When I reminisce about videogames I tend to leave my Game Boy memories to the wayside. I think a lot of that comes from my tendency to talk about videogames in eras. I’ll reminisce about such and such a game from the 8bit era or how great JRPGs were during the 16bit days. It’s easy for me to associate those time periods with my childhood, adolescence, college days etc. The Game Boy defies that kind of characterization though. If consoles generations represent eras then the Game Boy’s lifespan was an eon. I owned a Game Boy from 1992 to 2001. I hardly played it every day, and by 1999 had more or less forgotten about it. But it was like the stuffed animal or blanket you received as a toddler and then refused to throw out because doing so felt cosmically wrong, like smashing mirrors or lighting holy texts on fire. I once compared the DS to comfort food. The Game Boy was more than that, the DS I can live without; I cannot, however, imagine my childhood without a Game Boy.
When I received my Game Boy it represented nothing less than a holy alignment of the stars in my favor. My grandparents in Japan usually sent us packages around Christmas with food and a few toys. But that year, knowing we were coming to visit them, they sent my brother and I Game Boys, two of them. It’s hard to describe how outright incredible this was because not only did I get a new videogame system, I also got one I didn’t have to share with my brother. It’s the strongest argument I can think against region locking – it hinders massive surprises from foreign grandparents. Of course they sent two games as well, Yoshi’s Cookie, a year before it came out over here, and an RPG based on the anime series Saint Seiya called Saint Seiya Paradise. To this day, I have no idea what Saint Seiya Paradise is about, but I thought it was really cool to own a game none of my friends would ever be able to own.
In the months before we went to visit my grandparents that summer, my brother and I amassed a decent collection of Game Boy games including Super Mario Land 2, Kirby’s Dreamland and my first strategy game, Nobunaga’s Ambition. I should note that, like Saint Seiya Paradise, I still have no idea what Nobunaga’s Ambition is about, but I did learn a few facts about Japanese history. We also decked our systems out with stickers from Nintendo Power and these snake-like pen lights to illuminate the screen. In the months leading up to that trip, we generally enjoyed our Game Boys on a fairly superficial level. We still rented Nintendo games, dreamed of owning an SNES or Genesis and supplemented these main videogame preoccupations with occasional Game Boy rentals.
However, it wasn’t until I’d flown on an airplane for 13 hours straight, which was itself preceded by a 24 hour layover in Detroit, that I understood the genius of the Game Boy. For ten year olds hours are days and by that measure I spent the better part of a month playing Super Mario Land 2. When I finally did play Super Mario World, found myself oddly disappointed by how banal it seemed in comparison. Where were the rabbit ears, space suits and Wario? My parents would later describe that portion of the trip as one of the more exhausting they’ve ever experienced and I could sympathize, but only because I played a combination of Super Mario Land 2, Kirby’s Dreamland and Nobunaga’s Ambition for something like ten hours straight.
Of course once I got to Japan the Game Boy fell to the wayside in the presence incredible grandparents, amazing food, multi-level arcades with Samurai Sprits, the Barcode Battler and early glimpses of the Secret of Mana. The years wore on, and I caught up on plenty of other great games like Final Fantasy Adventure, Link’s Awakening and Metroid II. But by 1998, the Game Boy’s software selection felt pretty antiquated and limited next to the Playstation and Nintendo 64 and it wasn’t until the Game Boy Advance came out that I really felt the tug towards portable gaming for something more than Tetris. Still I always kept it in my desk drawer, loaded with fresh batteries because I just didn’t feel right otherwise.
As I’ve gotten older, and hours feel more like minutes, portable gaming has to fight for my time alongside sleep, reading and just plain zoning out. It’s now a diversion instead of the all consuming activity it used to be. But there are still moments, when the trip is just long enough and the cabin lights are dim, while playing my PSP or DS, that I am able to remember how powerful a green and gray screen could be that it made a 13 hour flight feel like a 4 hour joyride. And it’s at those times that the specter of an old curmudgeon rears its head. The screens feel too wide, the backlights too bright, the colors too brilliant and the buttons kind of insubstantial. As a rule I don’t like to indulge in nostalgia but, for just this week, let’s all raise our AA’s in a toast to the green and gray.
Tom Endo hopes he can one day buy his grandkids Game Boy equivalents as well. He also wants to thank everyone who responded with recommendations for indie games. They were very thoughtful and have made the remaining 23 days of indie gaming a far less daunting prospect.