Why Nintendo Abandoned the Game Boy Name

"Game Boy" might just be the most famous name in handheld gaming history, so why did Nintendo stop using it?

Nintendo Game Boy
Photo: Nintendo

For years, the Nintendo Game Boy dominated the handheld gaming market en route to arguably becoming synonymous with the very idea of handheld gaming. So why did Nintendo stop using the Game Boy name almost 16 years ago?

To be honest, the answer to that question is complicated and open to a fair bit of speculation. While this is a topic that Nintendo has talked around over the years, there are not a lot of high-level Nintendo executives who have directly addressed that question in a way that eliminates all possible doubt.

Having said that, we do have a pretty good idea why Nintendo suddenly stopped using the Game Boy brand after they spent years establishing it as one of the strongest names in the video game industry.

The explanation dates back to the origins of the Game Boy name which are, appropriately enough, also somewhat mysterious. It’s been said that Shigesato Itoi (who you probably know best as one of the writers of the Mother series) suggested the name to engineer Gunpei Yokoi, but I’m obligated to say that the details of that popular story have been disputed over the years. It also seems likely that the name was inspired by the success of the Sony Walkman, but while that was almost certainly part of the reason why Nintendo eventually approved the Game Boy name (even after some within the company reportedly spent months mocking it), it’s never been entirely clear if that was the main determining factor.

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For the sake of moving forward, though, let’s just say that both stories suggest that Nintendo was somewhat hesitant about the Game Boy brand at the start and ultimately saw it as a kind of spin-off of (or sidekick to) their consoles. Keep that point in mind for later.

You probably know what happened next. The Game Boy pretty much changed the entire concept of handheld gaming overnight and was considered by many to be the only handheld gaming device you needed. Even the Game Boy Color (which Nintendo often groups with the Game Boy when relaying lifetime unit sales) didn’t immediately replace the Game Boy in the hearts and homes of many.

In fact, Nintendo didn’t unveil a “true” Game Boy successor until they finally released the Game Boy Advance in 2001. While the Game Boy Advance is fondly remembered by many for its library of (often criminally underrated) games and technological advancements, the truth is that the legacy of the device has always been more complicated than our nostalgia for it. The Game Boy Advance got off to a slow start that it eventually started to recover from (thanks partially to the hardware improvements offered by the Game Boy Advance SP) but never entirely overcame in terms of its sales relative to its predecessor. It’s no wonder why some in Nintendo were so hesitant to abandon the original Game Boy during all those years.

Interestingly, that hesitancy carried over to the initial discussions about the Game Boy Advance’s ultimate successor. See, Satoru Okada and his engineering team were already working on the next Game Boy device (which was initially known as “IRIS”) when Satoru Iwata (who had recently been promoted to President of Nintendo) informed Okada and the engineering team that former company president Hiroshi Yamauchi had recently requested that they design a Nintendo handheld with two screens. Yamauchi seemingly thought that feature would be a nice throwback to the original Game & Watch design.

According to Okada, “everybody hated this idea, even Iwata himself.” The engineers just felt like handheld technology had evolved past the need for a second screen. Still, Iwata ensured the team that they had his support and should at least try to make the concept work. So, the team gave the handheld project a new name (“Nitro”) and set out to do just that.

This is where we start to speculate a bit about what happened next, though it’s fairly easy to use logic to fill in the gaps in this particular story.

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Basically, Nintendo started referring to the Nitro project (eventually known as the DS) as the “third pillar” of the company (with the GameCube and Game Boy Advance being the other two pillars at that time). While some saw that as a sign of their optimism for the future of the device, it now seems clear that the team may have been hedging their bets. If the DS succeeded, great. If it failed, then at least it wasn’t a failure associated with the Game Boy name.

However, when the Nintendo DS went on to become the best-selling Nintendo device ever and the second-best-selling video game device of all time…well, that almost certainly threw a wrench into their plans. At that point, there was no way that Nintendo was going to abandon the Nintendo DS name so quickly. It was obviously going to remain one of the pillars of the Nintendo family.

What about the Game Boy, though? Well, Nintendo did release the Game Boy Micro in 2005 (a year after the release of the Nintendo DS), but the Game Boy name pretty much disappeared after that. It’s not necessarily a surprise that the Nintendo DS usurped the Game Boy as the company’s handheld golden boy, but what about all that “three pillars” talk? Why wasn’t there a future for the Game Boy brand in some capacity beyond the novelty of the Game Boy Micro?

If pressed to guess, I’d say that Nintendo simply realized that the Game Boy name had outlived its intended purpose. At a time when the Wii and DS were going strong, what void would the Game Boy have filled? Despite its eventual success, the Game Boy was still seen internally and externally by some as a companion/sidekick (right down to its name). The DS, meanwhile, had firmly established itself as its own thing at a time of increased competition across the board. It’s rare that a company finds a true successor to a popular brand that combines the thrill of the new with the comforts of the old (Sony still uses the PlayStation name, for instance), but Nintendo was lucky enough to do just that.

Still, I wouldn’t rule out a Game Boy return somewhere down the line. Not only is nostalgia a hell of a drug, but it’s hard to see Nintendo going back to the DS name in the post-Switch world. It’s honestly hard to see them going back to a dedicated handheld in the current market, but if they do, then I’d argue that the Game Boy name is still their most versatile and recognizable option, shy of rolling the dice on a new name again.

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