Sony's PSP is a recent technological marvel, but handheld videogaming has a much longer history. It's not quite as long and varied as console gaming, but handheld video games have probably been around longer than most of the people reading this article.
New and Innovative?
A lot of the components of handheld gaming devices that we think of as innovative aren't as new as one might suppose. In fact, many of the handhelds that failed did so at least partly because they were before their time.
The LCD screen, for example, has been a part of handheld gaming almost since the very beginning, though it wasn't always in color and it started out with pixels the size of grapefruit. OK, that's an exaggeration, but they were big. The ability of handheld game consoles to do more than play games was an early idea, too, though subsequent revisions of hardware tended to remove functions to make the handheld more streamlined, rather than continue to add functions, as the PSP has. Even the touchscreen so lauded on Nintendo's DS isn't so new. The difference is that gamers were ready for it by the time the DS was released.
The Palaeontology of Handhelds
The earliest handheld gaming devices were single-game machines. Unlike early consoles, which had to be attached to a television in order to play them, handheld screens in the dawn of time had built-in displays, just as they do today. On really early machines, these displays were often simple arrays of LEDs. Because early game machines only had to play one game, simple displays devised specifically for that game could be quite effective. Several games produced by Mattel in the mid 1970s used this kind of "screen." Other early machines used calculator-like alphanumeric displays--there are some gaming historians who trace the origins of handheld games to early handheld calculators.
While most ancient handheld game machines could play only a single game, there were some that played a small selection of built-in games. One example is Merlin, released by Parker Brothers in 1978. Merlin didn't have a screen per se, instead it had lighted buttons that performed the function of both display and input. Players could choose from six different games, and the machine even had a save function. Merlin was in some ways ahead of its time, despite the lack of an actual screen, because one of its games--called Music Machine--allowed the played to record and play back sequences of notes, making it one of the earliest music sequencers.
Gamers obsessed with the amazing graphics of today's handhelds might find it difficult to believe that a machine that played a mere six games and used an array of eleven red LED buttons instead of a screen could be an absorbing and rewarding play experience. The key was that the games had the same simple but addictive structure that characterizes the best casual puzzle games of today. I speak from personal experience--I owned both Merlin and its follow-up Master Merlin, and spent hours in my room absorbed in the simple gameplay.
The Archaeology of Handhelds
By the 1980s, the price of LCD displays had dropped, making them more practical for use in handheld gaming consoles. LCDs soon became standard, and continue to be used today, although they have increased in resolution and color-capability to the point that they almost don't seem to be the same thing.
For early machines, background graphics could not be displayed using the LCD, so instead they were usually a separate static layer, though some--especially early machines with interchangeable games--used overlays instead. Nintendo's Game & Watch series of games belongs to the former category, while the Microvision fits in the latter.
Though I've titled this section "Archaeology," single-game and pre-loaded (ie. non-interchangeable) multi-game handhelds using primitive LCD displays with static backgrounds are still being made today. They are very inexpensive to make, and so can be found in any toy store for a low price. Simple black and white LCD games have even been given away as cereal box prizes and fast-food kid's meal pack-ins. Somewhere in my apartment, I've got at least one of the XBox branded ones that came in cereal only a few years ago.
The Console Revolution
Handheld gaming really began to come into its own in 1979 when Milton Bradley released the Microvision. This system had the revolutionary feature of interchangeable cartridges, and can be considered the first handheld gaming console. It was really the only one until Nintendo came up with the Game Boy, and from there handheld gaming took off like a rocket. Or spread like the plague. Or some other less cliched simile.
In further articles in this series, I'll be looking at as many of these historical handhelds as I can, um, get my hands on. I'll see if I can find out where, in the marvelous history of handheld gaming, the PSP derived it's various features, Next time, I'll take a closer look at the ancestor of all handheld consoles, Milton Bradley's Microvision.
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"Merlin (game)." Online at Wikipedia.