Portable Gaming: Game Boy to iPhone

videogametriviaGaming on the go is a concept almost as old as video games themselves. One of the first – if not the first – portable video games was called Auto Race, and was made by Mattel in 1976 [1,2]. It was a simple device, based off of a calculator chip, but it started a large market. Many other toy companies – Tomy, Bandai, and Milton Bradley, to name a few – joined in. One of these was a relatively small Japanese toy company by the name of Nintendo. In 1980, Nintendo released a small portable video game called Game and Watch: Ball [3]. This was soon followed up by many other Game and Watch titles, at a rate of one a month. A total of 59 different games were released. Nintendo’s foray into the market did well, selling 12 million copies in Japan and 30 million overseas [4]. These numbers may, in fact, be lower than the true number sold, as Nintendo had problems with counterfeiters selling knock-offs [5].

But just one game will get boring after a time, and it’s hard to justify the cost of an entire device for a single game. That’s why Milton Bradley created the Microvision, a portable device that could utilize interchangeable cartridges. It was released in 1979, only three years after the first home console that accepted cartridges (the Fairchild Channel F, see February’s column) [6]. While the Microvision did moderately well, it didn’t set the world on fire. There wasn’t another cartridge-based handheld until Nintendo’s Game Boy, released in 1989 [7]. However, unlike its predecessor, the Game Boy did incredibly well. This in part was due the fact that it was marketed to adults as well as children.8 Seeing the opportunity, other companies released handheld systems. Atari released the Lynx in 1989 [9], and Sega released the Game Gear in 1990. Though both these competitors had superior graphics, their battery life was less than impressive, and their bulk reduced portability. As a result, neither was a success, and Nintendo gained a near-monopoly on the handheld gaming market.

Game Boy’s sales slowed in the mid 90’s, and some thought that it was nearing the end of its life [10]. Instead, its sales surged again due to two factors. The first was a hardware refresh, the Game Boy Color. It was smaller and had a somewhat more powerful processor, but the real advantage was its color screen. The other factor was a pair of games called Pokémon Red and Blue (or Green, if you were in Japan). With the new interest from a generation of kids who loved Pokémon, the Game Boy line continued until 2004.

It was then that Nintendo faced perhaps its most formidable opponent in the handheld industry: the Sony PlayStation Portable. Like the previous Lynx and Game Gear, it was technologically superior to Nintendo’s offering, but unlike them, it had a decent battery life. It also had the strength of Sony’s software ecosystem, coming off of their successes with the PlayStation and PlayStation 2. It did well, selling 80 million units total [11]. Nintendo, however, wasn’t going to roll over and let Sony win again. Despite its original success with adults, the Game Boy line had become more child-oriented over the years. Nintendo decided to shake things up by adding a new way of interacting with the games, in the hope of attracting new customers. The result was the Nintendo DS, a two-screened device that had a touch screen on the bottom. Initially, it was presented as a “third pillar” – an experiment alongside the Game Boy line, not designed to replace it. But the DS took off, selling 5 million units in its first year (2004), and the Game Boy brand was quietly retired [12].

The release of the iPhone in 2007 was not seen as a video game event, but within a few years it became clear that it and the other smartphones that followed in its wake were going to have a big impact on the handheld gaming sector. Games on smartphones, such as Angry Birds, have done remarkably well. The successors to the PlayStation Portable and the Nintendo DS – the PlayStation Vita and the Nintendo 3DS, respectively – have both sold substantially less than their predecessors, which has been attributed to people filling their portable entertainment needs with their phones.

What is the future of portable gaming? Smartphone gaming is not going anywhere – a fact that has been underlined by Nintendo’s recent announcement they would make games for smartphones. But many games built for more traditional platforms do poorly when moved to phones, whether because of the small screen or a reliance on traditional buttons. Ultimately, I’m far too biased to give an accurate prediction. What is clear is that portable gaming has become mainstream, and that is unlikely to change.

[1] Before the Crash, page 86
[2] In action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isejBX1Tyjk
[3] http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/clubn/game-and-watch-ball-reward/0/1
[4] http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/clubn/game-and-watch-ball-reward/0/3
[5] Game Over, page 127
[6] http://www.officialnintendomagazine.co.uk/13153/features/history-of-nintendo-game-boy/
[7] The Ultimate History of Video Games, page 415
[8] Game Over, page 295
[9] The Ultimate History of Video Games, page 419
[10] http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/library/events/150217qa/02.html
[11] http://metro.co.uk/2013/11/27/xbox-one-v-playstation-4-who-will-win-the-next-gen-console-race-4201485/
[12] http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/library/historical_data/pdf/consolidated_sales_e1412.pdf

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