The Enduring Love for the Nintendo Game Boy: A Community Sensation
I had a blast playing through Doom Eternal last year. Having spent far too much money upgrading my PC so I could flail around in VR, I was lucky enough to be able to play the game on ultra settings. From each glistening dismembered demon limb spinning across the screen, to the expansive hell-scapes which quite literally dripped with detail, I couldn’t help but marvel at how far games had come. Doom is the perfect frame for this sort of contemplation; the original game represented the very best technology of the time, so the jump from 1993 to 2020 is a particularly evident example of visual innovation. Video games are one of many media lenses by which we observe technological advancement, and boy does it move fast.
1.5k will get you NVIDIA’s flagship GPU: a singular component towards what will be a plethora of other high-end, high-cost PC parts to match it. You’ll only be able to attribute the term ‘cutting-edge’ to your new rig for about a year, however, before this still incredibly powerful machine becomes ‘old’.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum — the world where outdated gaming gear takes precedence.
It could be said that retro enthusiasts represent the more wholesome side of gaming culture. Their online communities are free of industry politics, and generally, there’s non of the bitter vitriol that too often plagues contemporary video game discussion. Any references to the ‘console wars’ are in reminiscence of comically brazen advertisements — a far cry from the Orwellian corporate devotion that’s often associated with the term today.
That’s not to speak for everyone, though. Most on the PC forums won’t denounce you as a literal peasant if you own an Xbox; there’s also always someone on the retro boards who cares a little too much when the Atari Jaguar CD is referred to as an overpriced toilet seat. But the point is, arguments surrounding corporate shenanigans aren’t usually a part of retro gaming discourse. For these communities, it’s almost exclusively about the games.
Corporate successes and failures of the past did shape the landscape as we know it today, of course, even if the schoolyard quarrels have shifted to a new generation. Sony ultimately paved the way for Microsoft to carve out their space within the industry. Without Atari, now a relic of the business, game consoles may never have taken off in the first place. Video game history is fascinating, but perhaps most interesting is when old tech gains new cultural significance beyond people’s zest for retro aesthetic.
Retro handheld gaming has majorly taken off in the last few years and, forever holding dominion over this section of the industry, Nintendo’s old systems are at the forefront of the craze.
Given that everybody now carries with them a Swiss Army knife computer not much thicker than a coffee coaster, the idea of the Game Boy being considered portable today is as laughable as the PDA being useful. So why are people still lugging these bricks around?
I think this phenomenon goes deeper than the fetishization of all things ’90s. In fact, I’d argue that it hits at the very core of why we hold video games so dear in the first place. First, though, it helps to understand what it takes to earn your retro gamer badge.
In the words of Public Enemy: It’s harder than you think
It’s easy to understand why retro gaming is so popular. Many people loathe the perceived anti-consumer model of AAA and wish not to be a part of it. For others, a huge part of the experience is good old-fashioned nostalgia. Old games prompt reminiscence of our fondest memories, escapism to a simpler time.
But it does have its own barriers to entry. It’s unlikely those red, white, and yellow cables that came with the SNES will work on your 55-inch Samsung — not to mention that the picture quality would be awful even if they did. Most retro consoles can output RGB Scart: a format that still looks decent on today’s displays but that is a similarly scarce option.
To use your SEGA Saturn in 2021, you’ll need to either dust off that hulking CRT you kept for some reason or buy an up-scaler (probably the latter, unless whoever you live with resonates with your affinity for technological redundancy).
Quality up-scalers are something of a rarity. Many of the cheap options either don’t have the right connectors or give sub-par visual results, so the £200 O.S.S.C (Open Source Scan Converter) is generally considered your best bet. Alternatively, many companies offer HDMI converter boxes that switch your console’s analog signal to a digital one. The problem with these is that they’re usually purpose-built for a single system or video signal, so you may have to buy several if you plan on playing a variety of different consoles.
Even with either of those pricy gadgets in your mitts, some consoles are impossible to get running smoothly in their vanilla form. The Nintendo 64 does technically output RGB Scart, but it’ll require a motherboard modification to get it to function that way.
That’s not to mention the rising cost of games. Many of the best titles for these systems are priced well beyond your average modern AAA game, but that’s a story for another time.
Alas, the jubilance in finding your Mega Drive in the garage is no doubt short-lived. It’ll probably end up on Ebay for some other poor sod to buy and ultimately reach the same conclusions you did.
That’s not to say it isn’t a worthwhile persuit. Having been into the hobby for many years myself, I wouldn’t be without my meticulously arranged hardware relics — It’s just that it often requires more work than is worth it for most people. The same is not the case, however, if you find your old Game Boy.
