You’ve Come a Long Way, Game Boy

Ever since the release of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo has continued to be one of the most successful companies in the videogame industry. Even while their grasp on the home console marked has loosened, the company remains profitable. Much of this success is owed to Nintendo’s portable line with its flagship series of Game Boy systems.

Released in 1989, the original Game Boy featured a 160 x 144 pixel monochrome screen capable of four shades of gray. Suffice to say, even though it was a great improvement over its Game & Watch ancestors, in the beginning of the 16-bit era the capabilities of the 8-bit Game Boy were less than impressive. What set the Game Boy apart from its competition (aside from increased battery life) was the software, namely that the Game Boy came bundled with Tetris. By 1992, three years after its initial release, over 32 million Game Boys had been sold.

While emphasizing quality software and gameplay experiences over pure hardware power (a stance still maintained today), Nintendo was able to maintain a large majority of the handheld market. But this position didn’t mean Nintendo stopped developing hardware; in 1994, the Super Game Boy allowed gamers to play Game Boy games on their TV in 13 colors, through their Super Nintendo, and in 1996, the Game Boy Pocket offered the Game Boy experience in a greatly reduced form factor with an improved screen and battery life.

The 1998 release of the Game Boy Color was a sign of things to come. While often seen as merely a small improvement over the original Game Boy, the Game Boy Color was a separate system in its own right. While maintaining backwards compatibility with previous Game Boy titles (a first for any videogame system) the Game Boy Color featured an improved processor and its own library of exclusive games. Despite this, many Game Boy Color games were developed to be compatible with the original Game Boy.

In 2001, just three short years after the release of the Game Boy Color, Nintendo introduced the Game Boy Advance. The Game Boy Advance offered a full fledged successor to the Game Boy line. Armed with a 32-bit processor, the Game Boy Advance is capable of 15-bit color on a 240 x 160 pixel display, and its power has been compared to the highly regarded Super Nintendo. While the Game Boy Color was often relegated to playing software that was merely enhanced and retained compatibility with the original Game Boy, the Game Boy Advance enjoyed a great amount of success with its own library of software. By late 2005, Nintendo had sold over 268 million Game Boy Advance units, and over 319 million Game Boy Advance games.

But such success in the handheld market did not come without its failures. In 1995, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, a device that would live on only in infamy. Seemingly modeled after virtual reality helmets found in popular science fiction, the Virtual Boy was intended to bring gamers a true 3-D experience. Unfortunately, it often gave its users headaches and back pain. These problems, coupled with a small library of titles, resulted in the Virtual Boy being discontinued a year later.

Despite the failure of the Virtual Boy, Nintendo has continued to push the envelope with innovative hardware. In 2004, Nintendo cautiously released the Nintendo DS. Without the Game Boy name, the DS is very much a departure from past Nintendo handhelds. Like the Game Boy family, the DS is backwards compatible with Game Boy Advance games, but it will not run software designed for the original or Color Game Boys. The largest departures, however, are the additions of a touch screen, microphone and Wi-Fi capabilities. These innovations have opened the market to a wider array of customers and game play styles; without the microphone and touch screen, games like Nintendogs or Feel the Magic would be impossible. And while the touch screen and microphone allow for new game experiences, the upgrade from a link cable to Wi-Fi puts older games like Animal Crossing and Mario Kart in a new light.

The history of Nintendo handhelds shows an emphasis on innovative software, hardware and low consumer costs over pure processing and graphical power. From Tetris to Pokémon to Nintendogs, Nintendo handhelds have always appealed to a wide audience with new and interesting gameplay. If the Revolution’s design reflects this philosophy, it will have the potential to be something truly special.

Brian Easton is a freelance writer currently working on his first novel and a new entertainment website.

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