It’s a nice sunny day; birds are chirping, the world is turning, and if you are kid addicted to video games – you might not even know that such simple pleasures exist. You are tethered to the television in an all out battle alongside Mario. Wouldn’t it be nice if one could carry their video addiction wherever their travels take them, a nice monkey on their back as it were? Well, dream became reality in the 90s and thy name was Game Boy.
Nintendo Entertainment Systems (NES) introduced the Game Boy in 1989, a small, gray portable unit that only needed a fresh set of batteries to provide hours of gameplay whenever the urge struck – in the backseat of a car on a loathsome road trip, perhaps while mom shopped for clothes, or even outside while catching some sun. Unlike the attempts at portable gaming in the past, such as the short lived Game and Watch, the Game Boy was completely self-contained and used interchangeable cartridges to bring a whole library of games, a virtual arcade, into the hands of kids everywhere.
The Game Boy did fall a bit short in the graphics department. A very small LED screen displayed games in all their monochromatic black and green glory, as a way to conserve batteries and keep the retail costs down. Where it didn’t fall short, however, was in its ability to link to other Game Boys. With a simple cable connecting two machines, players could engage in head to head combat, each seeing their own version of the action that played out on their personal screens. It was this feature that helped catapult the Game Boy’s sales well above the competition, although Atari had actually incorporated a somewhat superior linking system in their Lynx portable system.
But the true allure of the Game Boy was, of course, the games. For the debut in US markets, NES included a Russian game that was quickly gaining popularity in the computer game market named Tetris. The inclusion of this highly addictive puzzle game was a brilliant move for the Game Boy and created a pre-release buzz that propelled initial sales. But Game Boy wasn’t a one-game-wonder, there were plenty more addictive cartridges that would soon follow – over 500 titles in all.
No Nintendo system would be worth its weight without the obligatory Mario representation, and the Game Boy didn’t disappoint, offering a dose of Luigi via Super Mario Land. Zelda: Link’s Adventure brought Link and Zelda into the mix. And for sports fans, they could engage in heated, head-to-head battle with football (NFL Quarterback series), basketball (NBA Jam), baseball and tennis games. For RPG fans, Final Fantasy Legend quenched their thirst while those who preferred to throw blows could engage in a little Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II. In 1998, Game Boy got some help from a few “pocket monsters” – namely a series of highly popular, color-coded Pokémon games. No matter a player’s gaming preferences, there was likely a cartridge available to win their hearts.
A few notable accessories accompanied the Game Boy in its travels. The camera and printer option allowed users to take pictures, then have them printed in all their low-resolution glory. Another add-on allowed Game Boy cartridges to be used in the Super NES system, where they could be played in color. The Game Boy itself shrunk in the late 90s and in 1998, a miracle to end all miracles occurred – a color version of the Game Boy itself. The best part was that not only were new cartridges in color but all of the old ones as well. Many of these systems managed to find themselves on ’98 Christmas wish lists and the second coming of the Game Boy helped NES retain control of the handheld gaming market. A 32-bit version, Game Boy Advance would hit the streets in 2001 offering much better graphics than any of its predecessors and winning many new converts in the process. Game Boy would continue to dominate the market until the release of the Sony PSP portable game system – which, along with a significant game library, offered the ability to watch movies and connect to the internet.
But, for over 15 years, this was the portable must have system for any serious gamer who wanted to take their gamesmanship on the road, to school, or any other place where a little Tetris could break up the monotony of an otherwise boring existence. For some gamers, the Game Boy likely led them into sunlight for the first time in years, diminishing the cadaverous pallor that accompanies years of being strapped to a television set for days on end. And that had to make Mom and Dad happy.
If you carried a Game Boy along with you in the 90s, we’d love to hear your memories of your favorite games in our comments section, as we tip our hats to a device so powerful, it got kids to leave the comfort of the couch.