Before Nintendo was a famous game developer and console manufacturer, it made toys. Some were electronic, and some were not. On the electronics side, the first video games the company released were the Game & Watch handhelds. The first of these devices looked similar to what would become the Nintendo Entertainment System’s controller. It was a horizontal layout with a directional pad on the left and a command button on the right. In the center of the device was an LCD screen capable of displaying simple games. It also had a clock on it which is where the “Watch” part of Game & Watch comes into play. Over the years, the games would grow in complexity and some even necessitated a second screen and a clamshell design which is pretty similar to what the Nintendo DS would adopt many years later. Come the early 90s, the Game Boy was already available and a hit and the Game & Watch had seemingly outlived its usefulness, but it’s a part of Nintendo’s past that the company seems to enjoy celebrating.
Last year, to celebrate the anniversary of Super Mario Bros. Nintendo released a special edition Game & Watch. Nintendo has seemingly found a market for simple, nostalgia, devices like the Classic series of console releases and the Game & Watch feels like an extension of that. The unit was priced at $50 and came bundled with the original Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2 (the Japanese version) while also including a classic LCD game, clock, and timer. It was a novelty device and one I wasn’t particularly interested in. I loved the original Super Mario Bros. as a kid, but once Super Mario Bros. 3 came out I effectively had no use for the original and it’s a feeling I still have today. The unit did eventually hit the clearance rack, so I wasn’t sure if anymore should be expected, but lo and behold Nintendo did have a release for 2021: The Legend of Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda edition of Game & Watch is meant to celebrate the original game’s 35th anniversary. It’s essentially the same, but different, when compared with the Mario edition from 2020. The device itself is rather small and very light, measuring about 4 3/8″ x 2 5/8″ with a color scheme more appropriate for Zelda. The front faceplate is gold while the outer case is green and all of the buttons on the face are ringed with green plastic. The area around the screen is raised and it’s a pretty attractive looking piece, though once handled the toy nature of it all becomes obvious due to the weight and overall feel. The D-pad feels largely like one would expect, but the B and A buttons are rather gummy, like a key on a calculator as opposed to a game controller.
What hasn’t been compromised is the screen. It’s not particularly large, but it is vibrant and certainly a lot better than the old LCD screens on the original Game & Watch devices. It only measures about 2″ x 1.5″ making it comparable to the Game Boy Micro, but still larger. It needs to only display 8 bit games, so it’s not as if the screen is being asked to do much, but it can render all of the games just fine in their native aspect ratio with no compromise to the color palette or resolution. The sound chip is also just fine for these classic games and is even capable of outputting the superior audio found in the Japanese version of these games, as they were Famicom Disk releases outside of the US, so if you’re sick of playing through the original Legend of Zelda you can switch it to Japanese and get a different experience.
Which brings me to the games – just what is included on this thing? Well, you get three games this time around: The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Link’s Awakening. The first two play as you would expect them to as they’re simply emulated versions of the NES and Famicom versions of the games. The third one, and a bit unexpected, is the original Game Boy release of Link’s Awakening. It is a shame that Nintendo didn’t include the DX version released for the Game Boy Color which looked better and also featured an extra dungeon. There’s certainly enough room on the hardware for it which leads me to believe it was a value issue and not a hardware limitation. Nintendo doesn’t want to give too much away at the $50 price tag, but considering that Link’s Awakening has already received a full-fledged remake I don’t think Nintendo would be harming its bottom-line by including the DX version. Oh well.
The games play fine though as Nintendo did add the Select button which was missing on the Mario edition. I read some complaints of the device being too small and cramped for a platformer like Super Mario Bros. to be played comfortably, but for Zelda it’s more than adequate. Especially the original game and Link’s Awakening. Zelda II is a bit more of a stretch as that required more twitch movements. It’s still not on the same level as a platformer or run and gun game, but it is noticeably less pleasant to experience. That also could be due to that being the weakest game on this set and what folks are likely to miss is the ability to utilize a save state feature. Exiting a game at any point does essentially pause the game and save your progress, but there’s no way to reload when you die. This is really only an issue with Zelda II as I don’t find the other two games terribly difficult so long as you know where to go, but Zelda II is an all-together different beast. It’s a hard game that I don’t find particularly enjoyable since the player is heavily penalized for dying in a most annoying manner. As such, I don’t intend to play much of Zelda II, it’s more chore than game, but I will play and finish the other two games, one of which I’m nearly finished with as of this writing. One other presentation note is that Link’s Awakening features the ability to toggle between the original aspect ratio and one that fills the screen. It doesn’t look too terrible stretched to fit the screen, but I definitely prefer the original look when playing it.
