Can it be 20 years already for Game Boy?
In 1989, Indiana Jones embarked on his “Last Crusade,” Joe Montana and Jerry Rice led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl victory, and Milli Vanilli lip-synced their way to the top of the charts. That year wasn’t simply about landmarks such as those or Arsenio Hall’s rise to fame and Pete Rose’s fall from grace, however. It also marked the beginning of the Game Boy era.
This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the North American launch of Nintendo’s iconic Game Boy handheld game console—the innovative system that transformed the electronic games market by popularizing handheld gaming.
Just how did this all begin?
Nintendo scored a huge hit with the 1985 release of Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), a home video-game console that delivered a fun, high-quality gaming experience and made the Nintendo brand dominant during the late 1980s and beyond. Gaming hardware was (and still is) the cornerstone of the interactive entertainment industry, but it was the games, stored on external media, that led to sales and market share. Popular NES game titles, such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, captivated video-game players in Asian and North American markets alike.
Nintendo’s 1989 release of the handheld Game Boy followed the incredible success of NES. Such cartridge-based systems offered consumers (and manufacturers) the advantage of an infinitely expandable library of game titles. Nintendo wasn’t the first game company to produce a handheld system with interchangeable game cartridges. Milton Bradley released the handheld Microvision a decade earlier, but had only limited financial success due to poor graphics and limited game titles. Nintendo’s system, however, proved a resounding success.
Game Boy was lightweight with a built-in screen, controls, and speaker. The unit’s small size made it highly portable, just the right size to fit in the pouch of a backpack or a jacket pocket. In contrast, most video games to this point were played either on a cabinet game in an arcade or on a home console attached to a television. Players brought Game Boy to school, to summer camp, and to the back seat of the family automobile.
The first version of Game Boy shipped with the puzzle game Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov’s block-stacking classic. Tetris was available for play on personal computers years earlier but it became a sensation as the “pack-in” cartridge for Game Boy. This expanded Nintendo’s audience beyond its core adolescent following, as did the release of Super Mario Land. The hits kept coming—the most significant being the role-playing game Pokémon, released in 1995. Pokémon quickly became a global phenomenon, leading to sales of nearly 200 million video games, and the merchandising of signature characters for trading cards, manga, and anime.
As technology advanced, Nintendo refreshed Game Boy with enhanced color displays, better sound, and more compact forms. These incremental innovations led to more than a half-dozen distinct models in the Game Boy series, from the original unit to the current Game Boy Micro, and scores of accessories. In total, Game Boy sales have topped 200 million making, this by far the best-selling handheld system ever. In 2004, Nintendo launched the handheld Nintendo DS and, although a successor to Game Boy, it drew heavily on the successes of its iconic predecessor.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly loved having the Game Boy along for high school bus rides or to kill time between classes when I was in college. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years already, but it’s easy to see how this classic, in all its iterations, changed the gaming landscape and brought the gaming experience to an increasingly diverse gaming audience.