The Game & Watch series was one of Nintendo’s first commercially successful systems; one that predates their famous NES home console. At a time when the screens of today on a handheld device were just a dream, it would be the inspiration of Gunpei Yokoi & a trip on a bullet train that would spark its initial concept. During this journey, he witnessed someone playing with their LCD calculator; supposedly to pass time. Seeing this event as an opportunity, Yokoi would draft his concept for a handheld console that used the same LCD technology; allowing the system to not just to have a purpose like telling the time (thus, Game and “Watch”), but also allow its owner to play a quick game.
He would later receive an opportunity to pitch his idea to Nintendo President, Hiroshi Yamauchi, whilst chauffeuring him to a business meeting with the CEO of the Sharp Corporation. The pitch was favoured by both parties & it began to gain traction. In April 1980, Nintendo released their first Game & Watch system in Japan. Over the next decade, 60 variants were released with a variety of games which featured the likes of Mario, Donkey Kong & even a few spin-off games featuring Disney’s Mickey Mouse. The series would go on to sell a combined 43 million units over its lifespan before being discontinued in 1991; likely in favour of Nintendo’s focus at the time on their more-popular handheld system; the Game Boy.
Fast forward to this past week, Nintendo have released a special edition of the Game & Watch system in celebration of the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. Today, we’ll be taking a look at this “retro-vival” system & confirm if it’s worthy of a place in the 21st century. Let’s take a look!
First, let’s run the tale-of-the-tape on the device itself. Weighing-in at only 68g & with its size slightly larger than a credit card, this light-flyweight system is perfect to pop in your pocket without it feeling like an inconvenience on your person & comfortable to handle without feeling too fragile. Its body is comprised of a solid red plastic shell with a gold metal plate on the front, finished with a matte metal effect. The combination of colours instantly makes it feel distinct & its appearance feels almost identical to its predecessors.
It features a 2.36” LCD screen, which boasts a good quality resolution for its size. I found it difficult to distinguish individual pixels on the screen & it ensured that all characters & environments were perfectly pixelated. It features your classic D-Pad, three buttons to switch between modes & options, topped off with a classic set of A & B buttons. The D-pad is comprised of a hard plastic that feels pleasant to press, whilst the other buttons opt for a softer plastic which was used for the original systems. My initial concern with the latter is that they could wear out over time & heavy use. It’s not that they feel cheap but based on my own past experiences of previous handheld systems, I am aware that this type of button can be prone to wear. They still do the job effectively; feeling nice to press & were very responsive during gameplay.
Around the left-hand side, you have an tiny embedded speaker & on the right, you a power button & a USB Type-C port to charge the unit. It comes included with a small USB-C charger cable, but doesn’t include an AC power adaptor. Still, it’s perfect to charge with any plug adaptor or via a USB port on a computer. There is also no presence of a headphone port, which is a slight shame as you’ll either have to play the game muted or with the sound played through its in-built speaker. The unit uses a rechargeable lithium ion battery, allowing up to 8 hours of battery life & taking around 3.5 hours to fully charge. At least you don’t have to worry about the inconvenience of replacing batteries.
The unit comes pre-loaded with 3 games; all featuring our legendary Italian plumber. First, we have Super Mario Bros for the NES from 1985; a game that needs no introductions. It helped bring a strong wave of popularity Nintendo’s way back in the 80s, going on to sell over 40 million copies worldwide. A classic in its own right.
Next, we have Super Mario Bros 2. This is not to be confused with the Doki Doki Panic version released in the US & Europe. Here, we have the original Japanese version (formally known as The Lost Levels) released for the Famicom Disk System back in 1986. For those of you who are not familiar with this game, it’s essentially a much tougher version of the original that is presented in an almost identical fashion. You can also play as Luigi, who controls differently to his brother. Although he has reduced ground friction when moving, he can jumper higher than Mario. With harder platforming segments, the inclusion of poison mushrooms & added wind mechanics, it requires a element of precision that will arguably challenge even the most experienced of Mario players.
Finally, we have the first game released for the Game & Watch series back in 1980; known as Ball. Essentially, this is a game of juggling where Mario must keep a series of balls in mid-air with each catch & throw earning you a point. Some people may find this a little basic, but it is a meaningful entry in the series & a nice throwback inclusion that can become quite addictive.
Now let’s take a look at its functions & features. The system allows you to pause the game at any point & will retain your progress when switching modes, even when turning the system off & on. Switching between games & modes is efficient with the mode buttons with your progress paused in-game, if you wish to quickly check the time. You can also adjust the brightness & volume to suit your preference. There doesn’t appear to be any options to apply modifiers or cheats to the game, but it can easily be argued the original does not have these features; maintaining the authenticity of the games in that regard.
The system also features an in-built clock; an aforementioned staple of the system. When activated, it presents the clock in a style of a Super Mario level. The time is displayed in numerical form with numbers presented as blocks & the seconds are counted by a square pixel, circling around the display. When the time changes, Mario will jump to hit the number, changing the blocks to the correct digit. You can also choose between three different backgrounds; modelled on three levels of Super Mario Bros.
To top it off, there are also numerous hidden secrets & Easter Eggs for you to discover. Sticking with the clock, there are dozens of secret on-screen events that occur at specific times of the day, including appearances from Bloopers, Goombas, Yoshi & Monty Mole. As you enter day & night, the background’s colour palette adapts to the time of day; whether it be dawn, daytime, evening or night.
In the games themselves, certain button-press combinations can unlock secret modes. You can start a level with infinite lives, jump to a desired world, unlock a hard mode of each game after completing it once & even play as Luigi in Ball. Some of the game’s secrets, cheats & glitches also remain in tact, meaning you can play the hidden -1 level of Super Mario Bros or make Mario moon wall in level 4-2. There are others secrets I haven’t referenced here, but it’s nice to see they embraced these flaws & choose to keep them in.
The Super Mario Bros Game & Watch is a fun, portable system that is well-built, pleasant to play with & will give any gamer an excuse to re-live these classic Super Mario titles. The only downsides of note are my concerns regarding the soft buttons over time & knowing the capabilities of what can be stored on a portable device today, it‘s a shame the system doesn‘t feature additional games from the Mario series; most notably the popular Super Mario Bros 3, as I feel this could‘ve helped the system be seen as more appealing & enter a “Must Buy” category.
It’s essentially a flashback to a time when portable gaming was only possible via standalone devices & it's this charm that will most certainly appeal to fans of old-school gaming & the Mario series; especially to those who have wanted to own a Game & Watch system for themselves, but don’t want to spend high prices on second-hand devices. Pending on its success, I could see Nintendo releasing another version of the system in the future, which the prospect would certainly peak my interest. I could see Donkey Kong as a worthy successor; given his legacy on the NES & the fact he’s already been featured in Game & Watch series back in 1982. Of course, this is a prediction & not my call, so we’ll have to wait & see.
The Super Mario Bros Game & Watch is a worthy revival that successfully merges two legacies; on its 40th anniversary of the Game & Watch series. The system will only be available at retailers until March 2021 so this does peak your interest, I recommend picking one up if you can.