The Evolution of the Modern Game & Watch
Posted by Kris Randazzo on Nov 17th 2021
Gaming and Watching
The Game & Watch is an important part of gaming history. These delightfully charming little LCD games were a huge success for Nintendo back when they released and laid the groundwork for several innovations that helped keep them at the forefront of gaming in both the handheld and console space. The Game & Watch line was where we saw Nintendo’s first D-pad, and the foldable dual screen design eventually seen on the immensely popular DS line.
The games themselves are pretty simple, but they’re remarkably addictive, transcending their primitive technology time and again to find new audiences. The Game & Watch Gallery series offered modern takes on a number of Game & Watch titles, while the Game & Watch Collections released for Nintendo DS brought straight ports. Heck, even Mr. Game & Watch has become a recognizable character thanks to Super Smash Bros.
With G&W being such an iconic part of Nintendo lore, it should come as no surprise that they’ve seen a slight resurgence. Last year’s Super Mario Bros anniversary Game & Watch was a neat little device, and the recently released The Legend of Zelda one was even better. But Nintendo has actually reissued Game & Watch units a couple of other times in the past, and each time they have, they’ve gotten more and more impressive.
Classics, but Mini!
The first major set of reissues for Game & Watch units came in the form of a series of keychains. The Nintendo Mini Classics line was a fascinating set of products because they took the Game & Watch games of old and turned them into keychains.
Basically taking an already tiny format and shrinking them down even further, these basically looked like mini Game Boys, and even incorporated the dual screens for certain releases like Zelda and Donkey Kong. What’s more, they didn’t just replicate Game & Watch games. They actually went and made a series of brand new games in the same style as the Game & Watch titles of old, including big licenses like Spider-Man and Harry Potter.
These things stayed in production until around 2014 as far as I can tell, which is nuts. They’re honestly impressive little units, all things considered, though they’re definitely missing the charm that made the actual Game & Watch machines what they were. These things are cheap little plastic doodads. Game & Watches felt sturdy and metallic. Still, the goal here was clearly to create an inexpensive nostalgic gaming keychain, and in that they were a complete success.
Having a Ball at the Club
While these Mini Classics were still in limited distribution, Nintendo decided to create an incredibly cool prize for the most ardent Club Nintendo users. They made an actual reissue of the original Game & Watch game Ball. Just about every detail was lovingly recreated for this re-release. Even the box and instruction manual matched the original design with minor modern updates.
But as cool as this thing is, it doesn't actually do anything new. It’s literally just a Ball Game & watch. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it certainly limited the unit’s appeal to anyone other than hardcore Nintendo collectors.
Super Mario Bros., Without the Super Mario Bros.
Fast Forward to 2020 and we saw the release of the Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch. Unlike the Ball reissue, this was an actual new product that wasn’t a giveaway prize for Club Nintendo, but something they wanted people to go out and purchase. Fortunately, they treated it that way, and it was by far the most impressive Game & Watch released to date.
Instead of being a simple LCD display in the traditional sense with pre-programmed frames of animation for simple games, these thing had a proper color screen that played Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2 (The Lost Levels), and an updated version of the original Game & Watch game Ball with Mario as the main character instead of Mr. Game & Watch. It also maintained the Watch part of the Game & Watch legacy with a cool clock that was animated with all sorts of Super Mario Bros. goodness.
The basic design was clearly modeled after Ball, but colored like a Famicom with gold instead of silver. But for as cool as the thing was, it was impossible to ignore some serious oversights.
For one, the game selection was baffling. Sure, it was designed to celebrate the anniversary of Super Mario Bros., but including The Lost Levels but not any other games really limited the thing’s long term appeal. But even ignoring the lack of the other NES games like the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2 or even Super Mario Bros. 3, which would have honestly increased this thing’s value proposition by a very large margin, they neglected to include the actual Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch game!
This is double bizarre because it’s basically the same shape and size as that original release, and yet, it’s nowhere to be found. Absolutely nuts.
All in all though, it’s a nice collector’s piece, and knowing Nintendo, it wouldn’t have been a shock to see the Game & Watch revival end right there.
But it didn’t. One year later they released the Legend of Zelda Game & Watch, and they clearly listened to feedback from the Mario one.
A Legendary Celebration
Form factor wise, the Zelda one is pretty much the same as the Mario one, but what’s inside is a huge step forward. This time they included the original NES Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and the Game Boy classic The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Not only that, but you can select between the US and Japanese versions of the games any time you want. Plus, there’s a new timer mode added where you can play as Link and fight various Zelda II style enemies and see how many you can beat in whatever time you set.
The packaging itself was a step forward too, including a tray that doubled as a display stand.
Again, the original Zelda Game & Watch wasn’t included in this new unit, but at least I can sort of understand that one. The original game was a dual screen release, and that just wouldn’t work in this form factor. Plus that game was just called Zelda, where this is The Legend of Zelda, so I’ll let it slide.
What’s interesting about these last three releases though is a specific through line with the packaging. All three games feature the same message in the same place.
As far as I can tell, this message isn’t in any of the original Game & Watch boxes, and it makes me think that Nintendo’s been wanting an excuse to reissue more Game & Watch units for years. Now that the Mario and Zelda ones have proven to be successful, is it possible we’ll see more of them? Perhaps a Donkey Kong collection? Maybe a Kirby Game & Watch to celebrate his anniversary next year? Who knows? All I know is I’m glad to see Nintendo putting this much effort into frankly useless but awesome collectors items.
Do you want more Game & Watches from Nintendo?