Jul 09 2014
Video game marketing can be weird. At one point, a company like Nintendo will have to hard-sell a trimmed-down, handheld version of their extremely popular home console. They’ll claim “it’s just as good as the original, but you can take it with you!”
Then, once the portable version becomes a runaway success, they’ll have to convince people that the only logical thing to do is buy an adapter for playing the portable games at home in front of a TV. The irony is astounding.
Surprisingly, though, the Super Game Boy was not only a bestseller, but it was also a solid investment. Anyone who had put effort into building a quality Game Boy library would get a lot of mileage out of the peripheral.
I’ve already covered how and why the Game Boy became such a hit and managed to revolutionize the portable console industry. That triumph attracted developers who flocked to the Game Boy as a vehicle for cheap and relatively easy market penetration. Soon, game studios weren’t just churning out pathetic clones of their home console games, but they also came up with some original concepts designed to take full advantage of the Game Boy’s hardware.
And they were good. The console didn’t stick around for ten-plus years out of coincidence; titles like Pokémon and Link’s Awakening raised the game design bar for years to come.. The incredible amount of quality Game Boy titles makes the prospect of playing them on a non-tiny screen and sans-batteries appealing, even if the concept does seem slightly bass-ackwards.
In recognition of the paradoxical ingenuity that Nintendo stumbled upon, here are the most noteworthy methods of playing small games on a big screen…
Super Game Boy
The Super Game Boy was released in 1994. I could explain the general idea behind it, but that would steal the opportunity for Wu Tang to do it for me. Seriously, when else are you going to hear ODB give you details on a Nintendo product?
Super Game Boys are extremely plentiful at sources like flea markets or eBay. Despite this, I had passed them by many times despite sub-$10 price tags.
The only reason I even tried one out – not counting a friend’s birthday party in 1994 – was because I was borrowing a ton of desirable games from another friend while he lived in California. I threw it in the bag along with Earthbound because I figured “Eh, why not?”
I have to admit, I felt stupid at first when I plopped a tiny cartridge into the machine. However, once I beheld the game’s graphics on a large screen with unhindered display and sound, I wondered why I played games on the Game Boy to begin with. Other than, you know, because they were designed for it.
The system runs games beautifully. Playing Pokémon using a Super Nintendo controller and without having to squint was a million times better than tilting my Game Boy Color at just the right angle towards a light for several hours.
Super Game Boys are able to play any game that can run on a regular game boy, which means original Game Boy games and black-toned Game Boy Color (GBC) games. However, the clear-cartridge GBC exclusive games won’t run. Also, the adapter isn’t able to recognize the complex color palettes for GBC games and reverts them to a 4-color palette. This limitation is because the Super Game Boy was based on the original Game Boy hardware, before the GBC was released.
The Super Game Boy includes extra features, too, such as selectable borders, customizable color palettes, and the option to swap the button inputs. Certain Game Boy games were also programmed with a unique border design when played on the Super Game Boy. Some games, like the Pokémon series, even included a feature that caused the palette to switch around based on your location in the game.
An updated version, the Super Game Boy 2, was released exclusively to Japan in 1998. It included new LED indicators, the ability to hook up a link cable, and a new set of unique borders. This version also addressed an issue with the original Super Game Boy that caused games to run 2.4% faster than usual because of a quirk in the circuit board’s crystal.
Wide Boy 2 and Wide Boy 64
The Wide Boy 2 preceded the Super Game Boy, but it was only released as an expensive kit for developers. Anyone who didn’t want to stare at a tiny Game Boy screen for hours while they programmed had to shell out over a grand for these bad boys. They were created by Intelligent Systems, of Fire Emblem and Paper Mario fame.
The Wide Boy was essentially the Game Boy hardware spread out on a larger circuit board with an adapter that plugged into an NES. The system was self-sustaining, meaning it only borrowed the video memory from the NES rather than running through its CPU. This quirk meant that the Wide Boy 2 had to have its own power source, and that a controller plugged directly into the unit rather than the NES itself.
Years down the road, a modified version was released for the N64, presumably because by that time no one had a Super Nintendo laying around.
Unless you were a developer or a member of the gaming press, you wouldn’t have access to the Wide Boy 64. Some games like Pokémon Stadium allowed you to play certain Game Boy games on your N64 on the transfer pak, but this was uncommon and had limited implementation.
