Forever Changing how we Play Games
Thirty years ago, Nintendo unleashed the Game Boy, forever changing how we play video games.
When the modest gray brick arrived in the late ‘80s, it was an instant sensation and the first internationally successful handheld gaming system. Nintendo sold out its entire first run in Japan in two weeks and in North America it sold a whopping one million units in just under two weeks. To say Nintendo’s miniature was a phenomenon is an understatement. The Game Boy kickstarted the popular handheld gaming trend and without it, portable gaming may have never become what it is today. It paved the way for the world of mobile gaming and hybrid devices like the DS, PS Vita, and the Nintendo Switch – and while the Game Boy doesn’t quite hold up to those modern consoles, it will always have a special place in the hearts of old school gamers.
Timing is Everything
The Game Boy wasn’t the first portable gaming device on the market nor was it Nintendo’s first attempt at portable gaming (the company had previously released the hit Game & Watch) but as with many iconic products, the Game Boy was released at the right time for the right price.
Nintendo patiently waited for hardware costs to drop so they could design a system cheap enough for families with tight budgets and when the Game Boy arrived in North America, it was packaged with what some would argue is the greatest launch game of all time.
By the time of the US launch, Nintendo had secured the handheld rights to Tetris, a unique puzzler designed by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov. Tetris was attracting a new audience of casual gamers due to its simple yet addictive gameplay and because of that, Tetris would become the centerpiece in Nintendo of America’s marketing plan.
Laying the Bricks for the Foundation of the Handheld Gaming
The Game Boy had a massive collection of 716 games including beloved classics such as Donkey Kong, Kid Dracula, Kirby’s Dreamland, Metroid II, Super Mario Land 2: The Six Golden Coins and Link’s Awakening, but Tetris will always be the game best associated with the Game Boy. Alexey Pajitnov’s famous puzzler took the world by storm, selling 35 million copies while helping Nintendo literally lay the bricks for the foundation of the handheld gaming industry. Nintendo has created some of the best partnerships in the history of the gaming industry but packaging Tetris with their greyscale portable system back in the day is one of the best decisions the company has ever made.
While Tetris helped make the Game Boy a household name, it wasn’t the top selling game on the system – that honour would go to Pokemon Red and Blue, a game inspired by Satoshi Tajiri’s childhood love of collecting insects, coupled with his desire to find new ways to bring people together. Pokemon Red and Blue launched an international craze with its unique blend of exploration, battling and even trading Pokemon thanks to the evolutionary Link Cable.
Long before online gaming, Nintendo would release the Link Cable, an accessory for the Game Boy which allowed players to link their systems together for head-to-head competition and cooperative play. Tetris was one of the key titles to take advantage of the Game Link cable for multiplayer fun but Pokemon was the series that relied on the accessory for years since the Link Cable allowed data transferring between two devices. Trading Pokémon was not only encouraged, but it was also necessary in order to assemble a complete collection of all the Pokémon in the games – and the Link Cable made trading Pokémon possible.
The Link Cable wasn’t the only accessory made for the Game boy; it was just the first of many. There was also the rudimentary low-resolution Game Boy Camera and Printer. The camera was used to take grainy, black-and-white digital images via the four-color palette of the system while the printer utilized heat-sensitive paper to save images before making a copy. Among the many other accessories was the Handy Boy, an all in one accessory that features two amplified external speakers to be positioned on each side of the screen, as well as the Game Boy Pocket Sonar, a peripheral used during fishing trips to locate fish up to 20 meters away. While most of these peripherals were considered cheap gimmicks and commercial failures, they did expand the gaming experience in fun and creative new ways and became the spiritual predecessors of features Nintendo would later include in future consoles such as the DS and the Wii. The Game Boy Camera and Printer are especially notable since the printer helped evolve low-cost digital photography while the camera predated Apple’s iPhone by well over a decade.
Power Isn’t Everything
The 8-bit handheld video game device was created by Gunpei Yokoi along with Nintendo Research & Development 1—the same staff who had designed the Game & Watch series nearly a decade earlier. As far as the design is concerned, the GameBoy was made simple and devoid of any slick modeling. If rumors are to be believed, Yokoi is said to have been inspired by watching people fiddle with calculators and apart from having a light grey-colored shell with a slight texture, there isn’t much to write home about in terms of how it looks.
