Feature: A Visual Guide to Nintendo's Handheld Revamps - Part One

Because one is never enough

The recent announcement of 3DS XL less than 18 months after the original 3DS hit shelves drew a lot of discussion, so we thought we'd dive through the archives to present you with a visual history of the evolution of Nintendo handheld consoles, starting with the good old Game Boy. We're not going to go into all of the colour variations for this article, because that would require the efforts of a large team of dedicated researchers, but instead James and Tom have combined to show you Nintendo's major redesigns and handhelds. In this first part, we go all the way up to Game Boy Advance SP; keep an eye out for part two later this week.

Game Boy

North American release: 21st July 1989.

Here's where it all really started for Nintendo. The company had put out portable game machines before — the Game & Watch series pioneered the idea — but the interchangeable cartridges gave Game Boy a much broader appeal.

Looking at it these days it's hardly the most aesthetically appealing machine, with its dull pallour and odd pink, green and blue colour scheme, but it laid the foundations for modern handheld gaming as we know it. A D-Pad, two action buttons and mainstays Start and Select have all been included in every Nintendo handheld since.

The original Game Boy stood strong against several more powerful challengers, most notably SEGA's Game Gear and Atari's Lynx. The Game Boy's superior battery life and game library helped it shove off its competitors, and sustained sales meant it wasn't revamped until 1996.

Virtual Boy

North American release: 14th August 1995.

The handheld that Nintendo would rather forget, perhaps because it was the company's biggest and most embarrassing flop. To get the grizzly details out of the way first, this system was discontinued due to abysmal sales less than a year after it was released, and didn't even arrive in PAL markets. It also supposedly caused terrible headaches and eye-strain, too.

Beyond that, it was a system that showed the daring, innovative side of Nintendo that has since become a prominent part of the company's legacy. The technology may have been limited to red and black colours, often with wireframe visuals and insufficient rendering, but the Virtual Boy did successfully create a 3D effect. In many senses the technology just wasn't ready, but it was an early sign that Nintendo didn't just want to keep producing the same gaming experiences with improved graphics. If you want one today, they're a bit of a collector's item.

Game Boy Pocket

North American release: 3rd September 1996.

These days, redesigning a console seven years after its release is pretty much unthinkable, but back in the mid-90s Nintendo decided to revamp the Game Boy into the thinner Game Boy Pocket.

The machine was smaller and lighter, but had other tweaks too. It now ran on two AAA batteries instead of its predecessor's four, but the battery life took a knock, dipping from 15 hours to 10 hours. It also shrank the communication port, meaning you'd need an adaptor to link up to the original Game Boy for some multiplayer fun.

The screen was also changed to a starker black-and-white display, getting rid of the original's infamous green hue. The screen had no backlight, though; that came with the next revamp in 1998.

Game Boy Light

Japanese release: 14th April 1998.

This model was exclusive to Japan, so few outside of Nintendo's homeland are likely to have even clapped eyes on one of these systems. It may have been slightly bigger than the Game Boy Pocket, but it had a feature painfully lacking in its predecessors: an integrated backlight. As a Nintendo handheld released in Japan, it also had plenty of nifty special editions with attractive cases and designs, while two AA batteries would last a hefty 20 hours without the backlight, or roughly 12 hours with it on.

Reports of Japanese landfills packed to the brim with tacky, plastic external Game Boy light accessories back in summer 1998 are unconfirmed.

Game Boy Color

North American release: 18th November 1998.

Game Boy Color, due to its backwards compatibility, name and design, was perhaps incorrectly perceived as another iteration of the original Game Boy. It was actually more powerful and had superior technology, arguably making it a new console rather than a redesign, but being tied to its predecessors probably didn't do it any harm. It may have had new games that made use of the extra resources available, but the ability to play the enormous Game Boy library with basic colour palettes, retrospectively applied, meant that it helped to breathe new life into the handheld family.

The improved technology that we mentioned was a relatively humble improvement on an original model approaching a decade in age, but it did bring substantial colour to Nintendo's handheld gaming, and also included infrared communications and linking, even if the feature wasn't used a great deal.

Game Boy Advance

North American release: 11 June 2001.

After almost 12 years of subtle variations and improvements on the original Game Boy, Nintendo unveiled Game Boy Advance, which represented a significant increase in power and graphical capability. Shoulder buttons made an appearance for the first time on a Nintendo handheld, and there was backwards compatibility with Game Boy and Game Boy Color game carts, once again making it very attractive to those with plenty of older games.

The GBA was practically a SNES on the go, although technically it may have been superior to the home console. It did mean that some excellent Super Nintendo titles were ported to the system and, generally, it produced handheld graphics far beyond what had come before. It also tested the waters for interplay between handheld and home console games with its GameCube connection cable, with games such as The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures putting it to use.

Its biggest issue? No lighting on the screen, something that would soon be resolved.

Game Boy Advance SP

North American release: 23rd March 2003

This re-model of the original Game Boy Advance with the SP was a significant change in form-factor, and was clearly a design heavily influenced by the development of Nintendo DS, which would arrive in 2004. At the time, the clamshell design was the first since the pre-Game Boy Game & Watch units, but in this case would set a trend that's still prominent today.

This was a release of various pros and cons. The positives were the front-lit screen — though a backlit model would follow — and the inclusion of a built-in system battery with an AC charger. For the first time Nintendo handheld gamers didn't need to dig out some old-fashioned batteries, which was a step forward. On the downside, this system did not include a headphone jack, an omission that would be considered outrageous today and, perhaps, was at the time. It was possible to buy an adaptor to use headphones via the AC port, but it seems like a strange design choice in the current day.

In part two later this week we'll cover the final hurrah of the Game Boy dynasty, as well as the evolution from the original DS 'phat' to 3DS XL.

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