Since this is a Game & Watch, I should mention the other aspect of the hardware which is the watch. When not playing a game, the unit functions like a clock. Nintendo included a display base with this one that looks pretty slick, but is just made out of cardboard. I question how well it will hold up over time. The clock though displays it over The Legend of Zelda and when left alone Link will roam the screen battling enemies gradually progressing through a modified version of the game over 24 hours. Come noon, he’ll best Ganon and save Zelda which is pretty neat. If at any point you want to control the action you can, and leaving it idle for a few seconds will revert back to AI control. It’s a fun thing to have on a desk or workspace, though it can get mildly distracting.
There’s also a timer, or stop watch, function. It’s pretty self explanatory, but like the clock it displays Link in action. This time, the sprites are from Zelda II and it does function like a game all on its own as you try to defeat as many enemies during a given duration. Or, if you just need it to be a timer, you can let the AI duke it out. It’s definitely not a feature I plan to take advantage of, but it’s fun to have it. Also included is the Game & Watch game Vermin. It’s a game where you just slide a character across the screen as it tries to stop some vermin from advancing past. In the original, the player character was Mr. Game & Watch, but it’s been changed to resemble Link for this release. It’s a simple game that has its moments, but largely feels like it’s included as both an homage to the classic handheld and as a reminder of how far we’ve come.
The unit runs on an internal battery and I’m honestly not sure how long it can last. Most these days seem to last anywhere from 2 and a half to 4 hours. I haven’t come close to draining it in my play sessions, but my sessions have been more of the half hour to an hour variety. Nintendo included a USB cable to charge it, though it’s pathetically short. I’ve had it plugged into my laptop since getting it which means the clock will only run while my laptop isn’t in sleep mode. When not connected to a power source, the screen turns off after 3 minutes, but when it does it displays a piece of vintage art from the old game manuals which is pretty cool. There are some other Easter Eggs as well that I won’t spoil, but if you’re curious, they’re not hard to find online. I should note, the unit is capable of keeping track of the clock when powered down, though I assume if you ran the battery down to nothing and left it like that for a bit it might need to be reset like a console would.
The Legend of Zelda edition of the Game & Watch is a perfectly fine, novelty, handheld. Nobody needs this and these games are all readily available in probably more convenient options at this point, but if you find yourself charmed by this little device then I think it’s worth the 50 bucks Nintendo is asking for it. Yes, I wish it had proper A and B buttons and the DX version of Link’s Awakening, but those are nitpicks. The absence of save states is more of a bummer because these games don’t have a robust, built-in, save feature so it is more challenging than it needs to be to do something as simple as switch profiles within the games. It’ll save one action session per game, but if I want to let my son play The Legend of Zelda I need to end my game first and I don’t want to go all the way back to the beginning on the map if I was in the middle of a dungeon or had paused my session right outside of one. I also would have gladly paid an extra 10 – 15 bucks for a better display stand. I love how this one looks, being all black with a gold Triforce logo, but it only looks good from a distance as once up close it becomes apparent the thing is a glorified box.
I suspect if you’re interested in this then you have already made up your mind. It’s for the Zelda fan or nostalgic Nintendo fan. It’s also priced on the fringe of impulse buy territory, and if 2020’s model is any indication, it will eventually find itself on sale. I had no issue tracking a unit down for purchase and I’ve seen them on my weekly trips to Target so, for now, this one’s easy to come by. I suspect once it’s gone then it’s gone and it will gradually rise in price on the aftermarket. You’re probably safe to play the waiting game if you want to take advantage of a sale price, though if units start to disappear before that day comes then you may want to just jump on it at $50. I’m happy to have it, and while I don’t know if it will live forever beside my laptop, but I would like to find a permanent home for it because it’s a fun clock to have around. And hey, there’s some good games on it too!