Since the release of the Game & Watch in 1981, portable gaming has developed a rich history behind it, leaving a legacy distinct from its home console counterparts. A Handheld History is one of the latest projects from publisher Lost In Cult, the company behind gaming journal Lock-On and other indie-centric releases like Sable: Design Works. A Handheld History focuses on the legacy left by portable devices and their games not just on the industry, but the community surrounding them.
This book lays out a timeline of handheld gaming since the beginning, with vibrant displays showcasing each device and their impact. The release serves not only as a collection of history, but also as a study of aesthetics over the years, with whole pages dedicated to things like special device color variations, unique illustrations, and vintage game cartridges. These visuals complement the book’s interweaving of history with personal stories for each piece of technology, crafting a narrative that’s simultaneously informative and personal.
Screen Rant conducted an email interview with Jon Doyle, the CEO of Lost In Cult and A Handheld History‘s creative director, to discuss the inspirations behind the book, the most influential moments in portable history, and the importance of video game preservation.
Jon Doyle On A Handheld History
Screen Rant: What was the inspiration behind A Handheld History?
A Handheld History was inspired by a few things! In a concrete sense, it was motivated by a lot of Japanese fashion books and their design philosophy. We’re always thinking about design references that will surprise readers and offer something that looks a bit different than your traditional games book. Popeye magazine in particular is a big source of inspiration for us across Lost In Cult’s range of projects.
We’ve refined A Handheld History’s visual identity over the past two years since its initial release, implementing this style into our subsequent history books, including The Console Chronicles, which is now available via our website. It takes the same design principles from A Handheld History and applies them to the canon of home console systems, focusing heavily on community narratives, personal reflections, and the odder pockets of games history, like bootleg systems, that often go overlooked.
The Console Chronicles and A Handheld History together speak to an overarching intellectual motivation to share in a common appreciation for games history and a desire to make it feel new again. We love to connect readers to stories that deepen their appreciation for how games move us. We’re not interested in presenting games history through a dry and purely historical lens. To us, games leave space for their players to project themselves into the experience and form a deep emotional attachment to them. Severing that cord, thinking about games in a solely objective framework, isn’t nearly as interesting to us as leaning into the subjective and personal.
By doing so, and by presenting “classic” or “retro” titles in a contemporary style, we can reimagine games, reframing them as something perennially fresh and always relevant. This is not only our mantra but that of our partner on this project, Retro Dodo. Brandon Saltalamacchia and his team are at the forefront of the modern retro movement, always spotlighting new tech that powers old games in a way that feels cutting edge. The Analogue Pocket is a great example of this, and a device that we cover in A Handheld History.
Which handheld consoles do you think were the most influential and why? And outside of the most influential, do you have a personal favorite device?
The obvious answer here is Game Boy. It wasn’t Nintendo’s first attempt at handheld hardware, that was the Game & Watch series. It wasn’t the first system with interchangeable cartridges, that was the Milton Bradley Microvision (which you can read all about in A Handheld History if you aren’t familiar with it!). But, the Game Boy was ubiquitous. It’s fair to say that its ability to popularize affordable, high-quality portable gameplay is what opened the door for all the handheld experiences that we now enjoy, pioneering legendary franchises in the process.
A more fun answer, though, is the Nintendo DS. Unless Nintendo Switch finds another thirty million hardware sales — which is possible albeit quite unlikely — DS will continue to reign as the best-selling handheld of all time. With roughly 154 million units sold, the DS is barely edged out by PS2 as the best-selling piece of dedicated games hardware ever, a testament to how widely Nintendo DS resonated with audiences.
It’s also just a super exciting piece of technology. It combines two key Nintendo design philosophies together: the Blue Ocean concept popularized by Satoru Iwata, which emphasized targeting non-traditional games audiences, and Gunpei Yokoi’s strategy of Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology, or the idea of creating a unique machine with older, cheaper tech that feels fresh through innovative design.
