSiWare
Compared to even the best games from the first couple years, 1983’s Cement Factory has much more going on, with players having to time going up and down as well as left and right, thought the elevators removed the player’s need for vertical controls. And instead of worrying about just three of something, you had to keep track four containers that could hold three doses of cement. With all that to pay attention to, it pushed the boundaries of what a single screen Game & Watch titles could do, making it one of the best examples of the series.
Another working class nightmare turned into a classic title, 1982’s Turtle Bridge may be the most intense Game Watch ever made. Taking on the role of a hapless delivery man, players have to get from one ledge to the other by hopping across turtles. You need to constantly be on the move and rarely is there a safe place to stand, as once you’ve made the delivery you must scuttle back to get the next package. Adding to the stress is the fact that the turtles randomly disappear to eat fish, and the person isn’t always there on the right side to accept the package. Like the only best G&W games can, it keeps the player enthralled using very few parts.
Turtle Bridge is also one of the better remembered G&W games by the people who made them. In that same enlightening Iwata Asks Interview, G&W developer Masao Yamamoto takes pride in the fact that Turtle Bridge, unlike most Game & Watch titles, was wholly his concept instead of having heavy influence from Gunpei Yokoi. One wonders if the intensity of the games and difficult, repetitive working scenarios in most G&W titles weren’t at least partly influenced by the demanding work the of the devs at the time.