It’s official: The world has been Playing with Portable Power for three decades now. Nintendo’s iconic Game Boy Handheld first launched in Japan on April 21, 1989, and since then, portable consoles have played a large role in both Nintendo’s bottom line and society at large.
Like many children of the 1980s, I fell sway to the massive influence of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, and when Nintendo announced the Game Boy in 1989, it was like a one-two punch of superhero-like achievement. The ability to play an official Nintendo video game in the back of a moving car (or illicitly at school) was mind-blowing.
I wasn’t the only one who loved the console. The American pack-in, Tetris, became the system’s undisputed killer-app, and this simple-but-addictive puzzle game offered endless replay value. Thanks to Tetris, many adults found it socially acceptable to play Game Boy in public, which was a dramatic change for video games as a medium at the time.
To celebrate 30 years of Game Boy, let’s take a look back at what made it special. We’ll examine its specs, sales numbers, prominent games, and more. When you’re done reading, I’d love to hear some of your personal memories of the first time you ever played a Game Boy—even if you weren’t alive when it first came out.
A Blockbuster Success
The original monochrome Game Boy remains a masterpiece of minimalist design: It included an 8-bit 4.19MHz Sharp LR35902 CPU (similar to the Intel 8080), 4KB of RAM, and a non-backlit LCD that could display 160-by-144 pixels in four shades of gray, all packed into a compact device slightly larger than a standard paperback book. This low-cost design let Nintendo easily crank them out to meet demand, and that’s exactly what it did. Nintendo sold 1 million Game Boys in its first six months on the market, 40 million units by 1995, and somewhere around 64-70 million units (not including the Game Boy Color) throughout its lifetime—about a decade on the market.
A High-Quality Game Library
Over its long lifespan, the monochrome Game Boy played host to a huge game library full of wonderful titles—over 900 in all. A few standouts include Tetris (of course), the Pokémon series, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, Donkey Kong, Kirby’s Dream Land, and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. The massive success of Pokémon in particular gave the platform a new lease on life late in its lifespan. Dozens more landmark games graced the system, but let’s not forget its many high-quality overlooked gems.
Nintendo and other firms produced a wide range of interesting accessories related to the Game Boy. Among them, Super Game Boy (1994), a special cartridge that could play Game Boy games on the Super NES in color; the Four Player Adapter (1991), which allowed four Game Boys to be linked for multiplayer action; the Rechargable Battery Pack (1989), which extended the console’s already good battery life; and the Game Boy Camera and Game Boy Printer (both 1998), which allowed users to capture 128-by-112 monochrome images then print them on a small roll of thermal paper.
A Colorful Midlife Crisis
In the early 1990s, Sega began eating away at Nintendo’s home console market share in the United States with an edgy marketing campaign. After a few years, Nintendo decided to fight back with its own edgy campaign called “Play it Loud.” This coincided with the mid-life of the monochrome Game Boy console, and in 1995, Nintendo introduced a line of Game Boys with the same specs as the original 1989 model but produced with various-colored plastic shells (including black, red, yellow, green, and translucent). This aesthetic revamp revitalized sales of the console at a time when the underlying technology really began to show its age.
The first Game Boy model (1989) started out with a simple LCD screen with no built-in provision for lighting. The display looked pea-green and tended to blur with motion, but it sipped power compared to competitors, providing many hours of gaming on a single set of four AA batteries. In 1996, Nintendo improved upon the design with a smaller console called the Game Boy Pocket, which sported a higher-contrast LCD and even better battery life on two AAA batteries. In 1998, Nintendo released the Game Boy Light in Japan, which used two AA batteries, included an electroluminescent backlight, and measured only slightly larger than the Game Boy Pocket. That model never reached the US.
The Game Boy wasn’t the only handheld on the market during its reign— it fended off many challenging competitors. Several early handhelds bested by the Game Boy included the Atari Lynx, Sega Game Gear, and NEC TurboExpress, all of which used expensive power-hungry backlit color displays that devoured batteries at an alarming pace. At that time, battery life, lower parts cost, and Tetris were Nintendo’s secret weapons. Later competitors such as the Tiger Game.com, Bandai WonderSwan, and SNK NeoGeo Pocket/Pocket Color took notes from the minimalistic Game Boy design, but they proved no match for Nintendo’s high-quality software library (with great third-party support) and its massive market footprint.
A Colorful Legacy
In 1998, Nintendo finally unveiled a color-screened successor to the Game Boy called, unsurprisingly, Game Boy Color. Like its predecessor, it did very well with battery life thanks to an efficient non-backlit LCD screen. Game Boy Color (which sold an estimated 40+ million units itself) could play all previous monochrome Game Boy titles plus new games designed for its slightly beefier specs. And in 2001, Nintendo released the Game Boy Advance, a 32-bit handheld that marked a dramatic leap in capability over earlier Nintendo handhelds. It remained backwards-compatible with both monochrome and Color Game Boy titles, assuring classic 1989 Game Boy software would live on for another decade.