The History of Game Boy (Revised for 2019)

Celebrating 30 years of Nintendo’s iconic handheld!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 08/02/2019 13:45 Comment on this     ShareThis

When Nintendo launched its Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States in 1985, it represented a major sea change for the video game industry. The market had collapsed in 1983, the victim of a glut of me-too clone hardware and software of such dubious quality and high volume that consumers turned away in droves. Nintendo had spent the better part of ten years dabbling in video games, first licensing Magnavox Odyssey for sale in Japan in 1974 before proceeding to create its own software like Othello and Sheriff in the late ’70s.

It was 1981’s Donkey Kong, however, that really cemented the company as a force within the video game market. Once Nintendo launched Famicom in 1983, the firm became bullish about positioning its console as a global powerhouse. After a rocky attempt to partner with Atari to distribute NES failed in the eleventh hour, Nintendo opted to sell its new system via the freshly established Nintendo of America and the rest was, as they say, history. Four short years later, however, and history would repeat itself with the launch of Game Boy.

Nintendo’s Game Boy wasn’t its first portable video game system, nor was it the first such device overall. That honor goes to Mattel’s Auto Race in 1976, which was an all-in-one unit that provided the game and controls in a single device for mobile play. More recognizable to fans will likely be Mattel’s hit handheld Football game which came a year later. Following that, Milton Bradley’s Microvision arrived in 1979. The device is notable for not having a CPU; instead, each interchangeable cartridge contained a microprocessor and the handheld itself merely provided the buttons and LCD screen. It was also quite fragile and prone to a number of malfunctions.

Before any of these devices hit the market, though, a man named Gunpei Yokoi was hired by Nintendo in 1965. Yokoi began his time with Nintendo working in one of its hanafuda card factories. The young designer had constructed an extending arm to amuse himself while working the assembly line. In 1966, then-Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi caught sight of Yokoi’s innovative device and instructed the worker to produce a version that could be sold during the holidays. Ultra Hand was born and Yokoi was firmly positioned as an integral component of Nintendo’s future.

Yokoi became the division chief of Nintendo R&D1 (Research & Development 1). a position that he would hold for much of his career. While in R&D1, Yokoi produced a wide array of electronic amusements for the company. In the early 1960s, Nintendo had been producing more traditional board games, including licensing foreign favorites like Twister. By the late ’60s and following Yokoi’s promotion, Nintendo then began outputting mechanical devices like the Ultra Slugger and electronic fare such as the famous (infamous?) Love Tester.

In the 1970s, Nintendo began making further innovations with electronics. In 1975, the company released its Nintendo Arcade EVR Race which was a cabinet that projected prerecorded horse races for players to bet on. Light gun toys were another part of Nintendo’s experiments, including Duck Hunt in 1976. During this stretch, Nintendo was also licensing Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video console, for Japanese consumption. Between 1974 and 1979, Nintendo produced a number of plug-and-play consoles under its Color-TV line as well as arcade games such as the previously mentioned Othello.

The Milton Bradley Microvision

In 1980, Yokoi unleashed upon the world something truly unlike what Nintendo had made before. The urban legend is that Yokoi had observed a businessman on the subway amusing himself with a small LCD pocket calculator. The commuter was absentmindedly thumbing its buttons in order to pass the time and it got Yokoi thinking— what if there was a game that young man could be playing running off of that very same LCD technology, instead? This adaptive attitude was instrumental to Yokoi’s design philosophy: lateral thinking of weathered technology, or take what’s old and do something new with it.

By the late ’70s, LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) tech was cheap and abundant. Seeing the success of competitors like Mattel with its handheld Football and Baseball games, Yokoi set to work in crafting a proper successor to them which utilized the aging LCD technology companies like Sharp were willing to sell for practically pennies. It was then in 1980 that Nintendo’s line of Game & Watch handhelds came to be. Each unit could fit in a person’s pocket or bag and contained a single game. The devices featured LCD screens and simple gameplay that could be experienced in bursts on train rides or waiting in a line.

