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The Game Boy
Before we talk about the Game Boy hardware, let’s talk about what came before Game Boy. The idea of portable gaming certainly didn’t come into existence from nowhere the day Game Boy launched; various toy companies had been dabbling in the concept since the ’70s. In fact, it’s kind of hard to say where to draw the line for the true first handheld game — which was it?
It makes sense that early portable systems hailed from toymakers; there’s a pretty clear line of continuity from mechanical or gravity-powered toys to Game Boy. Nintendo itself had a lengthy history with handheld amusements, many of which were designed by the man responsible for the system, Gunpei Yokoi.
So when you look back at one of those simple toys where you try to shoot ball bearings into a hole or whatever, you’re looking at the blueprint for Game Boy. Eventually, the advent of inexpensive, compact electronic components allowed manufacturers to cram LED lights into them. Then simple circuits and LCD art. Then legitimate computer processors — like the Game Boy’s CPU, which was based on the processors that powered the PC revolution of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Impressive, right? Well… honestly, in terms of technology, Game Boy was the furthest thing from impressive even in 1989. The concept wasn’t even that original; Milton Bradley had produced the first ever LCD portable that ran on interchangeable cartridges all the way back in 1979, a full decade before Game Boy’s launch. Epoch’s MicroVision was agonizingly primitive and tremendously expensive, but it helped further establish the concept.
No one really tinkered with the concept again for nearly a decade, though, perhaps because the Game & Watch approach of dedicated LCD handheld units that were nearly as cheap as a game cartridge on its own worked so well. Epoch made a limited and ultimately short-lived effort with the Japan-only Game Pocket Computer, which looks like a rough draft of the Game Boy but was doomed by its extremely high cost and limited library. The next cartridge-based handheld to enter serious production also came from a Western company, Epyx, though their “Handy” portable didn’t see light of day for nearly three years after its inception, when Atari bought it up and marketed it as Lynx.
Game Boy beat Lynx to retail by a matter of months, but the close release of the two systems makes for a telling study in purpose and philosophy. Game Boy used a puny processor and a frankly terrible screen… but those features worked to its advantage, allowing Nintendo to offer it for less than half the price of the Lynx, and being relatively gentle on batteries. Sega’s Game Gear would improve on Lynx’s tech, but it too would fall afoul of both its up-front and its long-term costs.
The Primal Soup
Nintendo has been a major force in the video games industry almost since the beginning, but by and large it hasn’t really competed on the same terms as other game makers. The company’s history as a toy and gadget maker continues to shape its approach to hardware design, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. In the case of Game Boy, this mindset definitely worked for the best.
If you look at Game Boy as a game system, its modest power and inferior LCD seem like sheer folly. Taken as a successor to Nintendo’s long line of kid-sized gizmos and amusements, though, it makes perfect sense.
And, of course, the man responsible for Game Boy’s hardware design, Gunpei Yokoi, had been the mastermind of countless Nintendo doodads and watchamacallits dating back to the 1960s. Former NCL president Hiroshi Yamauchi had catapulted Yokoi to prominence when he saw the man messing around with a toy-like device of his own design to kill down time while working on Nintendo’s assembly line. Yamauchi promptly commissioned Yokoi to turn the toy into an actual product. He did, and it become one of Nintendo’s first commercial hits: The Ultra Hand.
In the years that followed, Yokoi spearheaded the design of dozens of toys, many of which worked as compact electromechanical renditions of arcade amusements. Another major hit for Yokoi came in the form of the Love Tester, a simple toy that measured the electrochemical voltage of two people to “predict” their romantic compatibility. Over time, Nintendo’s toy line incorporated more and more electronic elements, which made their mid-’70s entrée into dedicated, single-title game consoles a natural one.
And with their flag planted in the soil of the embryonic games industry, Nintendo’s Game & Watch seemed a similarly natural progression: Tiny portable gadgets that repurposed adult-oriented technology (in this case, LCD wristwatches) for kids. And adults, too, but mostly kids.
It’s this history that created the primal stew that gave rise to Game Boy. But life didn’t come into being until it was jolted by the bolt of lightning that was Sony’s Walkman. One of the most revolutionary electronic devices ever made, the Walkman made hi-fi audio portable, packing the ability to play radio and cassette tapes into a compact, battery-powered device that output music through a pair of headphones.
The K-Car Revolution
That was the Walkman’s fundamental revolution: It exploded the concept of personal electronics into the mainstream. Sony created a self-contained gadget designed for a single person, compromising top-of-the-line sound for the sake of convenience and portability, and this philosophy influenced hardware design for decades to come.