Seemingly to address this problem, a company named EMS Production Ltd. created an unlicensed Game Boy game adapter for the N64, dubbing it the “GB Hunter”. Since EMS didn’t have permission from Nintendo, a legit N64 cartridge had to be inserted into the back of the GB Hunter to “piggyback” its way through the lockout mechanism. This technique had been used by other seedy companies in the past.
The GB Hunter had a piss-poor set of features compared to the Super Game Boy. There were only three selectable palettes, an ugly scaling option, and no customizable controls or borders. A cheat feature called “Golden Finger” was included that had a function similar to a Game Shark, but this, too, was severely limited.
Worst of all, the nail in the coffin, the ultimate festering corn kernel in the shit pile that was GB Hunter, the designers of the adapter clearly had no clue how to fully recreate the Game Boy’s hardware and retrieve all the information from the games. More specifically, the GB Hunter was unable to play any music or sound effects from an inserted Game Boy game.
You heard me correctly. If you were hoping to here the thumping tunes of Super Mario Land 2, you were shit out of luck. As a form of consolation prize, or punishment, or maybe as some sort of cruel joke, EMS decided instead to include a GB Hunter theme that loops endlessly while you play.
So enjoy that lovely tune while you savor your classic games, and try not to stab your ears out in the process.
Game Boy Player
We’ve seen the good and the ugly, now lets look at the crème de la crème. Nintendo’s reluctance to outright replace the Game Boy created a mess of compatibility issues before they bit the bullet and released the Game Boy Advance (GBA) in 2001.
Thankfully, the GBA was backwards compatible with every Game Boy game regardless of whether or not it was a Game Boy Color exclusive. Unthankfully, Nintendo shirked away from giving the GBA a backlit screen, making it nigh impossible to play until the SP model was released in 2004.
Nintendo answered this call in 2003 by creating a unique GBA adapter for the Gamecube, called the Game Boy Player. In the long tradition of Nintendo putting things on top of other things, the peripheral sat comfortably underneath the ‘Cube and blended elegantly with the system’s form factor.
The Game Boy Player consists of a rearranged GBA board. This design means that rather than games being emulated, as was the case with the Super Game Boy, they are running on the normal hardware but using the Gamecube’s video outputs, RAM, and power source. Thus, there are no issues running the games, although scaling the graphics to fit a TV can create the illusion that the game is running slightly faster.
The Game Boy Player required users to insert a boot disk into the Gamecube in order to operate the peripheral. A Gamecube controller could be used, as well as a GBA plugged in through the Advance Cable. One unique feature was that the system recognized every Gamecube controller port as player one, creating the opportunity for tag-team efforts or possibly a recreation of “twitch plays Pokémon” as players fight for autonomy.
Several options were included in a menu for the Game Boy Player, including different borders, control schemes, video scaling options, and even a timer for… actually I don’t know what the hell the timer was for.
The Game Boy Player stands as a luxurious icon for anyone that felt the itch to acquire Nintendo’s sumptuous backlog of portable hits. The sound and graphics are spot-on, and the Gamecube controller feels luxurious compared to the cramped confines of a GBA and especially the SP. The peripheral stands as the ultimate way to play Game Boy games as they were not meant to be played – in the home taking up an entire TV set.
Reliving the glory of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons or even Game and Watch Gallery on a big screen continually impresses me because of the ingenuity and rock-solid design principles that went into these severely technologically-limited titles. Nintendo’s decision to release adapters such as the Super Game Boy and Game Boy Player harkens back to a time when companies actually cared about customers retaining use from their aging game libraries.
In an age where backwards compatibility is being deemed passé, and companies would rather you pay full price for digital versions of games you already own just to play them on your newer console, the Super Game Boy seems quaint but comforting.
Dusting off an old copy of Kirby’s Dream Land from a vintage game store and playing it on close-to-original hardware creates a heartwarming experience, and definitely beats the hell out of the days of holding a Game Boy up to a dim car light while your parents’ vehicle bounced down the interstate.
Jarrod Lipshy is a BA English Graduate and freelance content writer. He collects old video games and sometimes surprises himself by buying handheld ones.
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