1UP's Retro Gaming Blog
April may be the cruelest month, and it may begin foolishly, but this year's April is worth savoring because it marks the 20th anniversary of the world's most popular and successful 8-bit system. And I don't mean the NES; Nintendo's first console may get the most love in retrospect, but it was practically a flash in the pan, relatively speaking, selling slightly more than 60 million units during its lifetime. That's a pittance -- barely half of what its portable counterpart accomplished.
That's right. Two decades ago this month, Nintendo went portable with the underpowered, almost toy-like Game Boy. In the process, they didn't merely launch one of the longest-lived systems ever; they didn't simply debut one of the best-selling platforms to date; they also established the backbone of their business, a failsafe source of income that would hold them steady as their console business struggled to stay ahead of Sega and Sony over the course of the coming decade. Without Game Boy, Nintendo probably would have gone the way of Sega some time ago, reduced to a peddler of third-party products for someone else's machines. Instead, the Game Boy maintained a blurry, greenish empire of pure profit that kept the company in the black through some rough days, buying the company enough time to reinvent itself with the Wii and DS.
The 8-bit Game Boy family ruled portable gaming from 1989 until its 32-bit successor, the Game Boy Advance, came along in 2001. The system wasn't actually discontinued until 2003, a 14-year reign unmatched by any platform besides the Atari VCS and SNK's Neo-Geo. The difference, of course, is that the Game Boy sold healthily until the very end, where those longer-lived contenders were well into "obscure niche" territory by the time they wheezed to an obsolescent finale. The only system that's ever outsold the Game Boy family (by which I mean Game Boy, GB Pocket, GB Light, and GB Color) is PlayStation 2...although the DS is closing in rapidly.
These feats are all the more remarkable when you stop to consider that Game Boy was tragically behind the technology curve before it even launched, to say nothing of how it fared a decade later. By the time Game Boy reached stores, Epyx had been shopping around its "Handy" system for several years -- a powerful, full-color system with a gorgeous screen and impressive hardware capabilities. Eventually, Handy saw the light of day under the guise of Atari's Lynx, and it was promptly relegated to a distant second place behind the insanely popular Game Boy -- a system with a puny processor based on Intel's 8080 chip (impressive in the mid-'70s, less so at the threshold of the '90s) and a blurry passive-matrix screen capable of four hideous shades of green-tinted grey.
The secret of Game Boy's success was that it demonstrated Nintendo's uncanny grasp of "good enough." In fact, the philosophy creator Gumpei Yokoi employed in designing the system has been the key to all of Nintendo's greatest successes.
Epyx (like most hardware makers) simply aimed to give Handy raw power and impressive specs, offering a portable machine with the muscle to rival a home system. But it seems they never stopped to consider the overall experience, the need to balance horsepower with the practical limitations of handheld gaming. When Lynx launched, it was twice the price of Game Boy and incurred a secondary cost consideration as well: it guzzled large, expensive C-cell batteries in a matter of hours. (Correction: it used AAs, but it burned through six of them in a couple of hours.) The fact is, Lynx was probably doomed to runner-up status from the start. Even before either system launched, Electronic Gaming Monthly called the race for Game Boy way back in the magazine's second issue: "With a rumored retail tag of around $160 bucks for the system and thirty dollar games, the Epyx unit appears to have priced itself out of existance [sic] in the face of Nintendo's competing Game Boy machine."
The Game Boy represented a different philosophy for hardware design. Its dated innards could be manufactured cheaply and easily, and working in unison with Nintendo's low-power "dot matrix green" screen, its chip resulted in a device that absolutely sipped energy. Four AA batteries could run a Game Boy for 15 hours or longer, making it the perfect accompaniment for a long car trip. Essentially, Nintendo created a piece of hardware whose specs were just good enough to offer interesting and playable games without being particularly impressive -- and it worked. Gamers, especially the older gamers to whom the system was initially marketed, were less interested in a jaw-dropping experience from their portable games than they were in practical functionality. Nintendo bet big on that gambit, although they were confident enough to back up their bluff by packing in Tetris, the ultimate proof of concept. After all, Tetris is addictive and works in bite-sized chunks, making it a perfect portable experience...and it's a game that works on any device with a resolution of 10 x 18 pixels.
It's interesting to note that when Nintendo strays from the underlying philosophy of the Game Boy, trying to compete on raw power alone, it rarely succeeds: the Super NES only outsold the Genesis because of Sega's incompetence, the N64 barely squeaked into second place against the Saturn, and the GameCube was assumed by most to be a sure sign of Nintendo's looming demise. Once the company stopped trying to keep up with the competition and instead returned to making systems that, like Game Boy, were merely good enough, its fortunes quickly turned around.
The Game Boy is an unsung hero in gaming's annals, but we'll be putting things right over the coming months. Between now and the 20th anniversary of the system's U.S. launch in August, you can expect to see plenty of love (in four shades of greenish-grey) for what might well be the most important system Nintendo ever created.