How the Game Boy revolutionised video games

Written by Tom | 21st April 2020

While the Game Boy’s appeal nowadays tends to lie more heavily in its retro aesthetic, when Nintendo launched this portable console, it was a game changer. The first of its kind in many ways, we asked video games expert, Toby Wickwire to tell us more about its history and revolutionary nature. 

Today, the gaming industry touches on everything from movement-sensor gaming to virtual reality. But back in the 1980s, the Game Boy was proof long before the phones of today, that handheld devices were the contraptions of the future. “The Game Boy Classic revolutionised the industry”, says Toby. “It was the first handheld to really change gaming”.

The first Game Boy

It’s hard to imagine there were handhelds before the Game Boy, but the first portable game console was actually the Microvision. Launched in 1979, this small, cartridge-based system was popular for a while, yet its small screen and the scarce supply of cartridges led to its demise. The Nintendo Company, however, sensing the demand for portable gaming, spotted an opportunity and launched the Game & Watch in 1980, modelled on the Microvision. The Game & Watch, which featured a single game on it, was a major success. 

The first Game Boy drew from the Game & Watch design, adding simplified hardware system and a multi-game feature

Nine years later on April 21st, 1989, that same team (led by legendary Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi) created the Game Boy, which combined the hardware of the Game & Watch as well as the NES home system. Within the first days of its release, the entire Game Boy stock (300K plus) was sold and a cultural icon was born. 

The Game Boy’s defining features

What helped set the Game Boy apart from a manufacturing standpoint was its simplicity. The Game Boy was less technologically advanced than some of its counterparts, including the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear, yet it was simpler to construct, cheaper and more durable in terms of design and battery life. Yokoi adopted what is now one of Nintendo’s key design philosophies when creating the Game Boy–known as ‘Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology’– which advocated for cheap (‘withered’) technology and using it creatively (or laterally). 

In the case of the Game Boy, its screen was 2.5 inches wide and virtually colourless (only a couple of grey shades were possible), yet its battery life promised to last up to 30 hours long. And its controls mirrored that of the NES, with the same controller pad and four buttons that included A, B Start and Select, meaning gamers already experienced with the NES would easily adopt the Game Boy’s system. 

Tetris is one of the best-selling games of all time and came with every Game Boy Classic purchase

Although the handheld aspect of the Game Boy is its most eminent and lauded feature, it was still a departure from previous consoles. “With the arrival of the Game Boy, a new world opened up”, says Toby. “Before you had to settle with one game for the console – now you could change games. This also made it possible for other gaming producers to develop games for the Game Boy”. This she says, is where Nintendo really flourished against its competitors. “Both the Atari Lynx and Game Gear didn’t make it against Nintendo, and the games on offer had a big part to play in their respective downturns. The Atari because there were not enough companies that made games for it; the Sega Game Gear because of its poor battery life, a lack of original games and support from Sega”. 

Games and gender

No console makes a name for itself without the accompanying games being of equally high quality. Any original Game Boy came with Tetris included, which would later become one of the best-selling games of all time and helped drive early Game Boy sales. Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow were some of the other immensely popular titles on the Game Boy Colour. They went a step further, spawning an entire franchise of games, outselling Tetris and they still remain the most critically acclaimed of the Pokémon series. 

The Pokémon games remain popular, and the Red, Yellow and Blue versions particularly are still acclaimed

These games and their popularity helped to spotlight an ongoing division in the game industry as well: namely, the laser focus on appealing to boys over girls. The very fact the console was named the Game Boy spoke volumes, but the gamer demographics suggested the name was premature. In North America, almost half of Game Boy players were female – a much larger number than that of the NES (29%) and SNES (14%). Unwittingly, the Game Boy showed women to be a key market for Nintendo, which has helped the company pivot to classifying its later systems as ‘family consoles’, in contrast to the Xbox and Playstations. 

Retro appeal

Decades later and the Game Boy still carries mass appeal, especially among collectors. “Every Game Boy generation has value nowadays”, Toby explains. “Actually each one is now worth more in the box than it would have been at its time of release  – if it’s in good condition. And don’t forget the games, as these can be worth ten times their original value”. 

Of course, there’s plenty of joy to be had simply playing on the Game Boy. The familiar flash and jingle of the home screen and catching that rare Pokémon are all an ode to times when happiness could be found on a low-res screen – a little, monster-filled universe of your own. 


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