Thursday, May 03, 2007


Game & Watch Diaries

It was late in the Game Boy's life. I could look up the year, but I can't be bothered. It was a time when I would regularly browse the shelves at the local K-Mart, trying to find something -- anything -- new to play.

And a box caught my eye, a game I'd never seen before. Game & Watch Gallery. "Four games in one!" the box promised, complete with colorful pictures of Mario and friends engaged in intriguing-looking adventures. Enticed, I looked at the back of the box and found...

A screenshot of stencilled, LCD characters, like the kind you found in those crappy portable games that they used to make before the Game Boy came out.

My hopes turned into an ugly sneer. Yeah. I'm going to pay thirty bucks so I can play four crappy LCD games on my Game Boy. I don't think so. I figured it'd be bargain bin stuffing by the end of the month.

Funny thing was, it wasn't. This, of course, only made me more resentful. No way this collection of "video games" could be worth full retail price. LCD games are awful! Everyone knows that!

Time passed. The Game Boy Color came out. And one of the only original launch titles that Nintendo offered was Game & Watch Gallery 2.

Ha! How funny is that? Nintendo finally produces a handheld with a color screen, and they're going to showcase it with another collection of black and white LCD games?

I was in college by this point. And I had discovered the internet. It didn't take me long to discover video game fan sites, including the dearly departed Game Boy Color Dojo (which later became Game Boy Station before succumbing to a sad, quiet death).

One day, they posted a review of Game & Watch Gallery 2. I decided to peek in on it just for grins.

And to my complete shock, I found that... it had a positive review. The reviewer laid out a rather convincing case for the package, heralding it as an oasis of twitch-action gaming.

And I had to admit to myself -- I was curious. And I owned a Game Boy Color that didn't have especially many good games that were designed for it.

I bought into it, and my paradigms were shifted.

Once I had the second one, I knew I had to get the first one.

The first one was a solid foundation for the series, laying out the groundwork for what was to come. You could choose between Classic, where each game is presented as close to original format as the hardware would allow, and Modern, where fully-animated Mushroom Kingdom folk replace the Mr. Game & Watches, and there's often a cool little twist on the original gameplay. Scoring high would earn you stars and open up the Gallery Corner, where you could see non-interactive Game & Watches on display.

Gallery 2 built on the idea with more games, including Ball as a fully-playable bonus game with several unlockable Modern variations. Gallery 3 boasted five unlockable bonus games (Classic version only), and a nifty recreation of a version of Fire that was made with a manufacturing error. The series moved to Game Boy Advance for its final installment to date, Gallery 4, which featured a monstrous 20 titles -- six games at the outset, five unlockable games with Modern variations, and nine unlockable Classic-only games.

I admit, when I first started out with the series, I was more interested in the Modern versions than the originals. I had to ease into the idea of watching static black stencil figures leap from position to position across the screen as my Game Boy clicked and chirped and buzzed along. But the more comfortable I got with the Game & Watch experience, the more I came to appreciate these little low-tech wonders in their original format. It's remarkable how much gameplay and personality the creators were able to cram into a unit with such deadly limitations. I thought Tiger Electronics was the king of the handheld LCD game, but no, the only thing they had going for them was big-name licenses. Nintendo was the company that truly turned the format's limitations into strengths.

Most Game & Watches were tiny arcade-style games with very little name recognition, although there were a few attempts to convert popular arcade and home console games. The series is very heavy on the simple action games, but if you look hard, you'll find a puzzle game like Bombsweeper, a platformer like Climber, or even an adventure game like Zelda.

I don't have enough to say about any particular game to give it a full-length review, but there are more than a couple titles that caught and held my attention for years on end. And I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge them. My ten favorite classic Game & Watches, in no particular order:


Fire was an early favorite for me. It's the quintessential Game & Watch game, an example of the most widely imitated Game & Watch format in existance: guide a hero left and right through three possible positions to either catch or avoid objects approaching from the top of the screen. Only Parachute beats out Fire for simplest gameplay.

