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Up until the late 1980s, handheld gaming was very primitive, in terms of both processing power and the capabilities of small display devices. Portable gaming devices were only capable of utilizing LCD screens that had all possible graphical elements pre-drawn, 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 Game & Watch series.

Technology eventually progressed to the point where Nintendo was able to combine the portability of the Game & Watch with the flexibility and power of the NES. Thus, the Game Boy made its debut in Japan on April 21, 1989.

Gunpei Yokoi, who previously developed the Game & Watch, decided that this new device 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 tend to be cheaper, save for laptops), and energy-efficient. Brand recognition and launch titles were also important, as the Neo Geo Pocket, WonderSwan and Playstation Vita later demonstrated through their defeats. The Game Boy came bundled with the red-hot Tetris and launched alongside Super Mario Land, which spawned two sequels (Six Golden Coins and Wario Land) that introduced the Super Mario Bros. series' anti-hero Wario. This was later followed by Metroid II: Return of Samus, the second (and canonical) game in the series, which cemented Metroid as a cross-platform franchise. Two years later, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening came out, which itself is a direct sequel to A Link to the Past for the SNES. The game started as kind of a joke project made on the side, and it has some major issues with glitches, but it ended up having almost as big an impact as A Link to the Past; having a portable Zelda on your side was a big deal in those days. Kirby — and Masahiro Sakurai's career — also made his debut on the Game Boy with Kirby's Dream Land. The system would end its lifespan on a high note, as the release of Pokémon Red and Blue gave it an unexpectedly gargantuan second wind in its twilight years that set the stage for the Game Boy Color.

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Yokoi succeeded on all fronts, and any handheld which didn't follow the Game Boy's paradigm didn't make it very far. Sega's colorized Game Gear consumed six AA batteries to the Game Boy's four and lasted less than 4 hours, compelling Sega to sell battery pack add-ons to prolong its life. Atari's also colorized Lynx sucked as many batteries dry, was more cumbersome (but somehow more fragile) than the GB, and its best games tended to be NES ports; the majority of its library were turkeys. Nintendo themselves (briefly) forgot those lessons when they rolled out the nigh-unplayable Virtual Boy, which didn't quite capture the public's imagination the same way the Game Boy did, to put it kindly.

The system was/is often mocked for its muddy, four-shade greenscale screen and lack of backlight, not just by competitors but even within the company. (According to legend, during its development the Game Boy was internally derided at Nintendo as the "DameGame," which translates to "lame game.") Nevertheless, the system lasted nearly a decade uncontested before the introduction of its direct successor, the Game Boy Color, and nearly a decade and a half before its eventual discontinuation in 2003, proving that high processing power is not vital to sell a system (successes and takeaways that would be repeated with Nintendo's later handhelds as well as the Wii and Nintendo Switch).

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Another unusual approach by Nintendo, ironically for its kid-friendly image at the time, was that it actively marketed the Game Boy toward adults, instead of exclusively towards kids like with the NES. The system also had a nearly 50% female playerbase, which was quite impressive when the SNES only had 29%. Video games at the time were generally considered to be for kids, specifically young boys, while grown-ups who were interested preferred to play games on home computers. These shifts were in large part due to the existence of the Game Boy port of Tetris, which appealed to a very broad audience and not just Nintendo's core userbase of prepubescent males.

There were many peripherals released for it, some of them third-party, some not. (See "Add-ons" below.) The more popular ones tended to add a flashlight so you could play in the dark. Perhaps the most notorious was InterAct's Handy Boy, which was not handy in the slightest: it transformed the svelte system into an unwieldy monstrosity of side speakers, a magnifying glass, and joystick. (At least one kid in every school had one, and they can be readily found at garage sales.) Konami's Hyperboy was a far more elegant take on the same concept.

