April marks the 25th anniversary of the Nintendo Game Boy’s official world debut. While certainly not the first handheld console ever manufactured, it was the first to make an impact on both culture and commerce.
When released in Japan on April 21st 1989, stores almost immediately sold out of the initial production stock of 300,000 units. Three months later in July, the American debut would sell an unheard of 40,000 units on the first day. Nintendo had difficulty keeping up with demand, and never imagined the console achieving such runaway success. Despite being technologically inferior to other available handhelds in every way, the Game Boy squashed competition and created a legacy that lasted nearly ten years.
The system was designed by Nintendo veteran Gunpei Yokoi to be cheap and durable. As such, it lacked the processing power and display capabilities of other systems such as the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear. The monochrome, non-backlit display had a low resolution and only 4 shades of nauseating green to convey the game’s graphics to players.
What it had instead was the Nintendo name, which to consumers was worth it’s weight in gold. A string of immensely successful Mario games, as well as countless other NES titles made the public hungry once a portable Nintendo console was announced. What no one expected, though, was an insatiable addiction that could be taken with you wherever you wanted…
That addiction was of course Tetris. While Yokoi was hard at work designing a portable Mario game as a Game Boy launch title, another ambitious man named Henk Rogers had flown to Moscow to personally speak with the Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov about securing distribution rights. No stranger to smart decisions, Rogers was the first person to design and release a computer RPG in Japan. Seeing as we all know how well that trend carried out, Rogers had no trouble bringing Nintendo on board to financially back his bidding war for Tetris rights.
Upon successfully getting said rights, Nintendo of America President Minoru Arakawa saw the immediate potential of Tetris for Nintendo’s upcoming Game Boy. The game’s simple graphics, accessible controls, risk/reward mechanics, as well as the limited nature of game sessions made it the perfect game for whipping out and playing whenever you wanted. “Pack it with the system,” Arakawa thought, “and everyone will want one.”
This line of thinking transformed the Game Boy from a machine for video game enthusiasts into one that could be appreciated by people who had never played a game in their life. Tetris also increased the system’s popularity with women, who previously only represented a slim portion of gamers. I can personally attest that when my brother was bought a Game Boy as a present back in 1990, it quickly spawned arguments on car trips about who would get to play Tetris next. The usual winner? My mother.
In addition to having killer software, the Game Boy was affordable. Releasing at $99 including the pack-in game opened the handheld up to consumers who usually didn’t buy fancy electronics like videogame consoles. The system was also light, portable, and had a better battery life than any other competing device. The Atari Lynx, for comparison, boasted 256 colors, a much bigger and sharper display, as well as a backlight, but the system retailed at $179.99 and required 6AA batteries that could only run for 5-6 hours. The 4AAs required for the Game Boy would run 11 hours or more.
The system was also not nearly as bulky as the Lynx or the Game Gear, and while it couldn’t fit in the pocket it also didn’t take up as much space in a backpack. Also, designer Yokoi had gotten smart and made sure that the system felt comfortable even when used for several hours. The games were designed to be slightly bigger than matchbooks, with grooves for easy removal. The Lynx started off with flat games that were difficult to remove from the console.
And the Game Boy was also indestructible. Seriously. You could drop the system from a second story and only succeed in chipping the plastic. I’ve also heard of many a juicebox or soda being spilled on the machine with no effect. The system was so durable that one Game Boy even survived being inside a bombed-out barrack in the first Gulf War, and it still plays fine. I shit you not.
Thanks to the system’s crossover success and a series of A-List titles like Super Mario Land, Tetris, and Kirby’s Dream Land, the Game Boy continued it’s onslaught unabated throughout the mid 90’s. The Atari Lynx lacked ad exposure and recognition, so sales slumped so quickly that stores pulled them from their shelves within a year. After that, the only way to purchase them was through mail order. The Sega Game Gear likewise failed to capture even a portion of the Game Boy’s magic despite a color display and a processor that was as powerful as an NES.
Even though the console received scorn for it’s shortcomings in competitor ads, the Game Boy stayed true-to-roots despite a number of redesigns. First, the original Game Boy was released with multiple color schemes then later a new, smaller hardware case debuted dubbed the “Game Boy Pocket.” This console retained the same guts as the original Game Boy and played the same games, but it had a sharper, slightly larger LCD screen that displayed in four shades of black and grey as opposed to DOS-vomit green color. Despite the facelift, the Game Boy Pocket was still as weak and sans-frills as the original Game Boy but still enjoyed it’s bottomless popularity.
A color system was in the works for years, but as sales dwindled on the Game Boy and Game Boy Pocket, Nintendo was able to produce another killer title that would keep the system alive for years to come: Pokemon. Released less than a year before the Game Boy Color, Pokemon still retained a 4-color pallete and limited graphics. It made up for this with a deep, catch-em-all mechanic and two separate releases (Red and Green in Japan and Red and Blue in the US) that required trading to acquire all of the Pokemon. Couple this with the ability to link up and battle your friends and suddenly owning a copy of Pokemon and a Game Boy meant you were the life of the ten-year-old party. Sales surged for the system and the game, and would have nearly dwarfed the release of the Game Boy Color had Nintendo not released a color-enhanced Yellow edition based upon the extremely popular anime.
Throughout the Game Boy’s lifespan, the console created a legacy that hasn’t been duplicated. Never before had a console been so immediately successful upon release. Companies like Nintendo and Sega had gotten used to lukewarm product launches followed by a slow and steady surge in sales. Nowadays, Nintendo faces fierce competition and increasing scrutiny for it’s business decisions despite still-healthy sales (bolstered by their latest portable, the 3DS). There was a time, though, when most households owned two or three Nintendo consoles including the Game Boy, and other competitors like the Game.com, Wonderswan, and Neo-Geo Pocket quickly fell by the wayside and were forgotten.
Including the Game Boy Color, the entire line of Game Boy products sold over 118 million units during their lifespan. The Game Boy was the king from 1989 to 1998, and taught Nintendo that change isn’t always necessary in order to keep a strong following. Let’s hope that Nintendo continues to adapt in the future without forgetting what people love.