The History of Game Boy

The story behind Nintendo’s legendary handheld!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 07/21/2014 09:00 2 Comments     ShareThis

While many fans think of Game Boy as Nintendo’s first handheld, the true holder of that title is Game & Watch. Developed by Gunpei Yokoi, a former Nintendo assembly line maintenance man, Game & Watch was a series of handheld gaming machines that ran off of simple LCD technology. Compact, easily portable, and (most importantly) fun, the devices were an instant hit with consumers. Game & Watch was a sales juggernaut for Nintendo for years, but as the company moved into the late eighties, it was becoming clear that the line was going to need an overhaul to stay competitive, especially in the wake of its newest hit, the Nintendo Entertainment System. Ever the innovator, Yokoi set to work to develop Game & Watch’s successor.

Yokoi championed the philosophy of “lateral thinking of weathered technology”, or using old technology in novel, new ways. Game & Watch was the embodiment of this belief, utilizing the era’s surplus of pocket calculator LCD technology for simple video games. When the devices flew off of store shelves, it validated Yokoi’s design choices with ease, and proved so effective, that Nintendo adopted the philosophy wholeheartedly when it came time to develop NES. Nintendo eschewed more cutting edge technology for NES in order to keep costs down and sell the system at a lower price point, and like Game & Watch, that decision came to be a key part of its success. Game Boy would ultimately be no different.

There were a number of things Yokoi had to consider when crafting Game Boy. NES was a global sensation, which afforded Nintendo a great deal of good will with fans, but also a tremendous amount of pressure to follow with something equally as impressive. Every aspect of Game Boy would have to be perfect, or close to it. Looking at Game & Watch, there were pieces of the old devices that Yokoi knew could be beneficial to Game Boy. The d-pad, which he had created for Game & Watch, was recycled for the NES Control Pad and would be adapted once more for the new handheld. In a fitting twist, the Control Pad’s own innovations would inform Game Boy by way of its A, B, Start, and Select buttons. The parity between the Control Pad and Game Boy’s control interfaces would provide a comforting continuity for NES owners adopting the new handheld, while also being intuitive for new players.

Another aspect of Game & Watch that Game Boy would emulate was its robust battery life. Yokoi was adamant that players would only take to Game Boy if it could match the electrical endurance of its predecessor. As a handheld, the system would need to be portable in every sense-being small wouldn’t be enough. If Game Boy couldn’t withstand the duration of multiple car and train rides, consumers would reject it en masse. In order to facilitate this, Game Boy would have to forego two elements; colored graphics and a backlit screen. The technology at the time was incapable of reconciling a bright, colorful screen with minimal battery dependance. Yokoi felt strongly that so long as the games were engaging, players would be indifferent to Game Boy having black and white graphics and the need for an external light source. Nintendo’s brass balked at the notion, initially, but Yokoi had said the same things about Game & Watch and NES, and the man had been right. Trusting in Yokoi, Nintendo acquiesced.

In a marked break from Game & Watch, Game Boy was to boast interchangeable, removable cartridge games (it’s interesting to note that Nintendo was not the first to do this; Milton Bradley beat the company to the punch with its Microvision in 1979). Each Game & Watch had been distinct from the other and featured different games. With Game Boy, whose processing power was many times that of a single Game & Watch, it simply wasn’t feasible to produce multiple versions of the device, dedicated to playing a single game. Cartridges, on the other hand, could allow for an unlimited number of titles to be created and sold at a nominal fee (well, compared to buying a Game Boy over and over, at least). There was an additional bonus to this scenario that arose from Game Boy’s use of the NES control setup: franchises on the home console could easily be brought over to the handheld, effectively guaranteeing the new device an abundance of content. Everything was in place for Yokoi’s new console to hit one out of the park, but there was one question left to answer: what game was it going to debut with?

The obvious answer, at the time, was to bundle Game Boy with a Mario title. Super Mario Bros. was helping to shift NES units at a ridiculously brisk pace, so it only made sense that a portable version of the game that everyone was lapping up would bolster sales of Game Boy, too. Work began on what would become Mario’s first Game Boy title, Super Mario Land, and though the game would prove to be a hit in the long run, someone was about to derail Nintendo’s carefully laid plans. His name was Henk Rogers, and he had a brilliant idea: bundle Game Boy with Tetris. Some people might expect that Nintendo bristled at the man’s temerity, but Rogers actually had history and a proven track record with the company, as Tetris was already doing quite well-as an NES game.

Rogers had first seen Tetris back in 1988 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and was wowed. Via his company Bullet-Proof Software, Rogers licensed the game from its Russian creator Alexey Pajitnov for a release on NES. Rogers, who found the game deliriously addicting, had great faith in Tetris finding its way to consumers, but sales were sluggish at first, and he was at a loss as to why. Rogers approached Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi for advice, and after a confab with designer Shigeru Miyamoto verified the quality of Tetris, the trio hammered out a plan to market the title more aggressively. The move worked, and Tetris began selling in the thousands (it would go on to sell millions on the home console). When word got round to Rogers that Game Boy was on its way, he made an excursion to Russia to snag the rights for a handheld version of Tetris. Braving Soviet Russia in the middle of the Cold War speaks to the love Rogers had for the game!