1994's Super Game Boy was a snap-on cartridge for the SNES which allowed you to play Game Boy titles on the big screen, along with aesthetic touches like adding a border around the screen or changing the color palette. 1995's "Play It Loud" campaign rolled out a series of brightly-colored GBs to replace the ashen gray one. Thanks to advances in technology, the system did have a Product Facelift in the late nineties: the Game Boy Pocket was about half the size of the original, featured a vastly improved LCD screen that was true grayscale, and used two AAA batteries instead of four AAs, all of which aided in it helping boost sales for a few more years. (Indeed, it was the Pocket which carried the original Pokémon games to worldwide domination.) The Pocket was also Yokoi's parting gift to the company, as he resigned from Nintendo in 1996 following the commercial failure of the Virtual Boy; he stayed at Nintendo longer than he planned and created the redesign as a last hurrah specifically so people wouldn't believe he was fired over that device's failure. 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 included a backlit screen (which ate up battery life considerably faster when it was switched on). This version was only out for about six months before it was discontinued in favor of the Game Boy Color. The GBL was not released elsewhere in the world.

Internet lore holds that the original Game Boy is the toughest object in existence (tied with its rival the Nokia 3310 phone) after a working Game Boy was retrieved from a barracks which had been bombed during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. You can witness this Game Boy in person at the Nintendo New York store.

Specifications:

Processor

  • One of the ways it saves power and cost is to integrate the CPU, graphics, and sound processing into a single custom chip. The CPU core itself is a Sharp SM83 (derived from the Zilog Z80), clocked at 1.05 MHz. The Game Boy Color adds a double-speed CPU mode (a blistering 2.1 MHz!) but otherwise has an identical processor core.

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 and real-time clock and calendar functionality. This apparently contributed to the low price of the games, which were about half of NES games.

Display and Graphics

  • Resolution is 160×144.
  • Screen size for the original model and the Light is 1.9×1.7 inches (47×43 mm). The Pocket's screen is very slightly larger at 48×44 mm. (This does not affect resolution due to being the same 10/9 ratio.)
  • Up to 40 sprites on screen at once. Size is the same as the NES (8×8 or 8×16 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 four shades of gray: white, light gray, dark gray and black. The original Game Boy's screen tints these to appear green (the Pocket/Light kept them grayscale, and later systems added mild colorization). That's it. It could still have a lot of detail in the right hands, though, and indeed a good number of late-era games for the system are lavishly designed in spite of the limited display options.
    • 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 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.
  • All pre-Color models of the Game Boy have a contrast dial, which is especially crucial on the original DMG due to its rather dire image quality.

Sound

  • Integrated into the CPU itself. Four channels stereo output via headphones but mono via the integrated speaker. Two square wave channels, one PWM channel and one noise channel.
  • The cartridge slot allows for custom audio chips to pass a mono signal back to the console. (This idea was carried over from the Famicom, where it was put to great use.) However, no Game Boy games ever made use of this functionality.

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.

Add-Ons and Accessories

  • The Game Boy Link Cable, which originally came bundled with the system, connected two Game Boys together to enable multiplayer and data transfer. Both players needed their own copy of the game. Both ends plug into the extension port of each Game Boy. The Game Boy Pocket revision had a different extension port plug, meaning that it had its own version of the Link Cable called the Universal Link Cable, where one end would just have a plug for the Game Boy Pocket, but around the half-way point, the cable splits into two separate cords: one to plug into a Game Boy Pocket, and another to plug into an original Game Boy to allow communication between an original Game Boy and a Game Boy Pocket.note  The Universal Link Cable also worked with the Game Boy Color as the port shapes and pinouts are identical.
  • The Four Player Adapter: A hub that plugged into one player's Game Boy and allowed up to three additional Link Cables to be plugged into it for four-player play. Unfortunately, this accessory never took off, as fewer than 20 games supported the Four Player Adapter. The Game Boy Pocket wasn't compatible with it without an adapter, and Game Boy Color games outright didn't support more than two players. Four-player multiplayer on a handheld would not be fully realized until the Game Boy Advance.
  • The Game Boy Camera, a small digital camera that plugged into the cartridge slot that allowed you to take pictures! The actual camera was located on top of the cartridge and swiveled 180 degrees to allow you to take selfies. With the Game Boy being the Game Boy, pictures only had a 2-bit color depth (i.e. four colors, all of them being varying shades of gray), and the picture resolution was only 128x112. There's a built-in photo editor where you could apply Nintendo-themed stickers and effects and even its own minigames. Players could print their photos onto thermal paper with the Game Boy Printer.
  • The Game Boy Printer is a thermal printer that connects to the Game Boy and Game Boy Pocket/Color via a Link Cable through the extension port. Being a thermal printer, the actual print was tiny and in black and white. Official thermal paper had peel-off backs that exposed adhesive backing to allow users to use their prints as stickers, though the printer will accept any thermal paper that's been cut to fit. Official rolls of thermal paper also came in three colors: yellow, red, and blue. Due to the nature of thermal printing, official rolls of thermal paper are producing increasingly faded results as time passes. The Game Boy Printer was originally designed for the Game Boy Camera, but other games, including games on the Game Boy Color, support the Game Boy Printer as well.

