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The History and Future of Nintendo Portable Gaming

Written By: Elliott Thomas

Dec 1st, 2013

Nintendo is the undisputed king of handheld gaming. From their humble beginings with the Game and Watch series, created by industry legend Gunpei Yokoi, to their modern Nintendo 3DS line, the company has dominated portable gaming for over 30 years.

The Game & Watch Series:

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The Game & Watch series was created by genius inventor and game designer Gunpei Yokoi. He is responsible for many of the legendary Nintendo products, as well as Metroid and Kid Icarus. One day while riding the train to work he witnessed a man attempting to play a game on a calculator. This sparked the idea for the Game & Watch series and a legend was born. The franchise has been on the market for over 30 years, and is still available in many parts of the world. The entire series is built on the solid foundation of a simple premise combined with addicting gameplay. Each unit featured a single game with multiple levels of difficulty. They also featured a built in digital clock with alarm. The Game & Watch series was the first break out product for Nintendo, who had dabbled in many different ventures in the past. This brilliant little device would help push Nintendo towards their ultimate destiny of becoming one of the world's most successful video game companies.

  • Game & Watch Silver (1980)
  • Game & Watch Gold (1981)
  • Game & Watch Multi Screen (1982-1989)
  • Game & Watch New Wide Screen (1982-1989)
  • Game & Watch Panorama (1983-1984)
  • Game & Watch Tabletop (1983)
  • Game & Watch Micro Vs. System (1984)
  • Game & Watch Crystal Screen (1986)
  • Game & Watch Mini Classics (1988)
  • Game & Watch Mini Classic Multi Screen (1998)

As you can see, Nintendo continually changed and upgraded the Game & Watch series over it's long history on the market. The company released a new model roughly every year for a six year period. In 1988 the series was revised once again as the Mini Classics Line, which remained on the market well into the 2000 era and is still available in many parts of the world.

The Game Boy Series:

Video_Games/Game_Boy_Series.jpg

The Game Boy was an 8-Bit handheld video game system with interchangeable cartridges. It was created by Gunpei Yokoi and his team at Nintendo Research & Development 1. The ambitious little device featured a monochrome LCD screen, four buttons labeled "A, B, Start and Select" a contrast dial and a volume control dial. The system ran on 4 AA batteries which provided an enormous 20+ hours of gameplay. The name of the machine is actually a play on Sony's "Walkman." In another strange connection to Sony, when the Game Boy was revealed engineers at Sony were scolded by their superiors for not thinking of the idea first, some even resigned from the company.

In 1995 Nintendo introduced the Game Boy "Play It Loud" Series. This was a new collection of Game Boy systems available in 8 different colors, including one with a crystal clear plastic case. Aside from the cosmetic change the internal hardware remained the same. However, this would start a trend for Nintendo, who would begin to offer their future handheld systems in a variety of colors and themes.

  • Game Boy (1989)
  • Game Boy Play It Loud Series [Multi Color] (1995)
  • Game Boy Pocket (1996)
  • Game Boy Light [Japan Only] (1998)
  • Game Boy Color (1998)

In 1996 Nintendo revealed a dramatically redesigned Game Boy dubbed the Game Boy Pocket. The new system was 20% smaller and 50% lighter than it's predecessor. The GBP used only two AAA batteries, which lead to a drop in battery life from the roughly 20 hours of gameplay offered by the original to a mere 10 to 12 hours for the GBP. The screen also changed from the greenish tint of the original Game Boy to a true black and white display. The new screen was substantially improved with increased visibility as well as a great reduction in motion blur or "ghosting." The first version of the Game Boy Pocket was released with a silver casing that had no power light. Later versions would add a red power light on the left side of the screen. They would also be made available in a variety of different colors.

In 1996 Nintendo released the Game Boy Light,but only in Japan. This unique version of the Game Boy featured a electroluminescent backlit screen. It was slightly larger than the Game Boy Pocket. It also used two AA batteries which gave it a play time of roughly 20 hours, 12 if you were using the backlit screen. It was available in two colors, Gold & Silver, but there were also a few unique versions, such as a limited edition Astro Boy version and a Yellow Pokemon edition. Due to it's limited availability the Game Boy Light has become a highly prized collectible.

