It might seem pretty quaint and clunky compared to what we have at our fingertips now, but it's worth giving a nod to the console that revolutionized the handheld video game industry 25 years ago: Nintendo's Game Boy. Long before the era of smartphones and smartphone gaming, this cultural phenom made gaming truly portable.
Monday marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of Nintendo Co. Ltd.’s (OTCMKTS:NTDOY) wildly popular Game Boy, the first truly successful video game console that saw widespread international adoption. The Game Boy spawned a long line of successors and impacted the way generations of children, teens and adults interacted with video games. While the Game Boy line eventually saw its demise in 2008, its influences in portable game design continue to be felt to this day.
Game Boy (1989)
Long before “Flappy Bird,” “Candy Crush Saga” and the countless free-to-play games that currently dominate the mobile gaming market, the Nintendo Game Boy was the first big name in portable gaming. Prior to the release of the Game Boy, several companies such as Mattel (NASDAQ:MAT) tried to develop their own lines of portable games and electronics, with little success. Milton Bradley released the first swappable cartridge Microvision console in 1979, but the lack of games and the small (16x16-pixel) screen kept the Microvision from seeing widespread adoption.
Enter Gunpei Yokoi, the creator of the Game and Watch series of handheld electronics. That basic but fun series bring some success to Nintendo, but Yokoi still sought to find a way to make the video game experience truly portable. The result was the Game Boy, developed by Yokoi and the Nintendo Research and Development Team One (R&D1).
Debuting in Japan on April 21, 1989, at 12,800 yen (approximately $97 in 1989 dollars), the Game Boy sold out its 300,000 unit stock in a matter of two weeks, foreshadowing its international success with its launch in the United States a few months later and the rest of the world.
Even with its low-tech, monochromatic display, the Game Boy attracted fans with a library of quality games, such as “Tetris” and “Super Mario Land,” and its relatively affordable price point. Despite the technological cutbacks on the Game Boy, other innovations such as the built-in networking Game Link port would later prove instrumental in its continued success with the 1996 release of the “Pokémon” game franchise.
Game Boy Pocket (1996)
Seven years after the launch of the original Game Boy, Nintendo released a smaller, lightweight version of its hit Game Boy. Unlike its predecessor, the Game Boy Pocket required only two AAA batteries, utilized a smaller Game Link Port and offered a black-and-white display.
Game Boy Color (1998)
Two years after the release of the Game Boy Pocket, Nintendo finally introduced a color variant of the Game Boy console. The Game Boy Color managed to retain backwards compatibility with older monochromatic Game Boy games while giving game developers the ability to create more-detailed game worlds.
Game Boy Advance (2001)
The Game Boy Advance was a departure from Nintendo’s vertical design on previous Game Boy portable handheld consoles. With processing capabilities likened to those of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES), several games that originally launched on the Super NES were eventually adapted for Game Boy Advance, such as “Super Mario World” and “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.”
Despite the change to a smaller form factor cartridge of the Game Boy Advance, it still retained compatibility with older Game Boy cartridges. However, it was widely criticized for its lack of a backlit display.
Game Boy Advance SP (2003)
Nintendo changed the form factor of the Game Boy Advance yet again with the February 2003 introduction of the Game Boy Advance SP. The new model corrected a lot of the complaints of the original Game Boy Advance with the inclusion of a front-lit display and rechargeable battery.
Game Boy Micro (2005)
Despite the previous successes of the Nintendo Game Boy and Game Boy Advance lines, the handheld video game console that shaped generations of gamers was already on at its end of life with the release of the Game Boy Micro, an even more portable revision of the Game Boy Advance, minus the backwards compatibility of the older Game Boy Advance line of handhelds.
The Game Boy Micro had poor sales over its lifetime, particularly due to the 2004 launch of the Nintendo DS handheld, which sported advanced features such as Wi-Fi connectivity and bore a resemblance to the Game Boy’s predecessor, the Game and Watch series of portable electronics.
Nintendo began to shift its resources increasingly toward Nintendo DS development, leading to the demise of the Game Boy series of handheld portable consoles. In 2008, the Game Boy series was formally discontinued, ending a run of over 200 million Game Boy units shipped over the course of the console series' lifetime.