30 Years; that’s how old the Game Boy is. This chunky, clunky, plastic device will forever go down as one of the greatest-selling consoles of all time. Released in 1989, Nintendo’s Game Boy shaped the video game market by bringing affordable, portable games to people across the world, with 118.69 million units sold!
What started off as a portable experiment, would go on to spawn successors down the line in the forms of the Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Game Boy Advance SP, Game Boy Micro, Nintendo DS, DS Lite, DSi, and 3DS.
With the simple change of a cartridge, you can access hundreds of classic video games on your system, with heavy-hitting franchises like Super Mario Land, Mega Man, Zelda, Pokémon, Metroid, Castlevania, and the “Outrageous New Game: Tetris.”
Prior to this there were handheld consoles, but they were all about hardware and came pre-loaded with games. Nintendo’s “Game and Watch” series is a great example of this.
But it was the portability and handheld philosophy that continues to win over casual and hardcore gamers worldwide. Currently, the Nintendo Switch dominates the console wars as both a home and portable console, and the Switch Lite releasing later this year saw a jump in Nintendo’s stock.
No doubt it’s going to be a success.
But I didn’t want to use this post to simply recite the history of the Game Boy, instead I wanted to look at how it shaped our interaction with handheld entertainment, and how its accessibly philosophy has transformed the portable games market today.
THE HANDHELD MARKET
The hardware of the original Game Boy is sadly outdated. Picking up one of these plastic bricks nowadays presents many issues: The screen is an ugly green, it runs on double A batteries instead of rechargeable, there’s no backlite, and it’s comparatively very clunky when compared to the sleeker devices of today. It is certainly a product of its time.
As for the software, the cartridges and games, I think still hold up. It’s easy to revisit these older games through the Nintendo 3DS eShop, and the gameplay still holds up. Link’s Awakening DX remains a classic, and the Super Mario Land series continue with the classic gameplay of the NES and SNES.
But the market was difference. For $50 it was way more affordable than any home console, and thoroughly broke into the casual gaming market as a result. Sure, your parents might not want to delve deep into the Legend of Zelda lore, but Tetris was a quick and fun way to pass the time.
This device defined the casual gaming market.
Of course, there’s also Pokémon Red and Blue – a pair of games that can still be greatly enjoyed today, using innovations like the link cable to trade and battle, you had to interact with others to get the fullest experience.
Perhaps it helps that the 3DS has a built-in backlight, and you can set the games to a stylish monotone instead of the green the Game Boy came with.
BOTTOM OF THE FRANCHISE HIERARCHY
With the exception of games that debuted on the Game Boy, like Pokémon and Kirby, it’s interesting to note how little these games impacted their console counterparts.
Both Mario and Zelda have an incredibly rich lore, yet locations, power-ups, and characters remain entirely exclusive to the Game Boy – it honestly feels very bizarre.
Take the Super Mario Land series; you have your titular Mario yet the locations of Sarasaland and Mario’s Private Island in Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins have never shown up in later instalments.
Aesthetics have certainly continued over. Princess Daisy and the evil Wario making their debuts on Game Boy titles, yet they only appear in spin-off games – either go-karting, playing tennis, or beating each other up in Super Smash Bros. He may have his own spin-off Warioware series, yet we have never seen him appear in another main-series Mario game.
The Zelda Game Boy games are arguably worse for continuity. Link’s Awakening is revealed to be a dream, and thus doesn’t impact the console narratives of Link to the Past on the SNES or Ocarina of Time on the N64. The Oracle Games, although incredibly fun and well-crafted, equally have no impact on a greater franchise level.
If I were to guess, this places the Game Boy games at the bottom of the “Narrative Hierarchy.” Supposedly, this is something done to appeal more to casual gamers, after all the Game Boy was designed with a casual audience in mind – nobody played Tetris for the plot. Thus, these games – despite their rich lore – don’t have that level of franchise cohesion.
The same can be said for transmedia film and television properties of the 80s and 90s. Film was placed at the top of the hierarchy in terms of artistic and critical merit, and later there may be spin-offs or home-video media to capitalise off the aesthetics.