The biggest criticism with the original Gameboy however, is the screen, which features four levels of grey to augment the lack of back-lighting. While players could adjust the screen’s contrast, the display quality isn’t very impressive since it is extremely grainy and difficult to see in most lighting conditions. Needless to say, the original Gameboy doesn’t display any bright shiny colors; Instead, it features a 2.6-inch screen with a resolution of 160×144 and a 2-bit color palette and a custom 8-bit Sharp processor running at just 4.19MHz combined with 8KB of RAM and 8KB of video memory. Along with the rudimentary sound system and single speaker, the Game Boy’s specs just aren’t very impressive.
The Game Boy may not have been a technical powerhouse but Nintendo proved that power isn’t everything when they released the portable system. Like so many tech companies, Sega (Game Gear), NEC (TurboExpress), and Atari (Lynx) had fallen for the performance trap, opting for faster processors and color screens to compete with Nintendo’s basic black and white system. These other consoles, however, sold for twice as much as the Game Boy’s budget-friendly $89 – not to mention they ate through batteries in a short time. Nintendo recognized that in order for the Game Boy to be a commercial success, they would have to make sacrifices, and chose to compromise certain features in favor of a broader, more utilitarian appeal. Even with such limited hardware, game frame rates on the Game Boy at least ran at 59.7fps and while rival handheld consoles like the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear boasted expensive hardware, the Game Boy required only four AA batteries for 30 hours of gameplay.
Only Nintendo would have had the confidence to release a handheld console so deliberately underpowered but truth be told, Nintendo could have priced the Game Boy much higher and it would have still been a success if only for the games and consumer’s familiarity with the Nintendo brand.
Keep it in Your Pants
For decades now, Nintendo has had a strange and complicated relationship with advertising their products, taking on many forms over the years, some successful and others not so successful. What I do find most interesting about the Game Boy is the system’s marketing. The company promoted its Game Boy line using a modification of the slogan used for the Nintendo Entertainment System, “Now you’re playing with power; PORTABLE POWER!,” Meanwhile, the television ads read, “They said it wasn’t humanly possible. But now you can have all the power and excitement of Nintendo right in the palm of your hands“. It’s funny how a system that wasn’t built with power in mind, had a marketing campaign that focussed heavily on power. Perhaps even more surprising is the customers it attracted. The target audience for the Game Boy was intended to be mostly boys which I guess made sense since according to Nintendo, only 14 percent of the customers who bought and played with the NES were female. Yet, for a marketing campaign aimed mostly at males, the Game Boy was notable for being an early success in crossing the gender divide with 46 percent of their players reported being female.
Yet apart from the clever slogans, costly TV ads, and gorgeous magazine spreads, the greatest contribution to the system’s marketing came with its name. When you think about it, the name is the most important marketing tool a brand and product can have. It needs to tell consumers something about the product and hopefully entice them to take notice. While some of the names of Nintendo’s video game consoles have become cultural icons, others such as the Wii U confused consumers rather than inform them. The Game Boy, however, is a great name for a video game console and decades later, the Game Boy might just be the best-named video game console to date, at least from a marketing point of view.
The original Game Boy line-up (including the Light and the Pocket) enjoyed a life span of more than 15 years and sold up more 118 million in sales worldwide before Nintendo began to phase it out in favor of the Game Boy Advance series which would go on to sell an additional 81 million units. During those 15 years, the Game Boy would see numerous successors and peripherals; survive a Gulf war bombing, and even travel to space thanks to Aleksandr A. Serebrov who took his Game Boy along on the Soyuz TM-17 space mission. The Game Boy revolutionized handheld gaming and if you were a young gamer growing up in the ‘80s and ’90s, the Game Boy was pretty much your best friend. It would travel with you wherever you went and the Game Boy would keep you company when nobody was around.
Kids these days may look at the original Game Boy as some ancient artifact from the past and not appreciate how it helped shape and influence the video game industry moving forward, but the Game Boy holds an important role in the video game industry and allowed Nintendo to continuously experiment and push the possibilities of gaming. In the 30 years since its release, only one other portable game system has ever outsold the Game Boy: Its own successor, the Nintendo DS, which once again proved that power isn’t everything.
- Ricky D