On July 31st, 1989 the legendary Nintendo Game Boy was released in the United States. As of this writing, that makes it 30 years ago today that the little gray brick with the weird green-tinted screen made it into the hands of gamers across the land for the very first time. While there were other attempts at bringing portable video games to market, namely the pioneering Microvision by Milton Bradley and various LCD one-off games from the likes of Tiger Electronics, Nintendo, and more, the Game Boy was the first interchangeable cartridge-based 8-bit portable console that achieved any sort of success. And it had staying power: it fought off competitors with better technical specs year after year until it was replaced by the Game Boy Color 9 years later. Let’s look back at what made the Game Boy such a huge success, through the eyes of someone who grew up with one!
As a 7-year-old, video game-obsessed kid in the summer of 1989, the Game Boy was a real game changer. I had a NES at home, and I played it just about every chance I could. When I had the urge to play a game and I was either away from home or someone else was using the TV, options were limited. I had a few of those Tiger Electronics handhelds, and while some were sort of fun by the standards of the day, you were stuck with one or two of those things. They typically had very limited gameplay and replayability, and they could get boring in short order. That summer, my dad decided that he wanted to take my sister and I to Italy to visit his hometown for a month, and I brought my Walkman and the two Tiger LCD games I had: Double Dragon and Simon’s Quest. 12+ hours on the plane playing those made me bored of them REAL quick.
After we returned from the trip, I learned about the Game Boy, which hit the US shelves while I was away. Talk about a missed opportunity; I could have used something like that on my vacation! It launched in the States with a handful of titles, including Super Mario Land, Alleyway, and the pack-in Tetris. A few friends of mine were able to pick up Game Boys of their own, and it really did change everything. Soon, tales of them playing them in the back seat of their mom’s station wagons on trips or the ability to bust that thing out pretty much any time they were away from home and bored made just about every kid in the country want one, including myself. I remember the very first time I played one: I was at a friend’s house who had just gotten one, and all he had was Tetris. Immediately, I was hooked. I remember telling my dad I was “Tetris-ized” when he came to pick me up that night! A few months later, in January of 1990, I found myself at the store plunking down all my savings for a shiny new Game Boy. Business was about to pick up!
Another thing that was completely unexpected at the time was the Game Boy’s appeal to adults. Not soon after I purchased mine, I brought it to a relative’s house for my cousin’s birthday party. One of my uncles, a buttoned-down, always-serious lawyer, asked me if he could check out the Game Boy and Tetris, my only game at the time. Immediately, he clicked off a 150+ line run on his first playthrough, and then confessed that he had his own Game Boy that he took with him on business trips. Before this time, I had never known the guy to even crack a smile, yet here he was blasting through line after line, besting my high score at the time. Adults weren’t supposed to play video games; that’s kid’s stuff! Yeah… not so much! Mind = BLOWN.
Not soon after the Game Boy hit the shelves, competitors lined up to try and take it down. Among those in the first wave of would-be heirs to the handheld throne were the Atari Lynx, the NEC Turbo Express, and the Sega Game Gear. All three offered back-lit color screens, and the Turbo Express and Game Gear even offered optional TV tuners. Each one had additional gimmicks up their sleeve:
-The Lynx had extra face buttons and a switch that flipped the screen to make it easier for left-handed players to play.
-The Turbo Express used the very same HuCards that it’s big brother, the TurboGrafx 16 (aka the PC Engine elsewhere in the world) used.
-In addition to that TV Tuner, the Game Gear was very closely related to the Sega Master System, making ports of Master System games easy for the console.
On paper, these three consoles looked poised to shred Nintendo’s handheld market share to bits. But, as we know, that never happened.
Back to the Game Boy… Nintendo produced the original hardware for a few years unchanged, focusing on increasing the quantity and quality of its vast library of games. While some of the early titles were on the basic side, they quickly rivaled the complexity of their home console counterparts. Soon, games like Super Mario Land 2, Final Fantasy Adventure, and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening graced the green-hued handheld’s screen. And the aftermarket chipped in with accessories to address one of its glaring problems: the non-backlit screen. A variety of peripheral lighting aids popped up to market, making it possible to sneak the Game Boy under the covers for some late night gaming long after mom and dad told you to go to bed.
Not to rest on their laurels, Nintendo did have some tricks up their sleeve to fend off would-be suitors to their handheld empire.
So, raise a tall one and toast to the most successful handheld of the classic gaming era, the Game Boy! Happy (American) Birthday!