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The Evolution of
Mobile Gaming

A look at how mobile gaming has evolved through the years

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1976

The Mattel Electronics Auto Race is released

The Mattel Electronics Auto Race, released in 1976 in the USA, is widely accepted to be the very first handheld electronic game. Whilst it did not sell millions, it introduced the world to the idea of gaming on-the-move and has become a cult classic. With no actual screen as such, the action was simply depicted by LED lights representing the player's car and those of their opponents. It was superseded by several more successful Mattel Electronics games such as Mattel Football, which proved to be much more popular and sold many more units.

Memory:
0.5 kb


Units Sold:
< 100,000

1980

Nintendo's Game and Watch Series Released

This was Nintendo's very first foray into the world of mobile gaming. The designer, Gunpei Yokoi, was inspired to create the Game & Watch after seeing a fellow commuter playing with his calculator to pass the time on his train journey. With some success in the arcade market and with the somewhat awkwardly-named Japan-only 'Color TV-Game' console already behind them, they released the first Game & Watch game in Japan in 1980, simply titled "Ball". The product sold better than Nintendo expected, but the series as whole did not see real success until the Donkey Kong edition had been released. This version featured the first ever 'D-Pad' control system - which is still in use in cutting edge gaming technology today.

Units Sold:
43,000,000


Atari Lynx

1989

The Atari Lynx Is released

The Atari Lynx was released in the UK on 1st September 1989, closely followed by the Nintendo Game Boy on 27th September. The Atari was by far the technically superior machine, featuring a 4096 colour screen versus the Game Boy's monochrome display, the facility to link up 17 systems for multiplayer gaming, and the ability to accommodate left-handed players simply by flipping it upside-down.



Memory
64Kb

Units Sold:
2,000,000

Will Freeman's Game of Choice

Rampart - 1990

"Long before the tower defence genre, there was Rampart; something of an amalgamation of strategy and shoot 'em up conventions of the late-1980s. It was originally an arcade release, but enjoyed a superb Lynx port. And looking back from the smartphone era with the benefit of hindsight, it's apparent it was doing in the early nineties on the Lynx what numerous mobile-focused studios are trying to perfect today."

Nintendo Game Boy

1989

Nintendo Game Boy is released

Nintendo tightened the Game Boy's stranglehold on the market with an aggressive marketing campaign and a series of excellent games releases such as Super Mario Land and The Legend of Zelda, which all but ended the Lynx's hopes of success. The Game Boy eventually went on to become the 2nd most popular mobile gaming device in history.

The supply problems suffered by the Atari Lynx, together with the Game Boy's low price and Nintendo's ingenious packaging of Tetris along with the Game Boy from day one, allowed the Nintendo system to steal a march on the Lynx and sell a staggering 1 million units in its first week on sale in the USA.

Memory:
8Kb


Units Sold:
119,000,000

Stuart Campbell's Game of Choice

Bill & Ted's Excellent Game Boy Adventure - 1991

"There's Tetris, of course, but the Game Boy game that really stands the test of time is Bill And Ted's Excellent Game Boy Adventure. Taking the bloodline of the 8-bit classic Chuckie Egg, it's a fast-flowing platformer of incredible invention, and which avoided problems with the GB's blurry display by limiting its 50 stages to a single static screen each. The gameplay has never been bettered in its field."

Sega Game Gear

1990

The Sega Game Gear is released

The Sega Game Gear was released a year after the Game Boy and was deliberately marketed by Sega as a more 'mature' alternative to Nintendo's system. It certainly looked good on paper – the system had a large, full colour screen and far better sound than the Game Boy. It even featured the novel option of an additional TV Tuner to enable the user to watch live TV on their Game Gear. On the downside, it was a large system much like the Atari Lynx, and suffered similarly poor battery life too due to the large, colour backlit screen. Whilst it sold well at first and eventually offered a large library of games (due to the ease with which Master System games could be ported), the general quality of the games and the battery problems conspired to limit its success. By the time Sega abandoned the system in 1997 it had only sold 1/10th of the Game Boy's total sales.