Nintendo wasn’t even shy about borrowing Sony’s incredible idea — “Game Boy” reads as an obvious riff on “Walkman,” adopting the English-language construction of the cassette player’s name while also speaking to its purpose (playing video games) and target audience (boys). Plus, Game Boy made it clear that the handheld was meant as the junior counterpart to the NES — the serious game experience was still to be found on the console, while the handheld offered a less completely formed take.
Game Boy turned NES-era game design into a solitary pursuit… but of course, Nintendo’s love of play and socialization still found a place in the system despite its being designed for a single player to hold and play at intimate range. While Game Boy excelled at reproducing NES-like single-player experiences (the first year alone would bring players Super Mario, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy spin-offs), the system could also connect to other Game Boys through its Link Cable feature.
The Link Cable allowed as many as 16 players to daisy-chain together… well, at least in theory. In practice, all but a handful of multiplayer games limited themselves to two-person experiences. By no means was this solely a Nintendo innovation, either. Atari’s Lynx included a similar feature, the ComLynx, which enabled similar head-to-head play options.
But Link Cable’s presence demonstrated Nintendo’s priorities — after all, Lynx was meant to be the Cadillac of portable game systems, a massive luxury device with all the bells and whistles. Game Boy was a K Car, compact and inexpensive, its feature set stripped to the bare minimum. Nintendo cut every corner they could, but the ability to socialize made the final cut.
The Triumph of Modesty
Instead, the system’s compromises affected not so much the system’s basic feature set as the quality of those features. The system’s processor was a variant on the humble Zilog Z80, an 8-bit derivative of the legendary 8080 that helped power the PC revolution of the 1970s. 10 years prior to Game Boy, the Z80 was a giant; by 1989, however, it seemed a primitive pipsqueak next to the likes of Motorola’s 68000, which had powered the Macintosh in 1984 and now ticked away beneath the hood of Sega’s Genesis. The chip Game Boy used as its main processor was similar to the secondary coprocessor the Genesis kept around almost as an afterthought to allow for vestigial Master System compatibility.
By a similar token, Game Boy’s screen was barely adequate. Capable of a mere four shades of greyscale, it couldn’t even provide that trait effectively; its dull greenish cast set the “white” color value to a putrid shade reminiscent of an unpleasant diaper accident, and the darker tones weren’t much better — and even with the contrast dial cranked up, its facsimile of black was closer in tone and value to rotting asparagus.
Like most consumer-oriented LCDs of the day, the Game Boy’s screen employed a passive matrix display. This resulted in a severe motion blur that affected moving objects as the screen slowly redrew graphics. For simple, single-screen affairs like puzzle games and old-school arcade titles, this was hardly detrimental.
But for anything that scrolled, such as platformers and shooters, Game Boy’s visuals quickly degenerated into a smeary mess. Every moving object was trailed by a blurry afterimage as once-darkened pixels faded to “white.” This severely undermined the playability of many games, especially the NES-caliber experiences developers sought to make portable.
And yet, despite these individual failings, the system simply couldn’t fail. Its particular design flaws were more than offset by all the advantages Yokoi built into the system. Its rugged, compact design definitely spoke to the work of an experienced toy designer familiar with the utter lack of care with which children treat their playthings.
The Game Boy hardware could withstand any number of offenses — impacts, scratches, even fire — and keep ticking away. Crack the screen and you could still make out the graphics running away happily around the bleeding LCD cells. Run it through the washing machine and it would kick back to life a few days later when its innards had dried out again. The Game Boy was like the Terminator: Invincible, unstoppable, and relentless in its mission to entertain children.
Of course, Yokoi had another advantage working in his favor: Nintendo’s utter dominance of two-thirds of the global video games industry. The simple fact that the people behind Mario had produced a handheld system was good for a few million sales alone. The Super NES would draw fire for making the NES obsolete and mooting kids’ extensive 8-bit libraries a few years later, but there was no such concern for the Game Boy. It was a wholly unique device from the NES, despite its obvious kinship: More primitive and limited, and one used in a totally different fashion.
Even if Lynx had beaten Game Boy to the market, Atari had very little in the way of must-play games on day one. Nintendo, on the other hand, delivered not only a legitimate (if miniaturized and somewhat weird) Super Mario game but also the majestic Tetris as well. And within a matter of months, it brought the full fury of Nintendo third-party partners to bear on the market as well.
Atari couldn’t begin to compete, not in 1989. U.S. game developers were still struggling to catch up in the console space, having shifted to personal computers and arcades after the early ’80s crash that had been precipitated by Atari in the first place.
No, consoles were a playground dominated by the Japanese, and Japanese developers weren’t going to partner with Atari when Nintendo had its own homegrown handheld option available to them. After all, despite Nintendo’s reputation for unfavorable licensing terms, the Famicom and NES had made many publishers very, very rich, and the Game Boy represented the most obvious opportunity for extending that filthy lucre into a new medium.
