lying cars, robot servants, personal jetpacks: This was the life envisioned for us by the futurists, science fiction writers and gadget makers of the '40s, '50s and '60s.
And one of the most memorable of those fictional inventions was the famed Dick Tracy watch.
Introduced in 1946, the two-way wrist radio was almost as iconic as the comic strip police detective who used it. By 1964 the watch, used by Tracy to keep in contact with police HQ and get out of many a jam, became a two-way wrist TV.
It was the sort of gadget — tiny, powerful, seemingly innocuous in its presentation — that fired the imagination of a generation of children, among them Apple's Tim Cook, who recently referenced the watch when unveiling Apple's own take on the idea.
Table of contents
The nearly 40-year history of watch gaming shares a common root with all portable gaming: the calculator.
In this collection of stories, we trace the roots of watch gaming, talk to today's smartwatch innovators and look to the future for what wearable gaming has in store for us.
Here's a guide to help you navigate through the timeline, stories and reviews.
- Watch gaming timeline
A visual timeline tracing the nearly 40-year history of watch gaming.
- The current state of watch gaming
Apple, Android, Pebble platform creators, gamers and developers discuss today's watch gaming.
- Smartwatch reviews
Reviews of some of today's best smartwatches.
- The future
We discuss where watch gaming is headed with some of today's wearable innovators.
While the Apple Watch may be one of the most advanced takes on that famous idea, it's far from the first smartwatch to deliver on a comic book future. The history of smartwatches, computerized watches that deliver more than the time, dates back to the '70s, and gaming on those watches has just as long a history.
Throughout that somewhat muddled five-decade period, gaming has pushed the technology forward. It was gaming that helped turn calculators into handheld toys. It was gaming that inspired Casio to try to create a new sort of technophile lifestyle. And even today, it is gaming that is empowering a new generation of developers to push the boundaries of what a smartwatch can do.
Gaming for many smartwatches isn't just a fun aside; it is the fuel that may finally help this technology break into the mainstream.
The nearly 40-year history of watch gaming shares a common root with all portable gaming: the calculator. It was from the calculator that Mattel built its first portable gaming machines, Nintendo was inspired to make the Game & Watch and Casio created its popular line of, at first, game calculators, but then game watches.
The first innovators of that often overlooked branch of portable gaming, the game watch, included a mix of little-known, tiny electronics and watch manufacturers from Germany, Russia and Hong Kong, but it was mostly influenced in the early years by Casio and then a duo of American manufacturers: General Consumer Electronics and Nelsonic.
And it's possible that the rise of gaming on watches may have never happened had it not been for the success of a strange little low-tech smoking gadget created in 1946 for a supply-constrained postwar Japan.
Kashio founds Casio
Founded in 1946 by Tadao Kashio, Casio didn't start out as an electronics company, but as the manufacturer of a plastic ring for smokers. The yubiwa pipe slipped onto a smoker's finger and held a cigarette, helping a smoker extract every bit of tobacco. And it was a tremendous hit.
Looking for a follow-up success, Kashio and his brothers started working on an all-electronic calculator. In 1954, they designed Japan's first, though it was outdated compared to calculators found in other parts of the world. The brothers decided to work on creating a smaller electronic calculator, and in 1957 they succeeded and released the world's first compact office calculator.
It was the success of that calculator that turned Casio into a company that focused not just on producing electronics, but on setting itself apart from the competition through innovative design, specifically by working to make things more compact.
In 1974, Casio entered the watch market with the idea that watches shouldn't be just timepieces. Its initial creation was one of the first watches with a liquid crystal display, and the company marketed it as a leap forward in technology. While it saw early success through the design, the brothers were also trying to figure out how to set Casio's devices apart from the rest.
"In the early days, Casio's watch business strategy was mainly about pricing that was made possible by mass production, as there was growing demand for digital watches in the '70s," says Yuichi Masuda, senior executive managing officer and Casio board member. "We saw demand for digital watches settle down in the '80s and Casio went back to its original thinking when it first entered the watch market; that is, ‘a watch is not a mere tool to tell the time.' We started talking about a multifunction, ‘time display plus other things, such as telephone number, memory and music alarm' strategy."
And it just so happened that the world was in the grips of a new sort of entertainment.
In the early '70s, coin-operated computer games had started making their way into bars, coffee shops and college campuses. These early video games saw modest success, but it wasn't until 1978 and Taito's release of Space Invaders that shops dedicated to video games — arcades — came into their golden age and gaming became a social phenomenon.
With Casio hunting for new features to help sell watches and calculators, video games seemed like a perfect fit.
"Casio, paying attention to this booming game trend, contemplated fusion of the game and the device that people always wear or carry around anywhere," says Masuda, who now runs Casio's watch business. "And that device was a watch and a calculator for Casio. By doing so, we wanted to create a new lifestyle of enjoying the game anywhere at any time. It also matched the multifunction strategy Casio was pursuing with its watch and calculator businesses."