Finally in 1998 Nintendo released the Game Boy Color. Some consider this device to be the successor to the original Game Boy, while others see it merely as an extension of the franchise. The new machine offered a full color screen and it was compatible with all Game Boy cartridges. Under the hood the system had a processor that was substantially more powerful than the one found in the first Game Boy system. Despite the upgrade the system is still technically an 8-Bit machine. During the transition between the GB and the GBC, Nintendo released a series of games that were compatible with both systems. Eventually though the Game Boy Color took over, and games were made exclusively for the new color system.

The Pokémon Pocket Series:

Video_Games/Pokemon_Pocket_Series.jpg

  • Pokémon Pikachu (1998)
  • Pokémon Pikachu 2 Gold & Silver (1999)
  • Pokémon Mini (2001)
  • Poké Walker (2009)

The Pokémon Pikachu series, sometimes known as Pocket Pikachu, represents a strange footnote in Nintendo's portable gaming history. The first Pokémon Pikachu was released in 1998 around the same time as the Game Boy Color. The device is basically a virtual pet toy with a monochrome screen. It is also a step counter. Caring for yourPikachu will increase his friendship level as well as opening new games you can play with your virtual pet. The step counter is used to collect "Watts" which can be used to play games or to buy Pikachu a present.

One year later Nintendo released a new version of the device called the Pokémon Pikachu 2 Gold & Silver. (A.K.A. Pokémon Pikachu Color.) The new version had a color screen but retained many of the features of the original. However, this time users did not have to care for Pikachu like a virtual pet.

In 2001 Nintendo released the Pokémon Mini. The unit had a crystal clear black and white LCD display. The hardware featured a clock, an infrared port for multiplayer gaming, and even a force feedback motor. It was the spiritual descendant of the Pocket Pikachu series with one major difference, instead of just being a virtual pet, this device actually played tiny cartridge based games made exclusively for the system. Games include Pokémon Pinball Mini, Pokémon Tetris and Pokémon Race. A total of 9 different games were made for this unique device, which has become quite a popular collectible.

In 2009 Nintendo revived the Pocket Pikachu concept with the Pokéwalker. This unique piece of hardware was a step counter and a Pokémon training device. It was sold with copies of Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver for the Nintendo DS. The Pokéwalker has an infrared port that allows it to interact with the Nintendo DS and other Pokéwalkers. Users could transfer their favorite Pokémon to the unit and then train the creature on the go. The step counter was used to build experience for the Pokémon. It also brought back the "watt" concept used in the original. Players can even capture rare Pokémon in their travels.

The Game Boy Advance Series:

Video_Games/Game_Boy_Advance_Series.jpg

The Game Boy Advance was released in mid 2001. This brand new device was the official successor to the original Game Boy product line. This powerful little device featured a 32 Bit processor, a full color screen, two face buttons and two triggers. The first unit also adopted a horizontal layout similar to the original Game & Watch series.

  • Game Boy Advance (2001)
  • Game Boy Advance SP (2003)
  • Game Boy Micro (2005)
  • Game Boy Advance SP Bright (2005)

Unfortunately the Game Boy Advance was not without controversy. The screen was very difficult to see in low light conditions. Hobbyists and modders even created their own lighting solutions to remedy the problem. Eventually Nintendo responded to customer complaints and released the Game Boy Advance SP. The "SP" actually stands for "Special." This new version featured a self protecting clam shell design and a lighted screen. It was also the first Nintendo portable system to include a rechargeable battery. Oddly enough the SP did not feature a traditional headphone jack, which caused some outrage among Nintendo fans. For some strange reason Nintendo decided that the charging port would also double as the headphone jack. GBA SP owners actually had to buy a separate headphone adapter or they had to purchase headphones which were specially made for the SP.

