From Atari to apps: The evolution of handheld gaming


In 1958, Brookhaven National Laboratory began allowing visitors the opportunity to play an “electric” game consisting of two controllers connected to an analog computer. The game drew hundreds of visitors. The creator, nuclear physicist William Higinbotham, reported he engineered the game to show the public that “scientific endeavors have relevance for society.”

Higinbotham could not have known the impact his invention would have, or that half a century later, society would be playing games derived from “Tennis for Two” on a device that fits in a pocket. Gaming continues to evolve today, with recent shifts from handheld platforms to mobile and smartphone gaming. Gone are the days of clunky cartridges and two dimensional graphics. But that shift in handheld gaming did not come overnight; there were many devices that paved the way to modern gaming.

Long before “Candy Crush,” Mattel introduced “Auto Race,” a racing game debatably considered the first handheld, completely digital video game which required only about 510 bytes of memory. But in 1977, it was kind of a big deal. The game consisted of a single dash character which the player tried to lead through a few paths. It wasn’t “Need for Speed,” but it was a start.

Before players were wearing out their lungs blowing into the cartridge slots of their Nintendo Entertainment Systems, the iconic gaming company tested the handheld waters with the series Game and Watch. In 1980, Game and Watch offered players games that would soon become classics, like “Frogger,” “Super Mario Bros.,” “Donkey Kong” and “Zelda,” in addition to a feature that warranted its namesake – an alarm clock.

Nintendo’s crown jewel of handheld devices, though, was the Game Boy, released in 1989, which earned Nintendo its rightful place in gaming history. That same year, Atari released Lynx, a similar device that was twice as big and cost almost twice as much as the Game Boy. Because of this, and likely because “Tetris” was later introduced for the Game Boy, Nintendo won that handheld battle, and sold more than 70 million units. Probably the most recognizable name in portable gaming, the Game Boy was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2009.

Nintendo continued to largely dominate the handheld gaming industry and in 2008 introduced the last device in the realm of Game Boy compatibility — the Nintendo DSi. Just before, in 2007, portable gaming saw another game changer. Though Apple’s iPhone was not strictly a gaming device, it would forever change portable gaming and popularize mobile phone gaming and apps. Games like “Candy Crush Saga” and “Angry Birds” developed an almost cult following. The dreaded Level 147 in “Candy” and the impenetrable Level 20 in “Birds” are conversation topics of genuine concern.

With the iPhone created a whole new dimension in gaming. Phones and tablets are now convenient for gaming, and players have means accessing free online games, as well as the advantage of portability.

From Mattel, to Nintendo, to Apple, handheld gaming devices have evolved through a long line of innovative companies and products, and will likely continue to surprise gamers with a few more game changes to come. Gaming has proven its relevance in modern society. Higinbotham would be so proud. He’s probably playing “Plants vs. Zombies” in heaven right now.



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