This week marked the 25th anniversary of what is arguably the most important handheld game console ever made: the Nintendo Game Boy. The fondly remembered grey brick redefined when and where we could enjoy video games, and was the birthplace of many gaming franchises which are still going strong to this day. Now seems like the perfect time to review its storied history, including its predecessors, competition, and some of its stand-out software titles.
Portable electronic gaming beginsIn the late 1970s, simplistic LED, LCD, and VFD electronic handheld games appeared. Among them were Nintendo's own Game & Watch series (which featured basic but addictive game play that got progressively faster and more challenging before resetting every 100 points). These were hugely popular at the time, but each one was a self-contained game and therefore rather limited compared to the ubiquitous cartridge-based home consoles like the Atari.
Milton Bradley's Microvision, released in 1979, was the first handheld game console to use interchangeable cartridges. This meant you could play more than one game on it, but because the LCD screen was a rather primitive 16 x 16 pixels in resolution, most games were variations on Pong and Break Out. The system itself was also rather large and vertically oriented with a dial controlling the paddle's movement, which wasn't likely to fit in your pocket.
Five years later the Epoch Game Pocket Computer appeared in Japan. It upped the screen resolution to a more respectable 75 x 164 pixels, but was large for a handheld and had a selection of just five games. As a result these two early examples failed to launch portable gaming, and the archaic Game & Watch style handhelds and tabletop arcades continued to be the only real option for electronic gaming on the go for many years.
Nintendo would sell approximately 40 million Game & Watches, with an unknown amount sold of the hundreds of knock-offs produced by other companies. It was with the Game & Watch that Nintendo introduced the now common directional joy pad (copied by just about every game controller since), as fitting a joystick on a portable simply wasn't practical.
Portable gaming changes foreverBy the late 1980s the gaming scene had changed dramatically. The Atari crash was nothing but a bad memory, with Nintendo and Sega competing for a burgeoning home console market. Then, on April 21, 1989, Nintendo released the Game Boy in Japan (with North America following in June). Designed by a team of talented engineers led by Gunpei Yokoi (the mentor of Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto), it was like your own portable NES, compatible with a growing library of cute little cartridge-based games.
Before Miyamoto shot to gaming stardom with Donkey Kong, Yokoi had been Nintendo's lead designer, having personally invented dozens of popular toys before leading Nintendo into the video game business (and inventing the aforementioned Game & Watch). The Game Boy fully embraced his philosophy of "lateral thinking with withered technology." This line of thinking would later influence the direction of many more Nintendo consoles, including the Wii.
Yokoi's team, known as Nintendo Research & Development 1, adopted the same technology as the Microvision and Epoch Game Pocket Computer, along with its deficiencies. By all accounts the Game Boy's monochrome dot-matrix LCD screen was an improvement; it had a higher resolution (160 x 144 pixels), and was capable of outputting four shades, thus allowing for much more detailed graphics and game play.
Even with the contrast dial, however, it was impossible to see the screen in the dark, and under the best lighting conditions the screen still suffered from the ghosting effect that blurred fast-moving objects. I can remember several unsuccessful attempts at showing my parents and grandparents what the games looked like, as they squinted at the tiny screen. Playing in direct sunlight or sitting under a lamp became every Game Boy player's M.O.
The Pretenders to the ThroneReleased just one month later, the Atari Lynx was the Game Boy's first major competitor. Developed by Epyx, what eventually became the Lynx was actually first pitched as a potential Nintendo handheld. However, Nintendo already had the Game Boy in the works, so Epyx ended up in bed with Atari.
The Lynx is notable for being the first handheld game console to feature a back lit, full-color screen, which looked amazing at the time. The main drawback was the screen was nearly unplayable outdoors during the day due to screen glare. It also featured a much more robust chip set capable of producing (at the time) impressive sprite scaling techniques that rivaled those of the home game consoles. The Lynx also allowed players to flip the controls left to right, presumably for left-handed players, who could then play the system upside down.
A year later, Sega released the Game Gear in Japan which also packed a bright color screen and recognizable software titles like Sonic the Hedgehog. Like the Lynx, screen glare was a problem but in the end the Game Gear fared much better in the marketplace, probably because of Sega's better reputation amongst gamers and a more aggressive marketing campaign (which mercilessly attacked the Game Boy's lack of color).
Then NEC entered the market with the TurboExpress, which was essentially a portable version of its TurboGrafx-16 home console. It could play all the same games, but the TurboGrafx-16 wasn't a big success outside of Japan so few people saw the benefit. Less threatening were a few Chinese Game Boy knock-offs, the Gamate, Watara Supervision, and Mega Duck, which appeared mainly in parts of Asia, South America, and Europe.
Withered technology rules the dayDespite its limitations, Yokoi well understood the benefits of using the out-dated technology, and his gamble paid off handsomely. First and foremost, the Game Boy was less expensive to manufacture, and thus much more affordable. Its introductory price of US$89.95 was a third that of the Turbo Express, half the price of the Atari Lynx, and almost half the price of the Sega Game Gear ($149.95), and it included a game.
