Having successfully charted the history of Nintendo’s ultra-portable (and super popular) Game & Watch series in the first part of our Nintendo history, we now turn our attention to the successor to this range of pocketable gems - the Game Boy.
While many Nintendo fans will cite the release of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (or ‘NES’ if you want to save time) as the real turning point in the fortunes of the company, in terms of actual sales the Game Boy is far more significant.
Combined global sales of the Game Boy (and its more technically adept sibling the Game Boy Color) total almost 120 million units - putting the NES’s already impressive 60 million firmly in the shade. (To put these staggering figures into perspective, the Xbox 360 is currently sitting on an installed user-base just shy of 30 million.)
While the concept of ‘gaming on the go’ wasn’t anything new by the time this diminutive mobile wonder hit store shelves in 1989, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Game Boy took the market to a whole new level and is responsible for creating the insanely profitable handheld market that Nintendo still comfortably dominates today.
The Game Boy’s story starts towards the end of the ‘80s, which proved to be a decade of unbridled success for Nintendo. The aforementioned Game & Watch range had given the company a strong footing in the interactive entertainment arena and the subsequent release of the NES jettisoned the brand into the consciousness of the general public.
Coming at a time when experts confidently believed the video game industry was all but dead after the cataclysmic crash of the early ‘80s, the NES was a tremendous success both in the east and west thanks largely to Nintendo’s stunning first-party software and strong support from other publishers.
As the Game & Watch technology grew more and more antiquated Nintendo started to look for a way to upgrade the concept and maintain pole position in the portable gaming market. The firm was well aware of just how lucrative mobile video games could be, and therefore set its finest engineer the task of creating the ultimate portable console.
Gunpei Yokoi was the brains behind the Game & Watch system and along with his talented team at Nintendo Research and Development 1 he set about producing a highly compact gaming device, which used monochrome LCD technology and interchangeable cartridges. The Game Boy was born.
The notion of having switchable games was nothing new - Milton Bradley's primitive Microvision boasted such capability in the late ‘70s – but as is often the case with truly successful hardware manufacturers, Nintendo was unconcerned with pure innovation - it was effectively drawing together a number of clever ideas and melding them into the ultimate handheld console.
One of the most vital elements of the Game Boy was the screen, which is unusual when you consider that it was effectively outdated by the time it hit the market.
Colour technology was becoming available at the time the console was being produced and rival machines - such as the Atari Lynx, Sega Game Gear and NEC PC Engine GT - all made use of cutting-edge colour screens.
Ironically this desire to be at the bleeding edge is what led to their downfall - these displays may have turned heads, but they guzzled batteries at a stupefying rate.
Nintendo’s stance was very much down to Yokoi’s unique approach to design. When he had been creating the Game & Watch range, he hit upon the principle of ‘Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology’, whereby he argued that rather than constantly looking towards the latest developments to create new gaming devices, it made more sense to utilise mature (and cheap) technology in fresh and interesting ways.
The black and white LCD in the Game Boy is a prime example of this. Granted, it didn’t look anywhere near as swish when placed alongside the Lynx, but it meant that the Game Boy was less bulky and didn’t suck its four AA batteries dry after only a couple of hours’ play.
It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of Yokoi’s design strategy: because of his choices, the Game Boy was a truly portable gaming system while its rivals made their owners afraid to leave the house lest they run out of battery power or move too far away from a plug socket.
Yokoi died tragically in a car accident in 1997, but his principles live on. Both the Wii and DS are technically inferior to their direct competitors, yet they comfortably dominate their respective niche of the video game market.
However, picking the correct technology was only one step to winning the war. For Nintendo’s new machine to truly succeed it needed a reason to convince gamers to pick it up in the first place. For many early adopters, that reason was Tetris.
The story of how Nintendo came to acquire distribution rights for this stupidly addictive Russian puzzle title is worthy of a feature in itself, but to paraphrase the tale, Nintendo managed to untangle a web of legal issues and outwit several different companies (all claiming ownership of the Tetris brand on some type of format or another) and released the game as a ‘pack in’ title with its fledgling console.
The result was astonishing. Although the addictive nature of Tetris was well documented at this point, the success of the Game Boy version arguably pushed the game into the mainstream.
Conversely, the fact that Nintendo had such an appealing title to sell with its new machine convinced gamers to pick up the system in droves. The first shipment of two million units to the US sold out with two weeks.
With such strong sales it was almost inevitable that the Game Boy would attract healthy third party support from publishers and developers, and those same companies that had seen their profits grow thanks to the success of the NES flocked to create titles for this new machine.
By this point the Game Boy’s success was assured, and the system developed a stranglehold on the market that other machines simply couldn’t break. Amazingly, even bigger things were to come.
In 1996, Nintendo released the GameFreak-developed Pokémon, and all hell broke loose. Demand for Game Boy consoles suddenly skyrocketed after a lengthy period of decline.
With the machine back in the public eye, hardware revisions soon followed - the slimmer and lighter Game Boy Pocket was released in ’96, but it was a relatively minor amendment that offered no technical improvements (less blurry screen notwithstanding) over the same technology that made its debut at the end of the ‘80s.
The backlit Game Boy Light followed shortly afterwards and finally made it possible for fans to play Tetris in the dark, but again, it wasn’t quite the step-up that the market was hoping for.
With a new red-hot brand to market, Nintendo decided that it was time for a more drastic update of the aging Game Boy concept. The obvious evolution was to add a lick of colour to that drab screen.
The Game Boy Color may have been a long time coming (rumours were doing the rounds in the early ‘90s) but it finally saw the light of day in 1998.
With the weight of the now world-conquering Pokémon brand behind it the new machine was a massive success, effortlessly seeing off fresh challenges from (technically superior) machines such as the SNK Neo-Geo Pocket and Bandai WonderSwan (the latter of which was designed by Yokoi).
The Game Boy is unquestionably a video game icon and at the time of writing is the best selling console in the history of the industry (although the machine’s descendant - the Nintendo DS - is catching up with over 80 million units shifted).
The fact that the console was almost archaic the moment it hit the shelf makes this astonishing triumph all the more incredible.