Units Sold:
11,000,000


Memory:8Kb

Will Freeman's Game of Choice

GG Aleste - 1991

"Despite only getting a Japanese release, GG Aleste stands as one of the GameGear's greatest exclusives. Part of the highly regarded Aleste series, which titillates game collectors to this day, it manages to re-appropriate the frantic gameplay of arcade shoot 'em ups for the handheld's tiny screen, and does so with grace. Developer Compile did something extraordinary with GG Aleste, and the gameplay absolutely stands up today."
Will Freeman

1996

The Tamagotchi is released

The Tamagotchi was originally released in Japan with the intention of giving teenage girls an idea of what it would be like to look after a baby. Its name is a portmanteau – a combination of the Japanese word for 'egg' (Tamago) and the English word 'Watch'. It quickly became an enormous success which spread around the world almost overnight, resulting in it becoming the must-have Christmas present for children in 1996.

Memory:1.5kb

Units Sold:
76,000,000


The success of the Tamagotchi brought mobile gaming to a much larger audience due to its simplicity, low price and huge popularity with girls – not a first for mobile gaming, but certainly a new level of success not even the Game Boy could boast. The success was not sustained however, and the Tamagotchi craze was almost over after less than 2 years. Later, Tamagotchi video games were released on many handheld systems.

1998

The Game Boy Colour is released

In 1998 Nintendo released the first major revision to the Game Boy, giving it a colour screen, a slight design overhaul and a range of snazzy coloured cases. The new games were of course in colour, but the system was also able to play the entire back catalogue of original Game Boy titles. It was another huge success for Nintendo, and enabled the Game Boy's total sales to reach almost 119 million units. The system proved to be something of a stop-gap measure from Nintendo, who had more ambitious plans in store.

Memory:48Kb


Units Sold:
119,000,000

Alex Seedhouse's Game of Choice

Pokemon Gold and Silver - 2001

"Pokémon Red and Blue had captivated the world in the late 90s, but it was Gold and Silver that truly exemplified how to build upon such a successful foundation. When they arrived on the scene we had the entirely new Johto region to explore, 100 new Pokémon to collect, and more colourful sprites that brought Game Freak's world to life on Game Boy Color. They have remained firm fan favourites to this day, and it wasn't entirely surprising to see them later resurface as remakes HeartGold and SoulSilver for Nintendo DS."

1998

Snake on Nokia Phones is released

Mobile gaming reached an even wider audience with the enormous success of a range of Nokia mobile phones pre-installed with the extremely simple game, Snake. This proved to be a masterstroke by Nokia, with the exceptionally addictive Snake becoming the time-killing activity of choice for people of all ages and sexes, helping to establish Nokia as the number one mobile phone brand. The origins of the game itself can be traced back to a 1970's arcade game called Blockade. Various incarnations of Snake continued to be packaged with Nokia phones until 2008, when the advent of Smartphones devastated Nokia's market share.

2001

The Nintendo Game Boy Advance is released

2001 saw the release of a completely new Game Boy system – the first in 12 years. It had a larger screen, better resolution, more processing power and featured the debut of 'shoulder' buttons in handheld gaming. The internals of the system bore a large similarity to those of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) home console, and thus developers found it easy to port many games from that system to the GBA, as it became known. Nintendo dominated mobile gaming in the 1990's with almost no competition, and the GBA enabled this success to continue in to the next millennium.

Memory:128Kb


Units Sold:
80,000,000

Stuart Campbell's Game of Choice

Advance Wars - 2001

"There are few games which can justify the purchase of a system by themselves, but Advance Wars is so deep and so engrossing, and there's just plain so MUCH of it that even if it was the only game the GBA could play you wouldn't be getting ripped off. A highly-sophisticated battle sim made incredibly accessible and super-cute, simply accessing all of its content is weeks of work, and nailing S ratings on every stage could take you a lifetime, but you'd be happy every minute of it."

2004

The Nintendo DS is released

Memory:4000Kb


Units Sold:
154,000,000

The Nintendo DS (standing for Dual Screen) was Nintendo's first handheld system not to bear the Game Boy name, perhaps due to Nintendo's desire to appeal to both boys and girls. The design itself was extremely reminiscent of the original Game & Watch from 1980, with the dual-screen flip-open case, and in fact drew a lot of criticism for its clunky shape, which seemed dated next to the Game Boy Advance's ergonomic style.

Stuart Campbell's Game of Choice

Bangai-O Spirits - 2008

"By far the best game released for the DS was Bangai-O Spirits, an astonishingly ambitious and creative masterpiece of "missile action" mayhem which pushed the system to its technical limits and beyond, and offered hundreds of hours of diverse arcade and puzzling stages, plus the ability to create and share limitless custom levels via the endearingly old-skool medium of short MP3 files."

