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The Game Boy at 35: a portal to other magical worlds

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The Game Boy at 35: a portal to other magical worlds

ohOn April 21, 1989, Nintendo released a thick gray rectangle game in stores in Japan. It’s fair to say that no one expected much from it. Internally, at Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters, it was reported that the handheld console was not a well-loved project. But within two weeks, it had sold out its entire initial run of 300,000 units. The Game Boy would arrive that same year in the US and the rest of the world over the next two years. Wherever he went, he proved equally popular. Thirty-five years and nearly 120 million sales later, it remains the fourth best-selling game console in history.

Like Sony’s Walkman, the Game Boy is an icon of technological design of its time, still instantly recognizable by its silhouette alone. Developed by a team led by Satoru Okada and Gunpei Yokoi in Kyoto, the Game Boy is perhaps the most prominent example of Yokoi’s maxim of “lateral thinking with withered technology,” a technological principle of doing more with less that endures at Nintendo to the today. . It’s so simple in design (with four buttons and a cross-shaped directional pad) that you know how to use it as soon as you look at it. Thanks to its grayscale screen, the battery lasted for days of gaming. And most importantly for accident-prone ’90s kids (and their parents), you could throw it off a bridge and it would probably still work.

Gunpei Yokoi’s design principles made the Game Boy an international phenomenon. Photo: AP

Game Boy was not the first portable console and it was not even the best of that time. It was chunky and retro-looking, even for the late ’80s. Its screen had no backlight, but it was also sensitive to glare from sunlight, so you had to search for the perfect amount of light, craning your neck over it. the screen (or buy him one of those big square portable lamps, which required even further batteries). Meanwhile, the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear arrived soon after with far superior hardware and color graphics.

But it was the Game Boy that became a bestseller and spawned a line of direct and spiritual successors from the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance to the Nintendo DS and even its Switch, all consoles you can get your hands on. The reason is that, unlike its rivals, it had extraordinary games whose vitality transcended the limits of its small gray-green screen.

The most remembered of them is undoubtedly Tetris. Tetris wasn’t made specifically for Nintendo’s little console (it could be played on computers from 1984 onwards), but it turns out the Game Boy was made for Tetris. Alexey Pajitnov’s puzzle game found a perfect home on this little console, whose rudimentary graphics power was enough to render some falling block configurations. In the US and Europe, the Game Boy came bundled with the game, which is why when you think of the Tetris theme song, the 8-bit Game Boy sound version is probably what comes to mind.

Rocking blocks: Tetris battles became a staple of many family vacations. Photograph: Boston Globe/Getty Images

You can also play Tetris against a friend, thanks to the Game Boy’s most cutting-edge feature: a port on its side that lets you connect consoles together with a cable. It was this that would inspire Satoshi Tajiri, a quiet programmer who had a childhood fascination with bugs, to create the Game Boy’s most enduring game: Pokémon. Using pixels and pure imagination, Pokémon created a world full of characterful creatures where children and adults alike could get lost, trade, and fight for those link cables. Released in the waning days of the Game Boy, it nevertheless became a phenomenon.

It’s still amazing to me that such a nerdy little game (Pokémon battles are mostly about numbers and type combinations) has become the most profitable entertainment franchise on Earth, more so than Mickey Mouse and Star Wars. It’s a testament to the creative vision of its creators and the imagination of ’90s kids who didn’t mind the rudimentary presentation. But it also tells us something about the power and intimacy of portable gaming. On TVs, games were rooted in the living room or bedroom; On the Game Boy, it became part of family vacations, long car trips, and lunch breaks at work. Games became part of the fabric of everyday life.

The handheld console produced many successful franchises. Photography: Nintendo

Perhaps this is what has helped games like Super Mario Land and the melancholy, otherworldly The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening live so long in the memories of those who played them. We remember playing Zelda on the train to work, at that first job where we met a lifelong friend; Pokémon after school, on the playground, with friends snuggling; Tetris on that vacation where we ended up in a high score showdown with our brother. Many people still have their Game Boys, stored in a drawer or a box in the attic. Their sentimental value is such that people do not dare to throw them away.

There’s a photo I really love of four kids with ’90s bowl cuts. crowded around a woman He focused intensely on a Game Boy. You can almost make out the cartridge inside; It’s Super Mario Land. As far as I know, the origin of this photo has been lost in time, but I like to think it is her. Game Boy, and shows kids the way through one of its most difficult levels. This image is a perfect summary of this console and how I felt playing it. The Game Boy was played by everyone, girls and boys, men and women, shared in families; It was a portal to other, smaller worlds and introduced millions of people to the magic of gaming.

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