After releasing the NES and SNES Classic Edition consoles in 2016 and 2017, many hoped that in 2019, for its 30th birthday, Nintendo would release a Classic Edition of the Game Boy too. It didn’t. Instead, a year later, to celebrate Super Mario Bros. 35th birthday, we get a revival of Nintendo’s Game & Watch line. As retro gaming hardware goes it’s a perfectly pocketable Super Mario Bros. experience, but for $50 it’s begging for more than just three games.
Years before Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi created the incredibly successful Game Boy, he was responsible for a series of simpler handheld gaming devices called the Game & Watch—so named because, in addition to a game, they also featured a digital clock at a time when that was a genuine selling feature. Unlike the Game Boy’s pixelated screen that could be used to display over a thousand different games, the Game & Watch handhelds featured a segmented LCD with limited graphics capabilities. Gameplay was simple but addictive, and as a result, the Game & Watch line existed for over 11 years before eventually being completely supplanted by the Game Boy.
Although similar types of basic LCD screen games (like Tiger’s handhelds) are better remembered as the Game Boy, GBA, DS, and Nintendo Switch’s predecessor, the Game & Watch line actually influenced the design of the NES’ boxy gamepad and it introduced the world to the cross-shaped D-pad that is still found, in one form or another, on modern controllers. The Game & Watch line also included the first video games with Mario as the starring character (not playing second fiddle to a giant ape) and that’s presumably why Nintendo decided to revive the hardware to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the first NES Super Mario Bros. game.
With the new Game & Watch Nintendo is really laying the retro on thick with a red and shiny gold finish that pays homage to the Japanese version of the NES known as the Famicom. I don’t hate it, but it wouldn’t be my first choice if given options.
The handheld isn’t a direct copy of any of the original Game & Watch handhelds, but more of a greatest hits compilation that highlights the best hardware features of those various devices. Its four-way directional pad is a little smaller than the Game Boy’s but it still feels great. If any company is going to deliver an excellent D-pad experience, it’s going to be Nintendo.
The one feature that Nintendo didn’t carry over from its classic Game & Watch handhelds was the crude monochromatic LCD displays of yesteryear. We now instead get a 2.36-inch full color LCD screen with excellent (and adjustable) brightness levels. It’s not packing as many pixels as a modern smartphone’s screen, but there’s more than enough to make even the smallest text legible, and enough to match the 256 x 240-pixel resolution of the NES. Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom look much crisper than they ever did on your parent’s giant ‘80s TV.
For nostalgia’s sake (I’m assuming) the B and A action buttons on the new Game & Watch are made from rubber, not smooth plastic, but they feel fine and have a softer spring to them than the handheld’s D-pad.
The simplicity of the handheld means there’s not a lot of menus to pour through, so a set of three smaller buttons are more than sufficient for navigating options like volume and brightness adjustments (neither has dedicated button controls of their own), setting the time, or hopping back and forth between the digital clock and games without losing your progress.
On the side of the Game & Watch you’ll find a power/sleep button, and the device’s only port: a spot to plug in a USB-C cable to charge the handheld’s battery which Nintendo promises is good for about eight hours of gameplay, but that might take a hit if you’ve boosted the screen brightness. On the opposite side of the device is a small slit for its speaker, but what you won’t find is a headphone jack. If you’re playing somewhere where the sound might bother others, your only option is to turn it off completely. Given the Switch doesn’t even support wireless headphones, it’s not surprising it’s not an option on the Game & Watch either.
With Nintendo’s pedigree with handheld gaming, the Game & Watch’s hardware feels like a definite step up to the handheld emulators we’ve been seeing coming out of China. It doesn’t feel like corners have been cut, and despite being made out of plastic, the thin device feels reassuringly solid. Where it disappoints, however, is on the software side. Super Mario Bros. is an obvious classic and it deserves to be the star of the show here, and American gamers can finally experience the real Miyamoto-designed Super Mario Bros. sequel that Japanese gamers got. Not the bizarrely re-skinned version of Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic that US gamers knew as Super Mario Bros. 2.
Playing the included juggling Ball game is a fun reminder of how far handheld gaming has come, even if after three minutes the nostalgic charm wore off completely and I’ll probably never, ever touch it again. And while no one needs a digital clock in 2020, Nintendo has packed it full of fun Easter eggs and animations so you might actually want to use the Game & Watch as a desk clock.
But overall the new Game & Watch feels like a missed opportunity for Nintendo to put a broader sampling of retro titles in a pocket-friendly device. Hackers have already started reverse-engineering the Game & Watch and found that standard ROM game files are loaded into the device’s RAM on the fly, which means that with just a little more memory (the original Super Mario Bros. game was just 32 kilobytes in size) Nintendo could have included a bunch of NES titles, or even recreations of all the single-screen Game & Watch handhelds ever released. Even including the Super Mario All-Stars collection on this would help better justify its price tag.
In reality, with the 35th anniversary of the original The Legend of Zelda and Metroid arriving in 2021, there’s a solid chance we’re going to see dedicated Game & Watch versions of those games released next year. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but at $50 it’s an approach that feels like it’s trying to take advantage of retro gamers, instead of helping them celebrate the reason they’re still buying Nintendo games today.
- Brings back those warm pre-Game Boy handheld gaming feelings.
- Feels like an accurate recreation of the original Game & Watch devices, although updated with a lovely full color LCD display that makes Mario look great.
- At $50 it feels pricey given it includes just three games, one of which being a very basic Game & Watch throwback title.
- Super Mario Bros. made Mario a household name and defined side-scrolling adventure games, but it’s showing its age. Putting the Super Mario All-Stars collection on this device would have been an excellent alternative.
- The digital clock might actually be the best feature, with Easter eggs to find and fun animations that change throughout the day.
- Rechargeable battery gives you eight hours of play time, possibly even more if you reduce screen brightness.
- No headphone jack or wireless connectivity, so if you don’t want to disturb others while playing, you’ll have to just turn the volume all the way down.