2004

The PlayStation Portable (PSP) is released

The PSP represented a huge leap in terms of graphic and sound quality in the mobile gaming world, together with the largest screen yet and processing power roughly the equivalent of the PlayStation 2 home console packed into a handheld device. It was also the first handheld system to utilise an optical disc format (the UMD) instead of cartridges, and Sony exploited this feature by releasing many feature films on the format. The PSP could also be used to browse the internet, which was a first for handheld devices. Features such as this together with high quality launch titles meant it also set a new record by recording sales of over 185,000 units in the first day of sale in the UK - more than doubling the Nintendo DS's record of 87,000, despite some criticism of the system's weight and bulk.

Memory:
38,000Kb


Units Sold:
80,000,000

Jem Alexander's Game of Choice

Final Fantasy - 2008

"My favourite PSP game is probably Final Fantasy I. A remake of the original NES game with updated graphics, added game content and a couple of FMVs thrown in for good measure. I've replayed it at least five times on various systems, but on the PSP it felt like the definitive version. That game has held up incredibly well over time, especially considering some of the later Final Fantasy games are nigh unplayable nowadays."

2007

The Smartphone era begins

In many ways, it brought back a return to the 1980's and 1990's style of games creation – simple and easy to program games which could be designed by one person in their bedroom and sold very cheaply to a large audience. A number of early titles enjoyed a modicum of success, but when Angry Birds was released in 2009 it was such an enormous success that it changed the market forever by proving to games developers that there was an enormous and hitherto untapped market for them to exploit. This lead to a huge increase in the number and the quality of games developed for the platform.

In 2007 Apple released the iPhone 2G, featuring an almost desktop-like interface and hugely impressive computing power for a mobile phone, with some games demonstrating it had graphical power exceeding that of the original PlayStation. The Apple App Store was opened in 2008, and it was only once this happened that gaming really took off on the system.

Memory:
128,000Kb


Units Sold:
500,000,000

"It has to be Ridiculous Fishing - it's about as fun a game as I've ever played. It's a perfect fit for a mobile game - each round is only seconds long, it makes use of both motion and touch controls preload="none", and there's a "just-one-more-go" addictiveness to exploring its murky depths. The fact that it's so beautifully drawn and full of humour is just a bonus. It's the only game my non-gaming girlfriend plays without me guilt-tripping her into it - and that's high praise indeed."

Gerald Lynch's Game of Choice

Ridiculous Fishing - 2013

2008

First Android Handset Released

Google entered the market in 2008 with their Android OS. It followed a similar route to Apple by implementing an app shop called Android Market (now called Google Play). But the crucial advantage for Android was that it wasn't tied down to one device and was therefore able to run on a huge range of smartphones, enabling Google to make lucrative deals with many hardware manufacturers and eventually establishing Android as the dominant smartphone OS.

Smartphones have now become extremely powerful handheld computers capable of running games which would not look out of place on a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, and new and ever-more impressive titles continue to be developed for both iOS and Android.

"Monument Valley has to be my favourite game. It's just beautiful isn't it? The first time I saw it, I was surprised that nobody had done the whole Escher thing before, or at least hadn't done it so effectively. It's also a game that could only really ever be as compelling on a touchscreen, as you have that tangible link to each puzzle - you can see what your fingers are touching, you know how you *expect* them to manipulate the landscape, but then the illusion surprises you. That disconnect between your finger input and your understanding of physics and spatial awareness makes it very compelling."

Gerald Lynch's Game of Choice

Monument Valley - 2014

2010

The Nintendo 3DS is released

Nintendo released the ambitious successor to the DS, the Nintendo 3DS in 2010. As with the Wii, it flaunted cutting edge technology in the form of 3D visual effects in the games – a feat made even more impressive due to the fact the system did not require the player to wear 3D glasses. As gaming journalist, Jem Alexander, noted "the 3D just worked. Like it was witchcraft. Ironically, the eventual success of the system had nothing to do with the 3D functionality. Instead it was the rock solid software library that really sold (and continues to sell) the system. That and Streetpass*. Everyone loves Streetpass". *Streetpass is the 3DS's social sharing facility, which enables strangers with the same games installed on their devices to challenge each other for trophies and other items.

