Published on September 4th, 2015 | by Retroprincess0
Game Boy And Its Techni’Color’ Dreamconsole
In my previous piece, I began to detail how the Game Boy release changed the face of portable gaming and some of the most popular and enduring titles that emerged at the time. In the next part of this retrospective series, I will explore how the release of the Game Boy Color created further shift in the portable market. Also in this piece I would like to tell you a bit more about the competition that was released at the time and why the Game Boy Color continued to endure as the best seller.
Just a quick point before I start. Color vs. Colour. For my fellow British readers and anyone else using UK English, please don’t think I have gone mad. I’m on a teaching career break at the moment so my primary thrill in life is to correct spelling and grammar in online articles. I promise that by using the term ‘Color’, I am using the registered brand spelling and not being vowel lazy. If I use the term ‘colour’ it is in fact about the colour of the unit itself. For any Stateside or American English readers, you won’t be bothered in any way but there it is! If I now make any spelling or grammar mistakes I really am going to have to eat humble pie.
The Game Boy Evolves
So, on to the order of the day. Game Boy Color had already been delayed as I explained in my last piece, because the original model had been so enduring that public demand really didn’t exist for much in the way of development. It was in fact developer pressure that began the impetus for change. There had been the various unit colour changes and some slimming down of the dimensions and weight, but nothing much else until the release of the Game Boy Color in 1998.
The unit itself measured 133mm x 75mm x 27mm which meant it was smaller than the Game Boy Pocket but larger than the Game Boy Light. At 138g in weight, it again fell between the earlier models from the first generation of units. It had twice the processing speed of the predecessor and 3 times the memory which made gaming faster and potentially more complex. The screen resolution, sound capabilities and built in user input remained the same. Two AA batteries provided 30+ hours of gaming joy (Allegedly, I never managed to make one set last this long). The screen was smaller at 60mm but it was in COLOUR! It is hard for anyone who isn’t from that generation to understand what it is like seeing colour portable gaming for the first time (I imagine rather like seeing colour television for the first time). It wasn’t the first handheld with the colour capability but it was the first one that people went pretty darn crazy for because of the established success of the original model. The palette stretched to 32,768 available colours, quite a change from the grey, grey, grey and…well grey of the first generation model.
The stand out, ground breaking industry first feature in portable gaming from Nintendo? Simple. Backwards compatibility. If you had the Color unit but could only afford a new game on your birthday, you didn’t have to wait twiddling your thumbs instead of the D-Pad. You simply inserted a cartridge from your library of up to 1048 games (depending very much on your location). This was a pretty phenomenal gamble considering that the hook of the Color unit was, well the colourful colours, and the old games still ran in grey. So, Nintendo ensured that every Game Boy Color game with a release title in full, glorious, shiny colour. The choice was between ‘Tetris DX’, ‘Wario Land II’ or ‘Pocket Bomberman’ – established titles from the past generation of handheld which therefore drew the player in to a familiar genre while showing the new unit to its full capability.
Nintendo then released cartridges which fell in to 2 types. Type A were the backwards compatible cartridges. The game boxes would have screenshots of the game in colour and black & white. The cartridge would be a slightly different shape but would play in all past and current models of the Game Boy. Type B were the forwards compatible cartridges. These were a different shape again and slightly see through. The box and cartridge would also clearly state that the game was for the Color unit only. You would also get a cheery message if you tried to use it in your older model telling you that it wasn’t going to happen (we all had to try it, kids always do when you tell them it won’t work).
Some games were released as special ‘Hi-Colour’ versions or with ‘Special Palettes’. You could also use different button combinations to experiment with the palette you were using. For example, if you were using an original Gameboy game, you could upgrade to 10 (yes 10) shades of grey instead of 4. You could also invert the colours if that took your fancy. It could cause a few problems though, especially if sprites on the screen suddenly became indistinguishable from the background because you had a pastels fetish!
Backwards compatibility was the reason that Gameboy Color blew the other, sometimes more advanced competition, out of the water. No other system was launching with such an established and diverse library of game choice. The content wasn’t new, so it had been tried and tested before. This meant that the developers could build on the existing popularity of characters such as Mario and Donkey Kong to name but a few.
Nintendo didn’t disappoint with the colour range of the Gameboy Color units. The initial release was a different colour for each of the colours in the ‘Color’ logo. These were Berry (C), Grape (G), Kiwi (L), Dandelion (O) and Teal (R). There was also ‘Atomic Purple’ which was a see through unit casing with a purple tint to it. There were then 7 limited edition units, mainly for the Japanese market and mostly a clear casing with a coloured tint. 7 separate Pokémon variants were released, for example the ‘Pikachu’ version was a yellow and blue unit with the Pokémon logo, artwork and coloured buttons that came with a copy of Pokémon Yellow. I would have sold my soul for that as a kid. Or now.
As before, there were also the special variants that were particular releases for branding or other purposes. The Ferrero company, for example, bought out a ‘Happy Hippos’ edition to coincide with the release of their new chocolate of the same name (remember those?) and only 111 of them to boot. Hello Kitty bought out two versions and Tommy Hilfiger even had a unit made in their brand. Many of these units were regional and limited in their run. Therefore today they are obviously the more valuable and collectable types. Check out Wikipedia’s more in depth list for more information about these and other Game Boy generations.
Competition…or lack of?
So maybe I’ve been a little one sided on the “Nintendo rule the world” fence. Let’s flesh these out a bit to understand why they didn’t work out.
