The Game Boy, Now 25 Years Old, Revolutionized Handheld Gaming

By April 23, 2014
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25 years ago this week, Japan saw the first release of Nintendo’s Game Boy, a handheld 8-bit console spearheaded by legendary Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi that would become the dominant archetype for every single handheld gaming device that would follow. “Game Boy” managed to join the lexicon of international slang when referring to mobile gaming at least until the rise of the smartphone, and has still managed to remain one of the most successful brands in the entire history of Nintendo. Successfully bringing 8-bit gaming into an on-the-go environment,  a number of imitators would rise to challenge the dominance that the Game Boy demonstrated practically right out of the gate. As a result, it’s looked at fondly and with great reverence by gamers, developers, and studios as being one of the single best game consoles ever released.

Today, smartphones seem to rule the proverbial roost when it comes to gaming on the go. The powerful and graphically advanced machines we all keep in our pockets, purses, and backpacks can play a game of Angry Birds, find the definition of “Machiavellianism,” and make reservations at a restaurant with just a few swipes of the finger. Back in 1989, though, when the Nintendo Entertainment System and Mario were jumping into warp pipes and hearts worldwide, the ability to take Mario on-the-go was a revelation! The Game Boy was the first successful handheld game console that managed to largely implant the idea of mobile gaming in the minds of people the world over, and has carved a unique place for itself in the legacy of video game history.

As previously mentioned, the rise of the Game Boy brought about a number of imitators to the throne. If you were a ’90s kid, you’ve undoubtedly heard of some of them: the Sega Game Gear (which was technically superior, but challenged in its software lineup), the Atari Lynx (complete with nigh-impossible to see backlit display), and the Tiger Game.com (which is pronounced “Game Com” instead of “Game Dot Com”) among them. There were also such less notable misses as the Bitcorp Gamate, the Watara Supervision, and the Hartung Game Master. 1998 brought about the Game Boy Color, a more compact version of Nintendo’s classic handheld complete with a color display and more total market domination, as it squared off against the nearly forgotten Neo Geo Pocket Color and the Wonderswan Color (are you sensing a naming trend there?).

Nice try fellas, but there's only one champion.

Nice try fellas, but there’s only one champion.

Seems like Nintendo steered the ship in more ways than one. The ultimate point of all of this is that even though a number of other players stepped up to the plate, only one undisputed champion reigns in the minds of people everywhere when it comes to the first major name in handheld gaming. Many people may have very fond memories with their other systems, but it’s the Game Boy that still manages to be synonymous with dedicated gaming handheld consoles, now a quarter-century after it was first released.

In an age where legions of smart devices exist, Nintendo's held on to handheld gaming strongly with the 3DS.

In an age where legions of smart devices exist, Nintendo has held on to handheld gaming strongly with the 3DS.

Oddly enough, even though we now live in the age of the smartphone and the rise of Sony as a gaming superpower, Nintendo has managed to remain the most dominant handheld console manufacturer in the current generation. While it’s hard to deny the earnestness and creativity of Sony’s efforts to extend the PlayStation brand to the PSP and Vita, and though they’re winning the current console war with the PS4 (at least as far as total unit sales are concerned), that success hasn’t been replicated with their handheld sales. The Wii U may be struggling at Nintendo, but the “big N” has been absolutely dominant when it comes to the sales of the current Nintendo handheld device, the 3DS. By last count, the PS Vita has sold about 4 million units since its Japanese launch in December of 2011. The 3DS got a bit of a headstart that year bowing in February, but that’s not a factor that seems to be largely attributable to its dominance, numbering in over 42 million worldwide units since launch. The 3DS is very much a successor to the throne of the original Game Boy, and has managed to run with it in an era of multiple alternative devices available.

It still always comes back to the original, though; over its lifetime, the Game Boy sold nearly 120 million units since its launch 25 years ago, and its discontinuation in 2003. If you have a Game Boy, maybe now is a good time to celebrate the joys it provided by popping in that old copy of Metroid II, or Super Mario Land. They may be old, but when it comes to the value of the Game Boy and its games compared to today’s fare (love it or hate it), they don’t exactly make them like they used to.

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.