In an era when portable video gaming had yet to hit the mainstream (the Game Boy launched in 1989), kids on the go relied on cheaper handheld electronic games for portable entertainment.
These units usually featured pre-fabricated LCDs, LEDs, or vacuum fluorescent displays (VFDs) for visuals, which meant they could usually only play one game apiece. Their graphics, with a few exceptions, were typically frozen and unchangable, only lighting up or activating when a certain event happened in a game. Sound was typically limited to bleeps and bloops, and controls were less responsive than their home console counterparts. But gosh darn it, we liked it that way.
Below, you'll see electronic offerings of every shape and size from the big names of the era, including Nintendo, Tiger Electronics, Mattel, and Radio Shack. These units sold in toy stores, department stores, and mail order catalogs for a reasonable $15-$30 at a time when a home video game console, such as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) cost about $200.
While dedicated handheld electronic games like the ones you're about to see flourished for a time, their popularity diminished greatly once handheld video game systems like the Nintendo Game Boy and Sega Game Gear became common and affordable in the 1990s. But forget that for a moment and check out a selection of 10 interesting and popular handheld electronic games from the '80s.
(This story was originally published on Aug. 12, 2011.)
1 Nintendo – Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch (1988)
Long before the Game Boy, Nintendo launched a handheld electronic LCD game series called Game & Watch. The units displayed prefabricated liquid crystal graphics that darkened or turned invisible at the right time during game play.
As Nintendo's home video games became more popular, the company began producing Game & Watch units that tied in to their popular franchises. Super Mario Bros. was no exception: it received its own Game & Watch translation in 1988.
(Photo: Nate Savage)
2 Tandy – Cosmic 1000 Fire Away (198x)
Radio Shack sold many electronic handheld games in the 1980s, especially through its Tandy brand. Here we see one such device, a cleverly designed three-column game inspired by Space Invaders. It used a vacuum florescent display with pre-drawn figures that lit up or extinguished based on circumstances in the game. The author spent many a car trip playing this exact game.
(Photo: Tandy/Radio Shack)
3 Entex – Electronic Baseball 3 (1980)
Entex produced a series of electronic baseball games starting in the late 1970s. They used simple red LED lights under a baseball diamond-shaped play field as a display. Here we see the last in the Entex baseball line, Electronic Baseball 3.
Sports were a common theme in electronic handhelds at the time. Mattel's classic Football unit, released in 1977, also remained popular throughout the early 1980s.
(Photos: Handheld Museum / Tom Walters )
4 Mattel Electronics – Dungeons & Dragons (1981)
When Dungeons & Dragons wasn't busy entrancing a generation of teenagers on paper, it lived a rich second life as an electronic game by Mattel. While bearing little in resemblance to the actual pen and paper RPG, this handheld unit allowed players to navigate a dungeon maze and slay monsters in black and white, prefab LCD glory.
(Photo: Handheld Museum)
5 Tomytronic 3-D Games (1983)
Tomy released a line of handheld electronic games with 3D stereoscopic displays starting in 1983. Every unit in the "Tomytronic 3-D" series contained two separate LCD screens and colored transparent filters, each with a slightly different set of graphics for each eye. While holding the binocular-like device up to your eyes, one could see an impressive 3D effect. The player controlled the game with buttons on the top of the unit.
6 Nelsonic – Zelda Game Watch (1989)
In the 1980s and 90s, Nelsonic Industries produced a line of digital wristwatches that featured built-in playable LCD games, similar to Nintendo's Game & Watch series of the same era.
The Legend of Zelda received its own Game Watch in 1989. In the game, Link must complete four dungeons, each with four rooms. At the end of every dungeon, Link must face a main boss that drops a Triforce piece when defeated. Not bad for a watch.
(Photos: Adam Harras / Digital Watch Library)
7 Tandy – Hungry Monster (1983)
Pac-Man (1980), a huge arcade smash hit, spawned dozens of copycat games in the electronic handheld market. Hungry Monster is but one of them. Predictably, the player's goal is to gobble down as many pellets (in this case, green dots on a vacuum fluorescent display) as possible while avoiding Bogey, the ghost-like antagonist.
(Photo: Tandy / Radio Shack)
8 Tiger Electronics – Electronic Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (1988)
Tiger Electronics produced a diverse line of LCD-based handheld electronic games from the 1970s all the way up to 2012. While that era spans quite a few decades, one could say the 1980s marked the golden era for Tiger handhelds. That's because the portable video game competition was slim to non-existent at the time.
Here we see one of the more popular games in its handheld line, a unit based on the NES video game Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. It features a white case and rounded form-factor that will no doubt look familiar to those who were kids in the 1980s.
(Photo: Handheld Museum)
9 Entex – Select-A-Game Machine (1981)
This Select-A-Game Machine walks a fine line between "handheld" and "tabletop." Entex designed the cartridge-based S-A-G for potential two-player action on a table, but during single player matches, it was easy to hold somewhat upright. It included a vacuum fluorescent display with elements arranged in a 7×16 grid. Entex only released six game cartridges for this system, most notably versions of Pac-Man and Space Invaders.
(Photo: Rik Morgan of the Handheld Museum)
10 Nintendo – Zelda Game & Watch (1989)
Super Mario Bros. wasn't the only hit NES game to receive its own handheld Game & Watch translation. Nintendo released a deluxe, two-screen clamshell unit based on The Legend of Zelda in 1989. The top screen even featured an area for a complex inventory display. Nintendo DS, eat your heart out.
(Photos: Lette Moloney)