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 It was superseded by several more successful Mattel Electronics games such as Mattel Football, which proved to be much more popular and sold many more units.
The Evolution of
A look at how mobile gaming has evolved through the years
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The Mattel Electronics Auto Race is released
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.
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.
Stuart Campbell's Game of Choice
Bill & Ted's Excellent Game Boy Adventure - 1991
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Nintendo DS is released
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.
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.
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.
First Android Handset Released
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.
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.
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.
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.
Special thanks to:
Matthew Phillpott, Paul Presley, Jonathan Davies, Alex Tutty.
Mattel Auto Race® is a copyright of Mattel, Inc. Nintendo®, Game & Watch®, Game Boy®, Game Boy Color®, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS®, Nintendo 3DS®, Zelda®, The Legend Of Zelda®, Donkey Kong®, Mario Golf®, Mario Kart Super Circuit® and Super Mario Bros.® are copyrights of Nintendo Co., Ltd. Batman Returns® is a copyright of Konami, Inc. Tetris® is a copyright of The Tetris Company, LLC. PlayStation®, PlayStation Portable®, PSP®, PlayStation Vita®, Gran Turismo® and The Last Of Us® are copyrights of Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. Atari® and Lynx® are copyrights of Atari Interactive, Inc. Angry Birds® is a copyright of Rovio Entertainment Limited. Nokia® and Snake® are copyrights of Nokia Oyj. iPhone® is a copyright of Apple, Inc. Android® is a copyright of Google, Inc. Monument Valley® is a copyright of Ustwo Tamagotchi ® is a copyright of Namco Bandai.
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