I believe it’s this spin-off philosophy that was replicated in the handheld gaming industry, which is a shame. Despite being less powerful than a SNES or N64, the system certainly had potential for creating more coherent storyworlds.
THIRD PARTY TIE-INS
I’d be remised if I didn’t mention the tie-ins to pop-culture at the time. These were the sorts of games that more-or-less would copy the aesthetics of their source material without doing anything to add to the narrative.
We got the likes of Hook, T2: Judgement Day, Daffy Duck, and M&M’s Mini’s Madness. All of these served as a tie-in to their source material, capitalising off of the aesthetics to suit the casual portable-gaming consumer. These weren’t designed with any deeper narrative like the Pokémon series, but simply a quick way to pass the time with basic video game elements.
If I could put any of these games in a time capsule, it would undoubtedly be the timeless classic: Little Mermaid II: Pinball Frenzy – a Game Boy tie-in game to a straight-to-video Disney sequel of their popular Little Mermaid (1989) animated musical.
That’s not to say that the pinball is “bad,” but it’s aesthetic branding in the most fundamental sense of the term. Fine for a short flight, possibly not a great way to delve deep into Disney’s enchanted kingdom.
THE GAME BOY PHILOSOPHY
The Game Boy represented a shift in video game thinking. Prior to the handheld market, video games were more of an investment. Buying an NES in the 80s meant that your entertainment would be somewhat competitive. You would either play a game or watch something on TV.
Now, you had a chance to play Tetris or Mario.
It gave the consumer more control over how their interacted with these franchises. No longer did you have to schedule your time around TV shows or even being at home. You could take the Game Boy everywhere; something heavily hyped up in their oh-so-90s marketing.
It made the fantastical an everyday event and put you in control.
With accessories and changes in color, there were ways consumers could personalise their handheld devices, and how they interacted with the medium.
It is the casual everyday philosophy that Nintendo has fully embraced following their handheld success; most prominent in their marketing for the Nintendo Wii and presently the Nintendo Switch.
I like to think that the more personalised interactive elements of video games really came in to their own with the Game Boy. You could play as an RPG character and interact with other players via link cables. Sure, it may be crude by today’s standards, but it’s a philosophy that can still be seen in games like Fortnite today.
THE HANDHELD LEGACY
Interestingly, I don’t believe Game Boy’s biggest impact has been in handheld consoles – in fact, the very term “Handheld” seems anachronistic.
The Switch Lite looks to continue the trend, but it’s more of a spin-off to a home/handheld console. Even their 3DS looks to be quietly discontinued in the coming years.
Instead, I think the real impact can be felt on the mobile market. This is where you will find your casual handheld gamer. Whether it’s fitness apps, mobile RPGs, or even something like Angry Birds, it is easier-than-ever to access a handheld mobile game.
With the recent release of Pokémon Masters and next month’s Mario Kart Tour, we’re even seeing greater integration of characters and locations between the mobile market and the console market. Heck, footage from Mario Kart Tour looks to be showing off tracks that debuted way back in their SNES game from 1992!
As we see an ever-increasing media convergence, companies can put more emphasis on their app development whilst integrating gameplay and story elements between mediums.
Take this week’s Pokémon Masters for example, narratively speaking, all of the characters featured were challenges in every game from 1996 to present day. Not only that but, unlike a Game Boy cartridge, an app can be updated with additional material. There’s no reason that Pokémon Masters can’t be further updated to coincide with upcoming Nintendo Switch releases.
Similar to the Game Boy’s glut of spin-off media, this approach has also made its way to app stores. It may be less Beauty and the Beast and more Game of Thrones but it’s the same philosophy.
Looking back, the Game Boy defined the casual handheld gaming market, but with greater media convergence there is infinitely more potential to synergise markets and create more immersive consumer experiences.
As transmedia practices have evolved to coincide with the experience generation, so too has the handheld market evolved to coincide with more casual consumer demand.
That is the impact of the Game Boy Legacy.