Gaming on-the-go has never been more popular. With the majority of consumers owning a tablet or a smartphone, mobile apps have exploded into everyday life. Every morning on my commute I see people playing games like Candy Crush with more fervor than you can possibly imagine. While there are many incredible games for iOS and Android systems, especially remakes of older titles that appeared on consoles way back when, any fan knows that they don’t compare to actual handheld game systems. There is still a massive market for the latest by major video game developers, and there has been since the industry became mainstream. The idea of a phone causing the discontinuation of something by Nintendo and Sony is simply too ludicrous for reality.
Handheld video game systems have existed since the second-generation of consoles. The very first was Milton-Bradley’s Microvision, a poorly designed device that absolutely tanked. Nintendo had a lot of success with the Game & Watch in 1980, a system that really did help popularize portable gaming, but for many the handheld market didn’t explode until the fourth-generation. This is when companies really started to push their devices on much more willing consumers. Despite some heavy competition, Nintendo was able to rise above the rest to take the mantle of handheld dominance, something that has yet to be taken away over two decades later. The very system that started this reign is considered to be one of the most influential devices to ever exist, and it turned 25 on April 21st: the Game Boy.
The Game Boy came during a very heated period within the industry. While Atari was trying to retake the market they once owned, Nintendo was battling an uprising Sega. There is even a movie coming out that will follow the original console war between Mario’s and Sonic’s parents. The Sega Genesis/Sega Megadrive beat the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo to the market by a full two years. The two systems were in a tight race to outsell the other, with Sega claiming that “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” and Nintendo basically saying “Screw you we have Mario.” History would later show that the latter promotion was much more successful, with Nintendo besting Sega using beloved games like Super Mario World, Super Metroid, and Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It was a triumphant end to a very grueling and occasionally bitter battle.
You cannot say the same for the portable division The unbelievably cheap (less than $100!!) and simple Game Boy reached shelves before any competing company in 1989. The system was basically a gray brick, which does feel appropriate as it formed a wall that Atari and Sega could not break down. It is the pure epitome of basic fun being better than technological power. Both the Atari Lynx and the Sega Game Gear were backlit, fully colored, and, in the case of Game Gear, could play Master System games. In comparison, the Game Boy was monochrome, could only be played in lit areas, and was very bulky. Yet with a significantly smaller price tag, longer battery life, and only needing four batteries as opposed to six, the Game Boy put competition to shame. By trusting their own brand popularity, Nintendo only concerned themselves with making as cheap of a device as possible. This is a model they would follow for years to come, very frequently to great success.
On the topic of games, the Game Boy rivals the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System in franchise creation. In truth, no one system can ever top the NES. It gave birth to Metroid, Mega Man, The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Super Mario, among many others. The Game Boy comes close though by introducing the best-selling game of all time, Tetris, and the best-selling franchise that doesn’t feature an Italian plumber, Pokémon. You can honestly attribute the runaway success of both Tetris and Pokémon to the Game Boy’s entire purpose of mobility.
Tetris was one of the very first Game Boy games and it came as a bundle when the system reached North American shores. Its simple design mirrored the no frills style of the system itself, and people went absolutely bonkers for it. Nearly every demographic was pleased with the game and it basically defined the term “killing time.” Stuck in a doctor’s office wait room? Bust out Tetris. Long trip ahead of you? Drop differently shaped blocks on top of each other. Tired of reading a book in the bathroom? Screw it, get a new high score. The simplicity of Tetris has made it a fixture on cell phones and many other devices for many years now. Clearly putting it on the Game Boy was one of the smartest business decisions in industry history.
I already discussed the Pokémon series when Pokémon X & Y came out last October, but this time I want to address the series from the system’s perspective. Tetris and Pokémon are similar in the fact that both were a match made in heaven for the Game Boy. While Pokémon is obviously much more complex than Tetris, the franchise actually has a story, the Game Boy allowed the series to proliferate daily lives. When kids went to school and had to leave their consoles at home, Game Boys with Pokémon Red, Blue, and Green (Japan only) would get stuffed into backpacks with books. Lunch and recess became places for friends to trade Pokémon with each other or fight to determine who was the best. It quickly grew beyond the normal concept of a video game and essentially became an important social activity for many groups.
The Game Boy played a major role in my own growth as a gamer. Whenever I would travel anywhere, I brought my family’s Game Boy to keep me entertained. This naturally included my elementary school and Pokémon. Some of my closest friendships were formed thanks to this gray brick of magic. Perhaps one of my fondest memories with the original system was the day I first beat Kirby’s Dream Land. Not only did that game introduce a personal favorite character of mine, Kirby, it was also one of first games I can readily recall actually beating. Video games back then were much more difficult than they are now, and my lack of focus as a kid meant I’d play a game for a bit but never cared to actually finish. Kirby’s Dream Land was somehow different. It was a difficult game, yes, but the Game Boy allowed me to keep trying to matter where I went. To say I felt a sense of accomplishment once I finished it is an understatement.
There’s no way Nintendo would have the handheld dominance it does without the Game Boy. It laid the groundwork in 1989 for the ultimate failsafe should a home console fail. The Game Boy itself evolved repeatedly in the following two decades. It grew smaller and became the Game Boy Pocket, it got a backlight and the Game Boy Light was born, and the Game Boy color came shortly after to do away with the monochrome. Eventually the Game Boy Advance came and that alone became a major seller, followed by the second best-selling console ever, the Nintendo DS. The Game Boy, including Light and Color, is officially the third-best selling console of all time, making Nintendo have two of the top three systems in history. So with that said, Happy 25th Birthday Nintendo’s Game Boy. Thank you for making long plane rides and car trips infinitely more bearable for two and a half decades.