Classic pub quiz question: What was the first ever handheld console? Did you say Game Boy? You're wrong. In fact it was the Microvision but you hardly ever hear the name mentioned these days which is proof, if ever it was needed, that being first isn't always the most important thing. And whilst MB were releasing its Microvision in 1979, a man called Gunpei Yoko was busy creating Game & Watch, Nintendo's own handheld games machines. Unlike MB's machine, they didn't have interchangeable cartridges and unlike MB's machine, they were very popular! Nintendo released 59 Game & Watch games between 1980 and 1991 but by the time Mario The Juggler was released in 1991, the kids (and their parents) were playing on Gunpei Yoko's new creation - The Game Boy.
When it comes to Nintendo legends, the late Yokoi is right up there with Shigeru Miyamoto - his Game & Watch design would go on to directly influence the DS which would never have seen the light of day had he not kicked off a new passion for handheld gaming in 1989. One of the reasons the Game & Watch series took off was because they were relatively inexpensive at the time and so when Yokoi set about creating his first handheld console with interchangeable cartridges, he had the same aim: to make an affordable console with high-quality games. And he had one high quality game up his sleeve, alright. Tetris.
The Tetris story has been told many times before. Created by Alexey Pajitnov while working for the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Tetris had already been released in the US in 1986 but it wasn't really until Elorg (who had been granted marketing rights by the Soviet government) gave the handheld rights to Nintendo that the game became a worldwide phenomenon. The simple block puzzler launched with the Game Boy in 1989 and went on to sell an incredible 33 million copies, helping Nintendo reach a new audience, an achievement the company would repeat decades later with Wii and DS.
Tetris was the perfect game for Game Boy. Simplicity was the key with this game and it didn't need smart or colourful visuals to suck people in to its addictive charms. Which is probably for the best as the Game Boy had very basic monochrome graphics. You see, aside from making the handheld itself affordable, Yokoi wanted the Game Boy to be economical and he resisted the temptation to use the latest technology in order to preserve battery life. His bosses may have wanted him to produce a colour machine, but he refused to comply because the battery life needed to power colour consoles wasn't sufficient at the time. Something Sega and Atari would learn to their cost with the failure of the battery sucking GameGear and Lynx.
So the ugly grey box with basic black & white games succeeded where flashier models would fail. Why? Well, although it was relatively inexpensive, it wouldn't have survived for so long without a continuous supply of classic games. Alongside Tetris at launch was a brand new Mario game called Super Mario Land. Produced by Yokoi himself, this Mario may have been a platformer similar to Mario Bros. but it didn't feature familiar faces such as Bowser, Luigi or Princess Peach. This time the damsel in distress was Daisy and Mario had to save her from the clutches of a spaceman called Tatanga. Mario wasn't the only big name to have his own Mario games - Link would follow in the plumber's footsteps with Link's Awakening in 1993 and Rare would release Donkey Kong Land in 1995 but it was a new generation of stars who would breathe life into the ageing handheld in 1996. They were Pokemon.