The Nintendo Game Boy Hits 30: Looking Back On What Made This Portable Console Great!

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.

While I’d love to have one of these Simon’s Quest games now for my collection (I lost mine years ago), there’s really not much to these games. This one had you walking on an endless bridge left to right, whipping enemies left and right and jumping over pits. That’s basically it.

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!


The original Game Boy box is still one of my favorite box designs ever. That retro-futuristic grid with the neon hands is seared into my brain forever. Freaking beautiful!

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.


Packing in the classic puzzle game Tetris with the original Game Boy was one of the best business decisions Nintendo of America would make. This was the Trojan Horse that got the Game Boy in the hands of many people that typically wouldn’t buy a video game console, like my lawyer uncle.

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.


The first one to come out was the Lynx, hitting the streets in September of ’89. It was actually a 16-bit system, and while the graphics and hardware were impressive, especially its hardware scaling abilities, it just didn’t catch on. Atari Corp at the time was in flux, and there weren’t nearly as many games on the market for the thing. As a kid, I don’t remember seeing one in a store at all, and exactly zero of my friends had one.

The Turbo Express was also impressive, but it’s high $249.99 price tag and the lack of retail support for it meant that it didn’t have a chance against the popular Game Boy. The only one that gave the Game Boy a run for its money was Sega’s Game Gear.

Sega was taking off at the time, backed by edgy advertising and the success of the Genesis in North America. Put it this way: all the “cool kids” either had or wanted a Sega product. One of my neighbors got a Genesis early after its release, and I remember how impressed I was at playing Altered Beast, a game we played in the local arcade all the time, right in his living room. If they were going to challenge the Game Boy, they had better make it good! This is the first competitor I saw with my own eyes, and while it was cool back then, the thing ripped through six AA batteries in three hours of play time, if you were lucky. Ouch! They packed it in with Columns at first, trying to mimic Nintendo’s success with Tetris, but it wasn’t nearly as successful. They later tried packing it in with other popular titles like Sonic The Hedgehog and some sports titles, but they could never catch the Game Boy.

Sega even tried releasing a successor to the Game Gear: the rare Sega Nomad. The Nomad was essentially a portable Genesis, and it even had the six-button layout of the later Genesis controllers. Again, battery life was atrocious, and it was released at a time when Sega was phasing out its 16-bit offerings and focusing on the Saturn, so it didn’t last very long. And yet, the little gray brick persisted.

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.


I still have one of these things kicking around somewhere. This one combined the light with a magnifying glass. Such luxury!

Not to rest on their laurels, Nintendo did have some tricks up their sleeve to fend off would-be suitors to their handheld empire.


Nintendo later came out with the colorful Play It Loud series of consoles, in a variety of shell colors to appeal to new customers. Nothing says mid-90’s better than matching a Game Boy to your hair color, or lack thereof in the case of the girl in the middle. I have always wanted one of these, especially that clear one!

They also released the improved Game Boy Pocket, which was slightly smaller (hence the clever name), had an improved screen, and better battery life. These are a bit tougher to find these days.

In Japan, they even debuted a Game Boy Light with a backlit screen. This came out very late in the game, just months before the US release of the improved Game Boy Color, which is probably why this didn’t make it outside of Japan.

And then there’s this: the Super Game Boy. This allowed for Game Boy cartridges to be played on your TV through your Super Nintendo. You could display the game with a number of different borders, or even create your own, Mario Paint-style.

Some games were enhanced with their own custom color palates and borders. One of my favorites in my collection of Super Game Boy-compatible games is Samurai Showdown. This game plays shockingly well!

And here’s my personal Game Boy collection as it stands today. I don’t have a lot of games for it compared to some of the other consoles in my collection, and some of my favorites have gone missing over the years (Operation C and Metroid II have sadly been lost), but it still works great! And yes, I still use that sweet fanny pack to store my games!

So, raise a tall one and toast to the most successful handheld of the classic gaming era, the Game Boy! Happy (American) Birthday!

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