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Gaming's Defining Moments - Game & Watch

Well before NES and Gameboy came along Nintendo had a different sort of success story.

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It's always interesting to discuss gaming memories with fellow editors and in what might be one of the greatest generational divides one colleague (who shall not be named) admitted to once believing that Game & Watch was merely "some Smash Bros. character". Now, surely there are youngsters among our audience who have made the same mistake, having Mr. Game & Watch be their only connection to what was perhaps Nintendo's most longlived series of products, a forerunner to everything they've done in handhelds since, and a cultural phenomenon at the time.

It's fascinating to look back at the sheer number of interesting designs, for the early simple single screen units, to the double-screen ones both horizontal and vertical, the two-player ones like Boxing and Donkey Kong Hockey, the see-through crystal screen models, and the introduction of the d-pad (with Donkey Kong).

The first game in the Game & Watch series, called Ball, was first released in 1980, and was followed by 58 more Game & Watch titles (culminating in Mario the Juggler in 1991). Nintendo legend Gunpei Yokoi (Game Boy, Metroid, Virtual Boy) is credited with coming up with the concept. Their popularity came and went in waves, but it's fair to say its popularity peaked in the early 1980s, while some of the later releases such as Zelda (1989) and Super Mario Bros (1988), served as reminders of the glory days. Unlike popular games of today, older games were still available for purchase many years after their first introduction.

Gaming's Defining Moments - Game & Watch

Our first was Octopus (also known as Mysteries of the Sea and Mysteries of the Deep), a fairly simple game where you move back and forth from a boat to a treasure chest while avoiding the tentacles of the titular octopus, Left and Right being the only inputs. A much later one, Bomb Sweeper (1987), also stuck with us, as did Donkey Kong Hockey, which allowed for versus matches of what was essentially a version of Pong. The last major one, Zelda, was also great and showed that Nintendo had ideas for taking the Game & Watch concept further, but the company was already focused on GameBoy and given the potential for far more complex and lasting experiences on their handheld it was natural that Game & Watch was heading to retirement.

The immediacy of a Game & Watch title is something that really pulled you in. Sessions were quick, which meant it was fun to share and pass the unit around between friends without having to wait too long. Of course, if you were made to wait a while it meant your friend was setting a record which was exciting as well... Most of the Game & Watch experiences revolved around the same main mechanic of moving your character around, trying to pick something up while avoiding hazards. Simple, intuitive, and addictive. Perhaps that's why our button-cell batteries never seemed to last.

Game & Watch was far from the only LCD games of similar ilk of the time, but they were definitely the most memorable. Cheaper copies may have sold greater numbers (hard to tell), but the "Nintendo difference" was already in play.

What about the watch part of the equation? After all, it's Game & Watch, not just Game. Honestly we're not sure it was ever meant to function as a practical timekeeper given how fast you'd deplete the button-cell batteries playing the games (and thus resetting the clock), but perhaps the idea was that you could keep track of time while killing it on your commute, rather than actually using it as a watch.

Gaming's Defining Moments - Game & Watch
The Game & Watch legacy lives on in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate through Mr. Game & Watch.

The legacy of Game & Watch, not just through Mr. Game & Watch in Smash Bros. or Game & Watch Gallery and Game & Watch Collection, was that these simple LCD handhelds laid the foundations for all Nintendo handhelds, from Game Boy and all the way up to the Nintendo 3DS. In fact, you can trace design elements back to the old clamshell models, and of course, the d-pad used for Donkey Kong played a major role for Nintendo going forward.

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It's nice to revisit these games, preferably on the original hardware, to reconnect to our gaming roots, to a time when left and right was all we had to worry about as we tried to make sure that the treasure got to our boat and that the little diver fellow didn't succumb to the octopus. In some ways it's the sort of gaming experience that is timeless in its simplicity - it's always going to be fun, and there's always the motivation to beat your best scores.



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