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A Brief History of Handheld Gaming

/ Jan 21st, 2013 No Comments

PS Vita
The real Grand-daddy of modern handheld gaming.

The real granddaddy of modern handheld gaming.

From the dawn of video to today

Since the dawn of the digital era, computer hardware companies have made handheld consoles so that children and adults alike can play video games on the move. The whole concept of handheld gaming started to take off in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it quickly progressed into a huge market with dedicated consoles being released by some of the world’s largest companies.

The idea of playing a digital game while on the move is an idea that many have taken advantage of, whether it was on their first LCD game back in the 1970s or 80s, their first Game Boy in 1989 or on today’s latest PS Vita. Let’s take a look at the consoles and the changes in thought of playing games while on the move.


[adsense250itp]The birth of the 8-bit computer years also saw the birth of handheld gaming machines. For many people growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s it meant owning a simple game console that let them play games such as Space Invaders or Donkey Kong on a small LCD screen. These machines were very basic, and were not much better than a standard calculator; however they let people control a character on screen, usually just left or right, and rack up points.

The technology was simple, with very few buttons to press, and an LCD screen that had all the characters and objects on-screen at once. The LCD part of the screen lit up the particular character that needed to be shown and it gave the effect of objects moving. Looking at this technology today, it’s hard to believe that people actually played these games; however, at the time they were the best invention ever, and every kid had at least one simple LCD game.

As time progressed, games changed slightly, and colour was added to the games to make them appeal to even more kids. It was an exciting time for gaming children, and along with 8-bit home computers such as the Commodore 64, it was the start of something new and exciting.


1989 was the year that changed handheld gaming forever, with the release of the Nintendo Game Boy and the mighty Tetris. It was a brave move by Nintendo, releasing a black and white screened handheld console that could fit into your pocket and have interchangeable games on cartridges.

Later that same year another huge gaming company, Atari, released the Atari Lynx, this time a full color handheld gaming console. Unlike the Game Boy though, the Lynx was very power hungry when it came to batteries, and it was this simple feature of battery life that ensured that the Game Boy would be the most popular handheld console for many years to come.

However, many people of the era wanted more powerful consoles, which better replicated the games they were playing on their home systems. It was Sega who answered that call in 1991 with the Sega Game Gear. The Game Gear was a truly remarkable console in its time, and allowed gamers to play almost home quality console games on the move. The one major problem for it was the same as the Atari Lynx though, with the batteries needed to keep playing. Once again the youth of the day kept on playing the Nintendo Game Boy because the batteries kept going where the others gave up.

Nintendo kept the Game Boy alive by redesigning it numerous times including making it smaller in 1996 and color in 1998, and the machine kept on selling. Other companies came and went, with little or no impact on the handheld gaming world, including SNK with its Neo-Geo Color in 1999, Bandai with its WonderSwan in 2000 and Nokia with its N-Gage in 2003.

During this time, in the late 90s and early 2000s, mobile phones started to really take off among the public, and phones such as Nokia’s 3300 range made it possible to play simple games such as the classic Snake game while on the move. It was the start of a platform that would quietly build up and replace almost everyone’s handheld gaming device.


Things changed once again in 2004 when Sony released the popular PlayStation Portable (PSP) console.  At last there was a handheld console with a decent battery life, an amazing screen and games that were equal to home console games of the day. Basically the PSP was a Sony PlayStation 2 home console in people’s hands, and gamers loved the machine.

Also released in 2004 was the Nintendo DS, a dual screen fold-up console that boasted some cool graphics and good battery life. Both the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP went head to head and as recently as 2011 fans would fight it out as to which is the best to own.

During this time more companies released handheld machines, none of them as successful as Sony or Nintendo’s machines. However, it was the launch of the iPhone 3 and Android mobile handsets where things started to get interesting. Ever since the days of Snake, users of mobile phones wanted to own one device which they could carry and use as a phone as well as a game console, and thanks to ever more powerful technology, for many people smartphones are the new handheld game console.


PS Vita

PS Vita

Released at the end of 2011, and through 2012, Sony released the world’s most powerful handheld console, the PlayStation Vita. There’s no denying that the PS Vita is one of the greatest consoles ever released, but due to the popularity of smartphones its sales have suffered heavily.

Today gaming is done on phones such as the Apple iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S3 and Note 2 and Sony Xperia T more than ever before. The screen sizes of these phones range from 4-inch to 5.5-inches and make them ideal for gaming. Program designers have come up with novel ways of using touch screens to control games, and because of the power of the smartphone, you really can play any genre of game that will be almost identical to its home-console cousin.

We’re headed for a world where the smartphone is king of everything from communication to gaming. It’s a world that would be totally unfamiliar to those growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, a world we could have only ever have dreamt of.

Handheld gaming has progressed with technology, and people’s choice in games is more varied now than it has ever been before. If you want to play a quick game of Bejeweled or Tetris, just grab your smartphone and play. If you want to play the latest FPS or racing game, then once again there is an equivalent on a Smartphone. It may only be a matter of time before we see the death of handheld consoles for good as the smartphone reigns supreme.

Mark Adams
Mark Adams been gaming since 1977 and owned almost every console since the original Pong machine. Gaming has always been part of his life and he enjoys a variety of games and his mind is always open to new experiences in the gaming world. Over the years he has written gaming articles for blogs and local newspapers, and he always tries and add something a little bit different from your usual review. He works in IT for a small local company in Wales, and when he's not working, he's gaming!
Mark Adams
Mark Adams
Mark Adams

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