Gunpei Yokoi joined Nintendo as an electrician in 1965 long before the company had anything to do with video games.
Hiroshi Yamauchi (Nintendo founder and company president) promoted him to designer after spotting an extendable arm toy that he’d made in his spare time. As the story goes, Yokoi initially thought Yamauchi’s summoning was in plan to fire him for playing with a toy at work.
This contraption would become the Ultra Hand: a huge commercial success for the company and the beginning of the inventor’s impressive career.
After a string of successful toys including the Game & Watch, Yokoi struck gold with the Game Boy. He’d managed to create a product that was both cheap to manufacture and had huge market appeal.
The system went on to sell 118 million units worldwide, and it also brought the world Pokémon and Tetris. Existing as one of the best-selling games of all time, Pokémon Red and Blue sold 31.38 million units globally. Tetris is considered the best-selling game of all time: 35 million sales are attributed to the original Game Boy release, while the mobile version totals an insane 425 million paid downloads. The Game Boy was succeeded by two similarly popular iterations — the Game Boy Colour in 1998 and the Game Boy Advance in 2001. Each model had numerous refreshes.
Tragically, Yokoi passed away following a car accident in 1997. His ‘lateral thinking’ strategy still defines Nintendo’s ethos today: utilization of cheap and popular technologies to bring about innovation. Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto considers the inventor his biggest influence.
On paper, it’s easy to grasp why Gunpe Yokoi is one of the industry’s greatest minds. He’s a huge part of Nintendo’s history and identity, but today, his legacy extends far beyond commercial success.
Reddit can simultaneously offer both a snap-shot and a deep-dive into the world of gaming. Every niche is represented, and every topic has at least a small audience.
r/Gameboy is an interesting space indeed. It exists not only for the appreciation of the handheld but also to abet its re-imagining. From the original Game Boy to the Micro, people are de-shelling and re-painting their systems in favor of an endless array of unique designs. The degree of creativity goes above and beyond what you’d usually find on a console modding discussion board.
To the right are four of hundreds I found while browsing the subreddit, and there are dozens of new designs being posted daily.
The original Game Boy Advance has proven particularly popular; Its form factor is considered the most comfortable, but most appealing is the backward compatibility with all Game Boy titles.
Check out this stunning Studio Ghibli-inspired design below.
Feats of beautiful art like this are a regular occurrence. From The Legend of Zelda, to Pokémon, to Kirby, there’s no shortage of flawlessly designed tributes to gaming culture and beyond.
You may have also noticed the vibrancy of the system displays pictured above. Aside from the Micro, the Game Boy Light, and one specific Game Boy Advance SP model, none of the numerous iterations were backlit. Whether or not you could see what you were doing was dependent on the level of ambient light — a bedtime plight for kids all over the world and the impetus for abominations like this:
Thanks to a new wave of display manufacturing in Asia, players now have the option to buy a brand new backlit screen for the device. They require some basic soldering skills but can be had for a low price, and many say the image quality is actually better than Nintendo’s own backlit GBA model. Enthusiasts can also kit out their systems with better speakers, custom inlays, and rechargeable battery packs, and there are even hundreds of custom backing stickers to choose from.
The most advanced device of all is the Game Boy Zero. This rather extreme modification guts the original hardware and replaces it with a Raspberry Pi micro-computer. While it can still read cartridges, its entire architecture is replaced in order to transform the system into a handheld emulator.
There’s even been a recent trend for turning the DS Lite into a Game Boy, a project the community has named “Gameboy Macro.” The DS Lite is backward compatible with Advance games and has a backlit screen, so it’s an ideal candidate for the confident modder.
As you can see, there are a ton of different variations defining what a Game Boy is in 2021.
These things have become a passion project for a huge sub-section of individuals. Whole businesses have been built off the back of the craze, and thanks to a detailed Wiki, the community does a great job at introducing people to the artistic and electronic skills required.
Aside from the obvious factor of looking cool, though, the main question still remains: why carry a Game Boy around in 2021 when you have a Switch or a smartphone?
The last of its kind
The Gameboy didn’t have hardware even remotely similar to the consoles of the time. Regardless of the model, it necessitated a different type of game and a different way to play. Now that we have the Switch, Nintendo’s handheld and TV console philosophies have merged to create one complete package.