Game & Watch was a monster hit for Nintendo and further cemented Yokoi as a visionary designer. The line introduced the revolutionary D-Pad, which provided the first truly elegant and intuitive means of control for a video game. Game & Watch also demonstrated the benefits of favoring low prices and high quality. The LCD tech powering Game & Watch meant the devices didn’t cost much to make or sell, and they were also highly energy efficient, running for many hours off of simple coin cell batteries. The result was a high adoption and retention rate among consumers and faith in the Nintendo brand for producing sturdy, affordable entertainment.

At this point, competition was already starting to rear its head before Game Boy ever even hit store shelves. Epoch (a contemporary of Nintendo at the time) released its Game Pocket Computer in 1984, a half-decade before Game Boy. Like Microvision before it, Game Pocket Computer also boasted interchangeable cartridges. The device had an LCD screen, built-in software, and graphics roughly on par with an Atari 2600, all running on four AA batteries. Yet, despite seemingly being positioned to take over as the premier handheld in Japan, it instead sputtered out of the gates and failed after just two short years.

The success of Game & Watch led Nintendo to adopt Yokoi’s design philosophies when producing NES. Pieces of the handhelds, such as the D-Pad, were recycled for NES’s Control Pads, while the internal processor for the console was kept more modest in order to keep pricing low. When selecting Yokoi to pioneer Game Boy, the thinking was that the designer would once more bring his pragmatic sensibilities to bare. Indeed, Yokoi would pull from a number of different places for inspiration to craft his masterpiece.

The blockbuster that was NES meant Nintendo had a great deal of goodwill 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 bits of the old devices that Yokoi knew could be beneficial to Game Boy. The D-Pad was recycled once more for the new handheld. This decision helped create a parity between the NES Control Pad and Game Boy’s own interface which fostered a comforting continuity for NES owners while also being intuitive to new players.

Game Boy promo shot

Another aspect of Game & Watch that Game Boy would emulate was a dreamily 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. To facilitate this lofty goal, sacrifices had to be made.

Game Boy had to forego two elements to mitigate power consumption: colored graphics and a backlit screen. The technology at the time was incapable of reconciling a bright, colorful screen with minimal battery dependence. 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 much like the Microvision and Game Pocket Computer. With Game Boy, whose processing power was many times that of a single Game & Watch, it simply wasn’t feasible or necessary to produce multiple versions of a device dedicated to playing a single game. Cartridges could allow for an unlimited number of titles to be created and sold at a relatively nominal fee. Game Boy was also primed to transition software from the home console to the handheld, effectively guaranteeing the new device an abundance of content. Everything was in place for Yokoi’s new console to hit it 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 would bolster sales of Game Boy, as well. Work began on what would become Super Mario Land, and though the game would come 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.

Rogers was first wowed by Tetris back in 1988 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. 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 initially and he was at a loss as to why. Rogers decided to approach Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi for advice.

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 move 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!

Tetris (Game Boy) Screenshot

Returning with the rights in hand, Rogers had the green light to create Tetris for Game Boy, and with development of the title 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 while 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 breathe easy: it sold over 300,000 units in its first week alone! 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. Such was the good fortune that Nintendo enjoyed to produce two hugely influential consoles in such a short span of time.

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 on a portable up to that point. Developers built games around the system’s strengths, crafting titles that were easy to pick up and play in short sessions.

While Game Boy saw 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 all subsequent Nintendo hardware, a philosophy that is validated with each David versus Goliath battle that Nintendo 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; first was the Game Boy Play it Loud! series, which released in 1995 and featured the original, large form factor in different colors. The second was Game Boy Pocket. It was a massively slimmed down, smaller version of the first Game Boy that launched in 1996 and ran off of two AAA batteries and boasted a larger screen.
  • There was a third version of Game Boy 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 stores, which is likely why the device never made it to our shores.
  • Speaking of Game Boy Color, it arrived in 1999. It had a slightly larger build than a Pocket, ran off of two AA batteries, and featured a colored screen. It produced graphics roughly on par with NES and was a solid stopgap between it and Game Boy Advance, which came in 2001.
  • 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 adapter 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.

Game Boy is 30! What memories do you have of the handheld? Share with us below and on social media!

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