In 1979 the LCD-based Microvision, designed by Smith Engineering and distributed by Milton-Bradley, became the first handheld game console and the first to use interchangeable game cartridges. The Microvision game Cosmic Hunter (1981) also introduced the concept of a directional pad on handheld gaming devices, and is operated by using the thumb to manipulate the on-screen character in any of four directions.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the beginnings of the modern day handheld game console industry, after the demise of the Microvision.
The earliest form of dedicated console, handheld electronic games are characterized by their size and portability. Used to play interactive games, handheld electronic games are often miniaturized versions of video games. The controls, display and speakers are all part of a single unit, and rather than a general-purpose screen made up of a grid of small pixels, they usually have custom displays designed to play one game. This simplicity means they can be made as small as a digital watch, which they sometimes are. The visual output of these games can range from a few small light bulbs or LED lights to calculator-like alphanumerical screens; later these were mostly displaced by liquid crystal and Vacuum fluorescent display screens with detailed images and in the case of VFD games, color. Handhelds were at their most popular from the late 1970s into the early 1990s. They are both the precursors to and inexpensive alternatives to the handheld game console.
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