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Guide to Handheld Games

What are Handhelds & Tabletops?

If it doesnít plug into a TV, or has its own screen, and is some kind of electronic game, then generally it is considered a handheld. If collectors were honest, many games described as handhelds, say an MB Simon, would have difficulty being played in the hands, and are better described as tabletops. This is where confusion arises, Handhelds are described as tabletops, and tabletops are described as handhelds.

Perhaps a better term would be Electronic Game, but this term isnít so widely used. Handhelds & Tabletops have been a key subject for the Retrogames magazine over its history. The first ever electronic game is the 1972 Tic Tac Toe from Waco. Its a pretty rubbish version of Noughts and crosses, but it has lights inside it and qualifies.

What types of Handhelds are there?

As you may well already know, there are two distinct types of electronic game. LED games use light emitting diodes to provide colourful light based graphics. These are also sometimes described as VFD games, or Vacuum formed displays. While early LED games used single diodes (LED) to provide game graphics, later games created electronic screens using a Vacuum formed display. These allowed for more detailed, animated graphics. Imagine the screen to be like a big flat light bulb with lots of coloured elements inside. These machines are more susceptible to damage, as any chip or crack in the outer glass will destroy the screen.

The other main type of handheld are the LCD or Liquid Crystal Display games. These are usually definable by having a grey back screen, with black graphics moving on top of it. Additional coloured graphics are often physically painted onto the screen too. The most obvious example of these kinds of games are Nintendo Game & Watch. Later LCD games do get a bit more complicated, Game & Watch Panorama games for example, use a reflective mirror to add light to coloured LCD graphics. VTL tabletop games use backlit LCD graphics to create bright colourful displays. In the end, the preference is down to the user. Both types of game can offer great gameplay with detailed graphics.

There are other types of electronic game. Tomy/Palitoy used analogue mechanics along with lights to create arcade style games. In demon driver for example, plastic stencil cars move up and down a motorised road, with electronics just providing the flashing accident graphic. Then there are games like MB Simon, which doesnít use LED or LCD, just lights under coloured plastic. There is still an electronic brain in there controlling the game though.

How many electronic games are there?

A proper study of how many games were released has never been done, and to compile a full collection of every handheld ever created, would be one of the biggest tasks anyone could undertake, let alone an incredibly expensive pursuit.

That said, I know a few people who are having a good try. It is safe to say that there are several thousand different electronic games out there. Serious collectors also hoard name and style variations of the same game. For example, the Bandai tabletop games were also released under the Tandy name, some people want both. Epochís Mini-Munchman was released under many different names including Mini-Pacman and Epoch Man.

As soon as any collector announces they have a complete collection of games, another collector will announce they have three more nobody has ever heard of. Perhaps that is what keeps the sector so exciting.

Who Makes the best handhelds?

There are several games manufactures whose games are more playable than those of other makers, but at the same time, there are companies which make more elaborate machines, which kind of make up for their lack of playability.

A favorite LED machine producer is Gakken, who created tabletop games based on Konami and Sega games. These include Frogger, Amidar and Dig Dug, and are incredibly colourful, while retaining the distinct gameplay of the arcade originals. The kings of tabletop games, has to be the Coleco/Midway mini-arcade games. These are styled like mini arcade machines, and the games, including Donkey Kong, Pac Man and Galaxian, are still great fun to play. They even include two player modes. Of course, you donít have to buy big machines to get good gameplay.

Nintendo Game & Watch machines only grew so popular because of their simple game structure, and balanced difficulty levels. If you think youíre a great games player, you try to clock a game like Fire or Lifeboat. They may be over twenty years old, but still offer a high level of challenge. The best handheld games come from a variety of companies. Remember, each unit had to offer substantial playability to attract the user to future games. Once technology got better, say from 1980 onwards, the majority of LED and LCD games offered worthwhile experiences.

Which Electronic games are worth most money?