Secondly, with its minimal processing power and unlit screen, the Game Boy used fewer batteries than its competitors, and those batteries would last on average twenty hours (about seven times longer than the Game Gear, and more than twice as long as the Lynx). Third, the components were smaller, making the Game Boy the most portable of the lot. While it might not actually fit inside your pocket, compared to the others it was the most comfortable to hold and take with you.
Of course, the single most important factor in the Game Boy's runaway success was its library of great games. Not only did the Game Boy benefit from Nintendo's reputation for producing top software titles like Mario and Zelda, which was probably at its zenith in the early '90s, but it boasted remixed and original versions of popular hits Mega Man, Castlevania, and many more.
It's all about the gamesThe cherry on top was the included copy of Tetris that came with every unit. One really can't emphasize enough the importance of the cultural phenomenon that appealed to anyone and everyone regardless of age or gender (sort of the '80s version of Angry Birds). Nintendo even marketed the Game Boy to businessmen as a way to kill time on tedious flights. The documentary, Tetris: From Russia with Love, details the surprisingly dramatic behind-the-scenes business dealings that led to Nintendo's ownership of the title for several years.
The Game Boy continued to see regular software releases for almost a decade, including all sorts of original games that would go on to become powerful franchises in their own right.
Kirby, one of Nintendo's most popular mascot characters started life on the Game Boy. This led to some initial confusion about the character. Since the Game Boy's screen was black and white, Kirby changed from his usual bright pink to a ghostly white on the American cover art (most likely for marketing purposes), infuriating the Japanese design team. The whole idea behind Kirby was to make a game and character that would appeal to girls, and future titles saw him returned to the pink puffball everyone knows today.
One of Mario's most infamous rivals, Wario, first appeared in Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. Miyamoto's division was too busy working on games for the soon-to-be-released Super Nintendo, so Yokoi's team was tasked with making the expected Mario titles for the Game Boy. As Nintendo's internal divisions had always fostered a sense of pride and competition, R&D1; wasn't thrilled to be forced to work on another team's game. That explains why the Mario titles on the Game Boy are a little weird compared to the console versions. You might even say that Wario, who would go on to star in his own games from that point on, began life as a mockery of Nintendo's brightest star.
Other notable franchises that got their start on the Game Boy include Square-Enix's Mana and SaGa role-playing games, which were re-branded as Final Fantasy titles for Western markets. These games would go on to get sequels on the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and so on, with the most recent examples appearing on mobile phones in Japan.
One can't forget the explosive popularity of Pokemon, which hypnotized an entire generation of kids practically overnight. This led to many gob-smacked mainstream news reports which predicted it would be a short-lived fad. They couldn't have been more wrong. Pokemon titles have appeared on every Nintendo handheld since, with each version selling millions of copies faster than you can say Jigglypuff. The series remains a touchstone of handheld gaming, with the most recent versions appearing on the Nintendo 3DS.
Finally, one of my favorite examples of this trend is Capcom's Gargoyle's Quest, a spin-off of Capcom's coin-op classic Ghosts 'n' Goblins, starring the formidable red gargoyle Firebrand. Capcom made a sequel which was then ported to the original Nintendo, and a third game appeared on the Super Nintendo (Demon's Crest). Unfortunately this promising franchise has taken a back seat in recent years, with Firebrand appearing only in brief cameos ever since.
Mobile gaming evolvesDespite all its limitations, I treasured my Game Boy. When my two older brothers were hogging the television, I would happily retreat into my own little world through that spinach-colored screen. And because it was portable, it was my constant companion on annual family road trips, causing panic when I somehow left it and a half dozen games at the hotel we'd checked out of. When we got sick of a game, we'd swap the bit-sized game cartridges with friends like kids trading baseball cards.
Nintendo would go on to market variations of the Game Boy, which helped propel the brand to more than 120 million units sold. This figure includes sales of the Game Boy Pocket, which was significantly smaller, had a better screen with less blurring, and ran on fewer batteries. Also included are sales of the Game Boy Light (a Japan exclusive Game Boy Pocket with a lit screen), and the Game Boy Color (which finally added color in 1998).
Nintendo's success with portable game consoles saw many competitors come and go. It wasn't until the Sony PlayStation Portable that Nintendo faced its first major threat. The PlayStation brand had unseated Nintendo in the home console space, so many expected a repeat in the handheld arena. Despite many predictions to the contrary, the DS managed to outsell the PSP two-to-one.
These days it seems like smartphones and tablets are stealing the traditional handheld market's thunder. Everyone carries a phone with them, making dedicated portable game consoles redundant. Sure, playing games with just a touchscreen isn't conducive to every genre, but the games are a fraction of the price, and are getting better as mobile technology improves. Gaming on your phone is clearly here to stay, so where does that leave Nintendo?
Nintendo's 3DS has sold about 40 million units at the time of writing, but that's a steep drop off from the DS's 150 million. It's clear the landscape has changed, but Nintendo is evolving with the times by offering cheaper, downloadable titles (including classic software titles developed for the Game Boy and its competitors). Despite the growing chorus demanding that Nintendo go mobile, I think the company will probably continue to carve out a niche for itself in the dedicated handheld space, and more power to them. The question is how big that niche will be, and if it can sustain the company through hard times as it always has in the past.