The Nintendo Phone Almost Happened A Decade Ago

Ex-Danger employee reveals how Game Boy games nearly came to mobile

Everyone seems to be telling Nintendo to get its games on mobile phones these days, and yesterday's news that the company would be announcing some kind of smartphone strategy seems to suggest that it is listening to such advice.

However, a former employee at Danger Research — the company which came up with the popular T-Mobile Sidekick phone and was co-founded by Andy Rubin, who would later help create Google's Android OS — has revealed that way back in 2004 the prospect of Nintendo games on a mobile very nearly became a reality.

In a post on Medium, Chris Salvo explains that a prototype device called the G1 was created which sported Danger's ground-breaking "hiptop" OS and could run Game Boy games:

In 2004 there was a skunkworks project within Danger to merge a color Gameboy with a hip top—we called it G1. The hiptop’s color screen was manufactured by Sharp and happened to be the same one used by the Gameboy Advance. There were other common components as well. So we figured that if we had virtually the same hardware as a handheld game player, why not play those games?

We extracted a Gameboy Advance chipset and built it on to the backside of the hiptop’s main board. We then developed a custom chip that would let us mix the video signals of the Gameboy and the hiptop so that on a per-pixel basis we could decide which to show on the screen. We made hiptop software that would let us start and stop the Gameboy, or play/pause a game, etc. The Gameboy inputs came from the hiptop’s d-pad and four corner buttons.

This let us do the following demo: start a Gameboy game and be watching regular Gameboy video. Then you’d receive a phone call and the Gameboy game would magically pause, and a hiptop alert window would display over top of the Gameboy video asking if you wanted to answer the call. As soon as the call was over the game would resume.

Interestingly, the team at Danger also came up the concept of digitally distributing games before iOS, Android or the eShop even existed:

Since we had our network, and an app store, that seemed like a great way to distribute Gameboy ROMs. We got all of that working too. You could browse Gameboy games in the app store, pick one, buy it, download it, and be playing it in seconds with no need to haul cartridges around with you.

The most exciting part of this tale is that Danger actually showed the project to Nintendo, and the company's high-ranking staff came away impressed. Sadly, that's where it all ended:

The executives at Nintendo were blown away. They absolutely loved it. Unfortunately…Nintendo’s license for all of the games in their catalog didn’t include rights for electronic distribution. That, coupled with the need to take new screenshots, and write new catalog copy in electronic format, determine pricing, etc. meant that there was just no way we could have gotten a big enough catalog of titles built up in time for Christmas that year. The next window would have been graduation season the following year. The whole project fizzled out and died, but damn it was cool.

So we could have been playing Nintendo games on our phones way back 2004, years before the iPhone even existed. You have to wonder what the gaming landscape would be like today had Nintendo embraced this concept a decade ago. Would the DS have even been made? Would Danger's mobile OS have become dominant, thus locking out the market to Apple and Google? We'll never know for sure, but it just goes to show that Nintendo has been open to such ideas for years, despite what current "industry experts" may suggest.


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