Published on August 11th, 2015 | by Retroprincess0
Game Boy – Nintendo’s Handheld Revolution
Nintendo in 1989 was bubbling in the hot cauldron of a changing gaming world, a world that was entering a revolution of innovation and change. What Nintendo did was to ignite the handheld console to such a degree that, in less than a decade, 64.42 million Game Boy units were in the hands of gamers globally. This mini-series of articles will chart the history of the handheld market that Nintendo carved out for themselves. It will look at the successes and failures of hardware (including accessories), software and also the evolution of the handheld console for a changing gamer from the early 1980s to the present day. It also aims to have some fun returning to a few of the old titles to give them another test drive and compare the past and present versions of the games where possible.
In the early 1980s, Nintendo had enjoyed superb success with the advent of ‘The Game & Watch’ device. It was a simple concept; take a game and package it in a small box with a screen and some buttons. Limits in the LCD technology meant one unit equalled one game, but with a collection to appeal to fans across the world, the numbers quickly amounted to 43.4 million units sold.
The mid-1980s saw Nintendo steer in the direction of the successful ‘Entertainment System’ console, however the focus of today is about their other project of the 80s: The Game Boy.
Release and reception
Based on the demand for the ‘Game & Watch’ titles, Japan saw the release of The Game Boy in the April of 1989. The USA followed soon after in July, and Europe joining the party in September of 1990. The unit came boxed with a cartridge (Game Pak) called Tetris. You may have heard of it. An initial run of 300,000 units were sold out in a fortnight in Japan, whereas release day in the USA saw sales of 40,000 in just the first day of trading. Although the Game Boy was not the first console to feature a cartridge system (Microvision won the ‘handheld with cartridges’ race in 1979), it was the first handheld console to be reliable and affordable. Microvision had been plagued by issues such as rotting components and a poor uptake by game developers.
The Game Boy measured up at 148mm x 90mm x 32mm with a 66mm LCD screen. An 8-bit processor had a built-in sound generator that played through one speaker, but stereo sound could be achieved by using headphones. Requiring 4 AA batteries made running the unit pricey but through this it could provide over 30 hours of gaming bliss at a time. It also had 8kb of RAM, an external port for pairing via a link cable (multiplayer before wi-fi meant having to actually be in the same room), a D-pad, plus A and B buttons, and a select and start button. Oh and forget “50 Shades of Grey”… the Game Boy came with just 4.
The launch titles differed slightly depending on the area of release, but Tetris was a staple in all areas (although a later one in Japan), with other universal launch titles including Super Mario Land and Alleyway. Europe did not release Tennis (USA only) or Yakuman (Japan only). Super Mario Land itself was a runaway success with more than 18 million sales in total (14 million of which are attributed to Game Boy launch title sales), but Tetris is the biggest Game Boy seller of all time, amounting to around 35 million sales.
The original Game Boy model had a title library of 789 games across its 9 year life span. The parallel launch of the NES in 1983-86 and later the SNES in 1990-92 led to the first successful character based franchises. Super Mario Land was a launch title for Game Boy that was miniaturized from the original on the NES. Despite being the biggest selling title on the NES, the compact version received criticism for being too short and too easy with only 12 levels. It is difficult to make comparisons between handheld and home console titles, however certain elements of familiarity appealed to gamers. For example, the music on Super Mario Land for Game Boy was praised even though there was very little ‘new’ about it. This is possibly the very reason that the music was popular, it was something that hadn’t changed. The Mario franchise led to a children’s cartoon, movies, and, of course, games still being released and played over 25 years later.
Other character-based franchises had success on the Game Boy. The Legend of Zelda appeared as did Donkey Kong, Kirby, and Pokemon. Early incarnations of Final Fantasy also appeared, though they are not always attributed to the franchise due to complex legal issues. Interestingly, Pokemon Red and Blue remain the original Game Boy’s second biggest selling game (or games) of all time. This is despite not being bundled as a launch title which is what usually pushes the big numbers. In 2009 it became the “Best Selling RPG on the Game Boy” and then “Best Selling RPG of All Time”. I still have my beloved Pokemon games from the original Game Boy all the way through to my Nintendo 3DS. But more on my Pokemon worship another time.
As always with compilations of the ‘best games’, only the gamer themselves can make up their mind about whether they like a game or not, and so I won’t deal with those in this piece. Of course, there are always the usual suspects that appear in the charts such as the character franchises and games that were really ground breaking, for example Tetris had become the Pac-Man of a generation in the late 80s. The constant trickle of releases ensured that the gamer was never bored and could have the freedom to try a range of genre and game subject with ease. This in itself was a great commercial advantage, because the unit didn’t have to appeal to one ‘type’ of gamer which was the limitation of the ‘Game & Watch’. If you only enjoyed RPG or puzzle games, they were the cartridges you would choose to buy. In doing so, Nintendo were able to appeal to different types of niche market. Young Disney fans could play The Lion King while older players could switch to Gargoyle’s Quest and play a quite complex platform style game. You could also save progress in many of the games or at least pause to race to the dinner table before you got grounded.
