33 years ago today, Nintendo released the Game Boy handheld device in Japan. It was a simple, unassuming thing, a large gray brick with four buttons, a directional pad, and an LCD screen that could only display shades of green. Only a few years later, Nintendo’s competitors began to explore the portable gaming space. Hardware like the Sega Game Gear, the Atari Lynx, and the NEC TurboExpress all had more sophisticated capabilities than the humble Game Boy, but one after another they all fell by the wayside. The Game Boy, meanwhile, stuck around into the early 2000s.
There are a few reasons why the Game Boy beat out its rivals. Its battery life far outstripped that of the Game Gear, and color imagery didn’t mean much if you couldn’t play it on a long car ride. Additionally, Nintendo’s relationship with well-regarded third-party developers of the time like Konami and Capcom meant that there was a wealth of titles available for the portable. Many of these were simply watered down ports of NES originals, but the novelty of being able to play even bastardized versions of games like Street Fighter II on the go moved plenty of copies.
And then there were the games that went beyond novelty. The Game Boy launched as a bundle with Tetris, which went on to become one of the most popular video games of all time. It was a perfect fit — a game that could be picked up for short sessions, didn’t require a great deal of graphical fidelity, and could be played with simple controls. Without Tetris, the Game Boy might have had a very different legacy.
Other original titles for the Game Boy cemented its status as The mobile gaming device well into the 2000s. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Super Mario Land 2 provided an opportunity for designers to try out new things in a less expensive development environment, and in turn made a compelling case for the Game Boy even for those who owned an NES or Sega Genesis.
My family got a Game Boy sometime in the early 90s, back when you could pick up used games at yard sales for under ten bucks. It became a constant companion to me and my sister on road trips, with even boiled-down adaptations of NES games like Castlevania: The Adventure providing hours of entertainment. Of course, you had to use some kind of light, because the Game Boy wasn’t backlit. Many arguments with fathers about the danger of driving with the light on in the backseat ensued.
And when Pokemon came out, well, that just launched the Game Boy into the stratosphere. Getting Pokemon Blue for my birthday, picking Bulbasaur, and immediately getting stuck in Viridian Forest against a trainer’s Metapod that kept using Harden is a memory that will be with me for a very long time. Suddenly we were all carrying around worlds full of little guys. It was wild, man.
I gave my Game Boy away a decade ago — I was moving and trying to get rid of a lot of my old stuff. Nowadays, if I wanted to replace it, it would cost a little more than it did back at that yard sale. Luckily, there’s emulation, so I can load old Game Boy games up on my Anbernic. If you’ve never checked out the Game Boy’s library, there are plenty of great games worth playing, like the ones I’ve already mentioned, Donkey Kong ’94, Dr. Mario, and The Final Fantasy Legend. If you’ve already covered the hits, then try out games like Catrap, Trip World, and Avenging Spirit.
For more reflections on the Game Boy, check out Kevin Craig’s piece “Dot Matrix Memories” from earlier this year.