Gameboy: 20 Year Anniversary Special

August 21, 2009 | Posted by Lee Price

Its hard to believe that a little handheld that was technologically inferior to many of its rivals and was, in hindsight, as downright blocky and ugly as the Nintendo Gameboy could have been the success story that it was. But that goes without reckoning on the supreme ability of Nintendo to both market and develop for their beloved little block and as it reaches its 20th year, we at 411 Games thought that the little handheld that could deserved a feature recognizing the enormous impact that it had on the world of gaming. So step inside and adjust to monochrome vision as 411celebrate the history of the Nintendo Gameboy.

The Timeline

In all of its time the Gameboy has seen some amazing games released and has had to endure the attentions and competition from numerous contenders to the throne. Here’s a run-down of the most important events in the console’s lifespan.

Early 1980’s
Nintendo begin developing the Game and Watch series of handhelds. These are single LCD game handhelds which would become important in the later development of the Gameboy.

The Gameboy is unleashed on North American shores, having previously been released in Japan in April and later in Europe in September 1990. Conceived and developed principally by the now sadly departed Gunpei Yokoi, the Gameboy is a monochrome handheld with a D-Pad, two buttons and a cartridge slot. It takes 4 AA batteries and has a battery life of 10+ hours. The original design had some issues, not least of which was the lack of a backlight meaning the console was near unplayable with no light present. Despite this the Gameboy begins selling like hot cakes, with consumers no doubt lured by cheap gaming on the go, as well as stellar release titles like Super Mario Land and Tetris. Often believed to be the first handheld console to use cartridges, the idea was originally used in the obscure Microvision handheld, but the Gameboy popularized it to the point that it became the standard. Upon the NA release, the entire shipment of 1 million were sold within 1 WEEK! By the end of its run the original iteration of the Gameboy has racked up over 100 million sales worldwide.

Nintendo also release the Game Link cable in August of this year, allowing players to connect their Gameboys via a line jack on the console and play two player games. The cable goes through a number of iterations as new Gameboy models are released, reaching its crowning glory during the crazy collecting days of Pokémon.

Soon after the Gameboy’s release, the first pretender to the crown, the Atari Lynx is released in September. In a soon to be familiar pattern, the Lynx was technologically superior to the Gameboy, being the first handheld to have a color screen. Despite this, a lack of good titles and poor battery life, combined with the distrust in Atari after the 1983 games crash means it soon falls by the wayside and becomes the Gameboys first victim.

Another pretender comes and goes. The TurboExpress is a handheld version of the TurboGrafx-16 and could play all of its games. As was always the way, despite its superior technology, the Gameboy still massively outsells the console, with the TurboExpress only hitting 1.5 million sales. The Gameboy triumphs again.

SEGA release the Game Gear. Again it is technologically superior to the Gameboy in nearly every way, except for the fact that it is even larger and its batteries last for about as long as a virgin during his first time. Despite a respectable showing selling 11 million units, SEGA cease supporting the console in the mid 1990s and the Gameboy claims yet another victim.

In November of this year Gunpei Yokoi brings his beloved Metroid franchise over to his handheld. Metroid 2: The Return of Samus receives massive critical acclaim and is often recognized as one of the best games in the series despite it’s hosts limitations.

They thought it couldn’t be done, but in June of this year Nintendo release a fully fledged Legend of Zelda game on their trusty handheld. Thanks in large part to the Gameboy’s massive battery life, Link’s Awakening becomes one of the most popular Action-RPGs released on any handheld up to this point.

In August of this year Gunpei Yokoi unleashes his first major project after his development of the Gameboy. The Virtual Boy promises true 3D via the use of a Virtual Reality headset, but is a massive commercial and critical failure. Utilizing a similar monochromatic system to the Gameboy, this time using red, the Virtual Boy’s promise of full 3D gaming is never quite fulfilled and many gamers complained that the console left them feeling sick. It is discontinued the following year.

Nintendo release the Gameboy Pocket. The console requires only 2 AA batteries and is smaller, lighter and has a sharper screen than the original released model.

Another year another pretender. The Neo-Geo Pocket is released in this year, but quickly falls to the might of the Gameboy. At this point the console’s brand recognition is such that any handheld is going to have a damned tough time of cracking its dominance. Of course the Neo-Geo Pocket wasn’t helped by a certain phenomenon sweeping the world at this point…

Nintendo release the Gameboy Camera, which takes relatively grainy monochrome images. Its gains an entry into the 1999 Guinness Book of World Records for being the world’s smallest digital camera. Nintendo also release the Gameboy Printer at about the same time. Running on 6 AA batteries and using specially made thermal paper, the camera prints pictures taken using the Gameboy Camera. Both accessories display Nintendo’s innovative attitude towards its consoles.

Towards the end of the year the Gameboy makes its first major progression since the release of the Gameboy Pocket. After nearly ten years of waiting the Gameboy finally goes color! The Gameboy Co lour is released in Japan in October 1998 and Nintendo begin the process of colorizing their most popular games for the new handheld. Trust Nintendo to figure out how to get a color handheld without seriously draining the battery life, a source of much frustration for its nearest rivals.

