Can I talk about Game Boy for a minute?
In 1990, my dad brought home an Amstrad 386 PC complete with the shareware version of Commander Keen. As the tired saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and I certainly got inventive learning how to use DOS to get further games happening. When you’re 5, necessity is playing video games, especially if you’ve never had the chance before.
Imagine my shock and awe the following year when my friend Con came over with his GAME BOY. A Game Boy? Here, in my house?! In a fit of embarrassment I felt like hiding the little LCD basketball game I’d bought for myself with birthday cash months earlier. Sure, I could shoot hoops when the stars aligned and the tiny battery decided to work, but this dude had a Game Boy. It took FOUR batteries. Oh, the shame.
As starstruck as I was to have Nintendo’s portable device in my house (in my house), I wasn’t unfamiliar with Game Boys. As video games began their rise to power throughout the late 80s and early 90s, comics were on the decline. In a desperate cash-grab, advertising space in comics was overly available to the up and coming video game market, so plenty of NES and Game Boy ads wound up in my face as I read TMNT Adventures or Legends of the Dark Knight. Many big movies of the time received Game Boy adaptations, and those ubiquitous Ninja Turtles were certainly available on the go. The ads in comics served to make the Game Boy seem like an escape route for kids from the humdrum of life. If you didn’t want to endure a trip to Grandma’s place, you’d take your Game Boy (or your Tiger handheld LCD game) and raise some hell.
My world changed as Con played Super Mario Land in front of me. In the face of such…complete, personal and portable entertainment, I was able to gloss over the little things like the piss-yellow screen, the fact that the games weren’t in colour like Commander Keen, and a friend who seemed to get off on bringing stuff to the house of someone who didn’t have said stuff and boasting about it. This was real, and it was in my house. I had to act quickly.
The big difference between a Game Boy and the Tiger handheld series is that a Game Boy isn’t tied to just one game. If you, as did I, had Tiger’s Batman Returns, every time you turned it on you could expect the same epic struggle against the Penguin and Catwoman. It never changed, and it never could (but hey, Batman Returns isn’t on Game Boy). The background was fixed, and the LCD sprites did the rest, but even they were fixed to predetermined spots on the screen. The Game Boy was completely different: each game came on a cartridge, allowing it to be anything you wanted it to be. Feel like playing a puzzle game? Pop Tetris in. Got a hankering for some bare knuckle brawling? Slap in Double Dragon. Have you just been to the arcade, and want that experience on the street outside, on the corner up the road from your house, or even in your bedroom, up in your face? Insert NBA Jam, and keep your coins in your pocket.
When the Game Boy was released in 1989, the black and yellow graphics and minimalist sound actually helped to service the system’s first and most enduring game: Tetris. That Russian puzzle game with the unforgettable theme song and an infectious gameplay design, Tetris sold countless Game Boys in the first few years of the platform’s life. The early games haven’t all held up as well – the bland-by-name bland-by-nature Tennis and Super Mario Land both seem archaic – but Tetris still retains its pick-up-and-play addictiveness. It didn’t need colour or stereoscopic 3D to work; it just worked. As impressed as I was by Super Mario Land that Autumn day in 1991, Tetris was the one that truly stuck with me.
Also in 1991, Sega’s Game Gear was released. This new system made a big deal of its one clear advantage over the Game Boy: it was in colour. This turned out not to make a lick of difference in the retail war between the systems. Whereas the Game Boy needed four AA batteries to run for around 12 hours, the Game Gear needed six AAs to run for four hours. Although they’ve fallen by the wayside today, back then batteries weren’t cheap, especially to a kid with no income. The Game Boy wasn’t in colour, sure, but we knew why. The Game Gear also had ports of popular console titles like Sonic the Hedgehog, and tried to maintain a kind of x-treme image, but again no one seemed to care. The new system’s pack-in game was Columns, a puzzle game with Tetris-style aspirations, but it felt like a me-too effort at the time. I still couldn’t tell you how to play Columns, whereas Tetris is indelible. The only thing the Game Gear had going for it was its then-mindblowing TV adaptor. As a kid, to see a handheld videogame system able to be used as a TV was about the best thing ever, and the only thing I can remember about the Game Gear’s brief ad campaign.
