Nintendo’s breakthrough portable console, the humble Game Boy, has just celebrated its 25th Birthday.
This news made me realise that since the day I received my first Game Boy in 1990, I have never been without a Nintendo portable at my side.
In truth I could probably take this story back a little further. My family had at least three Game & Watch titles at home in the mid-late 80s. These were incredible simple versions of Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. but they nonetheless kept me occupied for hours on end. (A game and a watch, what was not to love?)
Until the arrival of the Game Boy portable gaming did not stand close scrutiny with the computer and console delights that we experienced at home, but the arrival of handheld consoles that used individual game cartridges, changed everything.
Reminiscing back to the arrival of the Game Boy reminds me that somethings never change. Just as the proponents of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are currently waging war online, my friends and I displayed the same fanboyism over the original wave of portable gaming machines.
As Christmas 1990 approached we all faced a choice. Should we go for the sturdy looking, but distinctly lo-fi, Nintendo Game Boy or hold out for the prospect of a full colour portable Sega Master System in the shape of the Game Gear?
In the UK in the late 80s Sega certainly felt like the hardware owner in ascendance. Games were chiefly played on ZX Spectrums, Commodores and Amigas and among my friends the Master System was the only video games console of note. Somehow Sega had managed to make Alex Kidd and Wonderboy heroes in our screen time. There was not a plumber or elf adventurer in sight. So, much like the PS Vita’s promise of a portable PS3, the Sega Game Gear with its cross console compatibility, colour display and TV tuner seemed to be the obvious choice for us switched-on 12 year olds.
But that Christmas, through no prompting of my own, I received a Nintendo Game Boy and a copy of Tetris from my parents. It was an unexpected gift, but it turns out that my parents truly did know what was best for me. That holiday the whole family took turns to get the highest score and I vividly recall lying in bed waiting for the sun to rise so I could have just one more go. I’m pretty sure that this was also the occasion of my first block falling dream.
The only thing that stopped us playing was the eventual consumption of every AA battery in the house. But by that point I was hooked and the Game Boy became a permanent fixture in my life.
Nonetheless, some months later my friend Adam purchased a Game Gear. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of envy as Sonic the Hedgehog blazed across the screen in vivid colour. Sega’s system certainly felt more modern. The backlit screen made Game Boy owners weep. And if you held the system at the right angle, with the TV tuner antenna pointing at the moon, it was just about possible to watch slightly fuzzy episodes of Naked Video or The Krypton Factor.
If I wanted to improve my Game Boy experience I had to indulge in magnifiers, lights and grips. I can only assume that Nintendo made as much money on these accessories as they did on the system itself. No stone was left unturned in our efforts to brighten the muted tones of the screen or make it possible to play the Game Boy in bed. But what is true now, was just as true then. It was the games that made the difference. And the Game Boy had plenty of them.
Over time my modest library expanded to include the likes of Super Mario Land, Balloon Kid, Golf, Teenage Mutant ‘Hero’ Turtles, Qix and Batman. These games were played, replayed, swapped and played again. The Game Boy lived in my bag, over time becoming bashed, scuffed and scratched but always remaining reliable, always ready to entertain me. That satisfying ‘ping’ as the system booted up promised adventure and excitement, albeit at 160 x 144 pixels in dimension.
The Game Boy’s durability was one of the secrets to its success. It was pretty much indestructible, a perfect fit for kids, school bags and meddlesome sisters. I have no idea what happened to Adam’s Game Gear, but my Game Boy led a long life until it was left behind on a train in one of the most genuinely heart wrenching moments of my youth.
Even when it was time to retire my original unit, Nintendo had various upgrades ready. I bought a Game Boy Color in advance of some travelling and armed with Link’s Awakening, Metal Gear Solid, Pokemon Silver and (of all things) David O’Leary’s Total Football, I set off for far-flung shores. For every flight, train journey or bus trip the Game Boy was my constant companion. My memories of Koholint Island are just as vivid as those of the Blue Mountains. Booting up that old copy of Pokemon Silver is all kinds of nostalgic, a time capsule of those travels with each pocket monster named after a friend I met along the way. A HootHoot called Meg, a Vulpix called Geri and my hostel roommate Suneel remembered in a Level 20 Bayleef. I have no idea where these people are now, but they are preserved along with my memories in that game cartridge.
Since then I have progressed through a Game Boy Advance, a GBA SP, a Game Boy Mini, four flavours of Nintendo DS, a 3DS and currently a 3DS XL. And I owe it all to the brilliance of that original, indestructible brick.
Last year I was sitting at work on my birthday when a group of colleagues gathered round. I was presented with a mint condition Game Boy console, complete with a beautifully unportable carry-case. The excitement around the office was testament to the importance of Nintendo’s console, with everyone recalling their own childhood experiences and looking to have ‘one last go’ on Tetris.
So thank you Game Boy. Thank you for Super Mario Land and Metroid II and Warioland and Link’s Awakening. Thank you for making me sit outside to play games. Thank you for having the (still) definitive edition of Tetris. Thank you for introducing connectivity and trading. Thank you for proving that reliability and software quality matter. Thank you and Happy Birthday.