Tiger Electronics. Coleco. Konami. Bandai.
These are all familiar publishers for gamers from the ’80s. Back in the days when Nintendo’s biggest competitor in the living room was Atari, the handheld market was dominated by battery-operated LCD games.
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Now, many of those games live on, thanks to the Internet Archive.
The digital library’s ongoing efforts to preserve old games and software — a process that began around four years ago — have now given us the Handheld History Collection. The lineup of games, tabletop machines, and board games covers products released over a big stretch of time, from the 1970s into the 1990s.
It’s a collection that includes roughly 60 titles, from names you know — like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong — to games that you’ve probably never heard of. Did you know, for example, that Tiger released a handheld MC Hammer game at one point? Or that Q*Bert‘s tabletop arcade release has a very different look?
You may be surprised to see how different some of these games are from the way you know them on other platforms. Early handhelds were severely limited in what they could do, and they were usually built around a small handful of easily repeatable core mechanics. Difficulty was often a matter of speeding things up or slowing them down.
In other words: Even if you recognize the titles on this list, go ahead and check out the games themselves. They’re very different.
All of the games on Internet Archive are emulated, meaning there’s a central piece of software that processes the game information and plays it on your screen. Just like past Internet Archive game releases, everything in the Handheld History Collection is playable in your browser, with keyboard commands listed in the text below the emulation window.
An extensive post on the Internet Archive’s blog discusses the unique technical challenges of converting these handheld games for browser play. It’s not as simple as copying the game files in this case.
Many of the old LCD games, for example, relied upon static backgrounds that were physically built into the handheld. Recreating them in your browser, then, means tearing apart one of the original devices so its behind-the-screen art can be reproduced. It’s one of those rare cases where preservation is rooted, by design, in an act of destruction.
It’s not a complete collection that the Internet Archive has assembled here. Nintendo’s beloved Game & Watch handhelds, for example, are nowhere to be seen.
This is just a starting point. Historian and Internet Archive contributor Jason Scott noted on Twitter that there are “over 200” games classified as “handheld,” and more will be added over time. So stay tuned!
There are over 200 games classified as “handheld” by MAME’s database; we went with about 60 just to work out any issues, ensure there were documents, etc. I’ll add more as time goes on, probably sooner than later. If your favorite isn’t there yet, check again soon.
— Jason Scott (@textfiles) March 18, 2018