I finally got my big grey brick for Christmas in 1994. It came with Tetris, Super Mario Land and Alien 3. By some strange coincidence, several friends received Game Boys that same Christmas, and we all got Super Mario Land. The Game Boy was everything I’d hoped for for three years and more: it wasn’t like the computer where you had to c:\games\ckeen\keen.exe or install things or pay attention to system specs to make sure Doom would run. You just popped in the cartridge and played. And you didn’t need to wait for someone to get off the computer because they were printing or doing work – it was yours. I could go into my room, sit directly under a decent light source, and get my game on.
As the batteries were about to die, as they would so often do during Alien 3, the graphics would suddenly fade out. This meant you didn’t have long, so you’d have to turn the sound off and crank up the contrast to get it playable again. When the batteries finally got replaced, you’d turn the Game Boy on again to find the screen completely dark because the contrast was still all the way up. While we’re on the topic, Alien 3 devoured many batteries in addition to being a kids game based on an M-rated movie. That was one hard game. I finished Super Mario Land about two weeks after Christmas, and Tetris cannot be finished…but Alien 3, a game which teases its end-game right near the start of play, was near impossible, and when you’ve exhausted all the games available to you, it’s time to branch out.
Luckily, by 1995 the Game Boy’s library was enormous. None of the competitors – the Game Gear, Atari’s Lynx, the endless onslaught of Tiger handhelds – had made a dent in the Game Boy’s market share. It was to portable gaming what the Walkman was to portable music – synonymous. This made the older games quite cheap, especially to kids with little money. When you don’t have disposable income, your choice of game matters, and the games you do get, you play. Spiderman 2 might be another nearly impossible game, but dammit, I played it. I tried to get my money’s worth out of it. My own collection was never huge, but thanks to generous friends, our combined collection was pretty respectable and always readily available. We’d trade all the time, and for months at a time. I once lent Mortal Kombat 3 to a friend for his Mortal Kombats 1 and 2 because, in his words, “one plus two equals three” (in this case it was untrue, as MKII was the best of the Game Boy MKs, but I was happy to let him go on thinking that). But while video shop rentals were common for the Mega Drives and Super Nintendos, only one shop in my area rented Game Boy games. I thank them now for allowing me to play Batman, Ghostbusters II and Navy SEALs (not so much that one), because they had the guts to pimp out Game Boy games at a time when no one else dared. Was it because they were presumed easier to steal or lose? The system’s user base was a lot larger than any of the home systems, so it wasn’t because the video shops loved money.
Despite its technical limitations, the Game Boy continued to receive what were to us kids amazing ports of big name titles. We were shocked when in 1995 Street Fighter II made it to the Boy, amazed when Killer Instinct got a port, and absolutely flattened when the much-hyped graphical powerhouse Donkey Kong Country received a cut-down, yet still impressive, version we could take anywhere.
For me, a massive part of the Game Boy’s appeal, even in those later years, was that I could take it anywhere. There was something so great about spending a Saturday afternoon in a friend’s backyard, so far from TVs or arcades, but still able to play The King of Fighters ’96. Huge franchises, be it video games or the latest film releases, could be a part of a trip to the countryside or a night in your room, grounded. You weren’t tied to the TV in order to play these games, you really could take it anywhere. Car trips, once so deathly boring, were suddenly a great opportunity for me to destroy the Death Star or get a perfect 300 game in World Bowling (still working on that one). Even at night, when the Game Boy couldn’t be seen, attachable lights were available to do the impossible – make games playable past your bedtime. The Game Boy, so versatile, able to be absolutely anything you wanted it to be depending on your mood, was a real symbol of individuality.
By 1997 though, the limitations had become that much more apparent, and the novelty was wearing off. You can only defeat Shredder so many times, and the really old games were getting old. It seemed like 1998 could have spelled the end for the little Boy who could…until the release of Pokemon. Thanks to that one game, the next generation’s Tetris on the exact same hardware, the Game Boy lived on through its first colour iteration Game Boy Colour, the next gene technical leap Game Boy Advance, and all the subsequent variations thereof. 2005’s Game Boy Micro was the last system released to carry the Game Boy name, and today, the system’s legacy is carried by the Nintendo DS family. These later systems are all amazing, but none feel as special in this era of phones that can do just about anything. I’m pretty sure the iPhone can play the entire Game Boy library and can probably do it without breaking a sweat. But it’s just not the same, and for me, nothing ever will be. That big grey brick of many moods really did allow me to play with portable power.
Now, if you’ll indulge me, there’s no better way to get the best feel for the Game Boy’s versatility and entertainment value than by watching the below video, but to heighten the experience, mute the volume and play the song in the second video while you watch. Game over.