Memory:
128,000Kb


Units Sold:
43,000,000

Alex Seedhouse's Game of Choice

Super Mario 3D Land - 2011

"In looking to overcome early struggles with the 3DS, Nintendo turned to their Mushroom Kingdom poster plumber to drum up interest. The result was Super Mario 3D Land, largely seen by many critics as the game that helped to define future experiences on the glasses-free stereoscopic 3D boasting handheld. The moustachioed star has been exploring the realms of 3D since Super Mario 64, but 3D Land invited an entirely new level of visual trickery and mirthful depth to the plumber's world."

2011

The Sony PlayStation Vita is released

The Vita was released in the UK in 2011, with Sony harbouring high-hopes for a repeat of their success with the PSP. The blueprint was simply to build upon the features of the PSP, but with power ramped up considerably; it was the first handheld device to feature a quad-core processor, giving it processing power in excess of the PlayStation 3 home console. Whilst it is capable of playing digital versions of the PSP's games, it has been let down by a relatively poor selection of its own games in comparison, with very few notable exclusive titles - something which has been reflected in disappointing sales for Sony.

Memory:
512,000Kb


Units Sold:
< 5,000,000



Gaming journalist, Jem Alexander, comments: "The Vita deserves to sell a lot better than it is. This time Sony made good on their promise of console-gaming on the go. It's just a shame there aren't many of those style games to play. What there is, however, is a large indie scene which has latched onto the Vita. Smaller games which are hugely successful on PC have been brought over to the device and, between the portability and the incredible screen, many would argue that the Vita boasts the very best versions of these games.

Will Freeman's Game of Choice

Tearaway - 2013

"My favourite game for the Vita is undoubtedly Tearaway. It isn't just one of the best Vita games; it's one of the most well realised titles in recent years. Visually it's splendid, and the core action-adventure gameplay is as brilliantly implemented as it is expertly paced. The whole thing oozes character too, but it's greatest triumph is its use of the Vita's distinct inputs to constantly toy with the fourth wall that divides player and character. Tearaway stands as a showcase for the potential of what is unique about the Vita, and that's why it must surely be one of the platform's best games."

THE FUTURE

What is in store for us?

More than 4 years after the release of the Nintendo 3DS, and almost 4 years since the Vita, none of the big gaming hardware manufacturers (including Microsoft) have announced plans for a new handheld gaming system any time in the near future. The primary reason for this is thought to be the success of the smartphone market in terms of mobile gaming – something which Nintendo and Sony have both blamed for the disappointing sales of both the 3DS and the Vita respectively. So are these systems the last bastion of the traditional handheld console?

Will smartphones continue to increase their share of the mobile gaming market and eventually reign supreme over their more traditional rivals? The answer is …probably. However, if history is anything to go by, the success of a games console is mostly dependent on the quality of its games library rather than the specifications of the system itself. To this extent, if Nintendo, Sony et al can manage to produce a more affordable system with an outstanding library of games (perhaps allowing more home-made games into the equation), there may be life in the old dog yet. If this is not to be the case though, smartphones such as the impending iPhone 6 with its highly impressive processing power (rumoured to be in excess of the Xbox 360, Ps3 and Vita) and enormous library of games, should be more than capable of filling the void left behind by the old school.

Contributors to this article

Stuart Campbell

Anarchic gaming journalist, writer, games designer and owner of over 40,000 games. Named by Wired Magazine as "the UK's foremost authority on computer and video games". To find out more about Stuart, his blog Wings Over Sealand is a good place to start.

Stuart Campbells's Favourite System:

Nintendo DS

Will Freeman

Freelance game journalist and Contributing Editor of industry magazine Develop, contributor to numerous titles including The Observer, The Guardian, Eurogamer, Edge, Official Xbox Magazine, Videogamer.com and IGN, and serves as a talking head for the likes of BBC Radio 5, Channel 4 and others. Will has additionally provided occasional script editing services for games, and likes to talk about the inside of arcade machines.

Will Freeman's Favourite System:

Sega Game Gear

Jem Alexander

Freelance games writer with over seven years' experience in the industry as a journalist and community marketing manager for the likes of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Square Enix, Future Publishing and Joystiq.com. Find out more at Jem Alexander's Blog.

Jem Alexander's Favourite System:

PS VITA

Alex Seedhouse

Editor-in-Chief of Nintendo Insider. Alex began gaming during the Game Boy era and has been reporting on the industry for the past five years. He has also written for websites including The Lost Gamer, GamerZines and TheSixthAxis..

Gerald Lynch

News editor for Gizmodo, tech pundit for BBC Radio, journalist and writer for Tech Digest, Mirror.co.uk, Brandish and Tetris Guinness World Record holder.

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