Nintendo has always been good at handheld games — even long before its Game Boy and subsequent platforms were a thing.
Those of you as old as me will doubtless remember the Game & Watch series, a range of 60 handheld electronic LCD games created by Nintendo and released between 1980 and 1991. These dinky little devices perfectly encapsulated what makes a “good handheld game” — something that is easy to learn but tough to master, and which you can either while away a few minutes with or engross yourself in for several hours thanks to their inherently addictive, rewarding quality.
The Game & Watch series was designed by Gunpei Yokoi, who later went on to design 1989’s astronomically popular Game Boy. It’s only appropriate, then, that a number of the games that really kickstarted Nintendo’s efforts in the handheld space went on to get their own adaptations on that platform, beginning with the Europe-only release of Game Boy Gallery in 1995.
For the unfamiliar, the Game & Watch games made use of a twisted nematic LCD display — the kind you’d find in an older digital watch, calculator or digital clock. In other words, they worked by having every possible graphical element of the game as a separate cell on the LCD screen, with said cells activating according to the game logic — where the player character was, where enemies were and suchlike. Most of the Game & Watch devices actually allowed you to see all these cells at once when you pressed the “All Clear” button to set the internal clock.
What this meant in gameplay terms was that you didn’t get smooth movement like we expect from games today: instead, pressing a directional button would move the player character between predefined positions, while interactions were, by necessity, very simple. The true genius of the Game & Watch series was that it created such a wide variety of different, highly enjoyable gaming experiences within these extreme technological and stylistic limitations. For those who have played Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series, this is also why the character “Mr. Game & Watch” has such seemingly primitive animations and a lack of detail about him — he is an accurate depiction of how a character would have typically appeared on a Game & Watch device’s screen.
Game Boy Gallery attempts to recreate the experience of playing five Game & Watch titles — including deliberately incorporating the limitations outlined above — with some slight presentational modernisations: most notably an optional musical accompaniment to each game and slightly enhanced visuals.
Both of these are welcome additions: the music is catchy and features unique, stylistically appropriate tracks for each game, while the Game Boy’s marginally increased colour (well, shades of grey) capabilities over the “on or off” nature of cells on twisted nematic LCD displays allows for characters and interactive elements on the screen to be more than just the silhouettes they were on the original devices, as well as animated rather than static backdrops. When played on a Game Boy Color or Super Game Boy, Game Boy Gallery takes things a step further with characters having actual flesh tones for their faces and arms.
But what of those games themselves? Well, let’s take them one at a time.
Ball was the first ever Game & Watch to be released, and it’s a simple premise: you play a freaky, terrifying puppet juggler with vicious-looking claw hands, and you need to keep three balls in the air. You do this by using left and right directional controls to move your arms between three different preset positions, and all you have to do to keep a ball going is ensure it lands in one of your hands.
As the game progresses, it gets faster and faster, and you’ll have to recognise the rhythm of the balls (quiet, you) to prioritise which one to “catch” next when several are approaching one hand in rapid succession. Drop one ball and it’s all over — there are no second chances for jugglers; even freaky, terrifying puppet jugglers with vicious-looking claw hands that could probably eviscerate anyone who dared criticise their performance.
It’s an addictive little game. The fact the balls move one at a time in rhythm rather than simultaneously gives it a rather hypnotic feel after a while — particularly when it reaches the higher tempos. And for those who find the default setting of “Game A” too easy, “Game B” ramps up the difficulty by accelerating to a faster pace much more quickly.
Next up is Vermin, which was originally the third Game & Watch to be released, and a simple adaptation of the “Whack a Mole” premise. You control a gardener attempting to protect his vegetable patch from incoming moles the only way he knows how: by wielding two enormous hammers. Like in Ball, there are only three different positions you can move between, but the twist here is that there are actually five different locations the moles can emerge from. Your character hits the spaces to either side of where he is standing rather than directly in front of him, so between the three positions he can cover all five entry points.
Again like Ball, there’s an element of timing, rhythm and prioritisation to this game. You’ll need to carefully observe how the moles are approaching and figure out which ones will emerge first, moving to an appropriate position to intercept them when they pop up. This game adds a slight element of randomness and unpredictability to the mix, too; the moles don’t necessarily approach you in a straight line, so you’ll have to pay attention to their trajectory while they’re incoming as well as when they appear for the whackin’.
It’s another addictive game, and a little more forgiving than Ball in that you can mess up three times before your game is over. There’s also a very brief window of opportunity when a mole pops up for you to move into position and take them out, so if your reactions are fast enough you can potentially recover from being ill-prepared. This is, once again, much more difficult to do on the “Game B” setting, however, since the already quite brisk pace of the game accelerates even more quickly in this mode.
