Why I love... The Gameboy
On the surface, it’s very hard to defend the original Gameboy. If I was to show a young child the old DMG model (Dot Matrix Display), they’d probably look at me with a look of their face that would suggest: “Seriously? Was this ever good?”.
And to be fair, they’d have a point; not only is the screen very dark, but to make it that bit harder to see, it even suffers from ghosting on many games as well.
While all retro systems may now seem dated in some way, the original gameboy certainly hasn’t aged well at all. Unlike a lot of retro systems, however, it wasn’t exactly technologically advanced to begin with.
Compare the DMG Gameboy to all of the big competition: The Atari Lynx, SEGA Game Gear, NEC Turbo Express - and it falls short against all of them. It’s the only one without colour, it’s the only one without a lit screen and the games are arguably much more basic. The Turbo Express could take console games on the go, and SEGA even released the Nomad (a portable Mega Drive / Genesis) in the lifetime of the Gameboy.
The reception for the Gameboy internally was also fairly negative - much of the development team thought it would fail in the market.
On paper, you’d be mad to go for the Gameboy - but therein lies the trap. Ultimately, it always comes down to the games. And it doesn’t matter if the games aren’t the prettiest - so long as they play well. This is where Nintendo excelled against the competition.
Just like how the ‘Game & Watch’ games were basic, but fun and well produced (especially compared to Tiger’s attempt at LCD handhelds), the Gameboy turned its technological inferiority into one its biggest strengths.
The relative simplicity of the system meant that, not only was it much cheaper than the competition, but the battery life was far superior. However, it was in the architecture that the real wins were to be found. The Gameboy’s processor was based around the Intel 8080 and Zilog Z80, which meant that it was fairly recognisable to game programmers of the time. The challenge was more for the designers who had to figure out how to get the most detail possible out of four shades of green-grey.
While all of the Gameboy’s competition struggled to get quality third-party developers to produce games for their systems, Nintendo had no shortage of software ready to be pumped out to the public. Obviously this also brings with it a lot of shovelware, but it’s hard to deny that the Gameboy has a huge library of great games, that still stand up today.
The Gameboy’s commercial success will be forever linked to the story of how Tetris came to the west, which meant that a lot of DMGs also made it into the hands of adult gamers - in a time when gaming was seen as a very childish pastime. It even launched in Japan with a Gameboy version of a Mahjong game popular with Japanese gangsters. But aside from those, there were many games that were released that ticked all the right boxes for me as a youngling - games like Super Mario Land. Which, in itself, is a very watered-down version of a Mario game, but is still fun today and spawned a whole series of Mario and Wario Land games which are amongst my favourites.
I could list hundreds of Gameboy games, across multiple different genres, that may have looked basic but could provide hours of thrilling gameplay. I’m still discovering great games today that play just as well now as they did back when they were released. The original hardware may feel dated but the games don’t.
I think my love for the Gameboy will ultimately come down to it being a thread of consistency throughout my childhood. For the entire decade of the 90s, the original Gameboy (not to mention the Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance) had new and brilliantly-made games being produced for it. It didn’t matter that the system was “old technology” when it was released at the start of the decade, nor did it matter ten years later when the Pokemon craze hit - when I fell in love with the system all over again.
Handhelds don’t often get the same love as console games, nor are they spoken about with the same sense of nostalgia. I cringe when I see young people with Gameboy iPhone cases, when they don’t actually know what it is - but at the same time, it’s a nice reminder of how the Gameboy was able to penetrate modern culture.
Some of my favourite games of all time are on the Gameboy. You may say that it’s linked to a sense of nostalgia, and in some ways you may be right - however there are also games that I’ve only discovered as an adult that have become firm favourites. Then there’s games like Mario Picross, that I’ve only come to appreciate as an adult and that’s because the system was created for all generations. There are games that appeal to you at different points in your own life, nevermind just the children and adults of the 90s.
I may choose to play the games on an upgraded system these days - either a backlit-modded original model, or simply through the Virtual Console - but my love for the games is stronger than ever.
I will be forever indebted to the Gameboy for years of gaming - and many more years to come.