It would be fair to say that the Game Boy's longevity surprised everyone, including Nintendo. Originally released in 1989, it was still going strong by the middle of the following decade and experienced a notable boost thanks to the timely introduction of the first Pokémon titles, Red & Blue. The momentum provided by these blockbuster releases helped drive sales for the aging handheld, which had already outlasted rivals like the Atari Lynx, Sega Game Gear and NEC PC Engine GT in order to utterly dominate the portable gaming arena.
While the original DMG-001 is a design classic, by the mid-'90s it was clear that a refresh was required. Despite regular rumours that a colour version was in the offing, Gunpei Yokoi and his team instead produced a scaled-down version of the existing Game Boy hardware which didn't offer any extra processing power or additional features. The Game Boy Pocket - which launched in 1996 - was very much a careful, considered refinement of the original concept rather than a revolution, and was compatible with all previous Game Boy software.
The console's 2.65-inch monochrome screen was perhaps the biggest improvement. While it wasn't backlit, it was noticeably better than the green-tinted display that shipped with the first model and was less prone to motion blur. The other big news was that the system was powered by just two AAA batteries, as opposed to the four AAs used in the 1989 model. Although this resulted in a notable drop in stamina (10 hours compared to the 15+ on the Game Boy), it was an acceptable trade-off considering that it used less batteries and boasted a smaller, lighter frame as a result.
Compared to the chunky, brick-like original, the Game Boy Pocket was truly pocket-sized and made the platform even more portable than before. Link cable connectivity was retained but the console used a smaller port, so Nintendo had to release the Game Link Cable Adapter to ensure that the Pocket could still interface with the original DMG-001 model. As was the case with the first Game Boy, Nintendo was quick to release a range of different coloured consoles, including a transparent version and the "classic" DMG-001 edition you see in the photos on this page, which was exclusive to Japan.
The Game Boy Pocket was supported by a renewed advertising campaign all over the globe which pushed the system's portability, software library and low price as key selling points. It was the perfect refresh of the existing system, making it more compact and improving the problematic display, but it was arguably a couple of years too late. By the mid-'90s gamers were getting their hands on new consoles like the PlayStation, Saturn and N64, and there was a feeling that Nintendo's portable was something of a relic from a bygone age. Nintendo continued to tinker, and the Pocket was joined by the Game Boy Light in 1997 - another Japanese exclusive - which introduced a screen which could be played in the dark. However, it was the 1998 release of the Game Boy Color which truly curtailed the Pocket's chances of becoming as iconic as its 1989 forerunner. The Color offered a better display but maintained compatibility with existing Game Boy games, rendering the Pocket (and the Light) somewhat redundant.
The Game Boy Pocket is especially noteworthy for being Gunpei Yokoi's final contribution during his time at Nintendo. Following the commercial disaster that was the Virtual Boy, Yokoi - who had created some of Nintendo's most succcessful products - was keen to end on a high, and the Pocket was his way of signing off. He would leave to form his own company and work with Bandai on the WonderSwan, a Game Boy rival which arrived on the market in 1999. Yokoi didn't get to see the machine launch, as he was killed in a traffic accident in 1997, aged 56. It's interesting to note that in terms of size, the Pocket and WonderSwan are quite similar, despite one being held in portrait while the other is played in landscape. Bandai's console also continues the theme Yokoi began with the Pocket; it uses just a single AA battery, making it even more portable.
The Pocket was widely distributed during the '90s and is easy to pick up today. The limited edition variants - like the one shown here - tend to carry a higher price point. Software naturally isn't an issue; Game Boy games can be collected online for very little money, although like any console, there are certain titles which have grown in value as the years have rolled by. The system shown in these photos have been fitted with an LED screen light by modding wunderkind Joe "Joe Bleeps" Heaton. Along with a bivert modification - which improves contrast - it makes the console playable in pretty much any environment.
What are your memories of the Game Boy Pocket? Was it your first handheld, or did you skip it in favour of the Game Boy Color? Let us know by posting a comment below, and don't forget to check out our entire Hardware Classics series.