History has taught us that it’s notoriously hard to follow success with success in the games industry - just look at the dismal failure of machines such as the Atari 5200, Sega Saturn and Commodore CD32 - and back in the late ‘90s you could almost forgive Nintendo for being reluctant to put the aging Game Boy hardware (by this point being sold in the slightly upgraded form of the Game Boy Color) out to pasture.
However, with rival machines such as the Neo-Geo Pocket and WonderSwan outclassing the GBC in terms of technology (but not commercial success) and rumours of other handhelds in development, Nintendo could ill afford to be caught napping.
Every month it put off the launch of a successor to the Game Boy was another month where a rival manufacturer could announce its own cutting-edge product and soak up the support of the legions of gamers that were starting to become disenchanted with the GBC’s increasingly feeble technical specifications.
However, despite the outwards appearance of a company seemingly content to rest on its laurels, it’s clear that Nintendo was in fact working on new hardware many years before the Game Boy Advance was eventually confirmed at the close of the ‘90s.
The Game Boy Advance is born
Rumours circulated in specialist magazines as early as 1996, with news of a 32-bit handheld that would perfectly replicate the experience of playing SNES games on the move.
The Game Boy Advance (let’s call it the GBA from now on) was eventually launched in 2001 to great fanfare. The machine featured a design that called for the user to hold it horizontally, which made things easier for those gamers with huge hands that had struggled to get a grip on the old Game Boy’s ‘portrait’ format factor.
The full colour TFT LCD screen was undoubtedly the biggest talking point and rightly so: it generated gorgeous, blur-free visuals that had hitherto been unseen in the video game arena.
The only issue was that the display relied solely on external light sources, which meant that it either had to be played in direct sunlight or beneath some kind of artificial illumination.
This irksome issue caused serious headaches for purchases of some of the early titles: true to form, Konami’s Castlevania: Circle of the Moon featured some suitably moody gothic locations, but these were almost illegible unless you happened to be standing under a particularly bright flood light.
Despite this, the machine was a massive success. Backwards capability with existing Game Boy and Game Boy Color software allowed users to effortlessly make the technological step up without rendering their entire games libraries obsolete and a steady flow of AAA titles - including the inevitable Pokémon entries - ensured that demand for the new console was sky-high.
The complete lack of a rival machine on store shelves also helped: Nintendo literally had the market to itself.
Let there be light
It took Nintendo 6 years to revise the original Game Boy hardware but the company wasted no time in tinkering with the GBA. In 2003 the Game Boy Advance SP (rumoured to stand for ‘Special Project’) was unleashed.
With an appearance that brought to mind the 1980’s Game & Watch multi screen titles, the SP was even more portable than its predecessor. The fold-down design helped protect the screen when the machine wasn’t in use, and the addition of a front lit display finally made it possible to play games in light dimmer than that generated by a thousand suns.
Another neat feature was the built-in rechargeable battery, which obviated constantly leaving the house in order to stock up on Duracells - surely the bane of every anti-social gamer.
However, it wasn’t all positive news. To save on internal space Nintendo had to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack, which forced users to purchase a separate attachment that plugged into the charging socket of the console. Not only did this create extra cost, it also meant that users couldn’t listen using headphones AND charge the console at the same time.
Regardless of such audio tomfoolery, the SP continued the success of the original GBA and went on to sell millions. Armed with a rechargeable power source, a front lit screen and a new raft of killer software (including the fantastic Advance Wars and a port of the SNES Zelda: A Link to the Past) the SP looked unstoppable.
However, clouds were forming on the horizon.
The next generation begins
In the same year that the SP reached retail, Sony announced that it was working on a new handheld console, which would eventually become the Playstation Portable. The PSP was released in 2004 and contained enough graphical muscle under its shiny exterior to make the GBA look like a child’s toy.
Nintendo’s uninterrupted dominance of the portable gaming arena was seemingly in peril, and the company quickly revealed to the general public that it too was working on new hardware - but, amazingly, it would not bear the legendary Game Boy branding.