The first product of this relatively new concept was actually a calculator that hit stores in the summer of 1980. The MG-880 calculator is a tiny silver rectangle with black buttons and a relatively small gray-green screen. When switched to game mode, it attempted to recreate the experience of playing Space Invaders, but with numbers instead of aliens.
A year later, Casio released the CA-90 watch, a calculator watch with that strange, numbers-based version of Space Invaders installed.
"Although we took advantage of the development assets of the game calculator MG-880 in developing the CA-90 watch, the idea of the first Casio game watch was driven by Casio's philosophy of wanting to create a new lifestyle by introducing novel products that are made possible by advances in digital technologies," says Masuda.
While Casio wasn't the first company to release a gaming watch (at least two watches with casino games built into them hit in the late '70s), it was the first to so embrace the concept that the watch helped to create a new sort of lifestyle. By 1996, Casio had produced and sold nearly three dozen different gaming watch models and quite a few other mashup watches that included things like cameras and television screens.
And Casio wasn't the only company playing around with the idea of miniaturizing arcade games into something you could take with you wherever you go. Nintendo's push into portable gaming not only helped fuel the success of that company in the game industry; it also helped attract more attention to both calculator and game watches.
Game & Watch
Where Casio got its start selling cigarette accessories to smokers in the '40s, Nintendo launched as a playing card company in 1889. After dallying with a number of side ventures, including a taxi service, a food company and even a "love hotel," Nintendo shifted first into the toy business and then, in the late '70s, into the fledgling video game industry.
Nintendo made a number of color TV game consoles in the mid-‘70s before moving into the arcade business with EVR Race and then Donkey Kong.
But it was in the spring of 1980, the same year Casio released its calculator game, that Nintendo made its own entry into the portable game market with its first of many Game & Watch games.
These toys started out as small rectangular devices, each about the size of a credit card, that included a clock, an alarm and a single game on an LCD screen. The early games usually relied on one or two buttons for controls.
Nintendo declined to speak to Polygon for this article, but in early 2010, then-Nintendo president Satoru Iwata held a roundtable discussion with many of the people involved in the creation of those games.
In that interview, the group said it believed that Gunpei Yokoi came up with the idea for the Game & Watch after seeing a businessman playing with a calculator on a train.
Nintendo released the last Game & Watch in 1991. And most of the 59 different games did tremendously well. "The Game & Watch series sold 12.87 million domestically and 30.53 million overseas for a total of 43.4 million," Iwata said in the 2010 discussion.
And the Game & Watch wasn't just a huge financial success for Nintendo; it also led to a number of innovations within the company, including the dual screen and directional pad. "One year before the NES went on sale, Game & Watch: Donkey Kong was the first game to use the D-pad," Iwata said in 2010.
The directional pad, or D-pad, would go on to become an important element for not just Nintendo's early controllers, but for most video game controllers.
The team told Iwata at the time that it tried a number of different prototypes before landing on what would become the final design. One key concern was making sure that players would be able to use the D-pad without looking at their hands. That simple controller had a huge impact on gaming when released as part of Donkey Kong, Iwata said.
Casio's Masuda believes that Nintendo's interest in portable gaming, like Casio's, was largely due to the sudden, massive success of Space Invaders.
"Taito's Space Invaders was an arcade game installed in a game arcade or coffee shop, and people had to go there to play a game," Masuda says. "We thought, if it is possible to put the game in a portable device that you can carry around, that we could create a new lifestyle to enjoy games during small time pockets of everyday life.
"For Casio, the device was a calculator and a watch, and for Nintendo it was the Game & Watch."
While Nintendo went on to chase portable gaming in a form that continued to look a bit like a calculator — with the Game Boy and DS lines of portables — other companies decided to go a different route, pursuing the watch as gaming platform.
Despite never entering the gaming watch market, Nintendo still had an impact. Other companies, like GCE and Nelsonic, were drawn to the idea of gaming on the go by the successes of the Game & Watch. Instead of creating calculator games, though, they decided to create watch games.
From calculators to watches
As portable gaming continued to blossom, fueled by the success of Nintendo's Game & Watch and the increasing draw of arcade games, more companies started looking into how they could create devices that let people play on the go.
For GCE, an electronics company already involved in the use of LCDs for electronic toys, that meant designing a gaming system you could play on your wrist. So the company went to Western Technologies, which created everything from an early video game console to a reimagined take on the tricycle, to do the design work.
But Western Technologies may not have been able to deliver had it not been for Tom Sloper.
Sloper moved to Los Angeles in 1979 hoping that one day he would became a model prop creator in Hollywood. Biding his time for that big break, he spotted an ad for a job in Santa Monica working at Western Technologies.
The company described itself as a toy think tank, and that intrigued Sloper.
Two years into his job there, a co-worker came to Sloper for some help on the GCE game watch project. Sloper's friend needed to create the games but didn't know where to start.
The two grabbed lunch and they sketched out ideas for a number of arcade game knockoffs and then presented them to the vice president in charge of the GCE project.
While Nintendo's Game & Watch series and Casio's calculator and watch games were both popular, portable takes on arcade games, those gadgets were only each able to play a single game. The key differentiator between what would become the GCE Game Time watch and those earlier creations was that Sloper's idea reused a display of dots and circles to create four games that could be played on one watch.
