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The video game cartridge has existed for decades and has allowed the catalogue of games playable on a console to constantly expand and diversify. 

However whilst the cartridge was a core element of console gaming for many generations, they are unfortunately a feature of the past. Replaced by increasingly efficient storage solutions, starting with optical discs, to digital downloads, and now potentially online streaming.

But the game cartridge is not dead and buried yet, for it has continued to remain relevant with handheld gaming. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Nintendo Game Boy we should also pay recognition to the feature which has allowed the system and its various iterations to become so ubiquitous. Even though the Game Boy series concluded with the Game Boy Micro, the ethos behind it has not disappeared, merely repackaged.

Recently, Daniel wrote about his early experiences with the Game Boy and how this had led to a journey which has seen him acquire almost every version of the handheld available in the West. What this journey highlights is the realisation by Nintendo that once someone begins with a Game Boy it can become a part of their life which will accompany them for many years. This was greatly facilitated by the unprecedented availability of backwards compatibility, a feat which only the PC can just about claim as well.

Each new iteration of the Game Boy brought with it a new innovation to the Nintendo platform; some were aesthetic improvements (like the Game Boy Pocket), others added desirable extras (the much desired addition of an internal backlight like the one found in the Game Boy Advance SP), whilst others introduced major advancements (the introduction of colour with the Game Boy Color, and the transition to a 32-bit processor allowing for SNES equivalent games on the go with the original Game Boy Advance). The amazing aspect with the Game Boy series is that even though it contained numerous different iterations, there were only three different types of cartridges during its entire lifetime. These being the Original Game Boy Game Packs (grey), Game Boy Color Game Packs (clear), and the Game Boy Advance Game Packs (dark grey rectangles); although there were also the black Game Boy Color Game Packs which were designed for the Game Boy Color but were fully compatible with the Original Game Boy.

Aside from the Game Boy Micro, each new iteration was able to play any previous cartridge that existed before it. This allowed people to continue to enjoy their entire game collection on their new system whilst also giving each new Game Boy a solid software base to stand on. This also gave more value to the games, knowing that they would still be relevant in years to come, rather than something to be enjoyed and then forgotten when the next iteration was released.

Ultimately there had to be a cut-off point, as there is a limit to how much consideration the designers at Nintendo can make when designing future handhelds. This was because in order for the different Game Boy iterations to be backwards compatible required them to have additional components specifically to facilitate the playback of the older software via hardware emulation. Whilst the technology required for hardware emulation continued to get smaller, which allowed for it to be included in ever more compact systems, there are still limits to how much can be fitted onto a systems circuitry.

These limits were evident with the Micro, as Nintendo’s aim with the system was to make the design match its namesake. Because of this it was impractical to allow for the larger cartridges to be accepted, and was likely also impractical to fit the additional hardware required onto the tiny circuit board.

However the first significant move away from backwards compatibility was with the transition to the original DS. This marked a new introduction into Nintendo’s family of cartridges, one which more closely resembled the appearance of an SD card, the Nintendo DS Game Card (which is even trademarked). The DS was a notable shift as the new Game Card was completely different in size and shape to the previous Game Packs and using a spring loading mechanism. Because of this the DS utilised two separate input areas, with the Game Cards inserted at the top and Game Boy Advance Game Packs at the bottom. Again like the Micro the earlier cartridges were not supported, but unlike the Micro it was not just due to size constraints but due to all the additional components required for the new dual screened setup.

Amazingly this continued with the DS Lite, despite its remarkably compact design. Even though now the GBA cartridge would stick out from the console, it was still a welcomed decision with many still benefitting from option to also play GBA games. Although this was the last Nintendo handheld to play a Nintendo Game Pack, for the the DSi and its subsequent larger companion (DSi XL) forgoing them and instead introduced many new features. This likely contributed to the decision to not include GBA functionality, as the DSi family now also included an SD card slot which enabled small games to be downloaded to the system, in addition to other features such as photos and audio files which could be saved locally due to the inclusion of a camera to the system. This also marked the introduction of another Game Card, visually was very similar to the prior DS Game Cards, except that it was black (to signify the difference) and utilised the DSi special features, this primarily being the inbuilt cameras. Although very titles actually took advantage of the features, and even fewer required them, meaning that there was actually only five cartridges which were exclusive to the DSi.

Nintendo’s current handheld family reaffirmed Nintendo’s commitment to the cartridge despite advances in digital distribution. The 3DS family all use an updated version of the Game Card, a white cartridge with a larger capacity than its DS predecessor and a small tab on the side to prevent it inadvertently being used in a DS system. In continuation of the trend with Nintendo handhelds, the 3DS family is backwards compatible with the previous generation, meaning that it is able to play all but a few DS games.

When Nintendo announced their decision to distribute games for the 3DS via cartridges, there were some who bemoaned the avoidance of a digital solution. At the time the eshop had only been discussed and at that stage appeared to be a continuation of the shop found on the DSi. Ultimately, months after the launch of the eShop, Nintendo began distributing full retail games through the digital service. The service has been successful for Nintendo, especially with some of its bigger titles, and has also provided a convenient avenue for certain “riskier” titles. Yet there is still a place for cartridges. The majority of 3DS retail games are still experienced through cartridges despite the increasing benefits attached to digital downloads.

Even Sony created a cartridge-like system for its recent handheld series, the Vita, one which shares a similar premise to Nintendo’s current line of Game Cards. The Vita might be struggling, but it does have a loyal core fan-base, aside from the increasing diversity of digital only Indie games there is still a sizable selection of titles available on Sony’s cartridges. Particularly of titles which originate from Japan.

Unlike in the West where digital downloads are going from strength to strength, there is still a distrust of purchasing content online. When people do buy content online this is often via prepaid cards which activate online credit. As a result physically buying something is still a preferred option and therefore cartridges (physical media in general) is still a preferred means of enjoying entertainment. So much so, that when Sony announced their (currently Japan only) home console version of the Vita (Vita TV) they still incorporated the cartridges and this is the preferred content delivery system, especially with the exorbitant price of the memory cards.

Japan might be a special case (amongst its other unique aspects when compared to the rest of the world), but that does not mean that cartridges do not serve a purpose elsewhere. Despite their additional cost compared with other physical media they are a very efficient content delivery system. Their current size makes them portable, which is essentially given the hardware that plays them, compared to other physical media they provide excellent load times, the amount of storage available is more substantial now able to contain games which have existed on previous home consoles. The other main benefit is that they do not require the Internet. Internet connectivity is ever present, but there are still areas connections are not suitable to support the reliability necessary to support online gaming, let alone downloading games which are at least 1GB in size. The cartridge removes the unreliability that is sometimes still present with the Internet.

Even at a time where Nintendo is highlighting the increasing strength of its digital sales, there is still a place for cartridges and their existence still holds a special place for many gamers. Whilst it is increasingly difficult/time-consuming to go back and play past home console games, there is still an ease and sense of joy that accompanies unearthing an old Game Boy finding some AA batteries and picking a cartridge at random.

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