Microvision - 1979
Milton Bradley, a company then better known for Hungry Hungry Hippos than video
games, has the distinction of being the first to introduce a handheld video game console with interchangeable
cartridges with its Microvision. The system had only a handful of games and was plagued with problems from the start,
including a 16x16 pixel LCD screen that was prone to rotting and cartridges that could be permantly damaged by even a
relatively small static charge. Sounds like the makings of a real collector's item, if you ask us.
Nintendo’s Game & Watch Series - 1980-91
ante from Mattel’s LED handhelds, Nintendo introduced their first Game & Watch handheld in 1980 and would go
on to produce dozens more throughout the decade, offering a small glimpse of what was to come from the company. As the
name suggests, the handhelds featured a clock and alarm but the real attraction was the games, which included titles
like Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, and Balloon Fight. Gee, this thing looks kind of familiar (but we just can't place
Epoch Game Pocket Computer - 1984
It took five years after Milton Bradley’s Microvision before another company would try its hand at a
portable gaming system, but unfortunately the second time around proved even less successful than the first.
Epoch’s Game Pocket Computer was released only in Japan in 1984 and had just five games. The 75x64 LCD screen was
a big step up from the Microvision but, as you can tell from the number of people who have actually ever heard of the
device, it never caught on.
Nintendo Game Boy - 1989
It’s almost impossible to understate the impact of Nintendo’s Game Boy. The
original Game Boy, in its various incarnations, is the most successful video game system ever -- handheld or otherwise.
Part of its success is likely due to its reasonable price ($109 US at launch), but most of it is a result of the games
and, in particular, the drop dead brilliant move of bundling Tetris with the system.
The fact that a system
with a blurry, green screen and fairly lackluster graphics compared to its competitors was as successful as it was
should forever serve strongly in support of the argument that it’s the games that make the system, not the
Nintendo would make some improvements to the design over the years, releasing the slimmer Game Boy
Pocket in 1996, which replaced the original’s green screen with a regular grayscale display, and the Game Boy
Light, which added a backlit screen but was unfortunately only available in Japan.
Atari Lynx / Lynx II - 1989
The first of
many challengers to the Game Boy was Atari’s Lynx, co-developed with Epyx and released in 1989. The system had far
better graphics than the Game Boy, in some cases riviling the console systems of the time, but it was big and much more
expensive than Nintendo‘s affordable unit. Atari redesigned the unit in 1991 but Atari’s marketing efforts
proved to be no match for Nintendo’s, who were already well on their way to dominating the field for years to
NEC Turbo Express
NEC managed to produce one of the most technically impressive handhelds with its Turbo Express,
which was actually a portable version of its console system, the Turbgraphx 16 (a rival to the Sega Genesis and Super
Nintendo). The Turbo Express was about the size of a Game Boy but had a sharp active-matrix color display and could
even be used as a portable TV with an optional tuner. The downside was, of course,the price which, at $299.99US, seemed
to aim the device at a niche market that didn’t yet exist -- the (portable) gaming enthusiast.
Sega Game Gear - 1990
most successful of the various Game Boy challengers was Sega’s Game Gear which, like the Lynx and Turbo Express,
had a color screen. But unlike those systems managed to keep the retail price down to a fairly reasonable $149. The
Game Gear benefited from Sega’s advantage over Atari and NEC (the Genesis was then the leading console system)
and a better selection of games, but it was still only a modest success in the face of Nintendo’s increasing
dominance of the market.
Sega Nomad - 1995
For most of the 1990s, Nintendo had the handheld market effectively all to themselves,
with other companies giving up after trying and failing to knock Nintendo down a few pegs. Sega was the first to
re-enter the field with the Sega Nomad, a portable version of the Genesis console. It seemed like a good idea -- after
all the Genesis had a huge library of titles just sitting around countless livingrooms -- but poor battery life and a
somewhat bulky design helped to do it in. Even an eventual price drop to $79.99 failed to save the Nomad from being put
out to pasture.
Tiger Electronics game.com - 1997
You can’t fault Tiger Electronics for their ambition. Their
game.com handheld, as the name suggests, attempted to bring Internet access and PDA functions to a gaming handheld.
Unfortunately, it didn’t do any one thing particularly well: its disappointing games were made even worse by the
unit’s outdated screen, and its "Internet access" only let you check email and browse the web in text
-- nope, no online gameplay here. Still, as with many of these systems, communities of die-hard gamers have found
refuge on the web with other like-minded individuals, devoted to breathing some new life into their late, lamented
Neo-Geo Pocket / Pocket Color - 1998-99
Mention the name Neo-Geo to any gamer over the age of 25 or so and
you’ll likely get a knowing smile. A lucky few may have owned the pricey home system that made the Super Nintendo
and Sega Genesis look like yesterdays news, but most will be familiar with Neo-Geo from their arcade games -- especially
fighting games like the Samurai Showdown and King of Fighters series. Attempting to build on their reputation, Neo-Geo
branched out into the handheld space in 1998 with the Neo-Geo Pocket, but got off to a rocky start, releasing a
black-and-white unit first before correcting things just a year later with the Neo-Geo Pocket Color (or NGPC). Despite
some solid games, the system never got much support from third-party developers and failed to attract enough gamers to
legitimately challenge the still dominant Nintendo. This is the one we probably miss most 'round Engadget HQ, truth be
Color - 1998
Nintendo introduced its first major revision to the Game Boy in 1998 with the Game Boy
Color, which, not surprisingly, offered a color screen, case, and better graphics capabilities while still being
backward compatible with the enormous library of Game Boy titles. While the system was successful, it proved to mostly
be a stopgap measure from Nintendo, who had bigger plans in store.
