Mario has been in the spotlight this year with Nintendo leaning into the 35th-anniversary festivities quite heavily. Part of this celebration brought the creation of Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. A classic device that’s a callback to Nintendo’s video game history even before the Nintendo Entertainment System. This new rendition features a color screen, the first two Super Mario titles and an exclusive version of Game & Watch Ball; swapping the jugglers’ heads with Mario and Luigi’s. It also features a full clock that’s chock full of easter eggs and secrets for fans to enjoy. On the surface, it looks exactly like how it should be as it commemorates Mario’s decorated history. Yet, it’s also the truest homage and tribute to Gunpei Yokoi, a legendary video game designer.
Before its breakthrough in the gaming world, Nintendo looked very different in the 70s. While they still made toys and the focus was play, it was in more analog ways. From marble racers to building block tchotchkes, Nintendo’s influence was huge on the market. At the time, Yokoi was a maintenance man working at a hanafuda card factory. He had quite a knack for making little inventions in his spare time. President of Nintendo at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi noticed Yokoi’s creativity when visiting the factory one day. He took great interest in making Yokoi’s extending arm gadget into a toy for the upcoming 1966 holiday rush. Thus, the Ultra Hand toy was created and so was Yokoi’s dream job as a toy designer. Working to make other goofy devices for kids, Nintendo’s transition to video games began with the arcade rush of the mid-70s. Working as one of Nintendo’s first video game designers alongside Genyo Takeda, Yokoi initially had trouble coming up with games for this burgeoning market.
Fascinated by the indistinct clicking of a calculator by a bored businessman on the bullet train gave him an excellent idea. Released in 1980, the pocket-sized “Game & Watch” populated markets both in Japan and overseas. At that time, Nintendo’s management knew very little about games in general and Yokoi was constantly working to create new versions and iterations of Game & Watch. There are over 60 different variations of old games and watch consoles, some even referencing other licensed works. Ranging from Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck appearances, Game & Watch was a popular medium for early handheld gaming. There’s even some based on Mario’s original inspiration, Popeye! Breaking onto the scene with their silver series, these games featured button controls to juggle balls, save people from a burning building and dive for treasure. While simple in nature, these games had a rhythm to them and were satisfying to pick up and play whenever in need of a distraction or waste of time.
Made with only a 4-bit processing unit, a bit of RAM and button-style batteries; these devices were quite the fancy time teller and helped Nintendo reach greater heights. Made with parts incomparable to the sophisticated cabinets of the arcade, the Game & Watch stands as a testament to Yokoi’s methodology when making new ways to use old hardware. This philosophy is often reverberated by Yokoi explaining himself, “The Nintendo way of adapting technology is not to look for the state of the art but to utilize mature technology that can be mass-produced cheaply.” Lateral thinking with withered technology has long since been a part of Nintendo’s strategy when developing new hardware. A modern example of such an idea is none other than the NES and SNES mini. Effectively branding themselves as nostalgic devices, Nintendo has capitalized on this retro representation in the past. Yet, even the Nintendo Switch in many aspects can exemplify Yokoi’s ideology. With more memory and a more efficient graphics architecture, Nintendo’s next-gen console started at the same price as the WiiU and only 50$ more than the Wii at launch. Yet, business wouldn’t be the only thing Yokoi would influence during his time at Nintendo.
These tiny little screens were everywhere and kept improving with more iterations and game types to help differentiate the brand more. Yokoi had a knack for figuring out new ways to reinvent the machine, and with more properties and games to bring over, he started to create better and fancier devices. Devices that had multiple screens, two-player layouts and even extra controller schemes in an age where different controller styles just didn’t exist for portable consoles. The team worked on trying to retrofit arcade controls to little success until Yokoi designed a cross-shaped mold that raised one side when the opposite was pressed. This ingenious design gave the player the much-needed feeling pressing down in the desired direction. Yokoi fundamentally created the groundwork for Nintendo to consistently reuse and reintroduce this control style in most of their controllers since. This design of course was created for the arcade portable conversion of Donkey Kong. In fact, some could argue that this specific model of Donkey Kong Game & Watch contributed to many other Nintendo success stories.
Of course, Yokoi designed and worked to bring the GameBoy to life. Bringing over the control style of the NES and making it portable, Nintendo built an impressive handheld for the time, Yokoi wanted to ensure that the gaming experience wouldn’t sacrifice functionality for portability. Thus the device used a simple green lcd background, in contrast to other handhelds like the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx. This coupled with the battery power allows for longer periods of gameplay compared to both competitors which sacrificed playtime for color screens. Using only 4 batteries, the GameBoy dominated the handheld market because of its efficiency and relatively low manufacturing costs. Going further than the Gameboy, the dual-screen Game & Watch even influenced the design of the original DS which also used a horizontal clamshell design. His influence is seen in even the smallest of touches. The whole reason Mario can originally jump from high heights and iconically land unharmed is because Yokoi suggested it to a frustrated Miyamoto.
Unfortunately, he also contributed to the idea of using revolutionary virtual experience to develop a new console, the eponymous and infamous Virtual Boy. Originally never intending to be released in the state it did, the Virtual Boy’s commercial failure did contribute to Yokoi’s reasoning for leaving Nintendo. Yet, even the Virtual Boy’s experimentation with 3D did eventually lead to Nintendo creating a 3DS. Going on to work for Bandai and their WonderSwan handheld, Yokoi tragically passed away in a traffic incident only a year later. Despite his growing disinterest in games with 3d graphics and modern hardware, Yokoi still wished to open a studio of his own one day. While he wasn’t what some might call a gaming enthusiast nowadays, but rather a simplest. Yokoi saw gaming as a weapon against boredom and wasted time.
At the end of the day, the value in a device like this is extremely niche. The games on the device can be played through Nintendo’s online service and Game and Watch Ball has been re released in the past as well. There’s almost no world where I would prefer to play Super Mario Bros. Lost Levels on a smaller screen with even smaller controls. I wouldn’t say that the novelty of a device like this is in the brand loyalty or “video game preservation” efforts; it’s more so as a testament to the roots of Nintendo’s past. It’s probably one of the more frivolous gaming paraphernalia available, with an exception for the 24K PlayStation 5 consoles that were sold recently. When it seems that all the spotlights are on what's over the horizon for gaming and graphics, the Game and Watch takes pride in it’s small offerings and tiny easter eggs.
Released for a fifth of the price of a new Xbox or PlayStation console, Even beyond the modding potentials of homebrew applications on the device, It’s emblematic of Nintendo’s oldest philosophy at it’s finest. Game & Watch is what propelled and allowed Nintendo to make the impact they did on gaming culture forever. He’s an unforgettable designer with such an esteemed legacy that will for outlast any gaming console. So while the flair and charm is to the service of Mario, it’s wrapped in this perfect Game and Watch package. While he may no longer be with us, I am grateful to see more reproduction Game and Watch units that will always pay tribute to Gunpei Yokoi’s creation.