Emulating Handheld History

There’s a certain class of hardware only millennials will cherish. Those cheap ‘LCD Video Games’ from Tiger Electronics were sold in the toy aisle of your old department store. There was an MC Hammer video game. There was a Stargate video game. There was a Back To The Future video game. All of these used the same plastic enclosure, all of them had Up, Down, Left, Right, and two extra buttons, and all of them used a custom liquid crystal display. All of them were just slightly disappointing.

Now, there’s an effort to digitize and preserve these video games on archive.org, along with every other variety of ancient handheld and battery powered video game from ages past.

Double Dragon. You remember this, don’t you?

This is an effort from volunteers of the MAME team, who are now in the process of bringing these ‘LCD Video Games’ to the Internet Archive. Unlike other games which are just bits and bytes along with a few other relatively easily-digitized manuals and Peril Sensitive Sunglasses, preserving these games requires a complete teardown of the device. These are custom LCDs, after all. [Sean Riddle] and [hap] have been busy tearing apart these LCDs, vectorizing the segments (the game The Shadow is seen above), and preserving the art behind the LCD. It’s an immense amount of work, but the process has been refined somewhat over the years.

Some of these games, and some other earlier games featuring VFD and LED displays, are now hosted on the Internet Archive for anyone to play in a browser. The Handheld History collection joins the rest of the emulated games on the archive, with the hope they’ll be preserved for years to come.

30 thoughts on “Emulating Handheld History

  1. “LCD video games” if that was true, then where’s the video?
    Aren’t they just called “electronic games” (or “handheld electronic games”, or just plain “LCD games”)?

    Anyway… though I never realy owned a game like this (I always wanted one, but they were to expensive at that time).
    Only a few years later I was glad I never wasted my birthday money on them as the seemed so limited to my brand new C64. But it is great to see how people are preserving these games, thanks guys (and girls) for saving our history and enabling others to discover it again.

    1. As was stated above, these were certainly a (very crappy, even by the days standards) form of video.
      While even a still image meets the etymology of the term “video”, if you look at the segments that make up the legs of the figures, you can imagine how one of those segments would turn off and another slightly different one would turn on, say for example having the leg more horizontal and outright as if making a kick action, then moments later switching back.

      A really crappy but functional form of “video animation”, the subset I assume you are referring to by the term “video”, which BTW alone just means “to see” vs using other senses.

      Even though these things were quite over priced for what they were, they were lower priced I guess at least compared to something like the Nintendo Gameboy that was also out around the same time, and I suspect at least a little also seemed to pray a bit on the “older generation not understanding the difference” thing.
      I remember wanting a gameboy for many years and it being far out of my moms price range. As a young child I remember my grandmother buying me one or two of these for christmas, and I simply didn’t have the heart to tell them or show my disappointment, but fear I may have hurt their feelings anyway by just “having that look” while not being able to articulate the difference between the two things…

      The only device of this type I actually played for any amount of time was the zelda “game and watch” wristwatch nintendo put out. Couldn’t afford an NES either but assume my “unreasonable fandom” for that game was already set in stone by that point and desperately wanted one to play I could call my own. I almost don’t remember the crappiness of the thing just from pure nostalgia.

  2. I never personally owned one of these ($25 would buy a used NES game) friends and family had them. I remember Ninja (Hero) Turtles and Power Rangers distinctly. I would LOVE to build a platform to emulate these… But my software skills end with BASIC.

      1. There were a lot of junk ones (usually the movie or TV show tie in ones), but there were a handful I remember spending hours on, even after we got a NES and Game Boy. Well, I should say I remember the act spending hours on them, not which games they were unfortunately.

  3. Nintendo Game & Watch were the first games I encountered, good solid games with unique gameplay. Cheap knockoffs used different lcd ‘screens’ for what was essentially the same game, making them ‘slightly disappointing’ at least. I remember coming across a site where you could play all G&W titles online once.. Anyone got the link?

  4. I’d like to see a Pop Station Simulator, in the vein of the devices from the “Pop Station Watch” videos by Ashens on YouTube. The controls should be unresponsive and the on-screen instructions written in horribly translated English, for full effect. Submarine Invasion, Fortress Guardian, Skiing/Motocross/Rally, and of course Street Fighter (where Ryu and Ken rip their own arms off and throw them at each other) all deserve to be preserved for the ages, so future generations will learn to never make such tripe again.

  5. poor millennials, it must be real hard for them to see how many strange games we had :) we use to call these games stupy, because of the sound they made and also because of the limited functionality

  6. What’s funny is that really simple (non-Tiger) games like Yahtzee or Five Card Draw are better as small handheld games with custom LCD screens. There’s something about the ultra long battery life, the specialized buttons, and the ease you can pass them around that makes those games the ideal electronic form.

  7. Anyone know a really good internet archive of these games?

    When I was a teen (in the early ’80’s) I remember a particular LCD game being sold at FedCo that was a top-down game and the car (or was it cars, I can’t remember if it was multi-player) was controlled with a little wheel. Far too expensive for me. Also there was a simple “first person maze runner” LCD game that was neat. Both were far too expensive for my teenage budget (which was focused on C64) but were memorable!

  8. This is an inaccurate statement: “All of them were just slightly disappointing.”
    I remember these games as nearly 100% horrible. I’m sure it’s possible that there exist a few examples that were very fun, but I never ran across them.

  9. I had a few, I had a Tiger Batman one that I got for my birthday that I played a lot, although being a kid with ADHD I’d play it, get frustrated, throw it across the room, and go at it later (Oddly enough it held up to my abuse and I think it’s still floating around in a box somewhere, although if memory serves me these took button cells vs normal batteries and I think after the 2nd or 3rd time they needed batteries my folks were reluctant to replace the batteries), and I had a Nascar one that was bigger and took regular batteries, I played that one a lot because it wasn’t as frustratingly hard as the Batman one. (I later learned that older games were hard to make them last longer, since they didn’t have the storage space to make a big long drawn out game like they do now). I think the one that got the most play though, since these were the types of things that would get picked up before we’d go on a vacation, was a card game of some sort, I think it was UNO, but I also seem to remember having a Yahtzee one and a poker one, but the Uno one had the capability to do 2, 3, or even 4 players, or solo against the computer so my brother and I could pass it back and forth vs fight over who got to play it.

    Then one year after saving for many many months I got a Sega Game Gear, which was vastly superior to my cousin’s Game Boy, until I learned that mine would eat through six batteries in 3-4 hours, his Game Boy would run for 8 or so… Still have the Game Gear, it runs a lot longer on NiMH rechargeable batteries!

  10. I did eventually get the kids a gameboy. Reader Rabbit was at least useful, and I did load flight simulator. Solitare, et al, were removed from anything we had. Nostalgic for some; worse than useless for others. A gateway time-waster.

    1. You can buy keychain versions of some of them, I think many of the companies that made the ones that are on archive.org are out of business so new machines will be made with risk of being sued (if someone are lurking around with the copyrights).

      I remember seeing unlicensed “Angry Birds” LCD games some years ago.
      (I also remember a great looking Tiger(TM) Angry Birds LCD mockup done by some artist that would have been great)

  11. Seems they only have the non Nintendo ones, We had the “Thief in garden” one growing up. Curious to know how they solve the software side (guess some were just advanced state machines).

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