The Game Boy looked like easy money even in the midst of Japan’s ’80s economic boom, a time when the yen practically minted itself. The system had a guaranteed global reach of millions. Its humble hardware was easy and cheap to develop for; the Z80 processor was an industry standard, well-documented and familiar to any programmer worth his salt. The hardware was cheap. Software was cheap, too. And Nintendo already had an amazing global distribution system.
For developers who already had extensive experience in NES game design, its little cousin must have seemed like a total no-brainer. The biggest drawback to Game Boy, besides its harrowing technical limitations, was the fact that every game had to stand up against Nintendo’s own first-party projects.
It may not have been much to look at, but between its familiar NES-style control setup and the Link Cable, the Game Boy could offer a reasonable simulation of NES play experiences — enough to satisfy kids, certainly, and appealing in its own way to adults as well. Puzzle and parlor games made a better fit for Game Boy than kid-friendly mascot action games. Despite its juvenile moniker, the system sunk its hooks into grownups in short order as well.
Of course, the no-brainer business appeal of Game Boy also worked against the system; thanks to the low barriers of entry to development, the machine was quickly inundated by decidedly less-than-exceptional wares. The early years of the Game Boy library were flooded by repetitive puzzle games. Shopping for Game Boy software meant slogging through a minefield of licensed crap. And a preponderance of two-bit Pokémon clones made the system’s later years similarly fatiguing.
Things were even worse in Japan, where dozens of indistinguishable horse racing simulators, pachinko games, and mahjong titles choked the release lists. American gamers missed out on a few gems over the years, but we also dodged enough bullets to belt-feed an M2 Browning.
The Good and the Bad of Victory
These combined factors — low cost, adequate technology, kid-friendly design, an extensive and varied library, and tons of third-party support — made Game Boy an unrivaled success. The competition produced some impressive attempts to compete over the years, including Sega’s powerful Game Gear (literally an upgraded portable Master System) and the TurboXpress from NEC (which played actual TurboGrafx-16 games). Yet none of them hit on all the same success points as Nintendo, and none of them came close to selling anywhere near as well as Game Boy.
Ultimately, Nintendo came away the clear victor in handheld gaming, though that too exacted a certain toll as well. Lacking true competition, Nintendo drifted along after a while and ceased to innovate. Instead of producing a Game Boy follow-up after seven years, they instead produced a more energy-efficient model with a better screen: Game Boy Pocket.
Yokoi focused his efforts on the tragic Virtual Boy, another toy-inspired self-contained gaming system, but one that lacked the smart, no-frills appeal of Game Boy. Nintendo’s salvation from that brush with disaster actually came from Game Boy itself, when Pokémon gave the system its second wind in the mid-’90s.
With the rest of the industry (and the press) too focused on the heated 32-bit console wars to care about handhelds, Game Boy flew beneath the radar until Pokémon became too big to ignore. The phenomenon caught everyone except Nintendo flat-footed, and Game Boy mopped up. In fact, Pokémon’s success gave Nintendo the freedom to shelve the Game Boy’s direct successor, the 32-bit Project Atlantis, for five years and continue to rake in the easy money with the aged Game Boy hardware.
Rather than take handheld gaming into the next generation, Nintendo chose instead to follow up with the Game Boy Color, an incremental upgrade to the old black-and-white system. Less a new generation than an enhancement, Game Boy Color offered smooth intercompatibility with its predecessor’s library, with a number of cartridges offering dual support for both platforms.
In the end, Game Boy remained a viable platform for more than a decade. Its final release, the dual-compatible One Piece: Maboroshi no Grand Line Boukenki!, launched in Japan on June 28, 2002: More than 13 years after the system’s April 21, 1989 debut, and more than a year after the arrival of its second successor, Game Boy Advance. Meanwhile, Game Boy Color stuck around for more than a year after that; the licensed utility app Doraemon Study Boy: Kanji Yomekaki Master launched on July 18, 2003.
While not exactly the most exciting finale to a platform that lived well beyond any reasonable estimates of its natural life, in a way, that’s kind of fitting. Underwhelming and/or licensed content was the Game Boy’s bread-and-butter, and the system’s unexciting competence kept the tills ringing for years after its superior competitors were long since dead and buried.
Nintendo Game Boy
Japanese title: Game Boy • 任天堂ゲームボーイ
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Release date: 4.21.1989 [JP] | 8.1989* [US] | 9.28.1990 [EU]
Format: Enhanced color palette (built into Super Game Boy)
Predecessor: Game & Watch series [1980-1989]
Successors: Game Boy Pocket ; Game Boy Light ; Game Boy Color 
*Specific launch date unavailable; available online newspaper archives from 1989 do not contain a specific news story marking the debut of Game Boy, and articles on the system variously cite its U.S. debut as anything from “summer” to “September.”