A Look Back at Portable Video Games

If you're out on the northwest coast this weekend and have a thing for retro video gaming, you might want to head on over to Portland, OR. On September 18 and 19, Portland will be hosting the 5th annual Portland Retro Gaming Expo. It looks like it's going to be a big batch of fun, with events including Nintendo 64 and Atari 2600 gaming tournaments and a cosplay/costume contest.

I grew up during the rise of video game arcades, and the rise and fall and rise again of the home video game consoles. Yet one area of video game history that usually gets overlooked by even hard-core video game aficionados are the portable video games, particularly the pre-Nintendo GameBoy units from the 70s and 80s.

To be sure, the majority of these games weren't very compelling. While arcade games were still exploring their expanding graphical and game play capabilities and the home consoles were racing to keep up with the arcades, the portable video games had even less at their disposal to create a marketable game. Not only was their game play either very simple, annoyingly repetitive or sometimes incomprehensible, but their "graphics" consisted of either Light-Emitting Diodes (LED), Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD), or Vacuum Fluorescent Displays (VFD). LED games were just glowing dots (that's it--dots, dots, and nothing but dots), while LCD and VFD games used series of inanimate shapes or pictures that would light up in certain sequences to suggest motion.

Nevertheless, whenever my thumbs furiously race across my teeny, tiny Blackberry keyboard to answer work-related e-mail after e-mail, I can't help but to reminisce over those early funky, clunky attempts to put the joy of electronic gaming in the palm of your hand. Continue after the break to join me on my trip down insufficient memory lane and learn more about these early computerized toys.

The portable video games that I saw during the 70s and 80s fell into two basic, broad categories: the handhelds and the tabletops. The handhelds are self-explanatory, while the tabletops were games that were smaller than the home game consoles and didn't require a TV or computer screen to play them, yet you still needed something to put them on while playing them (such as a table) because they were too large to be played in your hand.

Of the tabletops, I had the Star Wars Electronic Battle Command, an LED game that was released in 1978. (Click here to see a video of the game in action.) The game was fun, even though you had to imagine that flashing red dots on a 4x4 grid were spaceships, planets and lasers, and that the screechy, scratchy noises emitted by the game unit were the sounds of space combat. Furthermore, the game required 6 AA batteries to run if you didn't have the outlet plug (which I didn't), so it wasn't cheap to play.

Of the handhelds, I had Escape from the Devil's Doom, one of the LCD solar powered games that Bandai released in 1982. Bandai released a bunch of solar powered handheld games that year, but Devil's Doom was marketed closely with Invaders of the Mummy's Tomb, as if the suggest that both were part of a single set. (You have to give Bandai quite a few geek chutzpah points for this: Not only did the titles sound like the names of long-forgotten B movies, but they also rhymed when you said them closely together.) Devil's Doom was a fun, simple time waster and it didn't require any batteries, but it was a far cry from even the most simple video games offered on the Atari 2600.

If anything, the early handhelds and tabletops represented the initial attempts to cram computing (albeit very, very simple computing) into increasingly smaller devices and yet maintain a commercial appeal. There were even some digital watches that included simple LCD games, long before anyone thought of putting games on cell phones. Believe it or not, Tomy released some "3D" handheld games, games that were packaged in ViewMaster-like units that you would hold up to your eyes while you played the game.

The series of tabletops that I remember the most fondly (but I didn't own a single one due to their high prices) are the VFD arcade emulators that were released by Coleco between 1981 and 1983. By that time, many other companies produced and sold their fair share of both handheld and tabletop arcade emulators, but what set Coleco's apart was that their emulator units were specifically designed to resemble tiny stand-up arcade cabinets. The packaging of the emulators and the commercials that advertised them heavily promoted this detail; to me, they looked like what would happen to arcade cabinets if you could shrink them in the laundry. Thanks to Coleco's emulators, all you needed was some background electronic and crowd noises (and perhaps the smell of beer and stale cigarettes) and you too could live out the arcade experience in the privacy of your own home.

The Coleco emulators included arcade hits such as Donkey Kong, Frogger, Galaxian, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and Zaxxon. Coleco also released Donkey Kong Jr., but that was a LCD tabletop unit. The Smithsonian American History Museum has a copy of the Pac-Man emulator, but I didn't see it on display the last time I was there.

It should be noted that the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) software has spawned a subculture of classic arcade game enthusiasts who build arcade cabinets that are meant to provide the experience of an entire video arcade in a single full-sized unit. Given the advancements in micro-computing and compact, high-definition video screens, a really devoted MAME fan could probably gut one of the Coleco emulators and convert it into a tabletop unit--in other words, convert a plastic shell that was originally designed to house a VFD emulation of Donkey Kong into something that could house an actual, playable arcade version of Donkey Kong. Now that’s what I call progress!

The cartridge-less handhelds and tabletops didn't completely disappear after the Nintendo GameBoy arrived in 1989, but it was clear by then that their days on shelves of toy stores everywhere were numbered. To learn more about these revolutionary toys that paved the way for future generations of portable thumb-cramping computing devices, check out these sites:


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