As the Gameboy celebrates its 25th birthday this year, Nintendo would be in the portable game market for over 30 years, a fairly reasonable time in which one could stop playing games, but clearly Nintendo is going till death does it part. While it certainly can’t claim to be the market’s pioneer, Nintendo has done its job continuously developing it alongside home consoles. Below documents the journey so far.
Game & Watch (1980)
Most portables during the late 1970s had used battery draining, if effective, LEDs for graphic displays. A Nintendo engineer named Gunpei Yokoi then came up with a “system” using LCDs, then used mostly in calculators and watches, to allow designers to have animations turn on and off through pre-drawn stencils, thus saving on battery. It kicked off with “Ball”, where the player had to juggle a sphere, which then went on to Mickey Mouse and Popeye, and Gunpei Yokoi’s team also had a version of Donkey Kong to follow up its craze in the arcade.
Game & Watch eventually had a clamshell design that allowed for dual screens and while it was retired in 1991, there have been collections honoring it, as well as licensing it out to other toy manufacturers for miniature versions. The Game & Watch also had the innovative D-pad controls that are now in the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Game Boy (1989)
Game & Watch tested the waters, and Gameboy launched out. Gunpei Yokoi used his knowledge to make a versatile handheld system, resulting in the cartridge-based Game Boy, that seemed to have the power of Nintendo Entertainment in one small package. It was also LCD but was pixel based instead of stencils, giving developers and designers more options like those of modern times.
The “Game Link” port was its major innovation, allowing for 2 player competition of the same game on their own screen. F1 Race had the Four Way Play, having a 4 player limit upgrade. Despite competitor colour devices, the Game Boy had a successful run over 5 years, owing to affordability, the brand strength, better third party support, longer battery life and having Tetris bundled with its debut. In 1995, the Color came out.
Virtual Boy (1995)
With all Nintendo’s successes, it can fail, hard, and that’s exactly what happened with the Virtual Boy. Neither handheld nor console, once again by Gunpei Yokoi and his team, was a self-contained game system that worked on batteries and had LCD, but that’s as much similarities it had with the Game Boy. The device featured true 3D with dual LCD screens, one each for the left and right eye.
The Virtual Boy was expensive, and was forced to have monochromatic displays just to keep prices down, had to be used only on flat surfaces thus reducing portability, as well as the games only being able to be seen using the visor, onlookers could not also enjoy it. It was discontinued a year after release, and was also Gunpei Yokoi’s last creation for Nintendo before he went on to Bandai, creating the WonderSwan handheld before his death in 1997.
Game Boy Pocket (1996)
Over 6 years since the Game Boy came its first redesign, the GB Pocket, now more compact due to the reconfiguring of its hardware, as well as a better LCD that reduced blurs due to its higher “refresh”. It used 2 AAA batteries instead of the original’s 4 AAs, and while it was first only available in Silver, they soon released variant colours like the Game Boy “Color” launch. The Game Link port was smaller for the Pocket, thus making players get adaptors.
Game Boy Light (1997)
This one was one that never made it out of Japan, and it was much like the Pocket, except that this one could be played in low to no light conditions. Nintendo had insisted the battery life for Game Boys needed to be high and thus never did back-lit like their competitors, but this one had low power consumption using the tech like Timex had for their Indiglo watches.
Game Boy Color (1998)
Finally, the market had it: a colour handheld. The Game Boy Color was fully compatible with previous Game Boy releases, but now developers could have code that used the palettes available, giving more detail to games. The native programming system allowed for additional sprites or backgrounds that couldn’t be done if it was also meant for the Game Boy. Soon enough, games went from being “Game Boy Color compatible” to “Game Boy Color only”.
2 AA batteries were used for this system, using a TFT reflective LCD screen. It still did not have a backlight, and you still couldn’t play it without a light source. There was also infrared for data transfer.
Game Boy Advance (2001)
After over a decade of 8-bit gaming, more advanced tech stepped in, with the Advance becoming the Super NES’ direct competitor. From its original tall design, it became more grip friendly, adding two shoulder buttons like the Super NES’ L and R buttons. It was backwards compatible with all Game Boy games, though the cartridge stuck out from the shell. IR was also removed, so any game that used it couldn’t use those functions.
The screen was the same as the Color, the reflective TFT LCD. It was hard to play in anything apart from direct light, so some people came up with “mods” for front lighting.
Pokemon Mini (2001)
This took the Pocket Pikachu and made it into a full cartridge. It is the most, if not the smallest cartridge-based system Nintendo has, with a simple, low-res LCD for display. It had a kinetic, pedometer-like motion sensor used in its games. It came with Pokemon Party that had 6 games featuring Pokemon. There were other cartridges for it, but it was soon discontinued. It also had infrared and a rumble feature for specific in-game events.
Game Boy Advance SP (2003)
No longer able to ignore non-lit LCD screen complaints, the Advance SP was made to address them. It was completely redesigned, featuring a cellphone-like clamshell design, allowing for screen protection and portability, with a frontlight to the display. It being more portable than previous incarnations, it used a rechargable battery instead of replacable AA or AAAs. Adapters were needed for headphones due to its lack of support.
After various colour choices for the device, it truly became back-lit, having a brightness slider instead of the older Light on/off switch.
Game Boy DS (2004)
This device was a gamble for the company. Nintendo was already dominating the market, but they wanted to further expand it, with Sony having the pending release of the Playstation Portable and without disturbing the Advance SP’s sales. The DS had two equal-resolution, backlit screens on top of each other in a clamshell design. The bottom screen was touch sensitive, and it had wi-fi support. It was also Game Boy Advance compatible, so should it fail, it could fall back onto the older generation. It did not, however, support the Color’s games.
It was meant to co-exist with the Advance and GameCube, but when the focus shifted to more casual, non-gamers than the core gamers, developers were not willing to support two systems and thus the Advance made way to the DS.
Game Boy Micro (2005)
To show that Nintendo was still keen on the Advance market, the Micro was released, a smaller, wide instead of tall Advance. It no longer had support for the original Game Boy/Color games and required more money spent on adapters with the lack of a traditional Game Link port. It had removable faceplates that saw several designs in Japan, but did not enjoy widespread popularity in North America.
Nintendo DS Lite (2006)
The DS proved a success, so Nintendo moved to “fix” what the original’s problems were. It became smaller, lighter, thinner, with better screens, now brighter and more vibrant, and came with a thicker stylus. Game Boy Advance compatibility remained, but the cartridges stuck out while it fitted snugly for the original DS.
Nintendo DSi (2008)
The Nintendo Wii also having been a big hit, the DS Lite was then further improved on, with bigger screens, built-in rewritable media for software downloads, an SD card slot for extra memory space or external media, built-in cameras for those photos, audio recording and playback capabilities. It also had updatable firmware, and cartridges could now be taken in and out without the system locking up. With all that, the era for compatibility with the Game Boy franchise ended.
Nintendo 3DS (2011)
The Nintendo 3DS succeeds the DS and is capable of projecting stereoscopic 3D effects without the use of 3D glasses or additional accessories.