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.