And most importantly for 1998, in September, after nearly two years of waiting, the infamous Pokémon Red and Blue games see a North American release. The games go on to become possibly the most popular games since Tetris on the handheld, and go on to spawn a multimedia empire with TV shows, movies, card games and pretty much any other product under the sun finding some form of Pokémon release. Quite possibly the Nintendo Gameboy’s finest hour.

In March Nintendo release the first real update to the Gameboy in 12 years. The Gameboy Advance is designed. Based off the SNES architecture, the GBA is vastly superior to both the GB and GBC and soon sees a raft of top quality new IPs and remade games such as Final Fight and the Super Mario games. While not seeing the sales of the original Gameboy, the GBA is still backwards compatible with all of the older games thanks to the inclusion of a Z80 processor, meaning that the Gameboy still lived on within its newly evolved brother.

The Gameboy finally passes the torch with the release of the Nintendo DS, Nintendo’s first handheld since the Game & Watch series to not be released under the Gameboy banner. Sporting support for GBA titles but not original Gameboy ones, the DS becomes the natural successor to the Gameboys throne, having so far shipped nearly as many consoles as its older brother with sales in excess of 107 million. The Nintendo Gameboy is finally put to rest… for now at least

One of the world’s most beloved consoles reaches its 20th year on Earth. Its hard to believe that the Gameboy has literally been around for nearly half of the games industry’s entire existence and its impact is still felt to this day. Its successor, the DS, still regularly outstrips its nearest rival the Sony PSP in sales, continuing a fine trend in the Nintendo handheld family, and many gamers still speak in hushed tones about their one time Tetris addiction (we’ve all had that period, its okay to admit it). Not only that but the Gameboy played host to Pokémon, a game that can lay claim to being the most popular crossover phenomenon in all of gaming’s illustrious history, perhaps even beating out the impact of the Marios, Sonics and Lara Crofts of the world. For that alone the console should be commended, and its testament to both its and the DS’s popularity that we have still yet to see a full fledged Pokémon adventure released for consoles. Even now the Gameboy has its uses, as a number of musicians use the Gameboy Music line to appropriate sounds from the console, with bands such as 8-Bit Weapon using the console to create their own stamp on the musical world. So the Gameboy still soldiers on in one form or another so now the question remains… will we still be finding uses for it in another 10 years time? To be honest I wouldn’t be surprised.

The Games

This is by no means the definitive list of Gameboy games, but they are the ones that made the most impact on me as a child. Every one of these games deserves to be played to death, so get the Gameboy out and get the cart in. Just try not to get too addicted to Tetris!

Another character that Gunpei Yokoi helped create, alongside Shigeru Miyamoto of course, when it came for Nintendo’s favorite second part, Rare, to release a version of their massively popular Donkey Kong Country series on the Gameboy, many thought the titles would take such a graphical knock that their impact would be dulled. Not so however As Donkey Kong Land and its sequels are amongst the most graphically impressive GB games around. The game itself ain’t too bad either.

Released in Japan in 1996, and finally reaching a worldwide audience nearly two years later, Pokémon Red and Blue were a revelation. Selling 8.2 million units combined, and spawning a breath taking multimedia empire, the first two Pokémon games must be recognized as the Gameboy’s finest achievement, as well as some of the greatest games of all time. You really did have to catch em all.

Continuing the Mario games fine attempt to subliminally indoctrinate the world about the usefulness of drugs, Mario this time switches from mushrooms to pills. Containing gameplay that is nearly as addictive as the legendary Tetris, Dr Mario is a brilliant little puzzle game, perfect for a quick blast when your own the go. The good doctor’s name lives on to as he is now a regular in the Super Smash Bros series of games.

Already featured in the Retronomicon as part of the 411 Games 20th year anniversary celebrations (there are celebrations dammit) for the Gameboy, Link’s Awakening is one of the Gameboy’s most impressive achievements. Koholint Island is a rival for Hyrule any day, and the classic Zelda gameplay is enough to hook anyone. Without this game there is no Pokémon, that’s how important it is, because this game showed that it was possible to have large scale adventure games on Nintendo’s favorite handheld.

Yet another puzzle game from the console that is probably best suited to them. Mario and Yoshi (I believe it may have just been called Yoshi in the US) was essentially a plat spinning game whereby you had to match up various Mario characters to make them disappear, or if you were feeling brave you could collect them on a bottom half of an eggshell and hope the top half turned up to finish them off and gather you mega points. It was even fun watching the little Yoshi on the side of the screen grow up.

Another of Gunpei Yokoi’s creations, Metroid 2: Return of Samus is the stellar sequel to the original Metroid game on the NES. Holding the distinction of being one of the few Gameboy games that disguise the awfulness of the console’s sound chip, Metroid 2 was another quite difficult and sprawling adventure and really pulls off the sparse world in which Samus is exploring. Cynics might say that is more due to the Gameboy’s poor graphical power, but I’m going to keep believing it was entirely deliberate.