Neo Geo Pocket and Neo Geo Pocket Colour
Released in Japan in 1998 (just a week after the Game Boy Color) the original Pocket lasted just a year and never made it to Europe or America. The total mis-timing of the console was rather silly…releasing a monochrome unit a week after one of the biggest game companies in the world released a colour one. The colour version was released in 1999, 5 months after the debut of the Gameboy Color, by which time it was simply too late. The rise of Pokémon in the new millennium and the stronger sales of Bandai’s Tamagotchi and WonderSwan meant that the NGP Color and its library of 84 games stalled. Developers and retail support evaporated. The units were discontinued by 2001 having sold just 2 million units, combined, in 3 years. The whole company never recovered and folded in 2007. Yikes.
The name may sound a little strange but it was intended to highlight the aesthetics of the unit and the capabilities it offered. It was released only in Japan in 1999. Bandai had already been HUGE internationally with the detention inducing, sleep depriving Tamagotchi (you may have heard of those). However, yet again, it was another company that failed to make the pitch at the right time. They released a black and white unit. There was no colour model until 2000 over 2 years since the Gameboy Color and they then released a Crystal version in 2002. It was the main rival to Nintendo on the handheld market after the Neo Geo was pulled. A release library of 50 games and eventually 9 unit colours was well thought out and an online poll involved the user in choosing and naming new colours for 3 limited edition units. There were a few reasons why the WonderSwan endured a little longer. Firstly, it was cheaper. Always a perk if you are on pocket money. It also had a meaty battery life and some Anime titles which were very popular. It also did this funky thing where you could play vertically and horizontally, plus it had some very awesome accessories such as data transfer dongles and software developing kits. It ceased development in 2003 having sold just 3.5 million units combined. The announcement of the impending release of the Game Boy Advance was attributed to the failure of the unit.
Sega Game Gear and NEC Turboexpress
Now this was playing with the big boys. Sega Game Gear was the main contender to Nintendo in the portable market. It was the only console that rivalled the Game Boy Color because it had been around for 8 years already. Yes…Years. So why wasn’t it wiping the floor with a Game Boy shaped mop? Well, it was a rush job which is such a shame as it really had potential.
It was in colour and backlit, something that Nintendo still hadn’t managed to sort out even with 8 years extra to try. It shared titles with Sega home consoles such as ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ and ‘Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse‘. It also had fast processing capability. But it ran on 6AA batteries that only lasted 3-ish hours. Unless you had an army of rechargeables or a very, VERY generous allowance, batteries were going to bankrupt you quickly. Also, if you were anything like me, you spent 3 hours just deciding what socks to wear let alone gaming. It did have some great accessories though such as the TV Tuner. It cost nearly as much as the Game Gear itself but it was portable TV, in colour, under the duvet. Not that there was much in the way of late night TV in the 90s. There were also charger units, magnifiers and different colour releases but we all know that they had been around since the late 1980s with the original Game Boy.
The titles, familiar as they may be, were limited. Nintendo had a monopoly on the market that meant developers were contracted to them. Sega began to tire of the lack of opportunities for their handheld device when their home consoles were doing so well (Master System, Mega Drive and so on). There were also many issues surrounding the advertising of the Game Gear outside of Japan. Sega were criticised for mocking Nintendo users as fat and having low IQs. Then there were the more, er, smutty adverts.
But then Sega never did have a reputation for being well behaved in the advertising stakes and it had never hurt their sales in the past. At any rate, they switched their focus back to home consoles and had notched up a fairly decent count of 11 million sales. The issue was that Nintendo had sold over 118 million. Yikes.
Interestingly (and briefly as there isn’t a huge amount to say) the NEC Turboexpress also failed at around the same time, due to similar issues with battery life and lack of developer interest. It also had a dreadful problem with the sound components failing and pixels burning out. It also looked pretty uncool and was wacky expensive.
I have a weak spot for Ataris. I had an ST as a kid and adored it so I’m sad that for some reason unknown to man or beast, I never played a Lynx or a Jaguar It has the special tiara that says ‘First colour LED handheld console ever’. In 1989 no less which was the same year that Game Boy released their 4 shades of dust. Game Boy also didn’t have other capabilities that the Lynx had such as a sleek hand hugging design, horizontal and vertical gaming and very advanced graphics that used a fast processor to zoom in on sprites and create a mock-3D effect. It was hugely advanced for the time and should have left the Game Boy for dust. However it was plagued with a poor battery life (4-5 hours) and a limited software library of just 72 titles across its shelf life. It released an updated version in 1991 and sales were bolstered in to the mid-90s very briefly when the Jaguar console was released and died a horrible, painful death. Sales figures are very widely debated from half a million to 2 million, but the poor sales and the curse of the Jaguar certainly played a huge part in the demise of Atari during the 90s.
The Gameboy Color had a limited life when compared with its original incarnation. The Gameboy Advance was announced for a 2001 release and the Color reign was very quickly taken over by something new. It is interesting on reflection just how much of a grip Nintendo had on the market even though the only first they had was the backwards compatibility. It still fell way behind by nearly a decade in terms of the colour display. Even by the time they caught up, there was still no backlight and the design was dated. But Nintendo had an established game library, a clear selling strategy and audience, reliable componants and power and Pokémon. Combined sales of the Original and Color units were 118.69 million and those sorts of sales are untouchable. However if you then think that 84.52 million sales of games were just from the Pokémon franchise across 4 years on these generations of consoles…well, let’s leave that for another article!
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