The Nintendo Game & Watch: The Most Important Video Game Tech Ever

James Logie

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One simple handheld game may have changed the trajectory of modern video games.

If Nintendo didn’t experiment with the Game and Watch, they might not have had the confidence to double down on video games and change the world forever.

The Game and Watch was a hand-held video game released by Nintendo in the 1970s and 80s.

Its success would lead to the Famicom and eventually the Nintendo Entertainment System.

This article will be a look back on the significance of the Game and Watch and how it changed video games forever.

A Brief History of Nintendo

Nintendo wasn’t originally a video game company. The Game and Watch was just one of the many products they launched.

Nintendo as a company goes back a lot further than you may realize. Their origins begin back in 1889.

Nintendo first started out selling trading cards. They called these cards Hanafuda which meant “flower cards.” You could play several games with them and they were used for gambling.

These cards were so old that they were printed on a tree bark before moving into other materials.

If you’ve ever wondered why there was the random “flower power” in Mario Brothers, and the ability to shoot fireballs, it was because of these “flower cards.” This is the one original tradition that has stayed with Nintendo to this day.

They were then calling themselves Nintendo Yamauchi, then the Nintendo Trading Card Co., ltd, before dropping it all to just being Nintendo in 1963.

Moving Away From the Cards & into Technology

Nintendo was expanding but wasn’t able to narrow down the exact company they wanted to be. They dabbled in many products, including vacuum cleaners.

They then realized there was an enormous market for children’s products. This led them to make toys, and since the technology was growing by leaps and bounds in Japan — they ventured into electronic toys.

Nintendo was struggling to keep its head above water in those early years because they were not an established toy company and were competing against gigantic Japanese toy businesses.

One thing that helped them compete was releasing an electronic arm they called the “Ultra Hand.” It was a robotic arm that could move and hold on to things.

It was a big hit and sold over one million units. This gave Nintendo the confidence to keep exploring different technological toys.

In 1972, they came up with a solar-powered “light gun” and I think you can see where this is going.

Slowly Moving Into Video Games

Nintendo didn’t jump right into hand-held video games just yet. They played around with a few ideas including:

  • The “love tester”
  • Electronic bongos
  • An electronic periscope
  • Computerized versions of games like Mah-jong

But this was helping them set the stage for video games.

One day in 1977, a Nintendo engineer was returning home by train from a business trip.

He looked around the train and noticed a bunch of people using calculators just to pass the time.

There were no cell phones or portable electronics, so there wasn’t much left to do.

A big hobby for many people in Japan was to do calculations on their calculators the way we play games on our phones now.

A light bulb went off in his head.

What if there was another way for adults to kill time when they were out and about?

It needed to be something discreet that wouldn’t disturb those around you. He didn’t even have the specific idea of a hand-held video game but knew this was an idea worth exploring.

He took it to the president of Nintendo — Hiroshi Yamauchi.

They went to calculator producer Sharp electronics about collaboration and struck a deal with them. The funny thing is, Nintendo’s foray into video games had nothing to do with children.

They wanted to appeal to adults who wanted something to pass the time — but needed it private so no one could see they were playing a child’s game.

The Creation of the Game and Watch

Nintendo had a few specifications that were key to the development of an electronic toy. It had to be private, discreet, and fit in the palm of an adult’s hand.

They decided that a device that was 4 x 3 inches would be a perfect size. They could then come up with simple electronic games that could be played on these devices.

They also had the idea to combine the game with the features of a watch.

The very first game they came up with for the Game and Watch was called “Ball.” It involved a character having to juggle balls in the air.

Not only was this the first hand-held video game ever, but it was also the first one using an LCD display.

Ball was simple, but it got progressively harder. This was a key development, meaning that anyone could learn it quickly — but you wouldn’t beat it in a short while.

You had to develop your skills to go further in the game, and this is the underlying attraction to video games.

The concept of simplicity would be important for all the Game and Watch titles they came up with: you should be able to pick up the game and start playing without having to read a manual.

The Response to the Game and Watch

The Game and Watch was originally intended for adults — but they didn’t seem to pay it much notice. One group did, however: kids.

Millions of children in Japan became enamored with these handheld games.

This was great for Nintendo for a few reasons: one is that they could keep the games more simple and childish, and the second is they didn’t have to worry about making the Game and Watch look stylish or elegant.

