On April 21st, the Nintendo Game Boy turned twenty-five years old. While some of you are probably feeling old, others are probably wondering, “What the heck is a Game Boy?”
In 1989, Nintendo launched their flagship handheld gaming system, the Game Boy. Although the Game Boy was an 8-bit system, it had an LCD screen with only a 2-bit color palette of four varying shades of green which did not include a back-light. Nintendo decided to forego the back-light to assist with the battery life. Because of this, the Game Boy required a bright light source shining directly on the screen to see any of the action at all. Direct sunlight was also capable of washing out the colors and rendering it useless.
Since the Game Boy lacked a rechargeable lithium ion battery, requiring instead 4 AA batteries that provided 15 to 30 hours of game play, most users had to keep a stash of batteries on hand, or an investment in rechargeable batteries. There was also an AC wall adapter accessory that was not included with the system, but was essential for those who did not want to keep purchasing batteries every few days.
The Game Boy came packaged with the critically acclaimed puzzle game, Tetris, which was simple to learn, nearly impossible to master, and easily one of the most addictive gaming experiences of all time. For the first time in handheld gaming history, and much to the delight of parents, kids across America were foregoing their after-school television programming in favor of being mesmerized by hours of Tetris game play.
Although the tremendous success of Tetris was due in part to being packaged with the system (or perhaps the other way around), the game clearly tapped into a gaming zeitgeist that echoes to this day. Tetris satisfied a need that many hardcore and casual gamers shared. It was easy to pick up and play, and not so easy to put down.
When it was released in America, there were only four other launch titles: Alleyway, Baseball, Super Mario Land, and Tennis. Soon; however, Nintendo’s Game Boy inspired 716 game releases. Unfortunately, many of these early titles were poorly programmed attempts to cash in on the Game Boy frenzy. Along the way there were a steady stream of hits that are still considered classics to this day. Some of the Game Boy classics are Super Mario Land 1 and 2, Metroid 2, Final Fantasy Adventure, The Legend of Zelda: Links Awakening, and Pokemon Red and Blue.
Nintendo’s bet on an under-powered system turned out to be a smart move. Sega’s Game Gear, a graphically superior system that came out two years later, included an 8-bit color screen and a backlight. However, the Game Gear was panned due to its terrible battery life, a mere 3 to 5 hours on six AA batteries. Sadly, the Game Gear sold only 11 million units in its six year lifespan. The Game Boy was redesigned several times in its lifespan, including the Game Boy Color, which was the first time the system included a color screen. By the time it was discontinued in 2003, the Game Boy had sold nearly 117 million units, making it the second most successful Nintendo gaming system, second only to the Nintendo DS, which was released only a few years later.
Regardless of its mostly lackluster library of games and poor graphics, the Game Boy was an instant hit, spawning a successful family of gaming systems that to this day have been rivaled in sales only by the phenomenally successful Playstation 2.