Returning with the rights in hand, Rogers had the green light to create Tetris for Game Boy, and with development of the game wrapping just in time for the system’s launch, he pounced on the opportunity to partner once more with Nintendo. This time speaking to Nintendo of America president Minoru Arikawa, Rogers asserted (and to paraphrase Ashley Day of Retro Gamer magazine)  that though Super Mario Land might sell Game Boy to little boys, Tetris would sell the thing to everyone. Arikawa agreed, and rather than go with Mario, Nintendo conceded that Tetris would be the better fit. Tensions were running high amongst Nintendo’s management as the days drew closer to Game Boy’s launch, as a number of gambles were about to be put into play. When Game Boy dropped in Japan in 1989, everyone was able to breath easy: it sold over 300,000 units in its first week. Yokoi and Rogers weren’t just proven right, they were proven veritable geniuses when Game Boy became Nintendo’s second lightning strike in less than a decade.

Between Yokoi and Rogers’ contributions, Game Boy ensnared fans in droves. The system might have been underpowered compared to NES, but it was still a vast improvement over what Game & Watch and similar LCD handhelds ever offered, making it the instant go-to for gamers. With its “Dot Matrix” monochrome screen, Game Boy was able to last between 30-35 hours on four AA batteries: its sustainability was another compelling selling point for the handheld. The inclusion of Tetris also proved prescient, as it did indeed draw a wider demographic to Game Boy (one can’t help but note the similarity to Nintendo’s decision to bundle Wii with Wii Sports, another convention buster). The system would eventually be replaced by smaller and more efficient designs, but that original gray brick defined portable gaming for generations, moving forward.

The legacy of Game Boy is almost equal to that of NES. Much like how NES reinvented home consoles, Game Boy revolutionized what handheld gaming could be. The titles were nearly equal to NES in terms of complexity and quality, something that had never been seen, up to that point. Developers built games around the system’s strengths, most notably Satoshi Tajiri of Game Freak, who co-created Pokémon specifically to take advantage of Game Boy’s aptitude for interconnectivity. While Game Boy would see a number of redesigns over the years, the core principles of affordability, long battery life, and quality games would carry over every time. Game Boy and the philosophy behind it continue to be the inspiration for every subsequent Nintendo portable, and continue to be validated with each David versus Goliath battle the company overcomes. From Game Gear to PlayStation Vita, competitors continue to lose sight of what Gunpei Yokoi knew from the beginning: a console is only as good as its games, and its ability to play those games.

Before we go, let’s look at some interesting facts about Game Boy!

  • Over 120 million units sold (Tetris alone sold over 30 million units between bundle and standalone sales).
  • An entire industry of peripherals sprang up around Game Boy, generally to enhance the device’s performance. Screen magnifiers, lights, speaker expansions, and many other additions were created to boost Game Boy. One such peripheral called Work Boy was designed by Nintendo itself, but never released. It would have featured a miniature keyboard and cartridge containing practical applications like a calendar!
  • The original, colorless iteration of Game Boy saw two different versions outside of Japan; the Game Boy Play it Loud! series (which featured the original, large formfactor in different colors) and Game Boy Pocket (a massively slimmed down, smaller version of the original Game Boy that ran off of two AAA batteries and boasted a larger screen).
  • There was a third version of Game Boy, however, that never made its way to the US or Europe: Game Boy Light! It was the first Game Boy to feature a backlit screen, years before Game Boy Advance SP ever hit the market. It debuted around the time that Game Boy Color was being prepped to hit the market, which is likely why the device never made it to our shores.
  • Before DSi brought along its built-in cameras, Game Boy had its own via a couple peripherals called the Game Boy Camera and Printer. The Camera add-on took grainy, black and white pixelated photographs, which could in turn be printed on Game Boy Printer’s small rolls of photo paper. The device was even going to be used to incorporate photos of real people into Goldeneye‘s multiplayer deathmatches, but was removed due to fear of controversy.
  • Many fans know about Game Boy’s Game Link Cable, but there was also a four-player cable available. Faceball 2000 was capable of 16-player multiplayer matches, making it one of the few titles the cord would have been useful for.
  • Super Game Boy was a special adaptor that allowed players to plug their Game Boy cartridges into a special SNES cartridge that then allowed the handheld’s titles to be played on a TV screen! The peripheral even modified the games to appear with simple color palettes and special borders on the sides of the screen.

Finally, an extra special thank you to Retro Gamer for the insightful article on Henk Rogers and his journey to Russia to bring Tetris to Game Boy.

Please enjoy these other gaming history features:

Do you have any fond Game Boy memories? Any beloved titles you want to let people know about? Be heard in the comments!

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