I subscribe to Nicole Express, a terrific website by Ms. Nicole Caroline Branagan which covers video game history topics from a hands-on developer perspective, in my feed reader. On November 20, 2022, Ms. Branagan covered the Elektronika IM-32, a Soviet-made version (or knockoff, less generously) of Nintendo’s classic Game & Watch consoles. The history of the Elektronika IM-32, as well as the Nicole Express look inside the system, is well-worth reading – and I recommend the original article. Here, I will look at an interesting passage about the Game & Watch itself which ties into an article I wrote a few months ago about Nintendo’s plans to support its current flagship console, the Switch, for several more years.
For those not in the know, the Nintendo Game & Watch line consisted of what I would describe as single-game handheld consoles with a similar form-factor to the Game Boy Advance. However, unlike games for the Game Boy Advance, or the comparatively primitive Game Boy, the Game & Watch games were very simple. Ms. Branagan described the original concept of Gunpei Yokoi, who created the Game & Watch before going on to create the very successful Game Boy:
When you have a computer like [an LCD wristwatch], somebody’s going to want to use it to play games. In this case, that somebody was Gunpei Yokoi, an engineer at … Nintendo. Creating a game device using watch technology (even keeping the timekeeping element), this became the ‘Game & Watch’ product line.
I must confess that I never thought about where the Watch came from in Game & Watch. The scales have fallen from my eyes. In full disclosure, I note that I have never seen an original Game & Watch in person, much less owned one. However, I do have a history with Game & Watch games, a history with the same origin as Ms. Branagan’s. Later in the article, Ms. Branagan noted that Game & Watch Gallery 3 for the Game Boy was one of her favorite games while growing up. I too was first exposed to the Game & Watch series through the Game & Watch Gallery games for Game Boy.
I had all three, starting with the original. However, I played most of my Game & Watch on little Game Boy-shaped key chain games created by Nintendo in the late 1990s.
(My favorite was Parachute. I had a 1998 Stadlbauer keychain version. It was blue. I wish I still had it (see image))
But I digress. Back to serious matters.
As Ms. Branagan carefully explained, the original concept for the Game & Watch line was to create games with the computers powering classic watches (she used a photo of a classic CASIO LCD watch as an example). After detailing the heavy technical confines this places on game development, she explained the effect that these limitations had on the final Game & Watch products and how the idea was in line with Nintendo’s design philosophy:
Game & Watch games are even more “pick up and play” than your average arcade game and are generally about the score. Nintendo also aggressively pursued licenses like Mickey Mouse and Snoopy, because of the higher resolution art that made possible. This was an early example of a Nintendo philosophy known as “lateral thinking with withered technology” which we see even today, where their console uses an older mobile system-on-a-chip to successfully compete with much higher-end consoles.
Back in February, I wrote about a statement from Nintendo’s President indicating that the Switch, despite already being five years old, was only in the “middle” of its life-cycle. While there is a good chance that Nintendo will release a new console before 2028, I praised the sentiment. In so doing, I noted that although the Switch is under-powered compared to the current generation PlayStation and Xbox, much less compared to high-end PCs, “the leaps between generations of technology are less than they used to be” for purposes of video games. That is, the Switch is still capable of delivering unique game experiences, and Nintendo’s interest in supporting it for a long period is good for consumers.
(I will note that I wrote that well before I played Pokémon Violet on launch day, which would be enough to shake one’s faith in the assertion that Switch has no power issues. However, there is ample evidence that Pokémon Scarlet’s and Violet’s early-release technical issues are more particular to those games rather than to the Switch as a whole.)
I had some trouble coming up with a title for my Nintendo Switch article, which is perhaps why few people visited it. What I lacked was a clear and concise term, what I settled on was “long-lasting tech.” Little did I know that there is a better term. Ms. Branagan explained that Nintendo has a philosophy, originally attributed to Gunpei Yokoi, of “lateral thinking with withered technology.” She noted that the Switch, which “uses an older mobile system-on-a-chip,” is an example of the philosophy.
Before continuing, I will note with some interest that Nintendo has not universally followed this philosophy. It has followed it with respect to hand-held devices, the original Game Boy was under-powered compared to other handhelds when it was released in 1989, and Nintendo did not attempt to get into a handheld power arms race with Sony in the 2000s. Moreover, Nintendo’s three previous home consoles, the Wii, Wii U, and Switch, have all been under-powered in comparison to Sony’s and Microsoft’s same-generation offerings. However, Nintendo’s first four consoles, the Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo 64, and GameCube, were either top-of-the-line in power for their generations or close to it. It is interesting to consider how their home console strategy may have converged with their handheld strategy after the relatively modest sales records of the Nintendo 64 and GameCube.
(Note: I wrote recently about what may have been Nintendo’s most unfortunate attempt at lateral thinking with withered technology – its aborted 1991 plan to turn the Nintendo Entertainment System into a home lottery machine.)
It appears that the lateral thinking with withered technology idea is cited most often with respect to how Nintendo has designed some of its consoles in the first instance. However, as I indicated in my article on the Switch’s long life-cycle, I am most interested in the general concept as a way to extend the life-cycle of consoles. The Switch, despite its comparative lack of power, is still going strong more than five years after its release. Nintendo continues to support the console with new and original games, and people continue to enjoy the Switch and buy new games for it. That Nintendo still prioritizes physical game cartridges, which I discussed in another post, combined with the long life-cycle for the Switch, is pro-consumer, and appropriate for the current state of game technology and progression.
Nintendo itself has applied the spirit of the lateral thinking philosophy, if not the precise letter, to extending the life-cycle of older consoles in the past. Some later Super Nintendo games received the Super FX chip, Nintendo 64 received the RAM Expansion Pack (not to mention the 64DD, which never made it outside Japan), and one could argue that some of its handheld successor consoles such as the Game Boy Pocket and Game Boy Color, as well as its backward compatibility across handheld consoles, also fit within the framework. Its main early-1990s competitor, Sega, was famous (or infamous) for its attempts to extend the life-cycle of the Sega Genesis (while these attempts ultimately failed, I approve of the concept if not the execution).
I bring this post to a close by arguing that tech hardware companies should, ideally, consider Nintendo’s philosophy from the perspective of extending the life-cycle of hardware and long-term support. This applies not only to game consoles, but also to other forms of tech.
I also again remind readers to read the full Nicole Express article on the Game & Watch and Elektronika IM-32, which covers both in a detailed, informative, and entertaining manner.