Nintendo has always had a knack for unorthodox ideas. The first example for this might just be the Game Boy. On 21/4/1989, this portable console was released in Japan. Us Europeans still needed to wait a year. Even today, 30 years on, this little grey box still invokes a warm, nostalgic feeling in anyone who used to play with it. Funny that, on paper, the Game Boy didn’t look very promising. But those wacky Japanese gaming wizards already knew that pure performance isn’t everything.
The Game Boy has a monochrome display in 160 x 144 resolution and four shades of grey. Colour or backlighting? Not here. Nintendo was right in assuming that this simple layout would be more than enough. Millions of kids worldwide begged their parents to buy them the grey wonderbox. The possibility of playing NES-quality games wherever you want was magical. We’d forgive the Game Boy for being a little podge, lovingly nicknaming it «Brick».
Of course kids couldn’t wait to get their greasy little hands on the Game Boy. However, Nintendo of America is really to thank for the all-appealing mass phenomenon that was the Game Boy. Three months after the Japanese launch, the Americans managed to snag «Tetris» for their release. Their decision to value the block-based game over «Super Mario Land» caused some internal friction. After all, the Italian plumber was already Nintendo’s mascot back then. Advertising for «Tetris» deliberately targeted parents. The gamble was worth it. «Tetris» was and is for everyone. Even today, there has never been a gaming device children and parents had to fight for more.
The magnificent roster of Game Boy titles was ever-growing. «Super Mario Land 2», «Pokémon», «Wario Land» – Nintendo cashed in again and again with exclusives that only they could offer. The catalogue of games wasn’t just its only convincing feature.
Three key facts contributed to the Game Boy’s success: Available games, led by Tetris, its price (around CHF 150.–) and its battery runtime. The Game Boy requires four normal AA-batteries, which crank out between 10 and 30 hours of playtime – depending on who you ask. That’s even impressive for today’s standards. With this, Game Boy left Sega Game Gear, Atari Lynx or NEC TurboExpress in its dust. They would usually give up between 2 to 5 hours – while requiring six batteries. The competition was technically more advanced with colour displays, backlighting and a stronger CPU. Still, they couldn’t hold a candle to Nintendo’s recipe for success.
We’d here the same story again and again. Nintendo brought out the DS in 2004. Game Boy’s successor had two displays. The bottom one could be controlled with an included touchstick. The device was chunky, ugly and everyone was wondering who had come up with such a hair-brained idea. Sony’s Playstation Portable, released one year later, seemed better in every aspect. Huge display, high-end specs and the benefit of being able to watch movies. Still, Nintendo triumphed and the DS went down in history as one of the most successful consoles of all time with 150 million units sold.
In 2011, the 3DS was released. 3D without needing glasses was a nice and unique touch, but in all other aspects it was technically limping behind the PS Vita. But, just as with the DS, the combination of pricing, game library and battery runtime would trump technological superiority. It wouldn’t be Nintendo’s last departure from the norm.
After multiple unsuccessful attempts, the competition seems to have given up. The 2-in-1 console, the Nintendo Switch, came out in 2017, seemingly without rivals. Again, Nintendo decided against technological dominance, instead opting for innovation. I’ll admit, battery runtime isn’t one of the key features anymore. The Switch, in exchange, gained functionality. Instead of having to buy one portable and one stationary console, one console suffices. The roster of games as well as the price are still great positives.
With the creation of the Game Boy 30 years ago, Nintendo cemented their status as the kings of handheld. Even today, many people refer to any portable Nintendo consoles as Game Boys. This illustrates how magical this first encounter with the grey box was. From the first «Ba-Ding» on start-up to the last thin line when shutting off – we will always love you, Game Boy.
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