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By Mark Cutmore on

History of the handheld games console

To celebrate Power UP, our hands-on gaming event, we take a look back at the history of handheld gaming.

This Easter sees the return of Power UP to the Science Museum and for the first time we’re making handheld games consoles playable. 2019 also marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the Game Boy and the end of production of the PlayStation Vita, so we’re taking a look back at the history of handheld gaming.

Power UP at the Science Museum
Power UP at the Science Museum. Image: Jody Kingzett

While the Milton-Bradley Microvision was the first handheld console to feature interchangeable games, in 1979 most other companies were still selling devices loaded with a single game. This included the popular Nintendo Game & Watch range launched in 1980. The devices were designed by Gunpei Yokoi, a maintenance engineer who had impressed the President of Nintendo with his homemade toys during a chance visit to the factory Yokoi worked in. Yokoi became one of Nintendo’s leading designers and helped shape the company into the gaming giant we know today.

Nintendo Game Boy, 1989, at Power UP. Image: Giulia Delprato

In 1989 Yokoi’s Game Boy was released by Nintendo. It featured a monochrome display and simple technology which helped with battery life. It was bundled with games like Super Mario Land and Tetris, which were huge hits, making the Game Boy an immediate success.

Other consoles were launched around the same time by Nintendo’s rivals Atari and Sega. Both the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear were more advanced than the Game Boy, including more powerful graphics and colour displays. Power came at a cost though, with both consoles being bulkier than the Game Boy and having much shorter battery lives. Battery life was made even worse with Game Gear’s unusual TV tuner add-on which turned your games console into a portable TV… for a short amount of time.

Atari Lynx and SEGA Game Gear at Power UP. Image: Giulia Delprato

As technology moved on through the 90s consoles got lighter and more advanced. Nintendo finally made the leap into colour gaming with the Game Boy Color in 1998, keeping away competition including the SNK Neo Geo Pocket and Bandai Wonderswan – the last product to be designed by Gunpei Yokoi having left Nintendo.

Nintendo continued to release new versions of its console, each aiming to improve the format; from the Game Boy Advance (2001) and flip-screen Game Boy Advance SP (2003) through to the tiny Game Boy Micro (2005) with its 5cm screen.

About this time the mobile phone market started trying to get in on the action with the launch of the Nokia N-Gage in 2003. An attempt at a hybrid between a mobile phone and a games console the phone struggled to be great at either. The phone’s battery had to be removed to change the game cartridge and the button layout made gaming difficult. Mobile phones would stick to Snake for a few more years.

Game Boy Advance at Power UP. Image: Giulia Delprato

Nintendo finally began to retire the Game Boy brand in 2004 with the release of the DS. Its dual screen display opened new ways of playing; a format that has remained through 10 variations to the present day. This includes the 3DS released in 2011, allowing 3D gaming without glasses.

Meanwhile Sony had their own plans to enter the handheld market, introducing the PSP (PlayStation Portable) in early 2005. Featuring high quality graphics and major support from big-name game developers, many saw this as the first real challenge to Nintendo’s reign over the handheld market. The PSP and its successor the Vita which launched in 2011 had some success, but around 2008 and along with Nintendo’s consoles they faced the biggest shift in portable gaming since the Game Boy was released almost 20 years earlier…

PSP (PlayStation Portable) at Power UP. Image: Giulia Delprato

In 2007 Apple released the first iPhone and a year later they opened the App Store. Now people could start downloading games directly to their mobile phone. The following year Angry Birds was released, and soon casual gaming began to shape the entire industry. Thanks to games like Candy Crush and Pokémon Go timed events, free-to-play models and micro-transactions are now commonplace in many games.

Mobile gaming is often dismissed when compared to ‘hardcore’ console-based gaming but in 2018 smartphone and tablet-based games represented 51% of global gaming revenue, around $70 billion. Mobile gaming also seems to have made gaming more accessible to women; 49% of mobile gamers are women compared to 41% of gamers overall.

But the story doesn’t end there for handheld consoles. In 2017 Nintendo released the Switch. A hybrid console that both docks to a screen for home gaming but can also be used in ‘tablet mode’, allowing people to flexibly play at home and on the go. The Switch is seen by many as a return to form for Nintendo and in tablet-mode it’s easy to see a legacy that started with their first Game & Watch handheld back in 1980.

Explore the evolution of gaming at Power UP, on at the Science Museum from 6-22 April 2019. Get hands-on with video game classics and the latest in VR. Book now.