The Nintendo Game Boy turns 30 this Sunday, and to celebrate this amazing occasion we'll be running a series of related features this week, right up to the big day.
Context, they say, is for kings, and history can easily be misunderstood if we gloss over the specifics of how things relate to the time they're from. It’s easy, for example, to forget that kitsch and irony aren't modern inventions; kids today might listen to laughably quaint Beatles songs like ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘When I’m 64’ and get the false impression they were bleeding-edge sonic experiments in the mid ‘60s, rather than knowing pastiches. Context is vital to understanding the intention behind art and everything else – handheld video game consoles included.
Continuing our celebrations of the Game Boy on its 30th anniversary, we’re going to take a look at the handheld console landscape Nintendo entered and dominated for over a decade. Younger gamers today might look at the Game Boy and assume it was the best that could be achieved with the tech of the time, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Technologically modest in the extreme, on paper the original Game Boy looks extraordinarily unremarkable up against the competition it would soon face. At launch, it was an underwhelming, underpowered device and critics scoffed at its insipid LCD screen and lack of backlight.
How, then, did it triumph, Little Mac-style, against clearly ‘superior’ competitors? In a game of Top Trumps the console wouldn’t win in too many categories and plenty of contenders stepped up for a shot at the handheld heavyweight title. We’re going to take a look at those challengers, some well-known, others not-so-much, and identify how the plucky Game Boy managed to overcome these brutes to win – and crucially retain – its Handheld Champion of the World belt through the 1990s.
First up, it’s a console that launched the very same year…
Originally developed as the ‘Handy’ by Epyx, the studio behind games such as Impossible Mission and California Games, the developer shopped the concept around to various companies at CES 1989. While some big names passed (including Nintendo, which obviously had its own imminent plans in the portable space), Atari signed up to produce and market the console. Epyx would soon fold, leaving Atari in total control. Rebranded as the Lynx, it launched with some success in September 1989 for $179.99.
As you can see, the initial version was a beast. It had a 160x102 screen with a 4,096 (12-bit) colour palette and you could play it in the dark without peripherals thanks to its backlit screen. Eight consoles could be linked for multiplayer shenanigans and it boasted big name titles that Nintendo fans would have recognised with Paperboy, Double Dragon and the afore-mentioned California Games – a pack-in with the console at launch. Klax, the console’s answer to Tetris (and a game which also appeared on Game Boy), was played by rotating the console 90° decades before we started flipping our Switches sideways.
It had issues, though. Although its ambidextrous design was impressive, its sheer size made it cumbersome to carry and poor battery life (4-5 hours with six AAs) coupled with a lack of quality titles to rival the long list appearing on Game Boy sealed its fate. A smaller hardware revision launched in 1991 featuring improved battery life, stereo sound and rubber grips, but by then the Game Boy had ascended to the handheld throne.
Overall, the Atari Lynx was a decent stab at a portable and still has its fans today, but it couldn’t compete with Nintendo’s offering and, technically speaking, it was outclassed by the next contender…
Featuring a vertical orientation, NEC’s TurboExpress (or PC Engine GT in Japan) looks like the lovechild of a Game Boy and a Garmin SatNav. Although the screen is roughly the same size as Nintendo’s portable, this one offered a palette of 512 colours with 400x270 resolution. The TurboExpress was a monster in tech terms; a portable TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine that ran the entirety of that console’s software library. That’s an enviable catalogue, to be sure, but unfortunately, playing with that much power had consequences when it came to power consumption. Six AA batteries would only buy you around three hours away from an electrical outlet.
It launched at the very end of 1990 for an eye-watering $249.99 – just shy of $500 in 2019 money – before jumping (temporarily) to $299.99 a few months later due to production costs. In 1992 it dropped to a more manageable $200, but a Game Boy with Tetris for $90 was a much more attractive proposition for all but the most dedicated gamers.
The substantial outlay to buy the hardware, plus the second mortgage required to finance 24 AA batteries every twelve hours, led to disappointing sales and NEC discontinued production in 1994. However misguided it was back in the day, it’s still a hugely impressive piece of kit all these years later. It’s arguable that only now with Switch do we finally have home console games on a portable at an affordable price – the TurboExpress was too far ahead of its time to be anything but a curio. Speaking of curios…
Bit Corp Gamate
No, the sexual reproductive cells you’re vaguely recalling from GCSE Biology are gametes – the Bit Corp Gamate was a Taiwanese, landscape-orientated Game Boy contemporary that appears to fuse the gametes of an OG DMG-01 and a GBA.
Bit Corp developed software for the Atari 2600 and also produced clone consoles of the Famicom and the Sega SG-1000, among others. Little is known concerning the specifics of the Gamate’s launch due to it being handled by different distributors in each territory, but it launched in the UK for a very reasonable £59.99, including a game.
Technically speaking, it’s not a million miles away from Nintendo’s console. Powered by four AA batteries, its 160x152 screen suffers from similar (if not worse) ghosting issues and problems in low light. For a more in-depth look at the machine, check out our editor Damien’s examination of the console and the story behind its release and software.