There's a burning building on the left side of the screen, and people are jumping out the windows. Guiding two characters with a rescue net, you have to catch the jumpers as they fall. They'll bounce up, arc slightly, and reach the second position, where you'll have to catch them again. They'll bounce again to the third position, and if you catch them there, they'll land safely in the ambulance, ready to be treated for their injuries, if any. And it's simple enough when it's one person at a time, but it doesn't take long before the air is thick with flying people, and you're scrambling back and forth as fast as you can to try and Catch 'Em All! (tm)

This game sticks out in my mind partly because of its incidental similarity to a Circus Atari clone that I rather liked and partly because the game is just so damned hard. There's no easy way to score points, no safe place to take a quick breather when the going gets tough, and a lot of split second timing involved. This is edge-of-your-seat stuff, especially when you start to get up to the 700 or 800 point mark. One wrong move, one slight delay, and CRACK! You feel it when someone hits the pavement. Whenever I want to get my blood pumping, I bust out Fire.

One interesting thing that I didn't notice until it was pointed out to me -- in the version that appears in Game & Watch Gallery 1 and 4, when you miss a jumper, there's a cute little animation that shows him getting up and walking away, apparently annoyed by the quality of his rescue experience. This doesn't appear in the original unit, and it couldn't -- the walking figure overlaps locations occupied by other characters on the screen, a big no-no for real-world Game & Watches. I didn't notice this when I played it in Gallery 1, I didn't notice this when I played it in Gallery 4 (which shows shadows of unlit characters on the screen), and I didn't notice this when I bought a Fire keychain. Shows how much I'm paying attention.


I think Manhole and Vermin are the only two games that I enjoy in Classic format despite the fact that I don't really care for their Modern counterparts. I didn't click with Manhole right away, and when I did, it was for a rather surprising reason.

The premise is bizarre. There are two roads on the screen, one above the other. Each road has two gaps in it. Pedestrians cross the two roads, right to left on the upper road and left to right on the lower road. They'll walk blindly right into a gap, and if they do, they'll fall. You have a single manhole cover that you can use to support the pedestrians as they cross the gaps. All you have to do is pop between the four possible locations at exactly the right time so that no one has to interrupt their walk with a plummet into the sewers.

I didn't get into it at first because the entire arrangement is just plain baffling. The original unit had four directional buttons on it, one for each possible position, so you were always exactly one button press away from the next hole you had to be at. Since the Game Boy's controls couldn't quite emulate this properly, Nintendo compromised by letting you move to the next gap up, down, left, or right from your current position using the control pad, and to the gap diagonal with the A button.

Took me freaking forever to wrap my head around that one. Then combine it with the fact that the timing is weird. A pedestrian will only fall into the sewers if there's no manhole cover at the exact moment that they step onto a gap -- it's not immediately obvious that you can safely move away (and leave them hanging in midair) once you hear that "beep" of a safe landing.

But I took the time to get into it. I eventually got the feel for the pacing of the game, the patterns of the pedestrians, the rhythm of it...

And one day it clicked with me. Manhole is a freaking rhythm game.

Okay, so there's not much of a "song" to it -- just a minimalist techno ditty that I call "Click Click BEEP BEEP" -- but sliding into the groove in Manhole gives you exactly the same feeling that you get when you slide into a DDR groove. It's weird, and I can't possibly explain it better than that, but that's the impression I get from it.

I got really freaking fantastic at the version in Gallery 1 -- rolled the high score several times over on Hard mode. I was pretty confident in my Manhole mastery until the e-Reader came along and the freebie Manhole card that came with the system completely schooled me. Same thing with the unlockable version in Gallery 4. It occurred to me that possibly the original Game Boy hardware prevented them from creating a version of the game that's actually as difficult as the original units.

Now the version on Gallery 4 is my version of choice. Because it's just so satisfying to get through a tough pattern.


