The PAL-region version (left) was very similar to the Japanese iteration. The chunky fella on the right was released in North America to better match the region's SNES design

The original Game Boy was a big hit when it launched in 1989, thanks to a winning combination of portability and some cracking games. One thing it did lack, however, was colour. Whilst rival handhelds the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx boasted colour back-lit displays, Nintendo's portable was limited to four shades of grey. A benefit of this was a vastly superior battery life but people wondered if (and rumours abounded that) a colour version of the machine was on the way. In the end the Game Boy Color would not arrive until 1998, but the Game Boy library of games would receive a splash of colour before that: thanks to the Super Game Boy in 1994.

The Super Game Boy was an adapter for the SNES into which users could insert a Game Boy game to play on their TV screens. As well as allowing SNES owners to enjoy the likes of Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the Super Game Boy had some nifty extra features too.

Examples of some of the borders and colour palettes available, we like one in particular

The Super Game Boy featured 32 built-in colour palettes. In each case a colour is applied to one of the four shades the regular Game Boy would use to make a more varied display. Rather than blow the images up to fullscreen, the games take up around two thirds of the screen with a border displayed around the outside: by default this is one similar to a Game Boy but there are 8 others available. Many games used an orange and purple palette by default but others would opt for one of the others if it suited the look of the game better: an example being Metroid II: Return of Samus, where Samus appears in more familiar colours. Pressing L and R together would bring up a system menu through which the other borders and colour palettes could be selected. If these didn't appeal, players could create their own: a SNES mouse could be connected which made border-creation easier than with a standard controller. User-created borders could not be saved but colour palettes could be restored using a password. These were the basic options available for existing games, but new releases had even more additional features.

The oldies are the best... at showing off the SGB's capabilities, anyway

Following the launch of the Super Game Boy many (but not all) new releases took advantage of the adapters capabilities. Marked on the box as a "Super Game Boy Game Pak", these games were still playable on the handheld but enhanced for SGB users. Each title could have a special colour palette to best present the game and also featured an original border. Some games also featured enhanced audio (for example in Donkey Kong Pauline would let out a recognisable cry of “help”) but the majority stuck to visual improvements. In the case of Donkey Kong this included a border based on the original arcade cabinet, a varied colour palette and colourful map and bonus screens.

Unlike the regular game paks, SGB games could alter the colour palette at different points of the game, for example going blue for an underwater section rather than sticking to one palette throughout. In addition to this, static screens could display up to 10 colours, greatly enhancing the look for some portions of the games.

Some sports titles benefited from the availability of colour as teams could now play in noticeably different kits – though not necessarily team accurate. For the most part though, it seems developers found four colours too limited and opted to just apply a few different colour washes throughout the game (such as in Donkey Kong Land). In some cases, “Super Game Boy” games offered little more than a fancy border.

As well as allowing SNES owners to enjoy the likes of Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the Super Game Boy had some nifty extra features

Some titles that worked best (visually at least) were the ports of older games. As these had used few colours when they had originally been released, the SGB versions came close to capturing their look. The Super Breakout/Battlezone 2-in-1 cartridge worked particularly well as did some Namco titles. Space Invaders took things a step further offering two choices of arcade cabinet border (upright or cocktail) and three screen types: colour, black & white and one that mimicked the look of black & white with cellophane strips laid over the screen. Space Invaders was also notable for including a fullscreen “Arcade” mode which, when selected, would actually boot up the SNES version: Space Invaders: The Original Game. Perhaps the best use of borders and colour palettes came with the Game & Watch Gallery series. Each game matched the appearance of the original very closely and featured the original LCD machine's casing as a border for extra effect.

Other games used multiple borders that would change throughout the game. Examples include Wario Land II, where the border changed depending on location, and Street Fighter II where the border switched with each place you flew to, closely resembling the original version of those stages. This works very well, though you'd have to question the sanity of a SNES owner who opts to play the Game Boy port of Street Fighter II over the other options available.

One thing the Super Game Boy did lack was a link port, cutting out multiplayer action for many games. Some titles however (mostly fighters) would allow a second player to play by simply plugging in a second SNES pad. A few other games including Wario Blast decided to let more people join in on the fun, and so connecting a SNES Multitap allowed 4-player gaming.

More buttons than a GBA

From the menu system the controller mapping could be adjusted, although this was really just altering what the B button does: for both options A remains A and Y acts as B. Although regular SNES pads could be used, there was an alternative option in the form of the Super Game Boy Commander. Released only in Japan, this officially licensed pad was produced by Hori and featured a button layout similar to the handheld Game Boy. It differed from a regular controller pad not just with this layout but in the functionality of its additional buttons. The menu system can be brought up by simply tapping R whilst the L button mutes the sound. X (like a standard pad) switches between user-created and default colour palettes whilst Y adjusts the speed at which the game runs (3 options available). A switch is also present that allows the pad to be used as a regular controller.

New and (slightly) improved!

1998 began with Japan seeing the release of the Super Game Boy 2. Sporting a sexy transparent blue look it offered some different built-in borders, but the main selling point was the addition of a link port, finally enabling multi-player on all games. Overshadowing this SGB upgrade, however, was the release of the Game Boy Color (in various regions) in the final quarter of the year.

As you would expect, any Game Boy Color games compatible with the original Game Boy also work with the Super Game Boy, but what was surprising was that some still featured SGB enhancements. However whilst the Game Boy Color featured several colour options for displaying older games, special SGB colour palettes were not supported. In some cases SGB games reappeared as Game Boy Color (and later Game Boy Advance) titles with a less limited colour palette, but others did not.

The Game Boy Advance would handle these games the same way as the Game Boy Color, as would the Game Boy Player – similar to the SGB in that it allowed Gamecube owners to play the vast majority of tiles from the Game Boy line. In fact with the exception of Pokémon Stadium which (via the N64 Transfer Pak) would allow users to play the Pokémon games with the special palettes and borders, the enhancements have never been seen since. Consequently when Donkey Kong and Game & Watch Gallery arrived on the 3DS Virtual Console, minus their enhancements, many gamers didn't bat an eyelid, unaware they had ever existed.

So it seems that the only legal way to relive the Super Game Boy experience is by dusting off a SNES and digging out that adapter. Will this ever change? Iwata only knows, but it would be a shame if the SGB was completely forgotten. It was limited in what it could do and many titles didn't offer much reason to play with the enhancements, but some games got it very right and when they did, that splash of colour was really quite super.