When Nintendo released details of the DS, the hoots of derision were almost deafening. People struggled to fathom the benefit of having two screens, and one inventive critic even went as far as to mock up a 3D rendering of an intentionally goofy successor to the DS that featured a ridiculous number of fold out display and sub displays.
The touchscreen element of the console was also derided as pointless - this technology had already been available on Pocket PCs for years, so why should it make any difference to the games sector?
The final nail in the coffin - as far as many ‘experts’ were concerned - was Nintendo’s revelation that the DS would be roughly on par with the N64 in terms of power, which obviously meant it would be markedly inferior to the Sony PSP (which was rumoured at this stage to be nothing short of a portable PlayStation 2 - something that would later turn out to be a bit of a cheeky fib on Sony’s part).
Many sectors of the specialist press confidently predicted that Sony’s new machine would effortlessly trample the technically-inferior DS underfoot: Nintendo had lost the plot, they said. The years of unchallenged dominance had gone to the company’s head and it had lost sight of what the average mobile gamer wanted.
It was time for the kiddie-focused Nintendo to step aside and let the more mature Sony take over - just as had been the case in the home console arena.
To be honest, Nintendo was giving its critics plenty of ammunition at the time. The company’s apparently loose grasp of reality was seemingly evidenced by the badly timed launch of yet another GBA hardware variant: the GBA Micro.
The odd couple
The smallest Game Boy console ever, this tiny machine boasted a pin-sharp (but very small) back lit display and was compatible with all GBA software (but not the older Game Boy and GBC games, sadly).
While the machine was undeniably sexy and desirable, it wasn’t the success Nintendo had hoped for, largely because it was competing directly with its stablemate, the DS - which ironically went on to completely confound the Nintendo’s expectations, as well as leaving the previous critics with egg all over their faces.
Nintendo had long maintained that the DS was part of a ‘three pillar’ strategy, which would see it co-exist alongside the GBA and GameCube.
The intention was to develop for both portable machines, with the DS being seen as something of a ‘side project’ until the launch of the new Game Boy console - a tasty snack to enjoy between hardware generations, if you will.
However, as it became evident that the DS was rapidly positioning itself as Nintendo’s premier portable system, support for the GBA began to wane as third party developers quickly switched projects over to what was becoming a vastly more profitable machine.
The Micro therefore died a rather ignominious death at retail; strange when you consider that it was probably the most accomplished GBA machine ever produced.
However, Nintendo wasn’t shedding any tears for its fallen progeny, because the DS was quite simply walking away with the portable gaming market. Sony’s PSP may have been more powerful, but it was also more expensive, less portable (note to Sony: shiny consoles scratch easily) and many of its games seemed wholly unsuitable for mobile play.
Despite this runaway success, Nintendo was keen to address one of the key issues that plagued the DS - it wasn’t all that attractive to look at. Presumably designed in a rush in order to get the machine on the market at the same time as the PSP, the first-gen DS was a chunky customer and seemed to be a rather confused amalgamation of design ideas, owing more than a little debt to its direct predecessor, the GBA SP.
Aware that with portable consoles aesthetics play a huge part in attracting consumers, (and no doubt taking a little inspiration from Apple’s iPod) Nintendo announced the DS Lite - a slimmer, sexier variant of the original machine that looked great and played ever better - as the name suggested, the dual screens were given a brightness boost.
And that brings us neatly to the present. Nintendo has just released the next step in the evolution of the DS in the shape of the DSi and the console range is now well on its way to eclipsing the sales figures of its illustrious ancestor, the Game Boy.
Where now, you may ask? Will we see a resurrection of the Game Boy brand, so long considered synonymous with portable gaming, or will Nintendo build on the success of the DS with another multi-screen, touch-enabled console - only more powerful?
The detractors will no doubt be waiting with their knives sharpened, but few can seriously doubt Nintendo’s knowledge of this arena - as our features have illustrated, the company has dominated this arena of the video game market for three decades now.
If you missed parts one to three of this series, click on the relevant link to catch up: Game & Watch, Game Boy, Virtual Boy