With a catalogue of about 70 games, most of them clones of more famous titles, it’s an amusing oddity for collectors and completionists, but the Gamate never really represented a credible threat to Game Boy’s dominance. The next challenger, however, was another matter entirely…
Sega Game Gear
Ah, yes. Sega’s response to Game Boy at the height of the console wars, the horizontal Game Gear represented Nintendo’s arch nemesis doing everything Nintendidn’t – the good and the bad. Essentially a portable Master System with a lower resolution screen, it gave you up to 32 simultaneous colours on a bigger, backlit display, offering slightly cramped, slightly blurrier ports of Sega's 8-bit home console games. Launching in the US at $149.99, those benefits made it a tantalising proposition over the monochrome Game Boy, especially considering it featured Sega’s Mario-trouncing mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog.
However, as with nearly all of the Game Boy’s technically superior challengers, battery life was a real kicker. Similar to the TurboExpress, six AAs would get you 3 hours, maybe a little more. As impressive as the it might have been when directly compared to Nintendo's effort, it’s tough to show off your shiny Game Gear in the school playground when you’re tethered to the wall by an AC adaptor.
With Nintendo tying up third-parties left, right and centre, Game Gear owners found themselves with a mini Master System they could play anywhere… within three-feet of a plug socket. At the time, Sega was cranking out new home console hardware every five minutes, merrily imploding as a company and souring fans with repeated and expensive disappointments. The Sega Genesis Nomad – a portable Mega Drive – pulled off a similar trick with Genesis hardware but failed to address the power consumption issue and met with far less success, vanishing into relative obscurity amidst the mess of Sega add-ons and peripherals of the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, Game Boy marched ever onwards.
The Watara Supervision (or the Quick Shot Supervision in the UK) launched in 1992 for $49.95, a Game Boy alternative for anyone on a budget after a portable experience. It came in two forms – a rigid vertical console very similar to the Game Boy and one with a screen that was separate from the main body meaning it could be tilted. While technically similar to the OG Game Boy, its big gimmick was the ability to plug into a TV and play on the big screen. However, despite heavy marketing, especially in the UK, the console’s lack of software meant it died on the vine.
Hartung Game Master
Now we’re really getting into the weeds. The Hartung Game Master (or Systema 2000 in the UK) might have looked like a Game Gear, but it failed to measure up to even the Game Boy’s modest specs. Gamers first glimpsed its Tamagotchi-style visuals in 1990, apparently, but the console obviously didn’t take off.
With a two-tone 64x64 LCD screen and a D-pad that looks like somebody forgot it was needed until the last moment and just managed to jam it in before the mould clamped shut, we’ll leave you to watch the video above and come to your own conclusions as to why Nintendo didn’t lose any sleep over this competitor. The audio reminds us of an awkward Boxing Day evening a few years back following a particularly gluttonous dinner. Most embarrassing.
Our final ‘contender’ (okay, we’re really into the nosebleeds with the final three), the Mega Duck is a real piece of hardware, we promise. Also known – we’re not joking – as the Cougar Boy, it was produced in Hong Kong and marketed and distributed by different companies all over the world.
It's very similar to the Game Boy in both form factor and specifications, and actually performs rather well (better than the Game Master, that’s for sure). We’ve included it for the sake of completion, but you don’t need us to tell you how well this performed when it saw sporadic release in 1993. Check out this overview of the console from Ashens for more info on this oddity and its small library of games.
And that concludes our round-up of the upstart handhelds that tried to muscle in on the Game Boy's turf. We’ll forgive you if the last few also-rans never appeared on your radar, but there are some heavy-hitters in there. With no shortage of contenders for the handheld crown, in the end it came down to a combination of killer apps and - crucially - cost. These days portables come with inbuilt lithium-ion batteries, but running a portable system used to be like running a car. A constant supply of double-As would run up a substantial fuel bill and many players (especially kids) simply weren’t in the position to replenish spent batteries at the rate the best tech of the day demanded.
Nintendo was savvy enough to realise that, and downgrading every component to the barest minimum enabled the company to massively undercut the competition on store shelves as well. Throw in some incredible software development nous, a famous block-falling title from behind the Iron Curtain as a pack-in, and sequels to hot NES properties like Mario and the like, and Game Boy’s value proposition was more than enough to see off pretenders with cutting edge features like, you know, colour graphics and a screen you could actually see in anything other than direct midday sunlight.
With the dawn of the Game Boy Color in the late ‘90s, various other consoles would vie for the Nintendo’s portable crown. Systems like the WonderSwan (developed by Gunpei Yokoi, father of the Game Boy) and the Neo Geo Pocket Color had their merits, but none would seriously challenge the dominance of Nintendo in the handheld arena until the arrival of Sony’s PSP.
The design philosophy behind Game Boy has informed Nintendo’s entire hardware line across the home and portable arenas since the Wii days, and in spite of the odd stumble, its consoles continue to punch well above their weight thanks to canny design choices and innovative approaches to established tech. Nintendo has done very well to avoid many of the pitfalls of other hardware developers over the years and with rumours of Switch revisions in the air, we hope that continues for another thirty years, at least.