Collect Classic Handhelds

Put retro gaming power into the palm of your hand.

Collecting home console games—as described in most of the other hacks in this very chapter—can be fun, but there’s another side of classic game collecting out there that might be more up your Alleyway. Handheld games have been popular since the late 1970’s—just about as long as home games. Of course, the games were never as powerful as the home games of the time; but then again, if you only cared about the most advanced gaming technology, you wouldn’t be reading this book!

In this hack, I’ll talk about some of the most popular lines of handheld games, give you some idea of what they played like, and how difficult it is to collect them [Hack #1] . But first, here are some reasons to get into handheld collecting, as well as some web sites to visit.

Why Handhelds?

Most of us have fond (or less-than-fond) memories of playing LCD handheld games when we were far away from our home consoles, in the car or on vacation. Many of them were patterned after successful home games of the time, and usually adorned with artwork and fancy form factors to distract from the fact that the games were ultra-simple and oftentimes not that much fun. Still, there are plenty of advantages to collecting handheld games over consoles.

Handheld games are small

This one’s a no-brainer. Handheld games were meant to fit into a pocket, or at least be small and light enough to be portable. So storing them isn’t nearly as painful as stacking away boxes of console games.

Handheld games are self-contained

You never have to worry about hooking a handheld game up to a TV. And they run on batteries, so there are no messy wires to store and get tangled up. Everything you need to play them, anytime you feel like it, is right there in the hardware. (Provided you keep an ample supply of batteries around, that is.)

Handheld games are colorful display pieces

Display your Atari 2600 collection on a shelf and it’ll look like a black box with a bunch of smaller black boxes stacked up next to it. But put your collection of handhelds on display, and it’ll be a symphony of colors, artwork, and interesting shapes, all reflective of the toy design sensibilities of the time.

Web Sites of Note

Run by handheld game supercollector Rik Morgan, the Handheld Museum is his attempt to photographically catalog every handheld game ever made, a great deal of which he personally owns. He’s doing quite the job of it too, with photos of and information on hundreds of games, categorized by manufacturer and with a handy search function on the front page.

This is the lavishly designed official web site of the lavishly designed book Electronic Plastic (a beautiful full-color volume with illustrations of handheld games of the golden age). The book itself can be ordered from Amazon UK (follow the links on the page).

If you like Nintendo’s line of Game and Watch handhelds, you need to see this site. Featuring not only pictures of each handheld but reviews, instructions, and screenshots of the LCD action in easy-to-view format, browsing this site is as addictive and fun as the games themselves.

There is some extraordinary retro game hacking going on here. The site’s author makes scans of his handheld games, and then programs a perfect simulator in Borland Delphi 4.0, using the graphics and sound from the original games. The fidelity is amazing; it’s like having the machine embedded in your monitor. Even better, there’s a tutorial for those who want to try making their own simulations.

Popular Handhelds for Collectors

So your interest is piqued, but you’ve seen the massive photo galleries at the web sites just mentioned and you’re not sure where to begin. Well, how about thinking back on your childhood and what, if any, handhelds you might rediscover a fond nostalgic attachment to. If that doesn’t work, read this section.

Mattel Classic Football.

Okay, it wasn’t called “Classic” when it was first released, but you’ve probably seen this handheld, revitalized for the modern-day retro-happy market, on shelves in Wal-Mart. It proved single-handedly the theory of suspension of disbelief by creating a football game out of nothing more than a few horizontal lines of red LED lights. You controlled a dot running to the right and tried to dodge the dots coming from the left. If you reached the end, touchdown!

Of course, they could have turned the dots on their side and it could have been called Avoid the Bricks, or turned it upside down and called it Sink or Swim. It’s just a few lights. But the football branding paid off and other sports handhelds followed, such as Basketball (which Mattel has also re-released).

Coleco tabletop games.

It’s hard for me not to love Coleco; I’m from Connecticut just like them, and of course they made my favorite golden-age system, the Colecovision [Hack #36] . They also made incredible tabletop games based on popular arcade licenses like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, and Frogger.

Not only are they superb display items, shaped like foot-tall, miniature arcade machines with replicas of the cabinet art found on the originals— they play pretty good, too! They use multicolored LED displays to create bright, detailed (for a handheld game!) displays with solid gameplay. Unfortunately, the fact that they were considered to be toys, not electronic equipment, meant that they got banged around a lot back in the day. So it’s rare to find them in mint condition (or at all!).

Nintendo Game and Watch.

If you want to combine your love of handhelds with your love of Nintendo, this series can be a rewarding hobby. The tiny pieces of hardware (about the length and width of a credit card, though ten times as thick) held some big games, many of which were based on Nintendo’s arcade and home successes like Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.

Unfortunately, since these are so coveted, collecting them can be expensive. Some of the more common games, though, can be had without dropping a lot of cash. The Game and Watch specialty web site linked earlier in this hack features selling and trading forums for collectors to hook up and make deals.

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