These ideas harmonized into a brilliant, thoughtful handheld that captivated a staggering number of people. The DS hardware opened countless possibilities for both macro and micro design choices. It was a major gambit — two screens was not an inherently sensible idea. But that risk paid off as the machine was remarkably intuitive, loaded with casual and hardcore software alike that sparked the imaginations of tens of millions. It’s challenging to imagine a system more interested in joy and experimentation than the DS, aside from maybe the Wii. And those came up together. Games are meant to be played, and during this era Satoru Iwata and Nintendo brought the concept of play to an unprecedented number of new demographics while prioritizing the spirit of creativity in a totally original way. It, alongside Wii, showed the industry that “gamer” could mean more than what was archetypally considered. We still feel those waves today.
My personal favorite, though, is the Nintendo 3DS. The software lineup is simply incredible. Games like Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Fire Emblem Awakening, Kid Icarus: Uprising, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Tomodachi Life — these titles represent just a slice of the many incredible releases that 3DS saw during its roughly eight years of active life. I’d argue that these games are among the best Nintendo has ever released. Throw in hardware and a UI experience that retains a clear sense of whimsy and playfulness, and you have a machine that made good on DS’ promise of console caliber games that nonetheless feel expertly tailored to their hardware. I could gush endlessly about the 3DS… which is why I wrote its section in A Handheld History!
Why do you think the preservation of retro gaming technology and history is important?
Video games are massive. I mean that in every sense of the word, but we often talk about their scale in purely economic terms. That’s useful for demonstrating what a big footprint our industry has, but we often forget to recognize how that size directly correlates to the cultural influence of games as a creative medium. More people than ever are choosing to spend their time immersed in games, and yet we have a thin grasp on the medium academically. Games ought to be studied, and it’s incredibly hard to study them when they’re lost to time. There is a massive crisis of preservation now and games are only decades old. As they mature the problem will only continue to compound unless we as a community can intervene, preserve what we can, and pressure game developers and publishers to do the same. Imagine how much flimsier our understanding of film would be, and how many classics we’d be missing out on, if film preservation never became a serious movement. Games are on the precipice of one, thanks to places like The Video Game History Foundation, Embracter Games Archive, Limited Run Games, Digital Eclipse and others, but there is so much work to do still. It’s a privilege to play just a small role in that effort.
Have you learned any facts that really stand out to you from this book?
I think the biggest fact is the lack thereof — so much basic information (release dates, prices, etc.) were totally lost to time. I spent a lot of time combing through old games magazine scans or old TV ads to find and cross-reference this data. It ended up being pretty fun, seeing this old material in the process, but it was nonetheless an indictment of the preservation issue. On a personal level, I learned a ton about the pre-Game Boy era of handhelds. My knowledge of this era prior to working on A Handheld History really just pertained to the Game & Watch. There are so many curios from this time whose successes are really unsung. Interesting bootleg systems get discussed in the book also! All of that off-the-beaten path material is really compelling, and I think anyone that, like me, feels as though they have a near-complete understanding of games history will be proven delightfully wrong by this book. It’s always fun to have your perspective widened.
What do you think gaming fans will appreciate the most about A Handheld History?
There’s a lot to love about A Handheld History. And while it’s a cop-out, I think that’s the answer. This is an incredibly dense book, and while calling a book “dense” can sometimes be thought of as a criticism, I think it’s a massive strength here. Our book’s density is split up across rich text, imagery, and annotation. Every page is overflowing with elegant prose, carefully laid-out gallery sections, and thoughtful annotations. There is so much to pore over here. A Handheld History is the type of book that you can get lost in night after night, easily tackling a section at a time, really appreciating how we’ve curated stories and photos that complete your understanding of portable gaming. We really didn’t leave anything out.
This is precisely why I’m so pleased that HarperCollins has chosen to help us bring A Handheld History to retail. Suddenly, we now have the opportunity to meet a mainstream audience where they already are — Target, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Amazon — and introduce them to the richness of A Handheld History. The response from our community has already been wonderful, and to have HarperCollins grow that community exponentially is a truly important opportunity for us. We can’t wait to see people posting their copies on social media, sharing their favorite bits. That’s always the best part of any book launch.
A Handheld History is available for purchase now.