Portable Pleasure: Three Decades of Nintendo Handhelds – Part Two: The 90′s
Part two of a four-part feature looks at Nintendo’s absolute dominance of the handheld market, as their grip on the home console market begins to slip.
As the 90’s rolled around, the Nintendo Game Boy had become more than a handheld console; it became a cultural icon. Tetris was still a huge deal, with the theme tune becoming an unlikely hit in the UK music charts, while mainstream newspapers and magazines devoted pages to the beige behemoth (I distinctly remember articles detailing groups of celebrities who customised their Game Boys with sparkles and other bling). It transcended generations and subcultures, bringing Nintendo’s brand of gameplay to the masses.
All of Nintendo’s franchises made it to the Game Boy in the early 90’s: Metroid 2 (1991), Kid Icarus: Of Myths & Monsters (1992), Super Mario Land (1990) and Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993). Each of these games were completely unique from their console counterparts, often playing out as Bizzaro versions of their console brethren. Mario would rescue Daisy from the Egyptian-styled Sarasaland in Super Mario Land, instead of Princess Toadstool from the Mushroom Kingdom, meanwhile Link would find himself shipwrecked on the surreal island of Koholint in Link’s Awakening, with no Princess Zelda in sight. The Game Boy would also see Kirby’s Dreamland in 1992, introducing the pink blob to the world.
The monochrome gameplay of the Game Boy would find its way to the SNES in 1994, as the brilliant Super Game Boy peripheral was released for the 16-bit system. A special cartridge that featured a slot to plug in traditional Game Boy cartridges allowing you to play all Game Boy games on your television using the SNES; all while being able to select different colour schemes to jazz up the 8-bit visuals. Some games would even have special Super Game Boy features, allowing for more colours on screen, or up to 4-player multiplayer. A Japan-only second edition would be released in 1998, featuring a transparent blue casing and the ability to link up to a real Game Boy for multiplayer titles.
Also in 1994, Nintendo announced a system they would rather forget about, at their annual Shoshinkai trade show, in November. Released in 1995 in Japan and the USA, and invented by Game & Watch/Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi, the Virtual Boy was a 3D visor that offered 32-bit “portable” gameplay. It’s defining factor were the red and black monochrome visuals, that were a product of cost-cutting (originally the system was meant to have a colour display, but was changed to red on black due to manufacturing costs, image quality and excessive power consumption). Unfortunately, the red-on-black display caused many players to suffer from migraines.
With only 22 games existing for the system (14 in America, 19 in Japan), the Virtual Boy was a flop and discontinued a mere five months after release in Japan, and seven months in America. It was definitely a console that was released way before its time and, unfortunately, Gunpei Yokoi was driven out of the company because of his invention’s failure. He would move to Bandai to develop the brilliant Wonderswan portable system before his tragic death in 1997, the victim of a freak roadside accident.
While the Virtual Boy was giving people headaches in Japan and the USA, Nintendo made their first revision to the original Game Boy hardware, albeit a cosmetic one. A range of Game Boys in different coloured shells were released in 1995. Referred to as the “Play It Loud” editions, they came in red, black, green, yellow, white, blue and transparent colours. In the UK, a rare Manchester United edition was also released, a red Game Boy with the football team’s badge emblazoned on its front.
A year later, yet another hardware revision was released, only this time, the changes were more than cosmetic. Dubbed the Game Boy Pocket, this new edition was smaller, lighter and offered a whopping 10 hours of battery life with only two AAA batteries. Originally released in a fetching metallic silver (and later in the same colours as the ‘Play It Loud’ line-up), the new system’s screen was far improved over the original. The blurry, green screen of old was replaced with a much sharper black-and-white display; although unfortunately the screen had no backlight, at least not yet.
While Nintendo were releasing plenty of hardware revisions for the Game Boy, in 1996 Japan was being invaded by something called Pocket Monsters…
Inspired by the unusual hobby of insect collecting, the Game Freak-developed, Nintendo-published Pocket Monsters made it’s début in 1996 with two different versions; Aka (Red) and Midori (Green), while an improved version Ao (Blue) would later be released. A simple JRPG focused around the collection and battling of 151 different monsters, the game captured the attention of Japan’s youth and later spawning animé, movies, trading cards and toys.
It took two years for the phenomenon to reach Western shores (renamed Pokémon), where it became insanely popular and has stayed that way for the last decade. By 1998, the 8-bit Game Boy platform had been around for nearly a decade and thanks to Pokémon Red & Blue, the little Game Boy that could was still a financial powerhouse, making more money for Nintendo then their N64 console had been doing at the time. The latter part of the 90’s would see Pokémon: Yellow Edition, giving the ever-popular Pikachu a bigger role in the game, further helping the series make a ton of money.
Back in Japan, Nintendo would release yet another Game Boy revision, the Game Boy Light, released in April 1998. A similar design to the Game Boy Pocket, this Japan-only model featured something that many people wanted from their Game Boys: A backlit display. Powered by two AA batteries, an electroluminescent light (similar to the Indiglo backlights seen on certain watches) finally allowed the Game Boy to be played in the dark. The original systems were available in Gold or Silver colours, but many other limited editions were released, however, no matter what colour the casing was, the Game Boy Light is easily the definitive model of the system.
Also released in 1998 were two very unique peripherals for the Game Boy, in the form of a camera and printer. The Game Boy Camera plugged into the cartridge slot of the Game Boy, and took simple 256×244 resolution digital images (In the 1999 edition of the Guinness Book of Records, the Game Boy Camera was officially the worlds smallest digital camera). Pictures taken with the camera could be edited or used for some basic mini-games, but the big feature was that they could be used with the Game Boy Printer. This portable, battery-powered, thermal printer would print out images from the Game Boy Camera, and games that supported the peripheral, onto tiny rolls of sticker paper. While use of both peripherals were limited, they were fun little devices, that would also work with Nintendo’s next system…
A mere six months after the release of the Game Boy Light, Nintendo released another successor to the Game Boy; the Game Boy Color. Backwards compatible with original Game Boy titles, this new console boasted an admittedly incremental improvement over the monochrome version, with the system’s screen showing up to 56 colours on screen at once, at the same resolution as the original Game Boy screen, with no backlight of any sort. Interestingly, the system also had an infra-red port for communicating between devices.
Available in several colours (Grape, Berry, Atomic Purple, Dandelion, Teal and Kiwi with other limited editions becoming available later), this new model was bolstered by new ‘Color’ versions of older Game Boy games such as Tetris and Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Mario also made an appearance, with a remake of the original Super Mario Bros.
While the system didn’t reach the success or the longevity of the original Game Boy, the Color still did relatively well, thanks to the popularity of Pokémon, but from the mid-90’s, rumours surfaced that Nintendo were working on a new colour portable system, named “Project Atlantis”, a real successor to the Game Boy; but that’s another story for another time…
In Part Three of Portable Pleasure, the Game Boy Color soldiers on while Nintendo makes Advances with new portable systems. Plus, a “third-pillar” system becomes one of Nintendo’s biggest successes. If you missed Part One, you can read it here.