Games/Series:

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Tropes:

  • Awesome, but Impractical: Bandai had released a Sonar accessory for the system to allow fishermen to see fish under the water, and while it was exclusive to Japan, it was a neat little device. It even holds the record for the first Sonar device to ever be made for a game console.
  • Boring, but Practical: The system had less processing power than its competitors for its first few years, a grayscale display in only four shades compared to the hundreds on other handhelds, and instead of a backlight it had a contrast adjustment depending on the lighting conditions. On the other hand the other handhelds with the better features turned out to be Awesome, but Impractical due to being bulky, expensive (ranging from half again more with the Game Gear, to four times with the Turbo Express), less durable battery hogs. The Game Boy instead just waited until those features could become "wilted" instead of "cutting edge," so that they'd add little to the cost and battery use, and then incrementally added them (finally adding a long-lasting system light in the Game Boy Advance SP). End result: A long-lasting family of portable gaming devices with a wide variety of games that are anything but boring.
  • Long Runner: Any way you slice it. You could label the system's end as the release of the Game Boy Color (late 1998), the release of the final original Game Boy-intended game in North America (Pokémon Yellow in late 1999), the release of the last backwards compatible Game Boy Color game (Dragon Quest Monsters 2 in September 2001), or the actual discontinuation of the system in March 2003, and all would make for a wildly successful and lengthy run on top for the system.
    • If you count the backwards compatible Game Boy Color & Advance as being enhancements of the original, Nintendo officially supported the Game Boy from 1989 until 2010!
  • Made of Indestructium: Game Boys are extremely durable and capable of taking considerable damage. One Game Boy, currently on display at the Nintendo New York store, had its outer shell fried to a crisp in a Gulf War bombing, and is still able to play a game of Tetris! Fan lore jokingly holds that Nintendo constructed them from a nearly-indestructable material called "Nintendium."
    • Unfortunately, this doesn't apply to the actual screen bezel, which is very easy to scuff up and scratch, and can leave distracting shadows and glares on the screen in daylight. (Insult to injury: thirty-plus years on, the glue holding many of them in place has dried out, causing them to simply fall off.)
  • Product Facelift: Even before the Game Boy Color was released, the original system would go through several design revisions.
    • 1995 brought the Play It Loud! line of Game Boys, which finally gave consumers a color choice in their units (one was even clear!), but the hardware was no different.
    • The Game Boy Pocket added a screen that was true grayscale instead of spinach-green and had better visibility, and cut the size of the overall system down (partly by using slimmer AAA batteries).
    • The Game Boy Light was a Japan-only variation that tried adding a backlight (but the battery use still wasn't efficient enough).
  • What Could Have Been: Like its bigger brother, the Famicom, one of the pins on the cartridge slot is a mono audio passthrough which could've allowed cartridges to house their own custom audio chips, ultimately allowing for things like enhanced audio playback. However, no produced cartridges through the lifetime of the console ever made use of that feature.

Alternative Title(s): Game Boy Pocket

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