The evolution of Nintendo’s Game & Watch series

After observing a Japanese salaryman playing with a calculator while travelling, Nintendo’s R&D director Gunpei Yokoi was left feeling inspired. An idea for a handheld toy sprung to mind, not for children but rather for adults to play discreetly in the palm of their hand to pass time.

Nintendo’s president Hiroshi Yamauchi realised the potential of the idea too, and after hearing Yokoi comparing the size of the potential device to that of a calculator, soon arranged for a meeting with the CEO of Sharp – the no.1 manufacturer of LCD calculator screens. The thought of an electronic device hadn’t even crossed Yokoi’s mind yet, but with Sharp interested, the project started to take shape. A microprocessor was the next component to be added to the project, a decision made after one of Yokoi’s engineers discovered the Milton Bradley Microvision – released in the US in 1979.

Yokoi settled on a device the same size as a business card – something every businessman carried. It would also feature a digital alarm clock, which were still expensive to own at the time. This would help increase the perceived value of the device while adding extra functionality. Nintendo even patented the concept of an electronic handheld device featuring both a score and watch display.  

The first Game & Watch – Ball, a simple juggling game – made its debut in Japan in April 1980, becoming the first ever toy to feature an LCD screen. Vermin, Flagman, Fire, and Judge followed in the coming months, with Judge offering a two-player mode on a single device. Featuring the first appearance of Mr. Game & Watch, Fire was the biggest selling of the original “Silver” line, clocking up 900k sales in Japan alone – far exceeding Nintendo’s expectations.

Game & Watch was a hit, and it wasn’t long until deals were struck with American, Australian, and Europe distributors to release the range outside of Japan. MEGO handled the first batch in the US, but following low sales due to poor advertising, Nintendo of America re-established control.

Coming as no surprise to anyone but Nintendo themselves, it soon transpired that children were fascinated with the concept of a handheld electronic toy – more so than adults. With a new audience in mind, brighter shell colours, cheaper price points, and bigger screens were soon implemented.

Nintendo also established Mr. Game & Watch as a mascot, while licensing Popeye, Mickey Mouse, and Snoopy. Eventually, they created games based on their own properties, including Super Mario, Donkey Kong, Balloon Fight, and Zelda.

But success always leads to competition. It wasn’t long until other Japanese manufacturers, such as Bandai and Casio, created their own electronic toys. This encouraged Nintendo to implement gimmicks and new ways to play, diversifying their line. Collectors break the Game & Watch range into ten different non-concurrent series, starting with 1980’s Silver line and ending with 1986’s Crystal Screen. Let’s see how the range evolved.  

Silver / Gold

1980’s five Game & Watch titles were made of expensive materials, including a brushed silver metal cover plate, to make them appeal more to adults than children. The second wave – released in 1981 – opted for a gold metallic plate, along with an additional alarm button and more detailed backdrops. These two lines are commonly, and unofficially, referred to as Silver and Gold.

1981’s “Gold” line titles Manhole, Helmet (known as Headache in the UK), and Lion also all starred Mr. Game & Watch, helping to establish a new Nintendo mascot.

As the first of their kind, the Gold and Silver games were predictably basic. Fire did however help set the blueprint for the second wave, while the ingenuity of Judge’s two-player mode shouldn’t be ignored.

Wide Screen

With children smitten by the ability to play a video game on go – be it at school, or while travelling – Nintendo made some subtle changes to accommodate the new audience.

The Wide Screen line saw the screen size increase, becoming 1.7 times larger than the original. Backdrops were also more colourful and cartoon-like, generating a greater sense of wonder.

Nintendo licensed Popeye, Mickey Mouse, and Snoopy – three properties with worldwide appeal, with the famous beagle starring in Snoopy Tennis. The device’s plastic shell was also made more colorful, with the Popeye model being predominantly green.

The Mickey Mouse game – based around catching eggs falling from hen houses – underwent a makeover in certain countries, seeing the famous rodent replaced with a cartoon-like wolf. This change also saw the protagonist go from being a hero to a villain, with Mickey trying to catch and save the eggs and the wily wolf attempting to steal them. Wolf is now one of the hardest G&W games to find.