Ahh, youíre all so mercenary. Ok, itís fair to say that your average handheld collection is getting more valuable. Like most of retrogaming, the amount the game is worth varies according to its rarity, condition, and whether it has a box or not. Invariably handheld games donít have their original box, these were thrown away more readily than those for Game software. Game & Watch machines are the ones which most people assume to be most valuable, and sure, Crystal Screen games and rare early games can fetch considerable amounts.

However, the market for LED tabletops and handhelds is just as excited. Prices for rare tabletops like Tigerís King Kong can push the $500 mark. Then there is the holy grail for handheld collectors, the Entex Adventurevision. Boxed examples of this strange cartridge based machine have fetched as much as $3000. That is considerably more than any other handheld game.

There are a couple of Atari games, which would be worth more, if they ever make it out into the open. The prototypes, Atari Space Invaders and Atari Cosmos. Cosmos uses a revolutionary hologram technology to provide graphics, but never made it to manufacture due to high production costs.

There is one other handheld which if available would certainly set a new price precedent, and that is Nintendoís Game & Watch, Tetris Jnr. A deleted handheld, which didnít make it onto the market due to the effect if could have had on Gameboy sales, but it is rumored to exist inside Nintendo.


Electronic gaming, LED machines in particular, are an enigma. There will never be another time when an LED based arcade game goes into production, despite there being far better technology to drive LED based machines today, itís a dead format. All there is left to compare them to today is cheap and nasty licensed LCD kids games. Donít get me wrong, TFT screen based machines are great, but the art of capturing playability in a hand full of lights has sadly been lost.

Guide to Nintendo Game & Watch

These simple single screen games were all released during 1980. Generally the hardest to find in the whole series, particularly in good condition.

Similar in style to the Silver games, but with Gold facia instead of Silver. These were all released during 1981, and are pretty hard to find. Favourite of these releases has to be the fabulously named Helmet.

These are slightly wider single screen games, released in 1981 and 1982. Include hit titles like Snoopy Tennis, Mickey Mouse and Popeye.

There are only three different games which hinge down their centre, most common is Mario Bros, then Lifeboat and Rainshower. All released in 1983

These games are amongst the most common, and hinge at the top. They include favourites like Donkey Kong, Zelda and Greenhouse. Their popularity held strong, with their releases spanning between 1983 to 1989.

The most ellaborate G&W machines, these are two player games featuring individual controllers, with cables that wind up inside them. The screens are the biggest of any Game & Watch. There are three (and one name variation) in the series, and all were released in 1984.

There are only two of these long machines, Crab Grab & Spitball Sparky. They featured painted colour backdrops. Both were released in 1984.

These amazing machines use an angled mirror to provide enough light to generate colour LCD graphics. They are still impressive to look at today. There are five in the series, released in 1983 & 1984.

Using full size batteries to provide bright backlight, these machines take the Panorama technology, and make it bigger. All four (one Coleco) were released in 1983.

The rarest of all G&W, these games are unique as they use transparent crystal displays, to make a game which is truly see-through. Three in the series, all released in 1986.

Unlike earlier widescreens, these have coloured facias around the screens. These were released between 1983 and the last ever G&W, Mario the Juggler in 1991


FOR MORE INFORMATION ON GAME & WATCH: Check out issue 22 of Retrogames for our full Game & Watch directory including all 74 machines, with values, and release dates.

Guide to Other Handheld Manufacturers

ENTEX: American producer of some of the greatest electronic games.Cleverly added numbers to their game titles to avoid copywrite infringements. For example Space Invader 2 and Pac Man 2. Both include innovative two player modes. Rarest games in their library include the Adventurevision, (see guide to handhelds for more on it), the Select-a-game cartridge system, and some great tabletops, like Spiders and Stargate.

EPOCH: Japanese producer of some of the earliest videogame consoles and handhelds. These include those released in the UK as Grandstand AstroWars, Scramble and Firefox. Without doubt three of the biggest selling electronic tabletops in Europe. Rare tabletop games include Monster Chase and Clash of the titans, which are well worth tracking down.

