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30 years ago, Game Boy changed the world

Bulky and grey with a monochrome display. In spite of these apparent faults, the game boy attained cult status as a console 30 years ago. It wouldn’t be the last time Nintendo successfully went against the grain.

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.

Not just a kid’s toy

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.

The decision to package «Tetris» in a bundle was perfect.

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.

A never-ending cycle

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.

No Switch without Game Boy

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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Philipp Rüegg, Zurich

  • Senior Editor
Being the game and gadget geek that I am, working at digitec and Galaxus makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop – but it does take its toll on my wallet. I enjoy tinkering with my PC in Tim Taylor fashion and talking about games on my podcast . To satisfy my need for speed, I get on my full suspension mountain bike and set out to find some nice trails. My thirst for culture is quenched by deep conversations over a couple of cold ones at the mostly frustrating games of FC Winterthur.

7 comments

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User Damoclash

Auch heute wird das klobige Ding gerne zwischendurch hervorgeholt, Kindheitserinnerungen geweckt und ein paar Stunden gedaddelt. Was musste meine Mutter damals Grosspackungen von AA-Batterien kaufen, damit ich und meine Schwester sicher jederzeit Ersatz holen konnten... ;)

24.04.2019
User Sinnaoi

Ich musste mit 8 Jahren aufgrund einer schweren Lungenentzündung 2 Wochen im Spital verbringen. Meine Eltern haben mir zum Trösten ein Game boy geschenkt. So glücklich krank war ich nie vorher und werde ich nie wieder sein...

24.04.2019
User :D:D

Wird immernoch mit der Gameboy Pocket gespielt. Aktuell wird Pokémon Gelb gespielt und ich versuche durch diverse bugs Mew zu fangen :)

25.04.2019
User philemonba

Meine Brüder und ich bekamen einen durchsichtigen und einen roten Gameboy. Ach wie viele Stunden haben wir mit diesem kleinen, genialen Gerät verbracht. Ich weiss noch, als Pokémon rot und blau erschienen, haben wir zig Stunden gedaddelt. Meine Mutter schimpfte einst so fest und sagte, es werde heute nicht mehr im Haus gezockt. Tja dumm nur, dass er mobil war, so gingen mein Bruder und ich nach draussen und spielten weiter Pokémon. Viele tolle Erinnerungen an diesen kleinen grauen Block :-)

25.04.2019
User c_y_w

Ohne Gameboy kein Switch. Naja, wenn schonn dann müsste man schreiben ohne Game & Watch nichts von alledem. Der Erfolg des G&W hat das alles erst ermöglicht. Plus das Kontrollerlayout damals schon bestimmt. Z.B das bis heute teils vertretene Steuerkreuz.
Desweiteren kostete der Gameboy in Europa in den Läden 169.90.

08.05.2019
User Anonymous

Wie vill Likes gits, weni jetzt Pokemon Blau und Rot erwähn ;D.. dönd mal jeweilig Kasette ide entsprechend Farb und euchi erschd Kanto Reis vorem geischdige Aug visualisiere.. herrlich <3

25.04.2019