One of the first Gameboy games to really make an impact for the console, Super Mario Land was Nintendo’s first attempt at porting their mega successful Mario franchise over to the Gameboy. And what an attempt! Ignore the sub-standard graphics, it was early days after all, and you have one of the most addictive, and at times quite difficult, Mario games out there. This is Mario at its very essence, but trust Nintendo to make it all bigger and better with the next release…

Nintendo went Texas with the release of the sequel to Super Mario Land, with everything being bigger, badder and better than the prequel. The chunky graphics made up for the lackluster effort of Super Mario Land, and the same great platforming goodness was transported across to make this possible the single best platformer on a console that had a few of them. The game is most notable for being the introduction of Wario, who has become a staple in the Mario lexicon since its release.

We can’t mention Super Mario Land 2 and not give Wario Land some much deserved love too. Wario provided a whole new take on the Mario platforming dynamic, with his brute force methods contrasting quite nicely to the fine tuned athletics of everybody’s favorite pudgy plumber. The name of the game is gold, screw rescuing kidnapped princesses or saving the world from annihilation, Wario is only concerned with me, myself and I. A refreshing change from the usual goody two shoes Nintendo.

Last but most certainly not least is the greatest puzzle game of them all. Cynics may say it only achieved the popularity it did because it was bundled with the Gameboy on release, but these people have obviously never been subject to the horrible joy of Tetris addiction. One of the few games that I myself can claim to have actually dreamed about (I know commence the mocking) Tetris is without doubt one of the most simple and yet challenging games around. The very epitome of easy to learn, hard to master.

Staff Memories

To round off our look back at one of the greatest consoles of all time, the 411 Games staff are going to give you a peek into our favorite Gameboy memories.

Sam POW: Does Gameboy Color count? I remember the first time I played The original Super Mario Bros was in SMB Classic on GB Color.

Armando Rodriguez: Pokemon. I bought one only for Pokemon Blue. Of course, then came the Zelda: Oracle games….awesome stuff!

I dusted off my GBC this morning, with the storm coming and all I figured out I might need it if the power goes off. I have only 6 games, but all of them rock. Pokemon Blue, all three Zelda’s (Link’s Awakening, both Oracle games) Metal Gear Solid (which is really good on GBC) and Super Mario DX.

Mark Salmela: Tetris ruined my life… there’s my memories…

Todd Vote: Kirby!
The gameboy introduced me to the loveable cream puff. Kirby’s Dreamland is definitely making my top 5 gameboy games. I remember the first time I used him to suck in an enemy and steal their power, whatever it may have been. Someone correct me if I am wrong, but wasn’t Kirby flying around his levels before Mario was?

Oh… How about how the two original Gameboys that I ever owned were both stolen within two weeks of me owning them. Yeah… Iowa is full of gangsta ass mo-fos.

Ramon Aranda: I got hooked on Pokemon Red/Blue..and was also pleasantly surprised by how good Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was.

No longer would I care about having to be in a waiting room or on a long ride. The Gameboy made those moments something to look forward to.

Drew Robbins: The Gameboy (specifically, the Gameboy Color) will always hold a special place in my heart for being the first system that was really mine. Before that, the Genesis, SNES, NES, and even the original Gameboy all belonged to my brother. I still remember how excited I was to unwrap a Gameboy Color and a copy of Pokemon Red on my birthday, two pieces of technology that went on to completely wreck everything else in my life at the time. Gotta love Nintendo!

Adam Larck: The Gameboy gave me my first taste of both Tetris and Pokemon Red. I wasted so many dozens of hours on those games alone that I lost track. Kirby and Link’s Awakening also were some of my first foray’s into those series on Gameboy.

The Gameboy made long vacation trips and waits anywhere seem like a passing moment as I just kept playing games, not paying attention to anything else.

As for me, my favorite Gameboy memory is damned hard to choose. It could be the first time I completed Link’s Awakening, or perhaps finally getting Mew from a friend in Pokémon Blue. It could even be the ass kicking I gave to a different friend when he deleted the same save and I lost my Mew. But no my best Gameboy memory is the moment my dad walked in with the little hand-me-down console, having picked it up from a friend who didn’t want it anymore. I spent the entire night playing Tetris, in what may have been the first time I had completely ignored my Genesis since I had gotten it.

The Gameboy was a stupendous achievement from Nintendo. Ever the underdog in the technological battle, even now its successor the DS is nowhere near as powerful as Sony’s PSP, the Gameboy proved that it takes more than pure brawn to win in a console race. So to celebrate 20 years of the greatest handheld ever released, we think its about time you dust off the old Gameboy and do a few lines of Tetris. Go on, you know the faithful thing still works. It is, after all as solid as a bloody brick! And when you’re done, why not share you favorite Gameboy moments and games with us in the comments section


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Lee Price
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