Retro Handhelds Throughout History

Tomy Blip – 1977

This isn’t the first handheld. That’s be Mattel’s Auto Race which was released the same year. Mattel’s famous Football handheld came out the same year. I don’t have either of those at the moment. I do have Blip. As handheld electronic games where becoming popular Tomy mad much less expensive mechanical handhelds that simulated being a video game. This thing winds up and uses a single LED light. Here’s a gif I made of it in action:

Entex Space Invader – 1981

In the 70s and 80s Entex was a popular maker of dedicated handheld consoles. Early first generation handhelds often used VFD (like on digital clocks) or LED technology. This one uses a combination of both. VFD for the score and LED for the gameplay.

Milton Bradley Microvision – 1979

Microvision was the world’s first handheld console with interchangeable games. There had been many handheld electronic games prior to Microvision. But this is the first one where the games can be changed via cartridges. It was designed by Jay Smith who would go on to invent the Vectrex. Microvison is powered by a single 9 volt battery. Early models used two, but they work with just one.

Nintendo Game & Watch – 1980

Nintendo began producing Game & Watch games in 1980 as LCD technology began to become more and more affordable. Their first one was called “Ball.” Pictured is the 1982 releases of Donkey Kong. It’s the second Game & Watch game to use two screens. But it’s the first game in history to use a d-pad.

80s & 90s LCD Games

A LOT of companies made generic LCD games in the 80s and on into the 90s. I don’t want to bore you with a lot of pics of several different ones. TYhe companies most famous for their LCD games are Tiger Electronics, Tandy/Radio Shack, Konami, and Acclaim. There are probably hundreds of these things that have been made. In fact, companies still make them. Most aren’t worth anything, however.

Nelsonic Space Attacker – 1981

This LCD game is actually a watch. In the early 80s this was becoming a thing, particularly in Japan. Nelsonic and Casio were two companies that were producing high quality LCD watches that had video games incorporated into them. These are very desirable and Casio models in particular can get pricey. I’ll be talking more about Nelsonic later on.

Nintendo Game Boy – April, 21 1989 (JP)

Milton Bradley was on to something with Microvision. But it would be ten years before another handheld would be released in the U.S. In 194 Epoch released “Game Pocket Computer” in Japan. It had six games and didn’t take off. Also in 1981 Entex made a system called “Select A Game,” but it’s more of a handheld. Either way, I don’t have those. Game Boy was revolutionary in 1989. It could play Tetris and Mario and Zelda. And the games were actually pretty good. In taking these pics I actually sat down and played several levels of Quarth. Very cool. It’s hard to imagine the appeal that a green screen with no colors could have, but the four shades of gray that Game Boy can do is plenty. It also sounded really great too. Game Boy is powered by 4 AA batteries.

Atari Lynx – October 1989 (NA)

The Lynx was originally made by a company called Epyx. It was actually completed in 1987. Epyx couldn’t afford to make the system, so they shopped it around and it ended up at Atari. The console is 16 bit, is in color, and is back-lit. It was much more powerful than Game Boy. But it was also more expensive and didn’t have a lot of third party support. Pictured here isn’t actually the original Lynx. It’s the 1991 redesign. Both models are powered by 6 AA batteries.

Sega Game Gear – October 6, 1990 (JP)

This is my Majesco model. It was released in 2000. It has a nicer screen and better hardware. It’s easy to spot because the logo is in white, it’s black and not gray, the start button is more purple than blue, and it lacks the screw port in the back. Mine is pictured here with the TV Tuner accessory.

Watara Supervision – 1992

In the 90s there were actually several third string handhelds with names like Gamate and Mega Duck. I don’t own those. But I do own Supervision, which was the best selling handheld in the U.S. during the time, right after Game Boy, Game Gear, Lynx, and TurboExpress. The screens on these things are awful. Every one that I have ever seen is missing lines like mine is here. It is playable. A lot of people think these are Game Boy clones. It’s actually its own console with its own library of games. It runs on 4 AA batteries.

Nelsonic Star Fox – 1994

Nelsonic had been making watches based on video games since the 80s, but what most people remember are the ones based on Nintendo properties. I’ve never played one of these that’s very good, but they sure are cool.

Sega Pocket Arcade – Amazing Sonic – 1994

Sega was trying their hand in a lot of areas during this period. They formed a partnership with Tiger Electronics and they produced several LCD “Pocket Arcade” games like this one. They each had a gimmick. In this case the screen pops out of the system. Other had a screen that flipped out from the side, or just a lid that covered the screen. 1994 kind of marks the end of LCD games being mainstream.

Nintendo Virtual Boy – July 21, 1995 (JP)

I don’t consider Virtual Boy to be a handheld. I also don’t consider it to really be portable. What it is is a tabletop console. That term may not be familiar to a lot of people today, but such games were common in the early 80s. Coleco made a line of mini-arcades that were tabletops and used VFD screens. Entex made two tabletop consoles with interchangeable games (Select-A-Game and Adventure Vision) and Vectrex is an example of a tabletop consoles. I am not including tabletops because they’re not handhelds. A handheld is a game that you can play while holding it in two hands while it’s suspending in the air. I am only tossing Virtual Boy in this list to avoid any inevitable “you forgot Virtual Boy” comments. Also, it’s a really good opportunity to discuss the differences between handhelds and tabletops.

