Game Boy: A Retrospective

One of the best-selling consoles of all time, the Nintendo Game Boy is a unique beast in the gaming landscape. It wasn’t nearly as powerful as its competitors, the screen was about as awful as a screen could be (even in its heyday), and the games… there was a lot of garbage developed for it. Yet with nearly 119 million units sold in the Game Boy line, from the original gray brick in 1989 until the final Game Boy Color rolled off the assembly line in 2003, the 8-bit juggernaut was a console that couldn’t be ignored, even when it was being absolutely overlooked.

For me and plenty of my generation, the Game Boy in any incarnation was our first; mine was purchased for a perfect report card in 1993, and quickly became the cornerstone of my personal collection. I took that first-gen model everywhere with me, long car trips and overnight stays and vacations away from other tech, with a heavy pocketful of batteries in tow. 4 AAs could last over 10 hours, even if the headlamp and magnifying Light Boy attached with its additional batteries didn’t seem to last as long. Might explain the eye strain I’ve suffered in adulthood, but who cared when Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins was such a masterpiece?

To this day I’m amazed at what could be brought out of the system from talented, ambitious developers. Early works like the Super Mario Land series, to the island world of Link’s Awakening, the later Pokemon titles, talented teams could bring masterpieces to hardware that was constantly, easily written off as “old” and “underpowered”. But the people saying that don’t (and didn’t) understand the real brilliance of Gunpei Yokoi’s design philosophy: “lateral thinking of withered technology”, the thought that older hardware was better understood and the best could still be brought out of it. Between development experience for similar hardware, and the lower costs that came with it, developers were left with what they knew and a means to build on existing infrastructure, which in turn brought new tricks to bring the shine from aged specifications.

Yokoi’s design philosophy has always made sense to me, even before I read his quote of “lateral thinking to withered technology”; I always wanted new games, and I saved up every penny I had from allowances and extra chores to hit the stores for whatever looked good at the time. The new hotness was at Babbage’s or EB Games, and while I loved perusing those shops for new tech and releases (Playstation, Dreamcast, Nokia’s N-Gage), I spent much more time at the local Funcoland, where I could buy ten older games for ten bucks.

Over lots of trips there, especially during my middle and high school years, the idea that limitations can bring up spectacular experiences stuck in my mind. Sure, the N64 could push so many polygons in LoZ: Ocarina of Time, but in my experience it didn’t have the same engaging gameplay as Link’s Awakening. The Dreamcast was spectacular, and I spent a lot of time playing Jet Grind Radio, but why do I have less draw to play it again than I do to play a pixel-perfect port of Final Fantasy Adventure on my Switch?

YouTube Credit: World of Longplays

I used to think it was rose-tinted glasses. That I was just glorifying that part of my youth, the part that would hide under a blanket at bedtime with my Light Boy and play Kirby’s Dreamland for the hundredth time. But even now, some 27 years since the greenscale screen entered my life, I still pick it up for a spin and wonder how I got so lucky to experience this in the first place.

My original model is dead, unfortunately. My Game Boy Pocket was stolen in middle school, so I’ve bought a new Ice Blue pocket to spend the majority of my gaming time on. With the easiest-to-see black-and-white screen and reduced motion blur, it might be the greatest of the original GB model designs (even better than the Color simply for visibility’s sake). It’s handily my favorite model, and I’ll hold onto that thing until the last pixels die and the plastic crumbles through my fingertips. But before that time comes, thanks to the amazing developers and tools on Itch.io (thanks Jessica for pointing me that direction!), my Game Boy is going to have new life. New purpose. New goals.

Enter GB Studio, a tool by Chris Maltby, free to download and build games with. I used it for a small project, both to learn how it works and make something for my wedding party, called The Rehearsal; it took me 7 months to make a game that would take players about 15 minutes to experience all of, and less for me (since I knew where everything was and all). With it’s very existence, the scratch I’ve had since childhood flared up again:

”Make your own game.”

I don’t know when it will be released, or if it will be released at all. I make no promises to dates or even quality; they’re not important in the short term anyway. But I do plan on exploring what I can do, what I’m capable of, and what is possible on hardware nearly as old as I am. Visual art was never my strongsuit, I’m no programmer (outside of Geocities pages in the late-90s), and other than a lifelong love for games coupled with my modest career as a game critic, I go into game development absolutely blind.

Hopefully I’ll have something for everyone to see one day. If there are updates I’ll be sure to share them, but otherwise, I’ll just implore you to pick up a game or two from your own past. Think about what made it great. Why did you put so much time into it? And what might you do to make it better?

For further education about the Game Boy, its games, and other facts and interesting tidbits, I highly recommend seeking out Jeremy Parish and his “Game Boy Works” project. You can find this both on YouTube and his website Game Boy Works. Worth the read and watch, I’ve been itching for each new episode of the YT series especially.

Stand Tall, friends. I hope your pixels, polygons, gameplay and nostalgia hold true.