BANDAI: Producer of a huge mix of LED games, from electronic handhelds like Missile Command and Armor Attack, to tabletops like Dracula Joh, and Crazy Climber. There must be over 100 different machines just from this Japanese producer.

BAMBINO: While Bambino went bust before better technology could have improved their games, the titles they released featured the most aesthetically pleasing designs. Smooth lines, and bulbous screen surrounds make these fabulous to look at. Kings of the crop are Race n Chase and Safari, just for their Star Trek inspired design.

TOMY: While primarily a toy manufacture, Tomy dabbled with analogue/electronic games before coming up with classic like Tomy Pac Man/Munchman, the round yellow tabletop. Then the Tomytronic 3D games which stayed in manufacture for many years. Back in Japan, there were many more electronic games, like the rare Mr DO! (or Mr Go! in Europe) which are now typically hard to find.

COLECO: Most famous for their Mini arcade series, one of the most collectible sets of electronic games, including the official Pac Man tabletop. Early football and Head to Head sports games got Coleco into the scene early, but never released great quantities of handheld titles.

PARKER: The simple Merlin and Cue ball games provided a launch pad for many more electronic games. Q*Bert mimics the Coleco Mini arcade games, while Wild Fire Pinball is about as good as LED based pinball ever got.

MATTEL: Their mid seventies American football game kickstarted the LED revolution, and is the only electronic LED game to ever get a re-issue twenty years later. Other classic include Gravity and Space Hawk.

GAKKEN: One of those games producers with a troubled history. New games continually appear under the Gakken name. In the UK they were mainly released under the CGL label. They include some amazing titles, like Puck Monster, Super Cobra, Dig Dug and Defender.

TIGER: The same company that made that dodgy Game.Com and all those rubbish Power rangers LCD games, also made some of the greatest tabletop games. King Kong, and Jawbreaker remain two of the rarest tabletops on the planet.

FUNTRONIC: Obscure, but very well designed electronic games. No firm figure on the amount of titles released has been established, but I know of at least three, including Starship Pinball.

SHIRA : Similarly shaped electronic games, each with two games on them. These feature lovely shaped boxes, if you ever find one in a box. Also a few more normal looking invader games exist under this name.

ACTRONICS: Cute shaped LED space and racing games, renamed by Tandy, but still rare even in this guise.

KONAMI: Mainly released their games in Japan, but these highly colourful LSI games can, like Tutankham, can fetch big prices.

VTL: Released thier own range of licensed games in Europe, like Monster Chase. These chunky tabletops use backlit LCD screens to provide an LED effect.

TANDY: Seemed to licence their handheld games from anyone and everyone. These include versions of the Epoch space tabletops, Bandai LED games, Bambino games, Actronic games, they even released their own version of Tomytronicís 3D games. Most collectible are the rare versions of Konami electronic LSI games, like Burger time, and Pengo.

KENNER: US manufacturer, famous for StarWars toys. Star wars battle command is the only tabletop they made, but they also made a series of electronic LED racing games in the shape of a steering wheel. Most famous is RedLine, but itís getting more expensive all the time.

And all the rest... There are plenty more manufacturers of electronic games, Tsukuda, JIM, Invicta, Hales, Grandstand, MB, Vtech etc etc. Thatís what keeps handheld gaming so much fun. You never know what you might turn up. Every company seemed to make at least a couple of interesting games, so your collection can continue to grow indefinitely. If you want to know more about electronic games, why not check out the Retrogames magazine, where youíll always find a related feature.


Top of every Handheld collectorís wish list, the Adventure vision is not only super rare, but easily broken thanks to its spinning and rather flimsy display mechanism.

Another facet of the systemís failure, is that the games are reported to be far less playable than those on a regular LED based tabletop game.

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