Ultimately, the Game Time went on sale with an original game called Firing Squad and three others "inspired by" Missile Command, Space Invaders and Breakout.
Sloper says that the Game Time's success led to two more game watches: the Arcade Time and the Sports Time. He says he thinks the devices were so popular back then because they were portable, something that couldn't be said of most electronics of the time.
"Back then people didn't have smartphones or feature phones," he says. "They didn't have anything you could carry around, like a DS or a Game Boy.
"And these were things you could wear on your wrist and that looked relatively innocuous. A kid could wear the watch to school."
From Pac-Man to Zelda
As Nintendo's Game & Watch series and Casio's game watches continued to flourish, and GCE and Sloper began work on the Game Time follow-up, Arcade Time, a third U.S. company started looking into the blossoming game watch market.
Founded in 1950 by Michael Zachary Berger and Joseph Mermelstein, MZ Berger & Co. would go on to become a well-established watch and jewelry designer and manufacturer.
Back in the late '70s, though, looking to create stronger ties with Hong Kong, Bernie Mermelstein, son of one of the founders, helped to create a new brand name for the company. Nelsonic Industries focused on licensing deals — specifically, licensing deals tied to movies and television.
"For the most part, watches were a neglected category for licensing and [Bernie] understood that market failure," says Bernard Frieder, who worked at the company for about eight years in the early '80s. "Initially, he was able to secure contracts for a series of very successful TV programs — we sold Six Million Dollar Man watches, Mork [& Mindy] watches and a range of other character watches.
"I don't know exactly what triggered his moving into the game watches — might have been someone from Hong Kong offering him the product, or the fact we all played these games ourselves. But it was when he began focusing on the new video games that were beginning to take over the world that the company sales went vertical."
Nelsonic's first game watch was called Space Attacker.
"It was a great-looking, bulky, silver metal case watch with buttons that shot the missiles at the descending aliens, full-on audio — explosions and beeping and the rest," Frieder says. "The game was very addicting. We all wasted many hours playing it."
While Nelsonic would go on to create and sell more than 30 game watches tied to everything from Simon to Q*Bert to a long list of Nintendo franchises, there was one game watch in particular that changed everything for the company.
"Many varieties of games came and went — the company made good money on them for years — but of course the game changer of all was the Pac-Man game watch," Frieder says. "Again I think the reason Bernie saw this first was because we were the demographic of the kids putting hundreds of quarters into the arcade versions.
"To play this game on your wrist was just too unbelievable. One version actually supplied four colored mini joysticks to insert into the port in the watch face and play the game as if it were in the arcade."
In the early '90s, arcades saw a dramatic resurgence in popularity, setting the stage for a new wave of more powerful home video game consoles. The new consoles would eventually help essentially kill off the arcade and, it seemed, the game calculator and gaming watch.
By the mid-'90s, Casio, Nelsonic and GCE had all stopped making game watches, and Nintendo's take on the game calculator — the Game & Watch — had evolved to become the Game Boy.
But, it turned out, the game watch wasn't exactly dead; it was just transforming.
Rise of the smartwatch
While watches designed around games or with single games built into them were quickly becoming a thing of the past, a new sort of watch was beginning to come into favor: the smartwatch.
In 1984, Seiko released its Wrist Terminal, a watch that could connect to the computers of the day, including the Apple II, TRS-80 and Commodore 64. In the mid-'90s, Timex released its first Data Link. By the early 2000s, handheld personal digital assistants were becoming full-fledged smartphones, and in 2002, Fossil released a watch PDA that could, among other things, play small text games.
Smartwatches continued to roll out through that decade and included failed attempts by Microsoft, IBM and Samsung to capture the zeitgeist that Casio and Nintendo had co-created in the early '80s.
It wasn't until recently, with the rise of Kickstarter, that smartwatches and wrist gaming began, once more, to grow in widespread popularity.
In 2013, both Pebble and Omate launched wildly successful fundraisers through Kickstarter. A year later, Google announced Android Wear, which brought the company's operating system to smartwatches. In 2015, smartwatches started to flood the market with new devices hitting from Apple, Pebble, Omate and a slew of Android Wear watch designers.
All of them played games; some of them even relied on games to help fuel their success.
That gaming on a tiny screen strapped to a wrist is somehow still appealing during a time when modern console and computer games offer graphically rich, open-world play, is not surprising to some.
Garrick Laing, who runs a website dedicated to retro watches and calculators — including the ones that play games — has been a watch collector since finding an old Casio calculator watch on an auction website about 10 years ago.
Currently, he owns about 30 watches, 10 of which play games.
"I love them," he says. "They're pretty basic compared to what you could code into an Apple Watch today, but considering the massive limitations they had in terms of storage, graphics, programming and quality of materials, they are marvels of their time.
"The games are, surprisingly maybe, still quite addictive even 30-plus years later and still provide a challenge. They're a snapshot of another time, and many people remember them from their childhood."