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Happy Birthday Gameboy – Nintendo’s first handheld turns 28

Almost 30 years ago, the Nintendo Gameboy made its debut, and the video game world has never been the same. We share our thoughts and favorite games.

Now you’re playing with (portable) power

And with that, an industry was born way back in the summer of 1989 (in the US). Oh sure, there were portable games before Gameboy, even ones from Nintendo. But there was nothing even close to what Gameboy offered. There were LCD handhelds from Konami, Tiger, and others all over the place, but none had interchangeable games. And none had titles that actually played like the home versions.

You might scoff at that statement. After all, Gameboy offered a pea-green display and had little of the richness that even NES games had. Still though, they were so far ahead of everything else at the time, that the Gameboy might as well have actually been delivered by a robot from the future. It was that much of a revelation. Trust me – I went everywhere with my copies of Super Mario Land and Tetris.

Mario on the small screen? Sold.

That’s not to say that it was perfect of course.

Aside from offering no color palate to speak of and not a ton of graphic-pushing power, the console had no backlight. So you couldn’t play in the dark.

BG game and comic writer Megan brings up a very specific (and very common) Gameboy-gamer memory that’s related to the above. “A classic memory is playing under the light of street lamps in the car.” If you don’t get the picture, imagine waiting till the car you’re riding in passes under a street light to play a precious few seconds of your game. Yes, that actually happened to people.

One other thing that largely didn’t carry over from the TV-bound NES though, were 2 player games. Although you can see it happening in the video above, I personally never knew anyone who played more than single player on a Gameboy.

I think, largely, that had to do with the fact that you needed two copies of the game you wanted to play, two Gameboys (obviously) and the link cable. That was no easy feat for a group of kids. And as I remember it, that cable was way to short too.

But although the Gameboy was primarily a solo gameplay experience, there were ways to get around that.

BG Nintendo editor Michael Stebbins shares a favorite memory:

When my family got our first Gameboy, we’d never had a video game system in the house before. Having only one meant every game was a shared venture (there were four of us).

Beating Super Mario Bros Deluxe took our combined efforts. When a seemingly insurmountable stage was finally beaten, it felt like a group effort. It felt like we all contributed (I didn’t). We were team-building, and that team-building carried over into our single copy of Pokemon Red, where turns were taken and gyms beaten by a party raised and picked by all of us.

Once we picked up a few more Gameboys (back when blinding pink and see-through purple were common color options), we picked up a few more copies of Pokemon. Even then, we had one more team-venture: catching them all.

One furniture fort, several mugs of hot cocoa, and hundreds of Rare Candies, Missingno, and Master Balls later and we had ourselves all 150 Pokemon (because let’s face it: Mew doesn’t count).

It would take the Gameboy Advance and Advance Wars to eventually break us apart, but that’s a story for another anniversary.

It’s probably not a stretch of any kind to say that the Gameboy was beloved. The little system, created by designers Satoru Okada and Gunpei Yokoi (and team), stretched into the 90s at retail. Eventually, it was replaced by the Gameboy Color and, further on, the GB Advance. As Michael said though, that’s for another anniversary.

The final form of the Gameboy

A killer library

The little console churned out a monster amount of classics in its time. Some of these started new franchises, while others brought established Nintendo stars like Mario and Donkey Kong to the small screen.

Below you’ll find just a few that are remembered most fondly by the crew at BG.

Erich Martin | staff writer/podcast host

By all accounts, I should have missed the original Game Boy entirely.

The hand held console launched several years before I was even alive. I would entirely miss the legendary Tetris port while many other games didn’t even cross my radar. Nevertheless, I didn’t miss the Game Boy.
The hand held console shaped my taste in gaming, and would give me some of my fondest and most remembered games from my entire gaming career.

Pokemon Red and Blue are the obvious choices for me here. This was my earliest  role playing game, let alone my first Japanese Role Playing Game. The huge world inside the little red cartridge captured my imagination.

The very idea that I could play the game however I wanted appealed to me. While driving through town with my parents at night, I could only see the screen under the odd streetlight. This is a common experience for many peope, and I am not unique in this regard.
Hundreds of hours drained into those cartridges, and I would reset after beating the Elite 4. Time after time, I would make monster friends and journey through the world with them.

Super Mario Land is a lesser adored game, but it spawned a much loved Game Boy Mario series which would ultimately culminate in the Wario platforming series.

The first game in this series wasn’t so lucky. The tiny graphics, slippery control and brutal dificulty are only part of this game’s charm. The weird levels, where Mario is flying in a plane or under the sea in a submarine, only add to the weirdness of Super Mario Land.
One of my first platformers, I still haven’t finished Super Mario Land. The weird nd whimsical adventure was how I first understood Mario and platforming in a genre preference I still carry.

Jason Micciche | editor-in-chief

As a big Nintendo junkie in the 80s, I ate the Gameboy up from the day it launched. Yep, I had a launch unit, as well as a few titles from the admittedly anemic launch lineup. Super Mario Land, Tetris, and Alleyway were more than enough to keep me occupied for a while though.

They’re actually still some of my best-remembered games from the GB, though they no where near for a complete list. I played a ton of games on the GB, including some that I probably shouldn’t have. Don’t let Castlevania: The Adventure fool you folks. It’s not… good. I’m here to talk the good stuff though, and in that regard, there’s more than enough.

Super Mario Land 2 was one of those.

Another odd installment for the plumber, SML2 gave Mario a rabbit powerup, and chucked all manner of strange new enemies at him. So what made it so great? Well it looked a heck of a lot more like a Mario title than the first SML for the GB. The sprites were nice and big from what I remember, and the levels were pretty imaginative too. Plus, it was more Mario, and at the time there was nothing better than that.

As a big fan of the NES game, I also enjoyed Metroid II quite a bit.

An, at the time, sprawling adventure, Metroid II bested the original in many ways. That wasn’t easy since we are talking the Gameboy here -and again- the first game was on the NES. Excellent looks, combined with some music that I believe was quite good, built upon the action offered to make a classic. So much so, that Nintendo is remaking the game for the 3DS.

It’s on Like Donkey Kong… Country.

Yep, DKC was on the Gameboy, appearing in a banana-yellow cart. It was quite a feat too, considering that the SNES game had debuted fairly recently when it dropped, and that game was considered a graphical masterpiece. While the Gameboy version didn’t quite match it in impressiveness, it was pretty darn good all by itself. And that’s saying something. I remember getting it over Independence Day, and then promptly forgetting all about the fireworks show.

Street Fighter II goes handheld and somehow works with only two buttons.

Speaking of “feats”, how Street Fighter II worked on the GB, I have no idea. It did though, and shockingly well. Capcom’s fighting game was king for well into the 90s, so the interest in a portable version was still pretty hot when the Gameboy version hit in 1990. Sure it was missing a few things, like some fighters and a ton of standard moves, but Nintendo’s little two-button handheld still managed to make a go of it. And heck, at the time, there was really no other portable fighting game in town, so…

About Jason

Jason's been knee deep in videogames since he was but a lad. Cutting his teeth on the pixely glory that was the Atari 2600, he's been hack'n'slashing and shoot'em'uping ever since. Mainly an FPS and action guy, Jason enjoys the occasional well crafted title from every genre.

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