The Game Boy Is 35 Years Old, Now Officially The Game Man

The Game Boy Is 35 Years Old, Now Officially The Game Man

This piece is really just a vehicle for me to tell you the very brief and ridiculous story of how I broke my Game Boy. If you want to read that, head down to the bottom of this piece. For the rest of you, a little prelude about the greatest little battler of a console the games industry has ever produced.

The Game Boy is 35, now technically an aging millennial

The humble Nintendo Game Boy has turned 35, an age that feels like it’s beginning to strain its youthful name. This little handheld console that sacrificed hardware on the altar of affordability became a global phenomenon in its era. It was beloved despite its many deficiencies. You couldn’t see the backlight-free, pea soup coloured screen in anything other than almost direct light. The hardy, brick-like design. Its NES-like two-button fascia. It cut an instantly recognisable figure, somehow retro futurist even at the time of its release.

Nintendo had to convince two clear parties of the Game Boy’s value — players (kids, mostly) and their parents. Game Boy won both over with a single deciding factor: its battery life. Using older, better-understood hardware, the Game Boy demanded a lower power draw overall. Four AA batteries powered the entire console, the lack of a backlit screen granting the device up to 30 hours of battery life.

There was nothing else on the market that could match that. Both the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear required six AA batteries, and, thanks to their full-colour, backlit screens, could effortlessly drain the lot in 3-5 hours. Batteries are expensive today, and they were expensive back then. A handheld that required 12 AAA batteries for a full day’s play was an absurd and costly ask. Kids knew it. Parents definitely knew it. Placed against the competition, the economics of Game Boy ownership trivially passed the sniff test every time.

Nintendo would iterate on the Game Boy several times, first by re-releasing the handheld in different colours (this was when I got on board, mine was red, I still have it). The smaller Game Boy Pocket would follow in 1996, cutting the batteries down to two AA with a total of 10 hours playtime. In 1998, Nintendo would drop the Game Boy Colour, the first iteration of the hardware with a colour LCD. The jump in hardware was notable — though it still took four AA batteries, the battery life was cut down to 10 hours. The Game Boy Advance, and its SP variant, would follow from there in the early 2000s. The Game Boy Micro in 2005 was the last time Nintendo would wheel the brand name out.

In each version of the hardware, the design edict was simple: use cheap, abundant parts to make an affordable handheld with solid battery life.

Lets talk about the games

Holy crap, there were a lot of games for the Game Boy. 1,042 of them, to be exact.

Depending on the region, the Game Boy launched with between 4 and 6 titles right out of the gate: Alleyway, Baseball, Super Mario Land, Tennis, Tetris, and Yakuman. Most of you probably wound up with the copy of Tetris, the Game Boy’s long-time pack-in. Various retailers had deals on the console that bundled another game at the point of sale — mine came with a copy of Nigel Mansell’s World Championship Racing, seeding a love of Formula 1 that wouldn’t fully bloom for another 25 years or so.

The Game Boy would become the home of some of Nintendo’s most beloved odd-ball classics. Games like Metroid 2 and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening are still beloved to this day (and have both been remade on more modern platforms). Rare faced a stiff challenge bringing its Donkey Kong Country titles to the Game Boy, but they figured it out and the Donkey Kong Land series was born. I remember being driven into a powerful rage by all three titles, but they were the closest I could get to DKC as a Mega Drive kid.

Due to its older, understood hardware, the Game Boy was home to a great number of ports from the NES and other older systems, but (in accordance with Nintendo tradition) it was first-party titles that ruled the roost. Pokemon Green, Red, Blue and Yellow were the system’s highest-selling titles, considered for sales purposes as a single title with minor differences between them. They racked up a combined 46 million copies sold globally. They hold the title of 13th highest-selling game(s) of all time to this day. They sold 11 million more than their next closest rival, Tetris, which benefited from its status as a pack-in title. Pokemon Gold, Silver and Crystal followed at just shy of 30 million copies sold.

Outrageous numbers for a handheld system that was already old at the time of its release.

Happy birthday, old timer

So, a happy 35th anniversary to the humble Nintendo Game Boy. A life-changing machine in an era when games were pricey, even by today’s standards. That people are still going out of their way to recreate the play experience it cemented, you know they were doing something right.

Please tell me your Game Boy memories in the chat below. Here’s one of mine to start it off:

I broke my little red Game Boy about eight or nine months after I got it. I broke it because Donkey Kong Land made me so angry that I headbutted the screen, shattering the LCD. I had to tell Mum, but I couldn’t admit to this act of self-inflicted, boneheaded violence. She’d never get it fixed if she knew I’d broken the screen by giving it a hadouken with my face. So I told her I’d dropped it. That it had smashed on an open drawer in my wardrobe before clattering to the floor.

She didn’t believe a word of it. It took almost a year to get it fixed. At the time I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t an easy thing to repair — the only basis for comparison I had were toys and action figures. I know now that there was no way Nintendo would have repaired a broken LCD under warranty. She would have had to pay to get the screen replaced, and we were not exactly flush with cash.

So there you go, Mum. I’m sorry I lied about the Game Boy (you definitely knew I wasn’t telling the truth).

Image: Nintendo

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