No one remembers it, but it’s regarded as the first mobile game ever made; Mattel Electronics Auto Race was released back in 1976, and did not sell well, shipping fewer than 100,000 units. If you’re thinking that that game must have been a bore, you’d be right, as it didn’t have a screen, which is pretty necessary to play a video game.
While it lacked an actual screen, you could actually see the car you were racing, but it was indicated as little LED lights. For 1976, that was pretty solid technology, but kids didn’t catch on and before long this pioneering system was forgotten.
While Mattel’s Auto Race didn’t do well at all commercially, it had a profound affect on gaming, and this affect would be seen over the next three decades as gaming evolved from something kids did to an activity that millions upon millions of people (even adults) engage in many times a day, all connecting on their smartphones and other mobile gaming devices. Auto Race was huge for gaming because it changed where people played; before, you had to sit in front of a TV or computer to play a game, but in 1976, you could go anywhere and play a video game.
In 1976, mobile gaming was born.
Since then, mobile gaming has evolved at a pretty fast pace, moving it out of the shadows and into the mainstream, where mobile gaming transcends age and gender, two things that made gaming more of a boy’s club in the past. Before mobile gaming, young guys were the only people playing video games, whether you were in elementary school or entering freshman year in college; once mobile gaming became more mainstream, other demographics opened up to it, causing it to skyrocket in popularity.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; mobile gaming still has some room to grow in ’76.
Skip ahead 13 years, and Nintendo is set to release a mobile gaming device that is going to put the gaming industry on it’s head: the Game Boy. That same year the Atari Lynx was released, and it boasted a color screen and the ability to play with up 17(!!!) other people in an online format, something that wouldn’t be seen again in mobile gaming for two decades.
Despite the Lynx being technologically superior in just about every way imaginable, it’s sales tanked hard, only selling around 2 million units worldwide. The Game Boy sold half of that in the US alone in it’s first week (sold 119,000,000 units overall).
How did the Game Boy bitchslap the Lynx so hard? Well, the Lynx cost $180, which is a lot for a gaming device back when Ronald Raegan was president.
The Game Boy cost half of that, had a bigger game library with higher quality games, and with great battery life and easy portability, it’s no wonder kids weren’t too crazy about the Lynx; plus, you got Tetris for free when you bought a Game Boy, a marketing tactic that would help boost the system and the game’s popularity.
In 1976, your mobile gaming device didn’t have a legitimate screen, it only played one game, and wasn’t that fun either. Over a decade later, mobile gaming meant you got to play games on an actual screen, and you could even pick and choose what game to play; that was advanced at the time, but mobile gamers would go nuts if they knew what lay ahead.
1996 arrives, and in Japan the Tamagotchi is released. This simple game was intended to attract an audience that as of yet wasn’t into mobile gaming: girls.
The Tamagotchi required kids to take care of a virtual pet, one that could very easily die on you if you weren’t careful. It was looked cutesy and was fun to play, meaning it was a commercial success, selling over 75 million units worldwide.
That was the first foray into the female demographic, but it wasn’t until the millennium that games became less about boy v.s. girl and more about universality. For now, girls were stuck with the Tamagotchi, although for a year or two they were pretty psyched about it.
Two years after that, the Game Boy Color was unveiled to the public. Still featuring “Boy” in the name, this system still wasn’t really geared towards girls, and the game library made that pretty clear; with games like Pokemon Gold and Silver, Mario Tennis, Mario Golf, girls weren’t in Nintendo’s view, and they would continue to be unacknowledged for a few more years.
The Game Boy Color’s 1998 release garnered a lot of attention, but another game was released that year on a platform that would signal the coming change in mobile gaming: the game Snake was released on Nokia cellphones, marking the first time that you could make a phone call, then hang up on the person because you realized you could play a freakin’ game on your phone!
In 1998, you couldn’t surf the web on your phone, but you could play Snake. 1998 saw the birth of gaming on cellphones, and mobile gaming would never be the same; in fact, the mobile gaming market would become so competitive and intense that it was only the big boys who made it out on top.
After 1998, systems like the Lynx would no longer be acceptable to consumers – clunky devices are out, and slim, portable devices are in.
The early 2000s saw the introduction of the Game Boy Advance, the Nintendo DS, and Playstation’s PSP, but these were along the lines of previous offerings: mobile consoles that allow you to play games you insert into the console itself. In 2007, the way people play and buy mobile games would change forever.
In 2007, the first iPhone, the 2G, was released, and it marked the beginning of the smartphone era. This device allowed you to make a call, text, surf the web, and even play games using it’s innovative touchscreen.
It wasn’t until 2008 that the Apple App Store was opened up to developers everywhere, and after that, downloadable applications were available to play by anyone who had an iPhone. No longer would you have to make a trip to the store to get a new game; now you could tap the screen a few times and your new app would be installed in moments.
The iPhone’s touchscreen and computing power allowed it to play games of all kinds, whether it’s the expansive Infinity Blade series or the 2-D world you find in Angry Birds, something you wouldn’t find in previous devices. No matter what kind of gamer you were, if you had an iPhone, you were good to go; an expansive application library allowed you to download whatever game you wanted.
Before the iPhone, the games you could play were limited to the system – some games would be available on one device but not others, and this alienated some gamers who couldn’t find the games they liked on the system they preferred; if you wanted to play a certain game, you needed to own the system that could play it.
The iPhone opened up doors that were previously unknown to gamers, and they realized that just because you own one system doesn’t mean you should be limited on the amount of games you can play; the open App Store allowed developers around the world to create games of all kinds that could be played on one device.
Before the iPhone, each system had it’s best game and some systems didn’t appeal to certain demographics, but with the advent of the iPhone, that has completely changed.
Back in the day, you couldn’t play on the go, and there were only so many games you could play. Now, you can play literally anywhere on the planet, and there’s a seemingly infinite supply of apps and games that you can play, and they all receive updates and improvements on a regular basis, a luxury not afforded to previous generations of gamers.
Mattel changed where we game, and the iPhone changed how we game. Who knows what the next generation’s technology will bring.