My first experience with Ball was on the Game Boy Camera. At first, I played it simply because it was, in my opinion, the best use of the camera's Game Face feature. But when the novelty of seeing my head grafted onto Mr. Game & Watch's torso wore thin, I began to see that the juggling game was actually relatively engaging.

This was the original Game & Watch. There's a definate Pong vibe going on when you play it. Not that the games are at all similar, you understand, but... it just has a feeling of genesis, like it's the first timid glimpse at a world of as yet untapped potential. It's definately a step backwards if you're used to later Game & Watches. Animation is minimal, and the artwork is particularly crude. You only get one miss -- drop a single ball, and the game is all over.

The premise is rather simple. You have to juggle two or three balls (depending on the difficulty level). Each ball follows one of three arcs from your character's left hand to his right hand and then back again. Your hands move left and right across the three positions, and all you have to do to stay in the game is make sure that the correct hand is lined up with each ball as it reaches either end of its arc. The twist is, both hands move at once, and you sometimes have to manage balls flying on both sides of the screen simultaneously.

Even though it's Nintendo's first attempt at the genre, it still stands out as a charming and loveable gem. If only it appeared in Game & Watch Gallery 4, the collection would have been complete.

Mario Brothers

Hey, finally some big name star power! No attempt was made to base this Game & Watch on the arcade game of the same name, and thank God for that, because the original Mario Brothers is crap. YEAH I WENT THERE

Instead, this game is about Mario and Luigi at one of the part time factory jobs they used to work before they starting eating mushrooms and spitting fireballs. You control Mario and Luigi simultaneously as they move up and down ladders to operate a complicated three-story conveyor-driven machine. Parts (Modern mode identifies them as cakes, which might not be the truth, but it's as good a suggestion as any) arrive at the bottom of the factory, and Mario has to be there to catch them and put them on the first conveyor. It rides along to the other side of the screen, where Luigi has to be there to catch it and put it on the second conveyor. Mario has to hop up to the next floor to catch it and sent it back, etc, until it's bundled up and shipped off by an anonymous trucker.

The original unit had up and down controls for both Mario and Luigi. On the Game Boy, Luigi still moves up and down using the control pad, and Mario moves up with A and down with B. It's a surprisingly intuitive accomodation, works magnificently.

I love this game partly because I'm super good at it despite how hectic it can be. Generally, the cakes arrive in such a way that you'll only really need to pay attention to one brother at a time, but the potential for situations where you have to pay attention to both sides of the screen at once makes it screaming mad fun. The animation and art is fantastic by Game & Watch standards -- one of the few Classic games that I consider to be just as easy on the eyes as its Modern component. And in Classic mode, you actually get cool animations that you'd miss out on in Modern mode -- things like watching Mario and Luigi taking a breather every time a shipment is filled or getting chewed out by the foreman whenever a cake falls. It's just a class act all around.

And there's a neat, unadvertised feature to this game: play it two-player, Wario Ware Inc. style! One player grabs the control pad, the other grabs the A and B buttons, and both players work together to keep the cake factory running smoothly. It makes the game a hell of a lot easier, and it's more fun than it really should be.

Donkey Kong II

I actually owned a real Donkey Kong Junior Game & Watch when I was in grade school. I thought it was cute, but ultimately it wasn't a very good translation of the original game.

But Donkey Kong II? Now we're talking! This is easily the most exciting of all the Game & Watch Donkey Kong games. And it's a dual screen!

On the bottom screen, Junior jumps and climbs to avoid snapping traps and electric shocks. The top screen looks like the final level of Donkey Kong Junior, with four vines to climb and flying birds to avoid. Get all four keys, and you'll let daddy go.

It's a shame that the "official" Donkey Kong Junior got more attention than this version. I'd much rather have seen this one on Gallery 4, and a Modern version would have been great.


Here's a classic bit of logic from Game & Watch Land. You've just hung your laundry outside on the clothesline. Suddenly, the sky turns dark and it starts to rain. What do you do? Take in your clothes and run them to the nearest coin-operated clothesdrier? Nope! You get out there and pull the clothesline back and forth and weave your clothes between the raindrops!

