Nintendo has been making handheld games for nearly 30 years. It has been producing handheld consoles for 20 years. This is the story of how they evolved from the original Game Boy the DSi.
Nintendo began making single-game handheld electronic game devices in the form of Game and Watch in 1980. 9 years later they released the first true handheld console.
The Game Boy was released in 1989 and was a huge success. Its screen could display just four shades of gray and no other colours, which even then seemed a little disappointing as handheld consoles released within one year by Atari and Sega had full colour displays. Despite this it still featured some classic games including the legendary Tetris which gave the Game Boy its first big success. In the end, it was the quality of games for Game Boy that kept it ahead of its competition.
After 7 years, as with all games consoles, the Game Boy seemed have had its time in the sun and was ready to be tucked away with all the other old toys in the loft. Then a new phenomena revived the near-dead console. At a time when most publishers had moved on from a console, the Game Boy surprised everyone by releasing the best selling game in history. It was none other than Pokemon.
Unlike current games systems which have variations available from launch and updates every few years, it took 6 years for Nintendo to release a variety of colours of Game Boy. The DS took just two years to be upgraded with the DS Lite, and another two for the DSi to be released. The Game Boy took 7 years to get a small hardware redesign which reduced its size. This version was named the Game Boy Pocket.
After 6 years with no updates to the Game Boy console itself, Nintendo started releasing updates every year as if to make up for lost time. The Game Boy Light was released in 1998. It was around the same size as the Game Boy Pocket but with backlit screen.
The final update to the original Game Boy was the Game Boy Color. This was also the first time some games were released that would not work on older versions of the console and it actually increased the processor speed and memory capacity. Of course added colour to games too. Surprisingly the colour pallet was still lower than the 9 year old Game Gear.
The Game Boy was finally replaced in 2001 with the Game Boy Advance. An entirely new, up-to-date console which finally featured full colour and was able to play SNES quality games, whereas previous Game Boys were not able to run games of even NES standard games.
The Game Boy Advance featured a clam shell design as is now used in the DS and DSi. It incorporated a backlit screen.
The final variation of the Game Boy Advance (actually released slightly after the DS in 2005) was the Game Boy Micro. This is still the smallest handheld console ever released. Its dimensions and design were inspired by the NES control pad with a full resolution screen in the middle. From this point on Nintendo seemed to become very nostalgic, basing its Wii controller on the NES controller also and the DS design being based on Game and Watch systems.
In 2004 Nintendo revolutionised the handheld games console again. Rather than designing a console with a high-end processor, the Nintendo DS focused on making creative use of other technologies that had come a long way in recent years, namely touch-screen and voice recognition. Of course it also made use of Dual Screens. The biggest success of the DS is the second best selling game in history, Nintendogs.
The DS Lite released in 2006 was a mostly cosmetic upgrade, reducing the size and giving the console a more sleek design as well as improving the screen.
The black DSi released in 2009, will for the first time include an in-built camera (there was a very low quality camera accessory for the original Game Boy). It is again slightly smaller than the DS Lite and includes a music player along with improved sound and screen size.
Most consoles seem to have a shelf life of around 5 years, so a full next generation handheld from Nintendo would be expected around 2009. However the original Game Boy (and its variations) doubled that shelf life and Nintendo are not expect to move away from the wave of success they are currently riding. For this reason the fourth generation of Nintendo handheld console maybe as far off as 2014.