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Nintendo Game Boy and Tetris cartridge on a black background

35 years of the Nintendo Game Boy, the handheld originally dubbed “hopeless”

The Nintendo Game Boy was the first handheld console to find worldwide acclaim and its impact can still be felt today. As the system celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, we take a look back at a cornerstone of Nintendo’s legacy.

The story of the Game Boy begins nearly a decade before its release, when Nintendo Research & Development director Gunpei Yokoi first developed the Game & Watch unit. He had seen bored businessmen fiddle with their calculators on his commute and thought Nintendo could fill a niche.

On a chance instruction to chauffeur then-President of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi to a meeting, Yokoi pitched the idea of a system that displayed the time but also included a small game. Despite initially remaining silent, Yamauchi green-lit Yokoi’s idea and Nintendo would release the Game & Watch, a simple single-screen device with two buttons, in 1980 along with its first title, Ball.

From Game and Watch to Game Boy

While later variants of the Game & Watch would feature two screens (akin to the later Nintendo DS) the success of the original would allow Yokoi to develop the idea further. Along with Nintendo Research & Development assistant director Satoru Okada, Yokoi and his team would begin development on the console soon to be known as the Game Boy. 

Initially, design would be driven by Yokoi’s philosophy of “lateral thinking with withered technology”, where existing technology is pushed in innovative new ways rather than focusing on the development of something new and potentially risky. The Game & Watch was built on this philosophy, and had sold well, but Okada and Yokoi would disagree heavily on its implementation for the Game Boy.

Donkey Kong Game and Watch
The Donkey Kong Game and Watch. Image: Wikipedia

Yokoi wanted simplicity; a quick and cheap follow-up to the Game & Watch. But Okada had grander ideas. He had been considering the possibility of interchangeable game cartridges for the Game & Watch for some time and thought the Game Boy would benefit, essentially making it a portable version of the hugely-popular Nintendo Entertainment System.

Okada and Yokoi compromised, and the Game Boy would utilise the existing d-pad (another Yokoi invention, from the Donkey Kong Game & Watch released in 1982) paired with two action buttons labelled A and B as well as two menu buttons labelled Start and Select.

Game cartridges, on the other hand, would be interchangeable and be formed in the same grey plastic as its NES big brother counterpart. Uniquely, the system would feature a port on the side for a cable known as GameLink. This cable would allow two Game Boys to link together for local multiplayer in certain titles.

“Hopeless game”

Internal response to the system was quite poor, however. The initial development model of the Game Boy was known as the “Dot Matrix Game”, referring to its dot matrix display (this is also why, if you manage to get your hands on an original unit, the serial number reads DMG-001). Yet many inside Nintendo frowned upon the project, jokingly referring to the DMG serial number as standing for “dame game” – “dame” translating as Japanese for “hopeless”.

Perhaps ironically, the dot matrix screen really is the weakest element of the original Game Boy. In order to find a compromise between battery life and playability, and in keeping with his design philosophy, Yokoi used a cheap and readily available STN LCD screen for the unit.

These particular screens do not produce colour and only display a four-shade greyscale image lacking any sort of backlight, meaning the Game Boy can’t be played in the dark. To add insult to injury, the images are presented on a background that can best be described as “pea-soup green”. 

The biggest problem in gameplay terms is that, due to how the technology works, the screen suffers from ghosting during movement. Even back in 1989 it was noticeable in almost all the titles released for the handheld — but some early titles, such as 1990’s Castlevania: The Adventure, suffer particularly badly. Later units would utilise improved screens but the problem really persists on early DMG-001 variants. 

The Game Boy’s affordability, reliability and quality game library, however, mean that these concessions can be forgiven. On its initial Japanese release on 21 April 1989, the Nintendo Game Boy launched with four titles: Alleyway, Baseball, Yakuman and a brand-new Mario title designed specifically to sell the Game Boy in Super Mario Land. With Alleyway being a clone of the classic arcade game Breakout, Baseball a port of the 1983 NES title, and Yakuman a simple Mah-jong title, it is really Super Mario Land that is the stand-out title from the launch line-up. 

Super Mario Land Game Boy
Super Mario Land. Image: Nintendo

From Super Mario Land to Tetris

We’ve discussed its first sequel in-depth already but the first game shouldn’t be considered without merit. Designed by Yokoi and his team without the input of franchise stalwart Shigeru Miyamoto, it’s similar to the Super Mario Bros. NES titles of the time with gameplay largely remaining the same, except for the addition of two very simple ‘shooter’ stages.

It’s a little inconsistent and odd (even for Mario) but the core elements of the Super Mario franchise remain in-tact, with some concessions made for the lower resolution and lack of colour, and it still provides an interesting diversion despite its short length. It made enough of an impact to have its own hit song in Europe, at least.

However, it was the Game Boy’s launch in North America in July and Europe in September of 1989 that would package the handheld with what would arguably become the its most important title: Tetris. 

Developed in 1985 by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov, Tetris is a simple puzzle title where the player must organise falling blocks into lines to clear the game field, giving room for more blocks and more lines. You likely didn’t need us to tell you that, as Tetris is available everywhere these days – whatever device you’re reading this on – and you’ve more than likely played it or seen it played in some form or another.