New Wide Screen

This line comprised of eight titles released sporadically between 1982 and 1991, including the final Game & Watch – Mario the Juggler, a homage to the series’ humble beginnings. Sales of Mario the Juggler were predictably low, with the Game Boy well established by this point.

The New Wide Screen series benefitted from a lower price point, and colourful front plates. Super Mario, Donkey Kong Jnr, and Balloon Fight made their G&W debuts here.

Arguably, the later games in the range pushed the limits of what was possible with the technology. Super Mario, Climber, and Balloon Fight featured scrolling, with the Mario title scrolling to the right to mimic the feel of the NES’ Super Mario Bros. Fellow platformer Climber scrolled vertically while Balloon Fight scrolled both left and right. Climber is often referred to as being one of the best G&W titles, offering more depth and innovation than players expected.

Out of the eight games released under the New Wide Screen banner, only three made it to Japan.


With the competition heating up in 1982, Nintendo’s R&D screen considered implementing an additional screen to allow for more complex games.

Before Nintendo would commit to the project, however, the R&D team had to prove that the two-screen set-up could offer new experiences. The result was Oil Panic, which clearly received more development time than past titles. Here, Mr. Game & Watch had to collect oil from dripping pipes inside a gas station before throwing it out the window to an assistant outside. This entailed keeping an eye on the second screen to make sure no customers were about to be drenched.

With fifteen models – including games based on Zelda, Super Mario, Donkey Kong, and a double-whammy of both Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck – this line was the biggest of all the G&W ranges, and was clearly able to rejuvenate interest while striking a chord with gamers.

The clamshell design – believed to influence the creation of the Nintendo DS years later – prevented screens from becoming scratched, while both horizontally and vertically opening models were released, helping diversify the line further.

While Oil Panic was a fan favourite, it was Donkey Kong that set tills ringing. To say that the Donkey Kong model was popular is an understatement – over 8 million units were sold, with 1.2m of those in Japan alone. It mimicked the arcade original closely, and it also saw the creation of the d-pad – with previous G&W titles using four-way button formations whenever four-way movement was required.

Nintendo was quick to patent the d-pad to prevent competition from stealing their idea, later becoming an integral part of the NES/Famicom controller. The R&D team had essentially created the new standard for controller inputs, forever changing the way games were about to be played at home.

Color Scheme Table Top

All change for this 1983 line. Inspired by the current increase in arcades goers, Nintendo released four arcade cabinet-style machines with a joystick, colour visuals, and improved music/sound effects.

Despite featuring renowned characters – the range comprised of Donkey Kong Jnr, Mario’s Cement Factory, Snoopy, and Popeye – these table top systems are hard to find nowadays, suggesting low sales. The Popeye game is something of a fan favourite: it’s a one-on-one beat’em up where Popeye fights Brutus. Offence and defence must be balanced, making for an innovative experience.  

Also of note is how bland the Donkey Kong Jnr cabinet was, formed from white and brown plastic and skipping any kind of artwork. Coleco would later see the sales potential in this model, re-releasing it with brighter colours (blue and orange) and adorning it with side panel stickers.

Panaroma Screen

Nintendo loves a gimmick, and this is easily the most gimmicky of G&W lines produced. Six sleek and colourful models were released in 1983, each featuring tilting screens and coloured visuals.

Once tilted, the top screen was projected on a mirror below, with the top of the device also acting as a lightbox. It was a neat way to display the new coloured sprites, but ultimately, merely a gimmick.

Again suggesting that the table top range was a flop, three titles from that line were reused here, joining Mario’s Bombs Away – which sees the plumber peculiarly dressed in army attire – Mickey Mouse, and Donkey Kong Circus.  

Mickey Mouse and Donkey Kong Circus played identically – only the visuals are different. In fact, the DK game doesn’t take place in a circus at all, but rather in a warehouse. The reasons for the similarities have been debated for years, with the model’s reference numbers only adding to the mystery. The Donkey Kong model has the reference MK-96, while the Mickey Mouse model is DC-95 – opposite abbreviations of what you would expect.

Super Color

It appears Nintendo once again tried to target an older demographic with this 1984 line, with both models (Spitball Sparky and CrabGrab) packaged in shiny metallic cases, evocative of the original ‘Silver’ range.

