The Game Boy Game That Was The Console's Best Seller

The Nintendo Game Boy was a console designed to last for a lifetime (my lifetime)


Most things are just things. A Samsung Galaxy S10 is just a Samsung Galaxy S10. An iPhone X is an iPhone X.


It’s a rare breed of device that becomes so synonymous with its purpose it becomes the default example for everything that follows in its wake. A few cross over into that realm, I can name a few off the top of my head: the Hoover, the Walkman, the iPad. That’s about it.


In the world of video games, it’s even rarer. Technology shifts fast, and depending on the cycle, Nintendo, Xbox or PlayStation could be the default leader. It’s difficult to dominate that space long enough to become the catch-all term for a broad suite of devices competing for time and money. There is no video game Band-Aid. No video game Kleenex.


In my lifetime only one console came close, and that was the Game Boy.


This week is the 30th anniversary of the Nintendo Game Boy, the device that invented handheld gaming as we now understand it, popularizing it to the point where it was the word grandparents the world over used to describe video games as an exercise. ‘Ye spend wey too much time playin yer Game Boys,’ said my very Scottish grandparents on multiple occasions. Depending on the year, they could be referring to my Sega Master System, the SNES or even my Nintendo 64.

The Game Boy Game That Was The Console's Best Seller

Nintendo launched the Game Boy in April 1989, July in the US. Over a 10-year period it would go on to sell almost 120 million units. I didn’t lay eyes on one until more than a year later. It might have been 1990 or 1991. At a guess I might have been 9 or 10 years old, spending endless hours playing — obsessed with video games in the worst way.


The Game Boy wasn’t mine, it was a friend’s. He’d broken his leg and his mother bought him the handheld to soften the blow. All summer we played Tetris — endlessly. Months later, after a sustained harassment campaign, my parents relented. My brother and I had a Game Boy to ourselves. To share (and fight over).


Even back then the Nintendo Game Boy didn’t feel cutting-edge. Gunpei Yokoi, the creator of the Game Boy, was famous for inventing the catchphrase ‘lateral thinking with withered technology‘ — the idea that Nintendo could and should design and sell innovative products built with outdated tech in order to save money on production. In many ways the Game Boy was the perfect reflection of that philosophy.


‘Withered technology’: that was putting it mildly. The Game Boy was an innovative, perfectly designed, resilient piece of absolute garbage. In a good way. The best way.


In an age where consoles were marketed based on how many colors they could display, the Game Boy was monochrome, which felt utterly ancient compared with competitors such as the Atari Lynx and the Game Gear. It was weird and clunky.  If your room was too dark you couldn’t play. If it was too bright you also couldn’t play. The Game Boy always felt more like a slightly expensive toy than a games console and in hindsight that was probably key.


The thing was damn near unbreakable, which was important for a device that took endless amounts of punishment from careless children across the globe. You could drop a Game Boy. You could chuck it in your school bag. You could wedge it in a suitcase next to your shoes and underpants. You could leave it lying next to empty bags of potato chips during endless road trips to your relatives. It was designed to live and breathe with the brutal, physical lifestyle of spoiled children. Designed to be stolen by your best buddy, chewed upon by dogs, assaulted by toddlers who mistook it for an oversized rusk.


But perhaps the coolest thing about the Game Boy was the fact it subverted how, when and where video games could be played. It’s an innovation that lives on in 2019, with its successor the Nintendo Switch.


Sure, the Game Boy had antecedents like the Game and Watch, but in 1989, video games were a pastime that took place in a single space — in front of the TV or in the arcade. The Game Boy, alongside the Walkman, contributed to the idea that entertainment experiences could be more fluid. That they could be poured into the gaps of an increasingly busy existence. That’s key to almost every device we use nowadays, but it was a novelty back then.


And it’s a novelty that ensures the Game Boy has become inextricably tied to events that shaped my life. Most consoles were tethered to the TV in my bedroom like a bored dog, but the Game Boy followed me everywhere. It was Super Mario Land in the car on long drives during endless summer holidays. Kirby’s Dream Land at my friend’s house. Metroid II during overnight visits to my grandparents’ house.


It was even with me in the year 2000, when I went overseas by myself for the first time at 19 years old on a four-month working holiday to New York City. The Game Boy was past its best then but it still worked, and I still had Link’s Awakening, the console’s best game. I was homesick, bewildered and had no idea what the hell I was doing, but I knew I could turn on the Game Boy, disappear into Koholint for a few hours and deal with the real world when I was ready for it.


And that was, as far as I can remember, the last time I played my Nintendo Game Boy. A fitting funeral to the most resilient console ever made. It was there when I needed it most.


To me the Game Boy was (and still is) the band-aid or hoover of video games: A device synonymous with the purpose it was designed for, and that purpose was escapism. Technology moves fast and time moves even faster, but 30 years later so much of my childhood memories remain tethered to that resilient piece of garbage that followed me everywhere I went. My beloved Nintendo Game Boy.

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