Portable AAA gaming is now an option. We famously had the aforementioned DOOM Eternal and Animal Crossing: New Horizons release on the same day — two games that couldn’t be further diametrically opposed in tone and audience. It was a juxtapositional metaphor for the ethos of Nintendo’s flagship system; now, for the first time, you can have everything. Play anywhere, anyway, and anything. This brings a lot of benefits and an indisputably useful and versatile quirk, but in being what it is, the Switch loses some of the charm of the stand-alone handheld.
It might seem counterintuitive at first not to desire AAA gaming on the fly, but is that really what people want in a portable system most of the time? It’s hard to think of an occasion where I could get fully immersed in the world of Skyrim when out and about. Similarly, given an hour spare from the busyness of the day-to-day, I can’t imagine recharging by playing DOOM Eternal. Mick Gordon’s skull-splitting djent soundtrack is superb, but I’m not certain I want such a sensory assault when I’m on my lunch break.
For most people, weekday time spent out of the house is for work, college, errand running, or some other all-consuming activity. Interspersed between the day are brief moments of relief, but for me at least, these periods of downtime are usually enjoyed with mindful passivity. I’d happily play something like Kirby’s Pinball, but I’d have no inclination to delve into the brilliant but elaborate Bayonetta 2.
Even Animal Crossing — the archetypal relaxation game — is a bit too much bother. I’d rather not set about doing tasks in my moments spare from doing tasks. Modern games typically have a lot going on even if at face value it doesn’t appear that way. A simple A to B game slots nicely into a short break, and the Game Boy has hundreds of these titles.
The Switch also has a lot of these types of games, but there’s a sort of sacred quality to Game Boy titles. While Nintendo systems like the NES and SNES have been given both hardware and software re-imaginings, Nintendo is yet to make anything from the Game Boy library officially accessible in 2021. Moreover, this is a huge number of games we’re talking about which spans three separate systems. Getting into the Game Boy Advance, for example, makes for practically endless choice as well as the exciting prospect of hunting for hidden gems (they’re often a lot cheaper than T.V. based retro games, too).
In many ways, the Game Boy was the last handheld of its kind: no internet, no updates, nothing superfluous — just addictive fun and a ton of games. Throw in low price of entry as well as regular community competitions, and it’s easy to see why these souped-up portables have enlivened the retro space.
But there also seems to be a more ethereal reason intertwined with the system’s contemporary appeal.
‘Shibui’ is a Japanese art term that refers to an unobtrusive charm. There’s no direct translation, but it represents an innate, emotional response to something beautifully simple: something that can be personally profound. Another Shibui attribute is to develop new meaning over time. It often describes a work of traditional art (or sometimes even a way of life), but I don’t think it would be unreasonable to assign the term to the Game Boy. Whether expressed through the aesthetic, the type of games you play on it, or even Gunpei Yokoi’s design philosophies, its existence is delightfully understated.
To describe the Game Boy like this may seem a little far-fetched — these devices are toys, after all. But what do we mean when we say that games are art in the first place?
I’ve spent a great deal of time, as I’m sure many of us have, trying to convince people that games are more than just toys. The stigmatization of the medium as being something superficial is a view still held within a large section of society. “Games have evolved!”, you might fervently trumpet to a skeptic; we denounce titles like Tetris or Sonic as the medium in its most primitive sense, and in an objective way, those games are basic compared to what can be achieved today. There’s nothing on the Game Boy with the bold, prophetic messages of Metal Gear Solid 2 or the objectivist philosophies of BioShock — but maybe the very feature of being a ‘toy’ and being basic is what gives these old Nintendo handhelds their artistic merit.
For the people who enjoy still enjoy it, the system creates the contrast of accessible, inoffensive entertainment to the often complicated and draining aspects of being an adult. It’s also a chance to indulge in imagination again, to put energy into something like drawing and painting — one of many childhood activities seldom part of being a ‘grown up’. In a world full of taxes, parenthood, traveling, meetings, and even other more complex video games, these toys are a symbol of the appeal of the beautifully simple. Instead of tarnishing with age, they’ve taken on a whole new meaning.
Of course games are art. But surely that applies to the uncomplicated, more mindful experiences that simple games can offer — those encapsulated in a little box of perfect, personalized nostalgia — just as much as it does to the next Death Stranding.
I think back to the young Gunpei Yokoi working on the assembly lines for Nintendo’s Hanfuda card game. In his moments spare from what was probably a pretty boring yet high-pressure role, he took solace in tinkering about with a toy. For many of us, those fundamental pleasures of play and imagination often fall by the wayside to the pressure of life, and communities like r/Gameboy bring that back.
These consoles have become an expression of the self for thousands. That’s one of the rawest interpretations of games as art that I can think of.