The Game Boy: A history

Nintendo's all-conquering series of handhelds gets the Consoleia treatment.

 

Hooten Man: There's something magical about a handheld games console.

Possibly it could be the sheer wonder that they fitted all that into this tiny box, but it's much more likely that it's the exhilaration of being able to play all your favourite games wherever you like, and all in glorious Technicolor (mostly).

The original Game Boy. Despite
only thinking in black and
white, it's actually more powerful
than a NES...

The chances are that anyone who owns a handheld console will discover, upon close examination, that the word Nintendo is printed somewhere on the console or packaging. This is because

Nintendo are responsible for almost every handheld in the world (but not the best - Oberon). But even the handheld had very humble beginnings. It all started with the Gameboy. Big, grey and fun, it could easily be mistaken for an ordinary console until your realised that the person using it was on the moon and many miles from a power socket.

The Game Boy revolutionised the world of children. Now they could go outside and play (as their parents had been instructing them to since they got a TV) but yet still kill a huge amount of aliens or stack strange blocks into point-earning patterns. It was wonderful and suddenly all those nerdy kids became the most popular in the playground all because they had the greatest high score on Tetris.

The Game Boy Pocket.
The slimline look of this machine was recycled for
the Game Boy Color.

Nintendo managed to see off competition primarily from Sega's Game Gear and Atari's Lynx throughout the early 90's, but eventually something new came along to replace it. And that thing was… the Game Boy Pocket. It was a Gameboy covered in coloured plastic, and thankfully much smaller than the original console (although let's fact it, you couldn't fit it into a box, let alone your pocket). Nintendo hoped it would eclipse the ordinary Game Boy; except it didn't. People cottoned on to the fact that it was almost exactly the same and didn't see the need to buy another one.

While all this was going on, some other companies started to have ideas about producing a handheld of their own to try and beat Nintendo at their own game. By the time 1998 had rolled around, Bandai were preparing to launch their WonderSwan, while SNK had released the black-and-white NeoGeo Pocket, and were getting ready to launch a colour version worldwide. Luckily for Nintendo, they had their own secret weapon waiting, and come '98 they unleashed it onto the world.

Game Boy Color. Although roughly the same size and weight as the Pocket, it was in colour. I had one of these and even had GTA2. It was magnificent. Never have so many little white bullets and red bloody splurges brought so much joy. It was a classic game, a flawless idea backed up by creative game-play. And…it was handheld. You could ride the London Underground while running over Loonies gang members in you Zaibatsu Z-Type. You could gun down the police while shopping for some new underpants. The colour screen brought so much to the Game Boy and meant that a whole new era of handheld games could be ushered in. The console even had an infra-red link port on the top.

The Game Boy Advance -
32-bit, full colour, still no
backlight!

Despite not being able to do as many colours as other consoles such as the NeoGeo Pocket Color, Nintendo's marketing machine meant that success was inevitable. The Game Boy Color sold many millions as gamers sought to play Tetris and Link's Awakening in all-new colour versions. Even if the gameplay was mostly identical, the colours were a great improvement. Eventually, of course, Ninty decided that their hardly-tenuous grip on the handheld market needed to be cemented, and they begun work on an all-new machine in the Game Boy line. This work would bear fruit in the form of the Game Boy Advance.

The Game Boy Advance (GBA) was a wholly new product, instead of being a revision of the previous Game Boy hardware. Despite this, it maintains virtually complete backwards-compatibility with previous Game Boy games, giving it a huge library of games. While it can display older titles in a few colours, much like the Game Boy Color, its own titles really pushed the boundaries - the GBA is roughly as powerful as a SNES, which has led to many classic titles from Nintendo's history being re-released.

It even has smaller game paks than previous machines, meaning there's a secondary use for the games. A secondary use you cry? Yes, remember all those hours spent looking for the Gameboy games that you had lost down the sofa? Well it wasn't so much a case of down the sofa - much more a case of in the household pet or hidden in your sock (God knows how it got there).

The GBA SP, a major improvement over
the previous Game Boy Advance.

Still, the Game Boy Advance has its flaws - the lack of a backlight being the most prominent and meaning you have to sit under direct light if you want to see what's on screen. Before long, the Game Boy Advance SP was released, fixing at least two of the main flaws: the lack of adequate lighting, and the ease at which the screen can get scratches (just looking at the GBA the wrong was can cause it to scratch over). The GBA SP is a clamshell design, so the lid flips open and shut to protect the screen, and the screen itself is backlit. The SP also does away with having to buy new batteries for your handheld - it has a built-in Lithium battery that will last for 10 hours with the backlight, and 18 without. Thankfully Nintendo included the AC adaptor in the box.

The GBA SP remains the flagship Game Boy model to this date, but has already been superceded by Nintendo's new handheld, the Nintendo DS. The DS stands for 'dual screen', which is what this console has - and, with an ability to play all GBA games (although not classic Game Boy titles), the DS is now Nintendo's best chance at maintaining its lead in the handheld market. The touchscreen is a nice touch, but whether it will be enough of a change in gameplay to help fend off Sony's entry into the market with its PSP remains to be seen.

Nintendo have been making handheld consoles since 1988. If anyone can beat Sony, it's them.