Nintendo quickly brought out 5 news games with a gold and silver series. Besides “Ball,” some other games would include “Fire,” and “Manhole.”

Nintendo quickly improved the technology of the Game and Watch and offered new versions with wide screens.

The screen was now 1.7 inches wide and could also use color. You then saw games like “Parachutes,” “Octopus,” “Balloon Fight,” “Donkey Kong Jr,” and a little character named Super Mario…

It also didn’t take long for Nintendo to put out Game and Watches with licensed characters, including Mickey Mouse.

By now, Nintendo had 18 different Game and Watches — but they didn’t stop there.

The Evolution of the Game and Watch

The next big thing Nintendo did was release a Game and Watch that had a double screen.

They wanted to expand the capability of the gameplay and the first game released for the double-screen was called “Oil Painting.”

You now had to control both screens, and it showed the advancements of what Nintendo could create.

The next double-screen title they put out was one that was important to the future of video games: Donkey Kong.

The Game and Watch had now spread from Japan to America, and the release of Donkey Kong was instrumental in the future of Nintendo because of one thing: the new control pad.

Donkey Kong was to use a small joystick to replicate the experience of playing an arcade game.

But this was going to cause a few problems: the console wouldn’t be able to close properly, and there was also the risk that the joystick could snap off.

To work around this problem, Nintendo came up with a new control option that put different directional buttons close together so they could be used easily together.

They called it the D-pad and was instrumental in the success and development of the NES and Super Nintendo.

The D-pad was pretty much the standard for the entire gaming industry.

Nintendo had also brought in other licensed characters such as Snoopy and Popeye.

Nintendo Moves into the Future

The Game and Watches continued into the 80s, but Nintendo had been experimenting with a home video game system before that.

As far back as 1972, they created the Magnavox Odyssey, which was the first commercially available video game console.

In 1977, they released the Color Tv Game 6, and the Color TV game 15. The 6 and the 15 showed how many games were included with each.

They had released arcade games such as Donkey Kong but needed a new system to showcase the advancements in technology.

Enter the Family Computer or Famicom.

The Game Watches were a hit, and Nintendo sold over 43 million of them. In 1982, they came up with the early prototype which they called the “Advanced Video Game System.”

It contained a tape drive, the light gun I mentioned earlier, a joystick, and at its core, a computer similar to the Atari or Commodore 64.

This was the prototype, and the Famicom was about taking this idea but making it cartridge-based.

For the control pads, it made sense to take the same type they used on the already popular Game Watch as they would seem familiar and easy to adapt to.

They launched the Famicom in 1984 with Popeye, Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong jr. It didn’t catch on right away but soon became the best-selling console in Japan.

Next, they had to take it to America, but that required a few changes.

The Great Video Game Crash of 1983

There was a time when companies in the US wanted nothing to do with video games. Atari had ruled the landscape and then crashed in spectacular fashion.

A once billion-dollar industry was now only worth a few hundred million, and toy companies wanted nothing more to do with games.

Nintendo had a tall order on their hands and was entering the market at the worst time. They needed to give the Famicom a total overhaul, but keep the heart of it still the same.

They redesigned the console in a futuristic space grey instead of the red and white version that already existed.

They also needed to separate themselves from anything to do with video games.

They changed the top loading cartridge system (that was just like Atari) to a front-loading design, which seemed more like a VCR.

They also needed to change the terminology.

  • Instead of being a console, they had a control deck
  • Instead of using video games, they used “Game Paks”
  • Instead of using a joystick, they had a “Control pad”
  • And instead of being called a video game system, Nintendo was an “Entertainment System”

This led to their rebranding as the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES.

Final Thoughts

The NES revolutionized video games and gave rebirth to the entire video game industry. The NES was slowly released in 1985, and by 1986 was available everywhere.

The NES gave rise to the real era of video games, which has only continued to grow stronger and stronger over the last 30 years.

And none of this wouldn’t have happened without the Nintendo Game and Watch.

The Game and Watch gave Nintendo the ability to create a new video game movement and redefine what video games could be.

What they created out of a way for adults to pass the time, became a staple of pop culture and a beloved part of everyone’s childhood.

Photo via Wikipedia Commons

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.

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