Some liquid crystal games you could set your watch to

Game & Watch (1980)

You know, when you think about it, you can pretty well make a game out of anything. Many’s the time, before ubiquitous internet, when we would have raindrop races, betting on which raindrop would reach the bottom of the window first. Would you call that a misspent youth?

Well, if you wanna talk youth, here’s a game you could try with your kids – have them stand against a wall and put a fiver between their noses and the wall, telling ‘em that whoever breaks first gets nothing, and the other kid keeps the two fivers. That one was a classic, and it probably still works if you can find some physical cash, and a child deprived of that most basic of human rights, the iPad.

They don’t all have to be as vegan as this though, there’s plenty of more dangerous pursuits to make a game out of. You take certain places in Ireland, like Donegal, where electricity is a luxury. To keep themselves busy, they’ve been spending all day and night playing chicken with each other, using cars as their horses. Is that survival of the fittest or what?

You usually hear about a few cases of Russian Roulette death as well, but we’ll forgive them that one because that’s a badass game to play and an even more badass way to die. Or if you’d rather hold on to your life but ruin it another way, how about having a go on your local bike without wearing the proper protective equipment, shall we say?

Even if you were to tech up a bit and go electronic, you wouldn’t believe the video games you can play, especially the simulators – as a non-exhaustive list, we’ve got European Truck Simulator, Surgeon Simulator, Car Mechanic Simulator and Christmas Shopper Simulator. If any of them were even slightly realistic, their players could probably become expert in those fields. As it is, the only simulating taking place is how tedious and godawful these tasks are to complete.

They’ll make games out of anything these days, and just look at the state the industry is in now. And it all came from the most humble beginnings: meet the Game and Watch, which with its 1980 birthday could be considered old enough to be almost pre-current era Nintendo, and yet a mere footnote in their storied history.

I’ve always felt Game & Watch was some flagrant false advertisement though. True, these little monochrome LCD devices tell you the time, if you were really that desperate to know. But don’t we take the term ‘watch’ to mean something more ornate, more wearable? Ideally it should be found on the wrist, rather than in both hands. You’re probably more accurate calling it a timepiece, in that regard.

As for the bit you’re really there for, the game – well, in reality it’s just a calculator come half-to-life with excitingly titled names such as Fire, Chef and Ball. You can literally play any of the games for 5 seconds and see everything worth seeing, and with an investment of just 10 more seconds you’ll have it entirely committed to muscle memory, and most of your brain will have licence to fall asleep. Hence you could call the gameplay narcoleptic.

I think I’ve sorted out the false advertising, but then, Sedative and Timepiece doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? At least Game and Watch was a snappy enough name to move numbers. And move numbers they did, 60 titles with over 40 million sales.

Famously, the idea for Game & Watch came from Gunpei Yokoi, the madman who’d later invent the Game Boy and the D-Pad, before defecating out the ill-fated Virtual Boy and losing his life a few months later, although I’m sure the two events weren’t related. Anyway, he got the idea for G&W by observing a fellow lemming on the commuter train playing with a calculator. It makes sense, because G+W units amount to what are basically calculator games with their LCD graphics, and they’re about as fun as your standard calculator too.

Whip out a modern Texas Instrument jobby though, where you can play Doom or Pokémon Emerald and you’ll be having nine million times more fun than on Game & Watch. Above all, what I don’t understand is how public transport could inspire anyone to create something, apart from some homemade fashioned bomb or flamethrowing weapon that’ll take out the whole train carriage and everyone on board.

Playing Game & Watch for yourself these days might be tricky. Generally your best bet is to pick up some of the nifty Game and Watch Gallery games on GBC / GBA which offer modern spins of the games with colour, Mario characters, that classic 8-bit music, and that even more classic Nintendo fin-du-siecle gamefeel. How pretentious is that? we’re in the area of the hipster now.

They also bring various unlockables, as well as fairly faithful renditions of the old Game & Watch versions. The actual G&W units can actually be emulated, in a sense, although it actually requires you using the MAME emulator to do this, which arcade enthusiasts out there will know requires more effort and technical knowhow than sending a man into space – even a man of Mr. Game and Watch’s light, 2D build.

Of course, you can track down the original units and play Game & Watch that way, though you’d better know how to replace the batteries or be some sort of calculator technician beforehand. I should think the prices of the original units will only be going up as well, effectively making them a pretty safe investment.

I’ll let you down now by saying I don’t have any original G&W units to my name, although I do own a fancy little keychain clamshell version of Zelda G&W, which might go for a few quid if I could figure out how to get a new watch battery into it, or more likely if the old battery hasn’t exploded to a million pieces of solid goo.

Feeling all full of myself, I once took this Zelda game to school, whereupon an older boy clocked it and immediately and repeatedly described it as ‘gank’. I was raging, of course, but only because he was right – it was gank, even if Link was able to wield a tomahawk.

And it wasn’t even Link was it, let’s face it, he looked more like an equal-to sign than the Hero of Time. And if a Zelda version of Game and Watch couldn’t stand up to scrutiny in 2002, then twenty more years won’t have been much kinder to the whole realm of Nintendo LCD games.

Even as historical articles they’re not all that fascinating. Take a look at the old Game & Watch Gallery collection games if you like. My pick of those games is the second one – you’ll get a decent rendition of classic Donkey Kong, you’ll unlock the very first G&W title, Ball, and it’s got my favourite game Helmet on there. In fact, you could say I love Helmet. And I do love seeing the representative of the G&W, Mr. Game & Watch bop around in Smash Bros Melee was equal parts weird and unforgettable. He’s still the oldest fighter in it, so he gets credit for that, but not much else.

I don’t know, maybe the mistake they made was not taking the old reliable Raindrop Race and turning that one into a calculator game – I’d still be playing that one to this day. What else are you gonna do when it rains? Play GTA? Ah, don’t answer that.

1 April 2022

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