For 80s and 90s kids, the original Nintendo Game Boy feels like it came out yesterday, and yet, because handheld devices are so common, it also feels like a prehistoric stone tablet. For many of the millennial and young-ish Gen-X generations, a Game Boy was possibly the first gaming console you ever owned. The memories of holding the smooth grey shell, the click-clack of the A and B buttons, and the ridged texture of the volume dial, all come flooding back to anyone who ever touched it. But, as rudimentary as it seems now, the original 1989 Game Boy was a breakthrough in technology. Debuting in America on July 31, 1989, Game Boy continues to influence next-gen consoles and even, perhaps obviously, smartphones. It can’t be understated how pivotal this device was, but the truth is – it almost never happened.
Press “Start” to Begin
In the early days of video game history, Nintendo wasn’t content with taking over every household. They wanted global gaming domination in every place possible. Gunpei Yokoi, a man who also worked on the original Mario and Donkey Kong games, came up with the idea for a portable game system while watching a salaryman play with his calculator on a bullet train. This led to the release of the Game & Watch in 1980, a pocket-sized electronic which used an LCD screen to play a single built-in video game, along with displaying the time.
This precursor to the Game Boy was their starting point for video games on the go, but they weren’t the first company to think that way. The forgotten Milton Bradley Microvision from 1979 was the first handheld console in the US and innovated changeable cartridges on portable systems. The problem was, the system had a scant library of 12 games, which is considered a major cause of its downfall two years after the initial release.
Screening for Problems
The popularity of the Game & Watch created a desire in Yokoi to keep this trend going, and the failed Microvision provided inspiration. Yokoi wanted a handheld console that was light in weight but heavy on the games. It needed to be cheap to make, and affordable for consumers to buy. With his R&D1 team, Yokoi set his sights on using LCD screens to be the foundation for this device.
This monochromatic display was the first piece of drama in the Game Boy’s life. Famed watchmaker Citizen was brought in to produce the LCD screens. However, an internal fight broke out with Sharp, who already had a longstanding relationship with Nintendo, and went over Yokoi’s head to broker a deal cementing them as the manufacturers. A member of Yokoi’s team, Yoshihiro Taki, was given the unfortunate task of telling this to Citizen, and so, fabricated a story about how Citizen would work on their next full-color handheld system. He even drew fake schematics to add credence to his ploy. Much later, Taki was surprised to discover those schematics being extraordinarily similar to the insides of the Sega Game Gear.
While the Game Boy was under development, the Super Famicom (Super Nintendo in the US) was also being worked on, causing internal friction between warring R&D departments. Yokoi’s philosophy of using older tech to make cheaper systems and vision of portable gaming was in direct contrast with Nintendo, a company pushing for the next phase of state-of-the-art home consoles. There was immense pressure to use full color on the handheld and worry over the system being perceived as out of date due to the lack of that.
Game Boy’s early defeat
After years of tinkering amidst an environment of company-wide negativity, a prototype was ready to be shown to the higher-ups. Once again, the screen would come back to haunt Yokoi. Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi scrapped the entire console, complaining about the difficulty of seeing the games due to the angle the system had to be held. The project was shut down on the spot but lived on in secret.
Thanks to an update in LCD technology (that’s what that Dot Matrix emblazoned on top of the screen referred to), the problem was resolved, and Yamauchi – while annoyed this project continued without his knowledge - approved the revised prototype. It also helped that the Super Famicom was delayed due to other issues, and Nintendo was desperate to keep up with the competition.
Level Up: Rise to Success
The Game Boy wasn’t alone when it landed in American toy stores in 1989. The Atari Lynx came out a few months later, and the Sega Game Gear was less than a year away. What set the Game Boy apart from these rivals were a few key elements. Aside from being easier to hold, vastly superior battery life (due to not using full color), and affordability, the biggest advantage Nintendo had was one word – Tetris.
Originally, Super Mario Land would be the pack-in game at launch, but Henk Rogers (the man responsible for taking Tetris out of the Soviet Union and bringing it to the rest of the world), suggested the addictive puzzle game, due to its universal appeal to all ages and interest levels in gaming. This strategy was the right choice, and not only boosted sales of the emerging handheld console to break one million sold in the first 12 months but helped catapult Tetris to become the best-selling game of the 90s.
The Game Boy was the hottest thing on school playgrounds. Finally, kids could smuggle their video games into their backpacks to play Metroid 2 or Bomberman in between classes (or in some cases, during). Many road trips were spent distracted by Wario Land or Link’s Awakening, simultaneously pleasing parents who sought silence while annoying them for watching their kids perpetually with their faces buried in the console.
Gotta catch ‘em all!
While there were many best-selling games on the system, in 1999, Pokémon was — surprisingly — the title that kept the Game Boy afloat in the late ‘90s and early aughts, a time when 3-D games began to dominate the market. How could an 8-bit game compete against games with graphics like Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, or the classic Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? The Game Link cable!
The Game Boy had many peripherals sold for it (some more embarrassing than others), but the Game Link was most critical to its endurance. This simple wire allowed users to connect their systems for two-player games like Tetris, which helped it explode in popularity when the console launched in 89. There weren’t a ton of games to take advantage of it, but Tetris and Pokémon were enough to make it a must-have add-on.
Pokémon players linked their consoles together to fight against each other or trade the adorable pocket monsters. In a time when online gaming was in its infancy, and gamers could only play with each other side-by-side, the Game Boy’s portability and connectivity were what kept the console’s edge during a period when it should have been on life support.
The Game Boy Legacy
The Game Boy was Nintendo’s best-selling console until 2004, selling over 118 million systems. Let that sink in. Prior to 2004, Game Boy sold better than the original Nintendo, the Super NES, and Nintendo 64. This record was only toppled by its successor, the Nintendo DS. If you include its many upgrades like the Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance, that number rises to 200 million sold, making it truly the best-selling console of all time, outperforming the legendary PS2. The original handheld was so popular, even President Bush had one.
Today, the Game Boy lives on in the Nintendo Switch, the perfect marriage of powerful hardware with astounding portability. This hybrid system combines the best of everything Nintendo has improved upon for decades, creating a home console and portable handheld with unrivaled multiplayer capabilities. For gamers who want to relive their childhood days on the Switch, many Game Boy games from all iterations of the system are playable through their online membership.
A system that never knew when to quit and outlived so many of its contemporaries, the Nintendo Game Boy produced countless great memories for a generation of gamers, and an enduring legacy that few consoles will ever achieve. It was present before video games were a household item, with elements of it shaping future consoles and play trends decades later. Whether it's a console played by a kid quietly in the backseat of the family car, or an adult jamming away on their smartphone, the influence and impact of the Game Boy will live on long after that dot-matrix screen stops lighting up.