Handheld gaming wasn’t always as advanced as it is now. For a long time, the idea of having graphics on par with the consoles you’d have hooked up to your television seemed like a far-off dream — but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some great gaming experiences to be had.
Unsurprisingly, it was Nintendo who really made handheld gaming work in the early days — and not one of their numerous imitators from over the years have ever quite managed to capture the amazing work they did with their Game and Watch series.
Game and Watch was created by game designer Gunpei Yokoi in 1980 after he saw a bored businessman on a bullet train playing with an LCD calculator. Yokoi thought that there might be a market for something that was useful — a clock — that would also help people to pass the time with a simple game. And thus the concept for Game and Watch was born.
The Game and Watch series wasn’t just responsible for pioneering the idea of LCD handhelds, though. It’s the source of what we now know as the D-pad, designed to provide simple directional control that could be operated via the thumb, and also for the distinctive clamshell design that would go on to be used in Nintendo’s later handheld systems the Game Boy Advance SP, Nintendo DS and Nintendo 3DS.
Although undoubtedly an important part of gaming, Game and Watch units’ nature as dedicated, single-game handheld systems has made them challenging to preserve over the years — though times are changing in that regard. Not only is the emulation scene making good progress on recreating the Game and Watch experience in the virtual space, but independent creators are also celebrating the influential handhelds in their own ways.
One such example is Itiszo, who assembled a collection of Donkey Kong-themed Game and Watch simulations to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the classic handhelds last year. Itiszo is still refining and updating the collection, and at the time of writing features three fully functional simulations of Game and Watch units, including their original manuals and packaging modelled in 3D.
So let’s take a closer look at what’s on offer!
First released in 1982, the dual-screen Donkey Kong Game and Watch is credited with bringing the cross-shaped D-pad to the world; it was subsequently used in numerous other Game and Watch titles, and eventually earned an Emmy Award in recognition of its contribution to the gaming industry in 2008.
As the name suggests, the Donkey Kong Game and Watch is a simple recreation of the Donkey Kong arcade game, with a bit of a twist. Mario still has to make his way up a series of girders, jumping barrels along the way, but he also has to ensure that he doesn’t bang his head on passing metal planks with a poorly timed jump. Not only that, but in order to take Donkey Kong down, he needs to activate a crane and make a heroic leap onto its swinging hook to remove the supports on Donkey Kong’s platform.
It’s a very simple concept, but the reason it proved so popular is because it’s immensely addictive. The controls are easy to learn — even for non-gamers — and the whole thing has such an inherently pleasing rhythm to it that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the experience and challenge yourself to “just one more go”.
Itiszo’s simulation of the original handheld is very good for the most part, with the only noticeable issue being that sometimes Mario automatically spawns at the start point right as a barrel is passing over it, making for an unavoidable death. I don’t have an original unit on hand to test whether this issue was present in the original handheld, but it’s a slight blemish on an otherwise slick experience.
Donkey Kong II
The second game in the collection is an adaptation of the Donkey Kong Jr. arcade game — though again with a few tweaks to make it fit the Game and Watch format a little better.
Taking on the role of Donkey Kong Jr., you’ll need to make your way up a series of vines and platforms, hopping over enemies and electrical sparks before making your way up to the cage big daddy Kong is chained up in. Along the way, you’ll also need to knock a key up from the bottom screen to the top screen, and climb the appropriate chain to open the correct lock. It’s noticeably trickier than the original Donkey Kong, but just as rewarding.
Again, Itiszo’s simulation works very well, though once during testing I did encounter a situation where Donkey Kong Jr. simply refused to spawn upon starting a new game. This was fixed by restarting the program.
Donkey Kong Jr.
The third game is another adaptation of Donkey Kong Jr., this time on a single screen rather than in the dual-screen clamshell format.
The concept is similar — Donkey Kong Jr. must hop over enemies and climb vines to reach his father — but this time rather than knocking keys up onto another screen, he has to make a flying leap for a swinging key with which to unlock the four parts of the cage Kong Sr. is trapped in.
Donkey Kong Jr. also incorporates a means of fighting back against the enemies, unlike the other two Donkey Kong Game and Watch systems; like in the arcade original, a hanging fruit can be dislodged to defeat enemies beneath it, resulting in nice point bonuses if timed correctly.
Itiszo’s simulation of this game seemingly works flawlessly, with the whole experience feeling authentically challenging and addictive.
If you want to try these games for yourself, check out the official page for them, where they can either be played online via HTML5 in your web browser, or downloaded for Windows for free. Enjoy the nostalgic fun times!
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