Considering there are only four locations on the screen that your character can occupy, there's a lot going on in this game. You've got four clotheslines to manage, two on the left and two on the right, divided into two stories. Two lines have two shirts, two have one shirt. And it's a constant, mad scramble to make sure your shirts are lined up to dodge the giant raindrops pouring down from the sky. And in Game B, you have to worry about two pesky crows fiddling with your lines when you're not looking.

But despite the busier setup (or perhaps to counteract it), the pacing is a lot slower. You have time to judge the pattern of the raindrops as they fall and figure out how to adjust the pattern of your laundry accordingly. It's much more of a mental game compared to the "REACT! REACT! REACT!" pacing of Game & Watches like Fire.

Mario's Cement Factory

And speaking of slower pacing -- wow. I dunno if it's just the versions I've played, but this has got to be the slowest-moving Game & Watch game in the entire library. There are stretches of multiple seconds at a time where you're just hunkered down waiting for something to happen. Very atypical of the Game & Watch series.

Still, this one got its hooks in me. You're in a two-level cement factory, each level divided into Left and Right. A conveyor drops off cement into the holding tanks on either side of the top floor, and each tank can hold three loads. It's your job to hit the lever that drains the upper tanks into the lower tanks, then go to the lower level and drain those tanks into the waiting cement trucks.

The challenge comes from the fact that the elevators were designed by a madman.

The two sides of the screen are divided by an elevator shaft with one column of elevators going down and one column going up. There are a lot of gaps between the individual platforms, and if you carelessly step into a spot where there isn't a platform, you fall all the way to your death. (This is another game from the days before Mario could sustain a five-story drop without injury.) So there's this gauntlet that you have to run through not only when you want to switch levels, but also when you want to move from one side of the screen to the other. It's not difficult; you just have to move cautiously.

And that's really what this game is all about -- taking your time, and moving cautiously, but not so cautiously that you let the next load of cement spill over the top of the holding tank. No, no, relax, it won't be there for another minute, I'm just saying, you don't have all day, even though it seems like it. My attraction to Cement Factory seems to stem mostly from my love of anything with moving elevators in it and my love of moving liquids around.


Bombsweeper is probably the Holy Grail of no-name Game & Watches. (Although I'll admit, I haven't had the pleasure of playing Goldcliff). There's no relationship to Minesweeper, although they are both puzzle games.

But get this -- this is a dual-screen Game & Watch where the upper screen is used just for cinematic animation. There are cute cutscenes that take place before and after each set of levels (and whenever you die), telling the story of a madman who's planting bombs in the city sewers and a daring police chief who fearlessly directs his underlings to get down after him and defuse those bombs. This is practically Final Fantasy VII by Game & Watch standards.

Actual gameplay takes place on the lower screen, where you have to weave your character between a maze of moveable walls to try and reach a bomb that's sitting at the edge of the screen. Some levels have more than one bomb. You only need to reach one -- the others are decoys to try and throw you off. After a certain number of levels, you have to play an easy automatic-scrolling maze to reach one last bomb.

As far as pushing-block mazes go, this is a pretty decent one, with sometimes clever level design and a lot of different levels to get through. I wouldn't be surprised if it was based on some other, lesser-known video game; the concept is just too cool to be limited to a one-off Game & Watch.


I would like Ice Climber a lot more if the controls didn't suck. Which is probably why I like Climber. The similarities between the two games are obvious, but a few token changes were made to the graphics to keep Nintendo from suing itself over intellectual property theft.

It's all there. Scale and smash your way up the platforms, avoid birds and weird enemies that are constantly filling in the bricks above your head, get to the top, and try and grab onto a giant bird. It's a little too easy to be a truly great game, but I'll get the itch to pick this one up every now and then.