Video_Games/play_yan_micro.jpg

The tiny Game Boy Micro was released in 2005. The third redesign in the GBA series was truly a pocket sized handheld game system. It featured the same power as the previous GBA systems in a much smaller package. The Micro had a removable faceplate whichcould be swapped with others featuring different styles and colors. Originally the GBM was to include an MP3 player cartridge with SD card support. This MP3 cart was released in Japan as the PLAY-YAN Micro (pictured above), but it was never officially released in other parts of the world. Had Nintendo followed through with their original plan I imagine the system would have seen greater success. I also feel marketing would have pushed the Micro as a game system and an MP3 player.

Towards the end of 2005 Nintendo quietly released the fourth and final redesign of the Game Boy Advance. This new system was dubbed by fans as the Game Boy Advance SP "Bright." Nintendo officially marketed the device just as the GBA SP with a new brighter screen. Anyone who has seen the difference between the original SP and the Bright model will tell you there is a substantial difference in screen quality. The Bright model is backlit, unlike the SP which was technically "side lit" as it's lighting comes from the side of the screen instead of the rear.

The Nintendo DS Series:

Video_Games/Nintendo_DS_Series.jpg

In 2004 Nintendo stunned the world by introducing the Nintendo DS. At the time the Game Boy Advance was still hugely popular, however Nintendo was facing increasing competition from Sony who was ready to introduce their own handheld game system. The Nintendo DS, which stands for "Developer System," was originally sold as a "third pillar" in the Nintendo product line. Secretly it was also created to protect the popular and lucrative Game Boy franchise. However something strange happened and the DS became incredibly successful, Nintendo wound up creating the most popular video game system of all time. Ironically it wasn't competition that killed the Game Boy franchise but rather Nintendo themselves with the Nintendo DS.

Although it was not the first portable system to feature a touch screen, the Nintendo DS started the touch revolution that would quickly spread to other areas of the electronics world. The system is highly reminiscent of the Game & Watch multi screen with it's dual screen design. The first two models of the Nintendo DS included two cartridge slots, one for DS games and one for Game Boy Advance titles. The GBA slot was also dubbed "Slot 2" and there were a number of cool and unique accessories made for games that could use both ports.

Just like the GBA SP, the Nintendo DS featured a self protecting clamshell design which made the console very sturdy and lent itself well to the hazards of portable gaming. It was later followed by the Nintendo DS Lite, which was much smaller and lighter than the original design. The DS Lite also included a dust cover for the GBA cartridge slot. Unfortunately due to the smaller size of the DS Lite GBA carts would stick out from the edge of the system.

  • Nintendo DS (2004)
  • Nintendo DS Lite (2006)
  • Nintendo DSi (2008)
  • Nintendo DSi LL / XL (2009)

The Nintendo DSi was released in 2008. It changed many of the standard features of the Nintendo DS, while adding some new features of it's own. The new system dropped the GBA cartridge slot. Instead it added a new camera and SD card slot, as well as the ability to play MP3 files. The system could also connect to the Internet and download new "DSi Ware" games made exclusively for the Nintendo DSi. The dual screens were also slightly larger than those found on the first model of the DS Lite. The internal processor also saw a slight upgrade, which helped improve the quality of online features and game downloading.

Later Nintendo produced an alternative system called the Nintendo DSi LL / XL. (LL in Japan and XL elsewhere in the world.) The LL/XL series was not intended as a replacement or successor to the DSi. Instead it was marketed at older gamers who wanted something larger and more substantial than the smaller Nintendo DS models. It has all the same features as the DSi in a much larger, and somewhat heavier package.

The Nintendo 3DS Series:

Video_Games/Nintendo_3DS_Series.jpg

Finally we come to the Nintendo 3DS. The long awaited successor to the Nintendo DS was officially unveiled at the Nintendo E3 Press Conference in 2010. The company actually bathed the stage in red light as a subtle tribute to legendary designer Gunpei Yokoi and his original 3D gaming system, the Virtual Boy. [video] The system is the first handheld gaming device to use glasses free 3D technology.