WonderSwan / WonderSwan Color / WonderSwan Crystal - 1999-2000
Bandai’s WonderSwan, replaced a year later by the WonderSwan Color, was most notable for having an exclusive
license to port the original Final Fantasy games to the system. That earned the system a modest success in Japan but it
never made it to North America. Unfortunately for Bandai, Squaresoft (makers of Final Fantasy) eventually made up with
Nintendo and started releasing games for the GBA, which proved to be bad news for the still-unique WonderSwan.
Game Boy Advance / Advance SP / Micro - 2001 / 2003 / 2005
Released in 2001, Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance
was by far the biggest thing to shake up the handheld space since the original Game Boy was released over ten years
earlier. On the technical side, the GBA was the rough equivalent to the Super Nintendo making ports of titles from that
system easy, but the GBA also benefited from some wildly original games like Advance Wars. In 2003, Nintendo released
the completely redesigned Game Boy Advance SP which, most importantly, added a front-lit screen, attempting rectifying
the one major problem people had with the original GBA. Recently, Nintendo released yet another GBA varient, the Game Boy Micro, with a small and sleek design aimed
in large part at an older, iPod-totting audience.
The Now Generation
Nokia N-Gage / N-Gage QD - 2003-04
Before they introduced the N-Gage,
Nokia wasn’t a company that anyone would associate with gaming -- and now, a few years later, they still
haven’t really managed to get gamers to take notice. The N-Gage (and it’s most recent revision the QD) is a
fairly capable system but it seems that most people still prefer to keep their phoning and their gaming separate. Nokia,
however, is hoping that'll change in the next couple of years, and intends to incorporate N-Gage gaming capabilities
into future smartphones -- not just game-phones.
Nintendo DS / DS
Lite - 2004 / 2005
Ever since the first concept designs appeared on the web, the Nintendo DS was met with skepticism. To many, the design
seemed like a step backward after the elegant GBA SP, and the dual screens and stylus input seemed more like novelties
than the revolution in handheld gaming Nintendo was promising. But gamers were slowly won over as more and more great
games kept coming out for the DS, including what are arguably some of the most innovative titles on any system -- the
built-in WiFi doesn’t hurt either, which they've used to finally move on pervasive portable online gameplay. And
of course, in the last few weeks we've seen the subsequent announcement and Japanese launch of the DS Lite, a smaller, thinner, lighter version of the same device.
PlayStation Portable - 2004
The most technically advanced handheld system to date, Sony’s PlayStation Portable
seems to be holding on to its
(comparatively smaller) piece of the market in the face of Nintendo’s array of handhelds, despite its high price
tag and relatively few stand-out games. Sony also keeps pushing the UMD format for movies, although many users have
opted for more practical means
viewing content on their PSPs. And if you can keep your firmware versions straight, you can even get in on some homebrew action
Things aren’t looking good
Telematics and their Gizmondo
, their jack-of-all-trades
(but master of none
) handheld. The system is fairly powerful and has some nifty features like GPS and built-in
camera, but with no compelling games and a premium price it faced an uphill battle from the start. And don't even get us
started about the internal (mis)direction of the company; Tiger later tried to entice gamers by offering the system at a
discount if they agreed to watch a few ads with a system called Smart Adds, but that idea seems to have fallen flat with
users. They've since filed for bankrupcy in EuropeThe Grey AreaGamePark GP32/GP2X
For many, the GP2X
(and the GP32 before it, and the forthcoming XGP and XGP
) is the holy grail of handheld gaming. With a memory card and some emulators, you can play just about any game
from a number of the systems above, as well as thousands of arcade and console games. That’s enough to make any
old-school gamer giddy with delight, and enough to send companies running to their IP lawyers. If you actually own a
copy of the game you’re emulating you may be better off, although even that is up for debate. Of course that
hasn’t stopped most people from getting their retro kicks. PDAs Emulators
PDAs might not be the most natural fit for gaming (outside of point-and-click
friendly fare) but that hasn’t stopped developers from producing original games for them and, yes, emulators as
well. Sure, it’s no GP2X, but it’s a heck of a lot more discreet, so you can bust out Super Mario Bros 3
and pretend you're working while you try to beat it for the umpteenth time. Don't use the warp pipes, dude, beat it
like a real gamer.