Because the Nintendo Fanboy Code states that all Top Ten lists must finish with something Zelda-related. This game's not "The Legend of Zelda", mind you, just "Zelda". And you're not likely to find a better adventure-oriented Game & Watch from any company.

The game takes place in eight dungeons (actually four dungeons that are repeated with a harder variation, but who's counting). The object is to fight your way through to the dragon at the end of each dungeon and in this manner recover the eight pieces of the Triforce that are needed to rescue Princess Zelda, who's being held captive in the corner of the upper screen. And there's a hell of a lot going on in this game.

First of all, the lower screen shows you one room of the dungeon from a 2-D side perspective, just like Link's Adventure. Link himself stands on a platform with four possible positions. He usually holds his shield in front of himself, but if you press the sword button, he'll hold it behind himself to deflect attacks from the rear.

On the right side of the screen, there's a Moblin standing on a platform. He can move back and forth between two positions. This is the only enemy in the room that you can attack, and you must slay him to clear the room. Most of the time, you can only hit him if you're on the far right side of your platform and he's on the far left side of his. He usually waits for you to be close enough to do a direct attack, but sometimes he'll throw a dagger at you.

Beneath Link's platform, you'll find between one and four Stalfos. Some of them stay in one place, some of them move back and forth to try and get under you. Both kinds will slowly lift their daggers into the air to try and stab you from beneath. So in addition to attacking the Moblin on the right, you have to skip back and forth out of the way of the daggers coming up at your feet.

And sometimes there'll be a ghost on the left side of the screen. From time to time, he'll pop up and spit arrows at you, which you'll have to deflect by holding down the sword button (which moves your shield to your rear).

So you're dancing between dangers and slowly whittling away the hit points of the Moblin on the right side of the screen. When you kill him, you can move on to the next room. Many rooms will give you a choice of where you want to go next, up and to the left or up and to the right. All paths eventually lead to the boss, but you have to plan your exploration carefully, or you'll miss out on the chance to collect special items along the way.

Did I mention those? Yeah, when you beat a Moblin, you'll usually get some sort of item. There's hearts, which add one to your life meter. There's the map, which will fill in a display on the upper screen, showing you the basic layout of the dungeon you're in. There's the Water of Life, which can be used at any time to max out your life meter or to automatically revive you at perfect health if you happen to carelessly die. And there's the tomahawk (?!), which you can only use in the boss battle, but will deal out lots of extra damage. You can keep the Water of Life for as long as you like, but you have to find a new map and tomahawk in each dungeon.

And when you get to the end of each dungeon, Link moves to the upper screen to fight the boss, a big fire-breathing dragon. You stand on a platform with two available positions, and you have to dodge dragonfire raining from above and a swinging tail that can hit you from the right position. You can only hit the dragon when you're standing on the right, but if you can slice away all of his hit points, you win a fragment of the Triforce. The upper screen also contains your subscreen -- which displays the map of the current dungeon, your items on hand, and the Triforce pieces you've recovered -- and enough space to show a cute little cinema of Link rescuing Zelda when you finally get the whole Triforce back together.

It's an excellent experience all around, as epic as Game & Watch can get. But this is a long, long game -- I don't know how people managed to finish this one in the days before automatic save, even with unlimited continues.

So that's my Game & Watch experience. Nintendo hasn't made any new titles for quite some time, but if you check the racks at your local Toys R Us, chances are pretty good you'll find some of the keychains based on the Nintendo originals. (Why, just last Christmas I found my very own Zelda keychain!) And, of course, there are any number of knock-offs and imitations still floating around.

They can be charming games, but it's hard to justify buying an entire unit that can only play one game. I've got a number of the keychains, but I never use them anymore. I would have liked to see the Game & Watch e-Reader cards get a North American debut, and I'm still holding out hope for a definitive Game & Watch gallery on the DS (just think -- all of the dual screen games with 100% faithful graphics!), but a revival of the actual Game & Watch units? I'm really not sure I'm up for that.

I mean, LCD games are awful. Everyone knows that.


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