Useful Notes: Game Boy

The green screen of life.

Until the late 1980s, handheld gaming was very limited, both in processing power and the capabilities of small monitors. Gaming until then was achieved by having an LCD screen that had all possible graphical elements built into the screen, and gameplay would be achieved by controlling which elements were visible to simulate graphics, basically a video game form of Limited Animation. This had been going on successfully for years with Tiger Electronics' handheld games and Nintendo's own Game & Watch series.

Then it became possible to fit an actual game system into a portable device. Atari tried to get into this with their Lynx, and Nintendo went in with the Game Boy.

Gunpei Yokoi, who had designed the Game & Watch, realized the system would work best if it was small and light (to enhance portability), durable (since it would be carried around a lot), inexpensive (since portable electronic devices often went that way, save for laptops), and energy efficient.

He succeeded on all counts. Any handheld that didn't follow that design paradigm didn't make it very far. Although brand name and a Killer App were also important, as the Neo Geo Pocket and Wonderswan proved.

The system was often mocked for its four shade greyscale screen and lack of backlight, but those mocking it didn't realize those shortcomings were made up for by the aforementioned advantages. The system lasted over ten years thanks to those, one of many proofs that the highest processing power is not vital to sell a system.

Thanks to advances in technology, the system did have a major revision in the mid 1990s. The Game Boy Pocket was about half the size of the original, and used two AAA batteries instead of four AAs. It helped boost sales for a few more years.

At the very end of the system's life, Nintendo of Japan released the Game Boy Light, a version of the Game Boy Pocket which also included a back lit screen, designed by Sharp. This version was only out for about six months and only made about 12,000 units before being discontinued, and was not released elsewhere in the world.

Memetic Mutation holds that the original Game Boy design is the toughest object in existence after a working Game Boy was retrieved from a barracks that had been bombed during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

Specifications:

Processors
  • One of the ways it saves power and cost is to integrate the data, graphics, and sound processing into the Central Processing Unit. It is a Sharp LR35902 clocked at 4.19 MHz, similar to the Z80 (a few instructions of the CPU were left out as they used more battery power than they added to processing power). The Game Boy Color adds a double speed CPU mode.

Memory
  • 8 KB main RAM and 8 KB Video RAM.
  • Carts could be 32 KB to 4 MB.
    • Nintendo integrated popular features from the "MMC" support chips on NES Game Paks (scanline counters, status bars and extra RAM) into the Game Boy chipset. Game Boy Game Paks used much simpler "MBC" support chips to do bank switching and possibly battery save. This apparently contributed to the low price of the games, which were about half of NES games.

Sprites
  • Up to 40 sprites on screen at once. Size is the same as the NES (8x8 or 8x16 pixels), but it is far less likely to flicker if there are too many sprites on screen. Game Boy sprites can cover up to half a scanline (10 to a line), while NES sprites can cover only a quarter (8 to a line).
  • Sprites can use three gray shades. Most of the time, these are set to white, light gray, and black.

Display
  • Four shades of grey. Just that many. It could still have a lot of detail in the right hands.
    • The selling point of the Super Game Boy, a peripheral for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System that allowed you to play Game Boy games on your television and in color, is to customize those four colors into a color palette of your choice or creation, saved via password. GB games created with Super Game Boy features have special palettes and borders that frequently change mid-game, and sometimes divide the screen into areas that get their own sets of four colors.
  • There is also no light for the screen without a peripheral. One Japan-exclusive version of the Game Boy Pocket, called the Game Boy Light, had a switchable Indiglo backlight, but otherwise, Nintendo decided that the battery cost was too risky, and third-party manufacturers thrived for years trying to come up with the perfect lighting system for the Game Boy screen.
  • Resolution is 160×144.

Batteries
  • The original model uses 4 AA batteries, for up to about 30 hours of gameplay.
  • The Pocket uses 2 AAA batteries. Its battery life is only half as long as that of the original Game Boy, because of that. But with a single replacement, you still got about the same time as the original.
  • The Light uses 2 AA batteries for about 20 hours of gameplay if the light is not turned on and about 12 hours if it is on.

Series that debuted on the Game Boy include:

Other Games include:


Tropes:

  • Boring but Practical: The Game Boy was specifically designed to be this. It's not slick or flashy in the slightest, has no color, and is adorned with a blurry, cream spinach tinted screen with no backlight (but a contrast dial). But as a tradeoff, the Game Boy had many advantages out of the starting gate—it had a very long battery life (making it an ideal "on the go" toy), it was very durable and comfortable to hold (with its control layout being identical to an NES controller), and it had a very compact, portable design that was easy to hold and store away (particularly in pockets). On top of that, the hardware was more than adequate to display appealing sprites and smooth movement that closely matched the NES. Plus, the simplified hardware allowed the handheld to be sold for a reasonable 99$, considerably lower than other competing handhelds. All of this contributed to the Game Boys staggering success and strong library of 733 games.

    Color screens would eventually come to the Game Boy in 1998 with the Game Boy Color, and lit-up screens in 2003 with the Game Boy Advance SP. By those times, the respective technologies had become cheap and advanced enough to incorporate into portable electronics without major problems.
  • Product Facelift: Predictably, the Game Boy would go through several design revisions. The most notable is the Game Boy Color, which was a full blown upgrade of the hardware and design, but before that was the Game Boy Pocket, which mercifully eschewed the infamous blurry cream spinach screen of the original for a crystal clear, greyscale screen, had an even smaller design than the original brick, and only needed two AAA batteries instead of four AA (which still gave it a very long battery life, but not quite as long as the original model). A backlit model of the original Game Boy called the Game Boy Light was also released late in the handheld's life with more than adequate battery life (with or without the light on, it still gave more than 10 hours worth of play on two AA batteries), but only in japan.
  • Tonka Tough: Game Boys are extremely durable and capable of taking considerable damage. As mentioned earlier, one Game Boy had it's outer shell fried to a crisp in a gulf war bombing, and it was still able to play a game of Tetris!
    • Unfortunately, this doesn't apply to the actual screen, which is very easy to scuff up and scratch, which can leave distracting shadows and glares on it in daylight.