Although it shares a form factor that is similar to the Nintendo DS line, the 3DS hardware is substantially more powerful and more advanced than any Nintendo portable. The 3DS uses an autostereoscopic device to produce 3D effects without the need for 3D glasses. It also has a host of new features including Street Pass, a social network software, and Spot Pass, which is a program that will seek out and connect to Wi-Fi hotspots to download and exchange data while the system is kept in sleep mode. The 3DS also expands upon the digital distribution model started with the DSi. The device is capable of downloading full 3DS games as well as original titles and "Virtual Console" games for classic video game consoles and handheld systems.

  • Nintendo 3DS (2010)
  • Nintendo 3DS XL (2012)
  • Nintendo 2DS (2013)
  • ??? (20XX)

In 2012 Nintendo released a larger sized model dubbed the Nintendo 3DS XL. Once again this system was not intended to replace the original 3DS, but rather it is sold as an alternative version for older gamers and those wanting a larger screen. It has all the same hardware features as the first model, but it now has screens that are 90% larger than the original.

One year later, in a move that confused and stunned critics, Nintendo released the Nintendo 2DS. This system was created for two reasons. First, the 3D technology used on the 3DS is not intended for younger children, therefore this model was aimed specifically at younger players. It is smaller than the two earlier systems, making it a perfect fit for small hands. Secondly, with it's lower price tag it's also a great model for budget gamers.

Although the system is compatible with all 3DS games, it does not feature 3D technology, hence the unusual name. The hardware itself is a bit of a downgrade. It features a mono speaker and it removes the clam shell design common to the Nintendo DS and 3DS. The screen itself is actually one big screen covered by a plastic faceplate to simulate the dual screen effect. Despite the somewhat confusing name the new system has become very popular in a short period of time. It is also not intended to replace either version of the 3DS, but is rather sold as yet another alternative model.

When we look at the history of Nintendo portable game systems we see a very clear pattern. The company tends to release a new hardware revision every couple of years. This means we could easily see at least one more 3DS redesign before the system is finally retired and replaced by it's official successor.

The Future:

Video_Games/Nintendo_2DS_Tablet.jpg

Special thanks to our friend TheCongressman1. Be sure to check out more of his fine work HERE.

What will the future bring to the Nintendo handheld gaming family? Well I believe the Nintendo 2DS provides a hint at things to come. Take a look at this fan made image showing a tablet version of the Nintendo 2DS. It was made by a very talented artist who clearly sees, what I feel, is the future for Nintendo. It shows just how close Nintendo came to making their own tablet device with the Nintendo 2DS.

The Nintendo Tablet:

Video_Games/Nintendo_Tablet.jpg

I have a very strong feeling that Nintendo is already experimenting with their own gaming tablet. Let's make it clear that I am not talking about the Wii U, which is really a controller with a large touch screen that is tethered to a console base. This would be a completely independent tablet style game system that would feature gaming functions as well as multi media.

Tablet gaming has become extremely popular with kids who now prefer tablets to traditional handheld gaming systems. Of course the growing popularity of tablet PCs has not hurt the Nintendo 3DS line, which has recently passed 40 million units sold world wide. Maybe a Nintendo will market their tablet a as "third pillar" when it is first introduced? It could be an alternative product, sold along side pre-existing Nintendo consoles and handheld game systems. The Nintendo Tablet will surely be it's own device, and not an extension of the Wii U or the 3DS franchise. If it doesn't succeed Nintendo can always fall back on their traditional portable game systems. However, if it does succeed you can bet it will define the future of Nintendo portable gaming.

No matter what the future brings I am sure the next Nintendo portable game system will be an amazing device. The company has never failed to thrill and surprise fans of handheld gaming. Despite the entry of new competitors into the market, and even in the face of rising competition from mobile devices, Nintendo has remained king of the hill when it comes to portable gaming. Their fine products are in a class of their own.

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About The Author: Elliott S. Thomas loves handheld gaming systems. He was a gadget enthusiast from an early age. Elliott has over 40 different portable gaming systems in his collection. He carries at least one system with him at all times. His 3DS Street Pass plaza has over 1,000 members.