Platform Profile: Nintendo Game Boy

The Game Boy is an 8-bit handheld videogame console from Nintendo which first released in 1989.

The Game Boy was conceived by long-time Nintendo employee, Gunpei Yokoi, who set out to combine the successes of both the Game & Watch handheld game series (which he also created), with the home video games console, the Famicom (later released in the West as the Nintendo Entertainment System).

Gunpei Yokoi, creator of the Game Boy

Yokoi began his career at Nintendo as an assembly-line machine engineer. However, after one of Yokoi’s inventions, a hand-made extending arm toy, caught the attention of President of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, the engineer would soon find himself designing toys for the company. His extending hand gizmo, later named the ‘Ultra Hand’, would become a successful product for Nintendo.

Yokoi would go on to design several further toys and gadgets for Nintendo, including a baseball-throwing machine called the ‘Ultra Hand’ and the ‘Love Tester’, a novelty electronic device that tested a couple’s compatibility. Years later, inspired after watching a businessman idly playing with an LCD calculator on the train, Yokoi would go on to create the Game & Watch line of handheld electronic games for Nintendo.

Although the Game & Watch series would prove to be incredibly popular for Nintendo, as time went on, the technology behind them started to appear somewhat dated, especially when directly compared to the visuals possible on Nintendo’s recently-released Famicom console. Yokoi soon began work on a successor, one that would combine the portability of the Game & Watch series, with the graphical grunt of the Famicom.

When designing the new device, Yokoi maintained his long-held design philosophy, an approach he referred to as “Lateral thinking of withered technology”: Using older and cheaper, but subsequently better understood, hardware in innovative ways to create great gaming experiences. With this approach, Yokoi’s successor would go on to utilise a cheap Z80-based CPU and simple 2.5-inch four-tone grey screen. Eventually named the Game Boy, a prototype for the console would be later unveiled and demoed across several trade shows in 1987, where it blew the development community away. In a 2014 interview with Retro Gamer, Rare programmer Paul Machacek shares: “It was really pretty amazing and exactly what we needed. I just thought it looked like a little arcade cabinet in your pocket.”

The Game Boy adopted a button layout similar to that of the NES

The final design of the Game Boy would adopt a D-pad and two face buttons (A and B). Not only did this make the console instantly familiar to those who had played on a Famicom/NES, but it also allowed for the successful development of NES adaptations to the Game Boy.

Upon its release in Japan, in April 1989, Nintendo’s initial run of 300,000 consoles would immediately sell out. The launch title, Super Mario Land, a game which successfully emulated many of the features of Mario series home console titles, would go on to sell over 18 million copies worldwide.

One particular game would be instrumental in the Game Boy’s early dominance. In 1989, Nintendo managed to secure the rights to a unique puzzle game that had been previously released across a number of home computer platforms. Designed by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov, the game was called Tetris. With its incredibly addictive gameplay and simplistic visuals, Tetris was perfectly suited to Nintendo’s handheld console and would go on to sell over 35 million copies on the Game Boy alone.

By the mid-90s, just as interest in the Game Boy was beginning to wane, the console would play host to another gaming series that not only reinvigorated the Game Boy platform but would also become a monumental video game franchise in its own right. First released in Japan in 1996, the Pocket Monsters (later to become ‘Pokémon’) series of games would go on to take the gaming world by storm. The series would not arrive in the West for another 2 years, and would roughly coincide with the release of the Game Boy’s colour successor, the Game Boy Color.

The Game Boy Light, which featured a back-lit screen released exclusively in Japan in 1998

Despite more technically superior competitors, such as the SEGA Game Gear and Atari Lynx, the original Game Boy was a colossal success. Its battery life, durability and impressive line-up of games were all praised. The console would receive several hardware revisions, including the smaller Game Boy Pocket and the Japanese-exclusive Game Boy Light. Nintendo would officially cease production of the original Game Boy family of consoles in 2003.

🕹What are your Game Boy memories? Which have been your favourite games? Would you welcome a Game Boy mini (following the NES and SNES)?🕹

Twitter: @wleigh85