Next up is Flagman, the second Game & Watch game to be released back in 1980. This is a simple Simon-style game in which you have to repeat a sequence back to the computer — in this case represented by the titular Flagman holding up flags (or his boot) with accompanying numbers and musical tones to help you memorise them. You have a time limit to repeat the sequence back to the game, and you can make three mistakes before your game is over.
The version of Flagman in Game Boy Gallery actually differs a little from the original Game & Watch version in how its “Game B” mode is handled. On the original device, “Game B” simply required the player to repeat back a single button press against a tight time limit, while here “Game B” is a more complex version of “Game A”, adding two additional buttons to the mix besides the four directions of the original. This game provides a particularly good example of how the Game Boy’s enhanced capabilities are used to enhance the original concept — the two additional numbers are introduced as small creatures on platforms next to the Flagman, and they make appropriate noises when they hold up their numbers. This really helps with memorising the sequences!
Flagman is a simplistic game, but an effective challenge and test of your memory. We’ve been playing variants on Simon for years in video games, but this is a particularly effective adaptation thanks to its combination of striking, clear visuals and excellent use of sound. “Game B” in particular is an entertaining twist on the formula, and a stiff challenge for those who really rate their memory skills!
Then we have 1981’s Manhole. This game actually found itself in two consecutive releases in this series: the original, Europe-only Game Boy Gallery we’re concerned with here, and 1997’s Game & Watch Gallery, the first installment of the series to be released worldwide. (Confusingly, this latter release was called Game Boy Gallery in Japan, but let’s not get into all that now.) The adaptations were different, however; while Game & Watch Gallery featured the option to play with modernised, Super Mario-themed graphics and sound, the version in Game Boy Gallery remained more true to the original Game & Watch version.
Manhole is, like the other games in this package, a simple idea that becomes more complex and difficult to manage as its pace increases. You’re tasked with helping people cross bridges; unfortunately, these bridges have holes in them, and the people in question are too stupid to avoid falling down said holes. (There’s probably scope for a modern-day remake of this game with the people in question being too engrossed in staring at their phones to pay attention to where they’re walking. But I digress.) It’s up to you, as intrepid Mr. Game & Watch, to plug the holes in the bridges and allow the people to cross. Unfortunately, you only have one manhole cover to hand, and as such can only plug one of the four holes at a time.
You guessed it, what we have here is another game of time management and rhythm. In this case, you’ll need to observe the pace at which the people are approaching and plug the gaps at exactly the right moment. Like in Ball, you only need to “touch” your target briefly for them to be safe, and understanding this element of the game is essential to success as the tempo gradually accelerates and more people start approaching the bridges simultaneously. Alongside Vermin, this is definitely one of the more hectic, stressful games in the collection — but the increasing sense of panic as you play makes it feel very rewarding when you do well.
Finally, we have Cement Factory, which was known as Mario’s Cement Factory in its original Game & Watch incarnation. This was originally released some three years later than Ball, Vermin and Flagman, and it shows; it’s a more ambitious, complex game with a lot more in the way of moving parts.
In Cement Factory, your main job is to deliver cement from conveyor belts at the top of the screen into trucks waiting at the bottom. You do this by allowing it to fall from the belt into a hopper, then pulling a lever on the hopper to empty it into another hopper, then pulling a lever on that hopper to empty it into the truck. This is happening on both sides of the screen simultaneously, and if a top hopper overflows, that’s a life lost for you.
That’s not nearly enough to think about and stress you out, though, so actually getting around the factory is made more challenging through the elevator shaft in the middle of the screen. On one side, the elevators are moving upwards at a regular pace; on the other, they are moving downwards. The only way to get from one side of the factory to the other is to cross two elevators while they’re on the same floor; thankfully, as in most Game & Watch games, the elevators move one at a time rather than simultaneously so, as always, a good sense of timing and rhythm will help you get where you’re going quickly.
As the game progresses, not only does the pace increase but the layout of the elevators becomes more irregular, forcing you to observe their patterns carefully and perhaps take refuge in one of the two safe spots on the screen, lest you either fall into the bottom of the shaft or get crushed at the top. In “Game B” these irregular patterns are present right from the outset, requiring you to pay close attention to where you’re going and the timing of your movements from the very get-go.
Cement Factory is one of my favourite Game & Watch games, and not just because it’s one of the few I actually owned back in the day. It has a little more depth to its gameplay than the “make sure you’re in the right place at the right time” element of most of the others in this collection, and has an enjoyable light strategic/time management element to it that can be traced forward into a number of more modern games such as Gamelab and PlayFirst’s popular casual game series Diner Dash.
All in all, Game Boy Gallery is a fun collection of classic Game & Watch titles. While it may have been superceded by the later Game & Watch Gallery titles, which feature the option to play in both “classic” and “modern” styles as well as getting worldwide releases, it’s still an interesting curiosity worth checking out — and, since it never got a Virtual Console release, unlike its successors, it’s a fun addition to any physical retro collection, too, particularly if you live outside Europe.
More about Game Boy Gallery
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