Both models proved to be unpopular, and it’s easy to see why. Despite the name ‘Super Color’ these two weren’t full colour in the same way as the Panaroma and Table Top models, merely featuring colour overlays over a standard vertical screen.

They also lacked the small form factor of earlier models, backdrops were bland and failed to stoke the imagination (Spitball Sparky is merely a character-driven take on Breakout, with the screen being predominantly formed of dull blocks), and neither was based on an existing successful property.

The Famicom also launched around the same time in Japan, which likely harmed sales further. Indeed, the arrival of the Famicom in Japan is when G&W sales, as a whole, started to decline in Nintendo’s home territory.

Micro Vs.

A large widescreen display with two removable controllers that slid into the device itself? Why, it’s almost as if the Mirco Vs. influenced the Switch in some way.

Three models were released in this line – Donkey Kong Hockey, Donkey Kong 3, and Boxing (released as Punch Out!! in the US) – all offering competitive two-player modes, with DK3 pitting the ape against Stanley the Bug Man. The circular wired controllers featured wind-up cables which were then housed at the bottom of the device, accessed via a hinged compartment.

Nintendo originally tended the Micro Vs. range to be US and European exclusive, hence the focus on sports titles, but later reversed their decision and gave Japanese gamers a taste of two-player too.

Curiously, one DKH box variant showed Donkey Kong and Mario playing hockey on grass, whereas the game itself takes place in an ice rink.

Crystal Screen

Released a few months before the New Wide Screen range in 1986, Nintendo gave three of their most promising and technically impressive titles – the side-scrolling Super Mario Bros, Climber, and Balloon Fight – the deluxe treatment.

These models are larger and rectangular, making them slighter easier for bigger hands to grasp, and featured transparent screens. Gimmicky, for certain. In fact, we imagine they may have been difficult to play when placed above a dark background. This could be why some models were packaged with a plastic clip-on backdrop, featuring a mountain range.

Pleasing to the eye, the Crystal Screen games are coveted by collectors, with Balloon Fight’s value running into the hundreds.

Game Watch / Nintendo Mini Classics

The Game & Watch series managed to survive the ‘90s thanks to third-party licensing. Nintendo saw no potential growth in the market, keen to promote the Game Boy instead, and sales in Japan had seen a sharp decline since the arrival of the Famicom – way back in 1984. This allowed a handful of companies to produce their own handhelds under license.

The Game Watch line – released in Europe by Zeon and Nelsonic in the US – were created without Nintendo’s involvement, being wristwatches with a small square screen and buttons ideally suited for tiny hands. Tetris, Super Mario, Zelda, and even Star Fox were given the wrist game treatment. These were generally popular thanks to their low cost and colourful packaging. Some even included headphones. Never underestimate the appeal of being able to play a video game while at school.

Then in the late ‘90s, Austrian company Stadlbauer acquired the license to produce a new range of small LCD game keychains bearing the Nintendo name. Loosely resembling the Game Boy rather than any Game & Watch, dual-screen models were even later released.

Rock bottom manufacturing costs (LCD technology was vastly outdated by 1998) allowed Stadlbauer to invest in additional licensing, with games based on The Smurfs, Star Trek, Spider-Man, and even Harry Potter joining the likes of Super Mario and Zelda. You’ll find many recreations of Game & Watch titles here too.

Collecting Nintendo Mini Games, as they’re known, is nothing short of a headache – over forty games were produced, with many being regional exclusives. There’s a wealth of variants too, due to different companies handling distribution in different areas. Even Take-Two couldn’t resist the allure of Nintendo nostalgia, distributing units in parts of Europe.


Nintendo revisits the glory days of the Game & Watch often. The Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance all received entries in the Game & Watch Gallery series, while the Nintendo DS gained the Club Nintendo exclusive Game & Watch Collection – including Donkey Kong, Greenhouse, and Oil Panic – arriving in 2006 in Japan and 2008 in the US.

More recently, Nintendo released Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda and Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. – two handhelds based on the design of the original G&W with modern colour LCD screens, featuring a mixture of NES and Game Boy titles, along with homages of Ball and Vermin, starring Mario and Link respectively. Whereas the original G&W models were aimed at children, these two units were aimed at dedicated Nintendo fans, showing how far we’ve come since 1980.