Talking Point: The Game Boy is 25 Years Old, and Deserves Its Place in Gaming History
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Nintendo's most vital triumph
Today's an important day, and we imagine a large celebration cake has been purchased for Nintendo HQ in Kyoto. The Game Boy was released 25 years ago today in Japan, and it was a system that — perhaps unlike any other — defined and set Nintendo on its path to being a successful multi-billion dollar corporation central to the video game industry. The Game Boy established Nintendo's dominance in the dedicated gaming handheld market, a position it maintains today, and as a result should be credited as one of the truly pivotal moments in the company's history.
While some may point to early Game & Watch success or particularly the NES as the key points that made Nintendo a household name, here are some vital points to support the idea that the Game Boy's role was more vital than its 8-bit living room predecessor. While Nintendo's position in the home console market is undeniably hot and cold, with generations of domination punctuated by periods of falling behind rivals, the portable console space has remained the property of the big N. Even in the current age of smart devices seizing attention and consumers, the 3DS continues to sell millions of units and out-perform its conventional rival, the PS Vita. When it comes to the handheld gaming market since the Game Boy, Nintendo has never 'lost'.
Launched on this day in 1989, the Game Boy was the work of the brilliant Gunpei Yokoi, an engineer with the philosophy of "Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology" — that policy has been prominent through Nintendo's multiple handheld system generations, and certainly with the design of the Wii. With the same control inputs as the NES it opened up a world of ports and familiarity for fans of the home console, but like its successors in the portable space it triumphed not just in simply recreating a home console on the go, but also in shaping its own identity and space in gamers' hearts.
Like Nintendo's greatest home console phenomenon, the Wii, the Game Boy needed a hook right from the off. It had Tetris, a game that would take over the world for a spell and perhaps created the idea of a 'casual' audience before the phrase had been endlessly repeated on the internet two decades later. Simple, compulsive and perfect for portable play, it was bundled with the system. That move was a masterstroke from all concerned, and once that audience was on board a rapidly expanding library of unique games, more puzzle titles and ports meant Game Boy owners were not short of titles to play.
Its design and that pack-in title were factors that, in a sense, allowed Nintendo's system to defy the odds. That aforementioned philosophy of maximising ageing technology in innovative ways wasn't simply corporate-speak, it was fundamental to the system's success. In parallels that could be drawn with following Game Boy models, as well as the DS and 3DS, more flashy alternatives were on the market. Companies such as Atari (with the Lynx) and Sega (with the Game Gear) went for impressive technology of colour screens and more powerful graphical capabilities. Yet the Game Boy's physical form had an undeniable appeal, and its colourless visuals with a green hue worked. Most important in an era of disposable batteries, however, was the fact that two AAs could last 20 hours in the Game Boy, well beyond its power-hungry rivals.
System selling software, a simple but effective brand name and battery life easily trumped more 'advanced' opponents, then. The Game Boy took over popular culture, with references in TV shows throughout the '90s and beyond. No matter how fancy its rivals' processors, how colourful their screens, Nintendo continued to win. Game Boy games impressively made the most of humble technology, multiplayer cables became a must for groups of friends to play each other, and it took on a life of its own. Then there were Pokémon Red and Blue, late arrivals that transformed the portable space and the portable's longevity in possibly the most dramatic manner since Tetris.
Aside from limited edition designs, that original model — which had ageing technology when it hit Japan in 1989 — lasted until 1996, at which point the Game Boy Pocket arrived with a clearer black and white screen and a smaller design; the Game Boy Light had a backlit screen and was only released in Japan in 1998. Those are impressive legs when you consider that the home console space had seen the 16-bit era come and go, with 3D polygons and 32-64bit machines gradually becoming the norm.
The Game Boy legacy had a long way to go, however, and Nintendo continued its extraordinary run of prolonging modest technology with smart design and must have gaming experiences. The Game Boy Color's 1998 arrival in a sense collided with Pokémon Red and Blue, but it provided a vital feature that is often ignored by Nintendo's rivals — backward compatibility. Those that had nine years of Game Boy life behind them could be comfortable in the knowledge that all their games could transition to the new system, itself a relatively minor upgrade rather than a new generation. The Color was no technological behemoth, but the simple addition of colour for new games, support for Game Boy carts, excellent AA battery life and an affordable price all helped it to success. Global sales of the Game Boy and Game Boy Color models passed 118 million units.
The arrival of the Game Boy Advance in 2001 was the first major leap in portable technology from Nintendo since that original 1989 Game Boy, which is notable in a modern era when 6-7 years is considered to be a long generation. Though it retained the brand it was a clear step away from the iconic original designs, an inevitability with the passing of time. Its capabilities were closer to the 16-bit Super NES era (though it was technically a 32-bit machine) and, as a result, gave keen Nintendo portable gamers full colour and impressive on-the-go experiences. Its various models surpassed 80 million worldwide sales, impressive in a shorter run on the market, but the success of the SP clamshell design served as an early hint at what was coming. The arrival of the DS not only served as a quick diversion of attention from GBA, but introduced a new brand that has been the core of Nintendo's portable gaming business for the last decade.
While it's certainly fair to bemoan the end of the Game Boy brand, there's no denying that the DS family has been a spectacular success. It's sold over 150 million units, the highest selling portable console (family) in history and only behind the PS2 in the overall game console stakes. Yes it bore many of the hallmarks of established technology being used for affordable, innovative hardware, a philosophy used to such brilliant effect by Yokoi-san with the Game Boy. Some may have scoffed at its touch screen and clamshell — again, Sony's PSP had stronger technology is terms of graphics — yet it struck a nerve with the public. The 3DS, also, arrived at the market with weaker graphical tech than the PS Vita, yet it's significantly out-sold its rival and passed 40 million unit sales so far. Perhaps autostereoscopic 3D hasn't been the winner Nintendo expected, but the design principles of the DS, allied with software innovations and brilliant games, have seen the current handheld survive in a market with unprecedented competition from smart devices.
That brings us back to one of our earliest points, and just one reason why the Game Boy should be lauded on its anniversary and for as long as we have video games. Nintendo's leadership in the home console space has had peaks and troughs, with the company winning some and losing other generations. When many think of home console games, Nintendo isn't always the first name on their lips.
With portable gaming systems, however, Nintendo has always ruled the roost. It's not been through technological power, but through clear ideas, concepts and outstanding design. The big N's home console record may waver, yet it's in the portable space where it finds consistent solace, including defying the odds following a bad start with the 3DS in 2011. Nintendo gets portable gaming, producing experiences to this day quite unlike those available elsewhere, and still able to persuade those with countless alternatives to plump for a 3DS or 2DS. The portable space is also Nintendo's most reliable money maker, keeping the accounts ticking over in lean years in living rooms.
The Game Boy began all of that. Its design philosophy and ability to capture what the public wants from gaming-on-the-go continues to be felt 25 years later. It lives on in both the 3DS Virtual Console (Game Boy and Game Boy Color) as well as the Wii U Virtual Console (Game Boy Advance), and it remains central to gaming culture. The Game Boy is portable gaming in its purest, least complicated form.
Will the Game Boy brand return in the future? We certainly hope so, as it's arguably never died.
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