Tetris Game Boy
Tetris. Image: Nintendo

Tetris had already launched in Japan in June 1989 but the worldwide release of the Game Boy meant Nintendo could pack the title in with the hardware and the two would take on something of a symbiotic relationship. Remember that GameLink port on the side of the console we mentioned earlier? Tetris was the first title to utilise the GameLink cable, allowing for two players to compete against each other. Nintendo bundled a GameLink cable in the box along with the handheld and the game cartridge, meaning the system promoted the game and the game promoted the system.

Later releases of the Game Boy would also include a Super Mario Land cart thrown in, but if you happened to live in North America or Europe and owned a Game Boy in 1989, you would have likely also owned Tetris. For Nintendo, Tetris sold over 2,500,000 copies on launch with pack-in copies accounting for nearly half of all the Game Boy units sold. Just like the Game & Watch before it, it became a favourite of both children and adults and its mass-market appeal led to it being considered to be one of the best puzzle titles of all time if not one of the best games of all time. 

Through the 1990s, the Game Boy would receive a plethora of titles that would become classics. 1991 would see the release of Metroid II: Return of Samus, the Game Boy sequel to the hit NES action-adventure original, as well as titles in the Final Fantasy, Contra, and R-Type franchises. Super Mario Land would receive two sequels on the system in 1992’s Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins and 1994’s Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3. 1993 would be dominated by The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, one of the best games ever made on the handheld.

Along with the expected licensed titles, movie tie-ins, sports titles and puzzle titles the system would see a total of 782 games released for it in Japan, with 526 games for North America and 459 in Europe.

Pokémon Red and Blue

For cultural impact, however, nothing quite matches the one-two punch of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue released on the same day in September of 1998. Whether you picked up a Red or Blue copy, the story is the same: the player is tasked with becoming “the very best, like no-one ever was” at capturing and battling all 101 ‘pocket monster’ animals in the region of Kanto (alluding to, but not strictly based on, the real Kanto region of Japan).

Pokemon Red Game Boy
Pokémon Red. Image: Nintendo

The titles had been released in Japan two years earlier to a massive commercial and critical acclaim and they received much of the same response internationally, becoming the fastest-selling Game Boy title of all time and selling 200,000 copies in the first two weeks.

Accounting for some of this popularity was Pokémon’s trading mechanic. Using the GameLink cable, players could trade Pokémon from one game cartridge to another (in fact, this had to be done to complete a collection as the Red cartridge would not contain all the Pokémon from the Blue cartridge and vice versa). This helped Pokémon become a social phenomenon, encouraging players to link their Game Boys and share with their friends – something that would become a staple of the Pokémon series going forward.

enhanced version titled Pokémon Yellow would release a couple of years later and while the early games seem rather simple these days, they lay the groundwork for a series that is still going strong today.

Classic, Pocket, Light and Color

To keep things fresh, the Game Boy hardware would receive a handful of revisions throughout its lifetime. In 1994, Nintendo would release the Super Game Boy allowing Game Boy game cartridges to be played with a limited colour palette on a Super Nintendo. Nintendo would then re-release the handheld in 1995 in the ‘Play It Loud!’ range, producing the system in various bright colours as well as the ever-popular transparent.

Nintendo Game Boy varieties
The Game Boy family: the original Game Boy, the Pocket, the Light and the Color. Images: Nintendo

A year later and the handheld would be redesigned entirely into the Game Boy Pocket, sacrificing some battery life for a smaller form factor and a new screen that displayed true black and white – long gone were the days of the classic system’s pea-soup-green. Gunpei Yokoi would live to see the Pocket’s release, leaving Nintendo in 1996 (possibly or not due to his work on the Virtual Boy). He would then sadly pass away due to a traffic accident in October 1997, aged just 56.

Japan would receive a special version of the Game Boy Pocket that would feature an electroluminescent backlit screen known as the Game Boy Light in 1998, but it was the release of the Game Boy Color that same year that would serve as a true follow-up to the original handheld. Using a TFT LCD screen, the Game Boy Color could, finally, play full-colour titles and was even backwards compatible with all the older Game Boy games — all for the same battery life as the Pocket. 

The Game Boy Color would see 446 games released for it in North America, 472 in Japan and 461 in PAL territories. In order to promote the new handheld, Nintendo would produce full-colour remakes of older titles such as Tetris DX, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX and Super Mario Bros. Deluxe.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX (1998) and Metal Gear Solid: Ghost Babel (2000). Image: Nintendo

It would also give the handheld its own exclusive titles, with more Pokémon and a duo of titles in the The Legend of Zelda franchise as well as two sequels to Wario Land. Third party support was strong, with standouts including Square Enix’s Dragon Warrior titles and Metal Gear Solid: Ghost Babel bringing tactical espionage action to portable form, but the best games remained Nintendo’s own.

As Game Boy Color game cartridges could not be used on a classic Game Boy system, Color-only game cartridges were differentiated by their clear plastic shell while games working on both systems were cast in black plastic in stark contrast to the light grey that had been used since 1989. Proving to be extremely popular, the Game Boy Color would go on to sell out in some stores weeks before the 1998 Christmas period and would sell over 2,000,000 units by July of 1999. 

That just about brings us swiftly to 2001, and the release of the Game Boy Advance. Despite its name including the words Game Boy and it obviously sharing lineage, we’re going to argue that it is its own beast, with its own games and additional console revision, and deserves its own spotlight at some point so we won’t cover it here. What we will say, however, is that the DNA of the original DMG-001 is evident through the Game Boy Advance as well as the Nintendo DS and right through to today in the Nintendo Switch. 

Happy 35th birthday, Game Boy.  “Hopeless”, they said. Not a chance.

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