Simplicity frequently won through – Dads everywhere just knew they could get a much better score at Tetris than their kids. My Dad spent years trying to practice when he thought my brother and I were in bed. For adults, the simplicity meant that the games were accessible and universally appropriate. Developers had the advantage of pester power when linking to character franchises. Marketing to children was prevalent in the 80s and 90s because of the ‘nag factor’. Having the latest Game Pak really upped your cool factor. You had to have the same game as your friends so you could use your link cable, and so it went on. Bolt on accessories also became the norm and would enhance the gaming experience; more on this in another article (some of them will REALLY make you chuckle!)
Game Boy Evolution
The Game Boy was revamped in 1995 with the advent of the “Play It Loud” range. It was exactly the same unit. No changes… except for the unit colour and a black screen border. However, this was a very clever marketing concept because like the “Play & Watch”, Game Boys now had the collector factor. Gamers love collecting, especially things that are considered ‘rare’. Nintendo released units in red, green, black, and yellow for all territories, while Japan got a white version (the original unit was considered ‘off white’), the USA got a transparent version, and Europe had its very own blue version. In the UK there was even a special Manchester United Football Club model released as well. Obviously both the Manchester United model and the Japanese white model are considered to be extremely rare. But with the rarity of each model being debated on so many different sites and forums, it is difficult to get a good indication of the sales and popularity of each colour. This is mostly owing to the different release patterns in each country.
In 1996, Nintendo attempted to revamp the Game Boy further with the release of the Game Boy Pocket. Again, the innards of the system were practically identical. However Nintendo were keen on improving the experience based on user feedback. To beat the ‘brick’ nickname of the original, the pocket was put on a diet. Praise the gaming gods, it was actually more practical to carry around. According to Nintendo’s own technical comparisons it was skinnier at approximately 127mm x 77mm x 25mm and it was just over 100g lighter so it didn’t pull your trousers ALL the way down if you DID have a pocket big enough. It’s happened to the best of us, I’m sure.
More advances in the system made gaming much more enjoyable. The screen was incrementally bigger at 65mm diagonally. But even better it was now in true black and white as opposed to 4 shades of greyish-green. The problem of ‘ghosting’ was eliminated and the visibility was much crisper.
The batteries were reduced to just 3 AAAs which made the unit lighter but compromised the gaming time to about only 10 hours. It wasn’t all plain sailing though: for one, the external port was changed to a smaller one. This required new cables for anyone who wanted to link up to other Game Boys and multiplay. Another issue was that the unit did not have a power LED, something which was soon changed in 1997 when Nintendo released new models with coloured unit casing – again due to user demand. As before there were blue, yellow, green, red, black, silver, and transparent versions. Japan were also gifted the pink and clear purple variations. More limited edition units also came on to the market such as the ice blue, gold, and extreme green versions. Nintendo also released several special editions that were character specific or promotional items. The Japanese had access to a pink ‘Hello Kitty’ unit with artwork, and there was also a blue and yellow Swedish model with a run of 3000 units. Both were clearly even more unusual and would appeal again to collectors. Some units were made to be specific prizes for competitions, or as giveaways such as with a Japanese airline in 1997.
In 1998, Nintendo brought out the Game Boy Light version in Japan only. The beauty of this design was that it had a back light for the first time. It wasn’t exactly for gaming under the duvet on a school night as it ate up the now 2 AA batteries, but it certainly helped the issue of visibility in poor light conditions. It was produced in both gold and silver, and again there were limited editions of clear yellow and then themed variants centered around Nintendo culture in Japan.
The Light would never made it out of Japan as just a few months later Nintendo released the Game Boy Color. Back in 1994, developers had in fact revealed in a press conference that they were delaying a colour version just because the sales were still so strong for the original Game Boy. Not bad for a unit already 5 years old at the time.
Nintendo was very keen to learn about its players, which had certainly paid off when tweaking that original unit for demand. In 1995 in the USA it was found that 46% of players were female, a statistic that was perhaps reflected in the growing range of colours that would appeal to some female players on the release of the Pocket. The games released have become legendary multi-million sellers. In 2011, much of Nintendo’s early back catalogue was released through the ‘Virtual Console’ service on the Nintendo eShop, available on newer models such as the Nintendo 3DS and the Wii-U. Emulators also continue to enable gamers a chance to reminisce with these old classics.
Nintendo were a definite success story of the 80s and 90s. It was in an age where the competition between consoles was fierce: Atari had already folded while attempting their console line and other companies had tried and failed to break into that market the same way Nintendo had. Nintendo had success with their NES and SNES consoles of course, but the runaway hit of the 80s and 90s was the Game Boy. I cannot remember knowing anyone who didn’t have one. I’ve thrown a Tetris cartridge across my bedroom, sworn at Mario, and yelled at Pikachu. I’d even tried to renounce the dratted brick altogether for the sake of my exams. To this day, I still have one, and I still often pick it up and enjoy the dulcet tones of Pokemon and Tetris. I’m a MMORPG player most of the time now, but the tactile interaction and nerdy joy takes me back to a simpler, younger time. It truly bought a generation together and changed the face of portable gaming forever.
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