Nintendo’s new Zelda handheld feels like a hint at things to come

Last holiday, Nintendo released Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros., a handheld that technically played the original Super Mario Bros. on its itty bitty screen. But how many people actually set foot at the end of the Mushroom Kingdom on that diminutive doodad? The cramped buttons made the portable a collectible at best and at worst, a ruthless inflictor of arthritis.

My big question at the time was: Why? Why release a video game handheld that feels bad when you play video games? I eventually realized that it wasn’t meant for people to play Mario; it was a thank you to the fans who have already played the game to death. You don’t experience it. You display it.

This year, Nintendo has produced Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda, a follow-up celebrating a trio of early Zelda games. It’s similarly tiny and will look adorable on a display case. This time, however, I’ve opted to keep it on my desk for its intended purpose: playing video games.

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Read our review of Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. 

Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda is more substantial than its predecessor and a better fit for the hardware’s limitations. The three games include the original Legend of Zelda, its NES sequel, and the Game Boy entry Link’s Awakening. And, like the Mario edition, this device includes a digital clock, a classic Game & Watch minigame (with Zelda-inspired art), and a retro plastic shell — the throwback industrial design gently improved by the inclusion of a USB-C slot for charging the internal battery.

The significant difference between the Mario and Zelda editions has little to do with creative decisions on Nintendo’s part. Zelda, purely on a design level, just happens to be a better fit for the small device, Link’s adventure requiring less precision than the plumber’s platforming. Link’s Awakening in particular is a natural fit — the Game & Watch hardware acts as a more portable GameBoy with a far better, backlit screen.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=5jp_9gv_N8c%3Frel%3D0

Is the Game & Watch the best place to play these Zelda games? Of course not. It’s still too small! And most of these games can be found on Nintendo’s other hardware. But if you’re going to drop $49.99 on this sort of gizmo, it’s nice to know it can comfortably do what’s written on the tin without causing hand cramps.

So is it worth the cost of a new game during a Steam sale? Frankly, I suspect most collectors have already made up their minds, and that’s who Nintendo is targeting.

Back to the question of “Why do these exist?”

The Game & Watch limited editions fit within a budding trend at Nintendo. The game maker has confidently returned to the toy business, pushing stand-alone gizmos onto store shelves to capitalize on the holiday rush. In 2016, the NES Classic Edition immediately sold out across the country, and a year later, the Super NES Classic Edition did the same. Last year, Nintendo shifted its tangible dose of nostalgia to handheld games, reviving the dusty Game & Watch brand.

Nintendo has been in the toy and collectible business for over a hundred years, but since the debut of the Nintendo Entertainment System, their creativity and resources have largely focused on their core consoles and software. This holiday gift trend of the past five years suggests the company is still willing to flirt with these bits of ephemera, stuff that theoretically serves a purpose (the Classic Editions and Game & Watch handhelds play games) but in practice exists to evoke a feeling.

We’ve seen Nintendo rely on nostalgia throughout its history. It’s easy to think of ways for Nintendo to follow up these successes, like Game & Watch: Metroid or N64 Classic Edition. But I hope this trend in toy-making continues to evolve rather than plateau. Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda is a delightful holiday gift for 2021, but I can’t help but wonder what the House of Mario could create in 2022.

Maybe the designers at Nintendo are creating these holiday trinkets to make some easy fiscal cash off the memories of their most hardcore fans. But the care that goes into each device — the design, the clever retail presentation, the craft of it all — has me excited by the idea that somewhere, deep in the company’s bowels, a handful of creators keep the company’s legacy of toymaking alive. And, maybe one day, they won’t simply need to feed nostalgia. Maybe one day, a company that has made toys for over a century will make some stand-alone trinket that’s entirely new.

Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda was released on Nov. 12. The product was reviewed using a portable provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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