As someone obsessed with handheld gaming consoles, Nintendo’s Switch should have been the ultimate portable system for me. Instead, it actually made me nostalgic for Tiger Electronics’ LCD handhelds, arguably some of the first true portable video game systems. They were cheap, durable, simple and addictive, and 30 years later I find myself missing that experience.
I don’t have a lot of free time to devote to playing and finishing games these days. I’ll occasionally have a few minutes of boredom I’m looking to kill, but I don’t think I could even load Breath of the Wild in that amount of time. That’s where the cheap LCD games of the late ‘80s and ‘90s excelled.
They were bite-size snippets of action with a goal that was rarely more involved than registering a new high score. They required no serious commitment and there were no tutorials to slog through. You could easily hop in into a game in a couple of seconds, enjoy a few minutes of satisfying button mashing, and then quickly stash them away until you needed to feed your gaming addiction again — minus the side effects of losing hours of your life or blowing your budget.
Founded by Arnold, Gerald, and Randy Rissman in 1978, Tiger Electronics got its start making simple electronics like phonographs, but transitioned to interactive toys and LCD-based gaming devices in the early ‘80s. For a while the company’s most notable product was a series of portable game devices based on Universal’s 1976 King Kong remake featuring a knock-off version of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong.
It led to a legal dustup between Universal and Nintendo over who owned the rights to giant apes, which Nintendo eventually won, but ultimately decided not to take down Tiger Electronics in the process.
A few years after the Kong controversy blew over, Tiger Electronics settled on a design for a series of electronic handheld games that the company would eventually sell millions of in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. The first games in Tiger’s new lineup, released in 1987, were sports titles like football, skeet shooting, and baseball, which also happened to be the first Tiger handheld I ever owned.
Before Tiger’s new line, portable gaming systems always came with a premium price tag. I can remember drooling over mini tabletop arcades in catalogues, but never actually putting them on my Christmas or birthday wish lists for fear of maxing out what my parents were willing to spend.
Even Nintendo’s Game & Watch handhelds were on the pricy side, but in 1987 Tiger Electronics changed that. Its new handhelds featured a gratuitous use of plastic — from the housings, to the buttons, to even the display covers — and simple segmented LCD screens, barely a couple of inches in size, that could only display a limited and crude collection of graphics and animations. If there was such a thing as disposable video games, Tiger’s handhelds came close to being that.
Gameplay was equally basic. Tiger’s Electronic Baseball played more like an enhanced home run derby where the player’s team never actually takes the field. Just two buttons were used to swing at every pitch and then strategically advance your players from base to base — with “strategically” being used very generously here.
But the 10-year-old version of me didn’t care, he absolutely loved this game, bringing it on long road trips and even smuggling it into Sunday school every week. I also didn’t care that Bases Loaded on the NES was a vastly superior experience; Tiger’s version could come with me anywhere, I didn’t have to take turns playing with my siblings, and I didn’t have to wait until my parents were done watching something on TV.
Playing it today, I rarely get past a couple of innings before losing interest, but the simplicity is exactly why I still keep games like these in easy reach, and keep coming back. They scratch an itch without destroying my productivity.
All the corner cutting also meant that Tiger Electronic’s handhelds were usually around $30 each, easily accommodating the budgets of most 10-year-olds reliant on allowances or birthday money for income. The plastic still feels cheap and my baseball game is covered in scratches and scars from being endlessly dropped and rage-thrown, but it’s one of my few childhood electronic toys that still works fine 30 years later. Tiger had found the perfect balance between price, durability, and addictiveness to hook a generation.
It also helped that the company was almost obsessive about licensing popular properties like movies, video games, and even TV shows. Unlike a console game these handhelds didn’t require months of complicated development.
Tiger could churn these games out quickly, and it did just that. Mortal Kombat, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, GI Joe, Captain Planet, Full House, The Little Mermaid — if something was pop culturally relevant in the ‘90s, there’s a good chance there was a Tiger Electronics handheld game made for it.
So why isn’t Tiger Electronics a dominant name in gaming today? The brand is definitely still around, now owned by Hasbro, but the clock started ticking on the company’s cheap and simple approach to handheld gaming on April 21, 1989, when Nintendo’s Game Boy was released.
It was more expensive than Tiger’s handhelds, but every game offered unique gameplay, graphics, and sound, and game carts could often be found competitively priced. Tiger eventually released its own cartridge based system in 1997, the Game.com, that included online connectivity and a touchscreen, but the Game Boy Colour arrived soon after, and Tiger Electronics simply wasn’t big enough to take on Nintendo any more.
I’m not going to pretend like I still turn to Electronic Baseball for all my gaming needs, the Switch is definitely my go-to console now. But despite being portable, I’m hesitant to travel with it for fear of damaging or losing $400 worth of gear. It also doesn’t really provide instant gratification, and more often than not as an adult that’s what I’m looking for.
Smartphone games come close to filling that need, but sometimes I just want to mindlessly mash buttons for a couple of minutes, hitting home runs or beating up baddies, without having to worry about killing my phone’s battery, waiting for app updates, or all the other distractions of modern gaming. Tiger Electronics game me exactly that 30 years ago.