I had home video game consoles from a very young age. Mainly due to my dad being an avid gamer, he would buy them ‘for me’ and proceed to play them, a lot. I recall vividly being bought a Sega Master System II and my dad becoming addicted to Alex Kid in Miracle World. I would visit him at weekends, and he would have always made an unbelievable amount of progress on a new game. My father’s enthusiasm for gaming was contagious and being a child of divorce, I missed him so much it gave us something to share together, even when we were apart. So, when I first caught glimpse of an advertisement on TV for the soon to be released Nintendo Game Boy, I was beyond excited. A device that I didn’t need to hook up to a TV, one that could come with me when I ping ponged between parents.
I was young, so young in fact that waiting for the Game Boy to arrive is my first re-callable memory of being truly excited. Lying in bed at night running through the ritual of opening the box and unpacking, loading up a cartridge and finally getting to play this revolutionary console. It was like Nintendo made this little off grey chunky brink with a green screen just for me. We would become inseparable my Game Boy and I and it saw me through some difficult times. I look back as an adult through a rose-tinted lens of nostalgia and tell myself often that I will once again own an OG Game Boy and acquire the catalog of games I had as a child. One day I will… one day.
Released in Europe in 1990 and originally bundled with Tetris, a game that would become the best-seller of the little console’s life, with over 33 million copies spinning blocks in front many a child’s eyes. At the time, handheld consoles were pretty much non-existent. LED games were popular but with basic static backgrounds with LED overlay for graphics, they were hardly a fully immersive and interactive experience. They also contained only one game and therefore became boring very quickly. The Game Boy was a massive leap in technological innovation, especially for my tiny little mind. This thing was the future, it was also my gateway drug.
It was a first taste of the amazing and diverse world of gaming that was starting to gather momentum. With the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo building, they were keen to outdo one another, and the budding gamers of the world would benefit from their one-upmanship. Especially once Sony introduced its own console the PSX (PS1) in the middle of the decade. The Game boy then was the star, a seed planted in the tech hungry minds of a generation. Gaming was no longer something you had to seek out at an arcade or something that needed wiring up to a family TV (or worse the dreaded 14-inch CRT monster you had in your bedroom). It became an extension of me, I remember having a Nintendo bum bag that never left my side that contained the little machine and 5 of the small Perspex boxes holding my favourite games of the time.
It went with me to the bath, the toilet, to bed (I had the enormous clip on light magnifier), it was my companion on journeys in the backs of cars, but mostly it was my escape. This small, roughly finished lump of plastic with a single d-pad, two red action buttons and little else helped me through some stormy times. As an avid reader and one with a vivid imagination, it allowed me to interact with worlds offering a new way to experience the imaginary. I could take part in my favourite movies too. This was to me at the time mind-blowing and something we take for granted now. Contemporary movies are full of expansive amounts or lore and literally create universes in the name of franchise and narrative depth.
Video games and movies co-exist in the entertainment sphere, yet when the Game Boy reared its green non back-lit screen, this was only a distant dream. I cannot begin to explain how excited I was to be able to play as 1989’s Batman in the movie tie in. Star Wars, Robocop and Terminator not to mention the highly anticipated coming together of Aliens vs Predator, these games were my wish list come true and to this day I remember every level, every sound effect and still often hum the melodies the tiny speaker struggled to emit in the in game music.
The vernacular of the contemporary world of video games is full of polygons and processors, shading and Random-Access Memory. The Game Boy had a 2.6-inch screen with the ability to display a massive 4 colours, as long as those colours were shades of grey. It also had an 8bit processor which even the simplest of devices would laugh at, my kettle has more processing power. But it didn’t matter, these sprites that danced their way in front of your eyes for hours on end were photorealistic to many.
The Game Boy also introduced something else that is now considered common place. Censorship and the subject of age ratings. You see, I wanted Mario and Tetris et al. but there was one game that I not only wanted but needed. Mortal Kombat. Full of blood and gore, this beat ‘em up, controversial due to its levels of violence, to us younglings was video game crack. I loved it so much I wanted to be Scorpion and used to run around my house shouting ‘Get over here!’ (still do). Moving the simple but astonishingly rendered for the time characters from the left to the right to beat the grey/black blood out of a rival was wonderful. I actually started Karate in an effort to become a Sub-Zero or Scorpion like Ninja (Spoiler; it never happened).
I understand my memories are glazed with a sugary coating of nostalgia and that events I experienced as a child meant that the Game Boy branded itself into my brain’s ‘happy place’, but there is no hiding what it did for gaming. It pushed Sega to bring its own portable device, the Game Gear to the mass market. It was a good effort and even had the bonus of a colour screen, but Nintendo had already hit the floor running. I picked up a Game Gear and was less than impressed. It was pretty and technically better than the Game Boy, but it was soulless and whilst it had some classic games such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Altered Beast, it didn’t have the catalogue of awesomeness of its more simplistic rival.
Nintendo kept the Game Boy in a state of evolution for almost two decades, progressing from Pocket to Color and on to the DS and 3DS etc. The company knew they had struck gold and the fan base was so loyal that they knew each tiny alteration to their console would be sought after. I have owned pretty much every iteration through the past 20 years. Nintendo reached 4 generations of my family, with my grandfather partaking in the odd game of Mario Golf, my dad, myself and my daughter all experiencing the GB bug. You can keep your PS5’s and Xbox’s, we will celebrate them and love them but will forever await the next big thing. The Game Boy came, it stayed, and the best it will forever be, at least…to me.