Tiger R-Zone 1995

Tiger saw Virtual Boy and for some reason thought they should make a way worse version. This company was known for making LCD handhelds. The R-Zone takes LCD carts. Two other versions were also made. The R-Zone X.P.G. (Xtreme Pocket Game), which is a more traditional handheld console, and the SuperScreen, which is a tabletop that uses rear projection and color overlays to provide backgrounds. R-Zone is powered by 4 AAA batteries.

Tiger R-Zone X.P.G. 1995

Here the XPG is playing an LCD version of NiGHTS. The mirror folds out of the console. The four button configuration is what would later be used on Tiger’s 1997 console,

Sega Nomad – October 1995 (JP)

Nomad is a portable Sega Genesis. It can even connect to a television and has a controller port for two player games. It plays regular Genesis games. Out of the box it’s designed to use an AC adapter. But a battery pack was sold separately which took 6 AAs and provided about two hours of game play. A rechargeable battery pack was also sold separately. Sega poorly supported and marketed this console. Internally, Sega was in chaos at this time.

Nintendo Game Boy Pocket July 21, 1996 (JP)

The Game Boy Pocket is just a redesigned version of the Game Boy. It takes away the green screen, is significantly smaller, and is powered by two AAA batteries. In 1998 a variant was released called Game Boy Light which is exclusive to Japan.

Tiger – September 1997 (NA) is like “what were they thinking” moments. It’s such an under-powered console that it can’t really even run Sonic. The sound is even worse than the frame-rate. It did do some neat things. It had a modem which allowed it to surf the internet, it had PDA functionality, it came with a stylus, it allowed for two games to be plugged in at once. It was really bad and never stood a chance. Still, this is the original model. In 1998 Tiger released smaller versions with color cases and even a model with a front-lit screen.

Nintendo Game Boy Color – October 21, 1998 (JP)

Finally, a successor to Game Boy, and it was even in color. And backwards compatible. Game Boy Color is powered by two AA batteries.

Neo Geo Pocket Color – March 16, 1999 (JP)

This was a 16 bit handheld that was released worldwide in 1999 by SNK. It’s commonly referred to as NGPC. The system had some cross-compatibility with Dreamcast. Both Sega and Capcom heavily supported the platform. It is the successor to the 1998 black and white Neo Geo Pocket, which was released only in Japan. It was on the market for a little over a year and was pulled in 2000 when SNK began having financial difficulties. It’s worth noting that 2000 was a hard year for everyone in the gaming industry. The industry fell 20 percent over 1999 (which was then the record high), making it the single biggest downturn since 1983. SNK Corp. dissolved in 2001. The company that exists today, SNK Playmore, is a new entity. Kinda like how there have been like six or seven companies called “Atari” but most of them are not the same one. The console uses two AA batteries and it requires a third one for internal memory.

Bandai WonderSwan Color – December 9, 1999

This Japanese handheld was designed by Gunpei Yokoi. He invented Game & Watch, the d-pad, Game Boy, and the Virtual Boy. Most people don’t know this, but Bandai was a big player in the Japanese console market releasing something like 20 systems. This console did very well, but couldn’t compete with Game Boy Advance. It had support from Square, and had a number of Final Fantasy games released. There are three versions of WonderSwan. The original is black and white and was released in 1999. This here is the WonderSwan Color released a year later. And in 2002 a version with a better LCD screen was released called WonderCrystal. All three versions run on a single AA battery.

Nintendo Game Boy Advance – March 21, 2001 (JP)

Finally, a portable 32-bit console! This really revolutionized handheld gaming as developers were free to release high quality ports of SNES and Genesis games with improved graphics. Original games developed for the console were more advanced than any handheld before, and they looked great. GBA is powered by two AA batteries.

Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP – February 14, 2003 (JP)

The Game Boy Advance was popular, but widely criticized for not having a light. A lot of LED lamps were sold, or light up magnifying kits, or even kits to make the screen front lit. Well, Nintendo listened and released the SP with a front-lit screen. It also has a clam shell so it can be carried in the pocket without scratching the screen. It’s the first Nintendo handheld to be powered by a rechargeable lithium ion battery, another criticism of the GBA. In September 2005 the SP was re-released with a back-lit screen.

Nokia N-Gage – October 2003 (EU)

The system wasn’t a terrible idea. It was more powerful than Game Boy Advance, it was a cell phone at a time when everyone was starting to carry cell phones. Nokia was the leading manufacturer of cell phones, and its Symbian OS was then the most popular phone of all time. Pictured is the original “side talking” model, not the smaller QD. Cost it what killed N-Gage, that and the American system of subsidizing cell phones with contracts. It was $299. Few major carriers offered it, and even if you were willing to change carriers you had to wait until your contract expired, else buy it out. A lot of great games were made for it.

Nintendo Game Boy Micro – September 13, 2005 (JP)

I was at E3 2005 when this guy was announced. I feel in love with it immediately. It’s a redesigned Game Boy Advance made smaller. More easy to carry in your pocket. Unlike other Game Boy Advance models, it cannot play original Game Boy games or Game Boy Color games. It’s powered by a lithium-ion battery. I’ve gotten over 12 hours of play out of mine.

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