For millions of gamers, the Game Boy was their first platform. It had the weight and appearance of a brick and the cartridges were huge, but the sight of the Nintendo logo slowly dropping down to the middle of the screen as the game took forever to load is a vivid and cherished memory.
Despite competition from other handheld consoles of its generation, such as the Sega Game Gear, the lesser-known Atari Lynx, and the TurboExpress, the original Game Boy remains an endearing gadget.
Released in Japan in 1989, the Game Boy was designed by Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi, who previously worked on the company’s Game & Watch handheld LCD games. Costing a mere $97, it sold 300,000 units in two weeks, which is a benchmark that serves as a prelude to its later international success.
Since its release, Nintendo has continuously redeveloped its consoles, making them slimmer, colorful, and more technologically advanced machines. However, when it comes to classic handhelds, that bulky grey brick has remained in the hearts of game players worldwide.
So, what is it about the Game Boy that made it so special?
The Game Boy was a significant development in Nintendo’s history for a number of reasons. Firstly, the design of the console itself is basic yet effective. Its simple, single-color interface is a small drawback in comparison with its competitors, yet it enabled the Game Boy to have an amazingly long 30-hour battery life that was essential and helpful for extensive multiplayer sessions.
While the Atari Lynx and the Game Gear had the screen in the middle and buttons on the side, the compact Game Boy had its buttons positioned underneath the screen. This enabled easy maneuverability and promoted a similar layout to the NES controller, which allowed players to familiarize themselves quickly between consoles.
In a way, the Game Boy could be seen as preparation for early mobile phones, where sore thumbs and peering into tiny screens were slowly becoming a daily habit.
Additionally, the Game Boy featured a built-in Game Link port that allowed a multiplayer option. Useful for long bouts of two-player Tetris or four-player F-1 Race, the Game Link facility effectively raised the game-playing experience to a new level similar to retro arcade games, and allowed friends and family to join in the fun at home.
This effectively broadened the potential video game market, and as a result, it became one of the first platforms to target female game players. Nintendo claimed that in 1995, 46% of its Game Boy users were female, compared with 29% for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console, making it one of the earliest gender-friendly consoles in history.
Both of these traits became key highlights in Nintendo’s future marketing approach, and ensured their success across all ages.
However, the simplistic design of the Game Boy is only one side to its success. Another side relates to its games.
In its Japanese release, the console was introduced with Super Mario Land, a side-scrolling version of the popular 1985 NES game Super Mario Bros. It marked the first Mario title to be available on a handheld console and was an immediate success.
A bite-sized version of its NES counterpart, Super Mario Land paved the way for similar titles for the Game Boy, such as Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Castlevania: The Adventure, and Metroid II: Return of Samus, so that players could enjoy wireless gaming. Additionally, it brought backwards compatability to Nintendo platforms. Even with the Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and notably the N64, players could use with the same game cartridge without having to buy the newer version.
However, it wasn’t until its release in North America that the world was introduced to an addictive Russian game with fiendishly falling blocks that the Game Boy’s popularity soared. Initially a PC game, Tetris complemented the console’s small screen and monochrome interface perfectly, and the ever-quickening descent of the bricks became compulsive playing. In short, Alexey Pajitnov designed a title that was not only an instant hit with Game Boy players, but a game that has been enjoyed by generation of players since.
The Game Boy brought Tetris to mainstream audiences, but it also introduced one of the company’s most endearing franchises. On the face of it, Pokémon’s concept of collecting, fighting, and swapping miniature creatures seems too simplistic, but with the odd tournaments, badges, and rare Pokémon, it became an entertaining and compelling classic.
As well as being one of the best-selling Game Boy games of all time, it also became one of the few games that could be played on the N64. Pokémon Stadium’s Transfer Pak enabled Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow users to play their game on the console using a built-in emulator, with the possibility of double or triple-speed, making levelling-up a less taxing process.
The introduction of the Game Boy Color in 1998 and subsequent release of Pokémon Gold and Silver further boosted the franchise’s popularity, as players could enjoy new species of Pokémon, different zones, and more colors.
Since the birth of the Game Boy, Nintendo released the smaller Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Color, the flip-phone-like Game Boy SP, and Game Boy Advance, which addressed the flaws of the original console. Developments included multi-color screens, slimmer design, and ‘shoulder’ buttons, which are now a common feature on modern game controllers.
By the time the Noughties hit, the Game Boy line was discontinued and the DS took over Nintendo’s handheld market. But you can still see the Game Boy’s original DNA in Nintendo’s most popular contemporary platform, the 3DS. While future reincarnations of the console focused on minimizing its bulky size and incorporating modern technologies, the original Game Boy is still seen as a classic.