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Game Boy turns 25

Silke Wünsch / nhApril 21, 2014

For children of the early 1990s, the Game Boy was what Rock’n’Roll was for their parents 40 years earlier. The small original handheld celebrates 25 years of existence. And it’s still running.

Screenshot Tetris (photo: http://de.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Datei:Tetrisgb.jpg&filetimestamp=20090907191647&)
Image: Nintendo

When Nintendo's Game Boy was first released on 21 April, 1989, many were skeptical. The chunky gray brick didn't look special at all at first sight. It constantly beeped and blared and, at least at first, offered just one game, which consisted of stacking geometric blocks on top of one another.

Few believed at the time that the ugly little thing would end up taking kids' rooms by storm around the world. But Hiroshi Yamauchi, head of the Japanese playing cards manufacturer Nintendo, did. By the early 1980s, Yamauchi had already ventured tentatively into the electronic toy market before launching the first home console. It was a matter of time before his chief developer Gunpei Yokoi would present Nintendo's handheld console to the world.

Japan Nintendo Game Boy with cartridges (photo: picture-alliance/empics)
The first Game Boy was powered by an 8-bit processorImage: picture-alliance/empics

The Game Boy prototype had pixelated graphics consisting of four different shades of gray on a brown-green background. The display was not illuminated. The Game Boy had a directional pad and two cherry-colored buttons – the only touches of color on the gray brick. It was an ugly little box, but it was cheap. When it was released in Germany in 1990, it cost 160 Deutschmark - roughly 80 euros ($111 dollars).

The first and second generation Game Boys sold some 120 million copies. In 1990, Nintendo estimated its own market share in the US to be some 93 percent. The remaining seven percent was shared by competitors Sega, NEC and Atari.

Their portable gaming devices were much beyond Nintendo's as far as technology was concerned, as they tried to beat the Game Boy where its performance was weakest.

But consumers preferred an unbeatably low price over good graphics and a high pixel rate.

The beginning of the end of boredom

Teenager playing on Game Boy in 1990 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Once upon a time...Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Game Boy soon became an integral part of daily life everywhere - in schoolyards, at bus stops and on family cars' backseats. It ushered in a new era of passing your time: There was no longer a single dull moment with games such as Tetris, Pokémon and Super Mario on the go.

Millions of children and teenagers happily gamed on the gray boxes - all while their parents despaired. There was widespread skepticism towards the small miracle brick in the media, too. German weekly "Die Zeit", in a March 1991 publication, called the Game Boy "the devil himself," and its journalists did not understand "the inexplicable success of this portable video game".

Addiction experts rang the alarm bells after Game Boy players told them about Tetris bricks appearing in their dreams.

New childhood heroes

Despite criticism, Nintendo kept launching new games. Many versions of games which until then had only been available on fixed consoles were released as Game Boy versions, coming as small cartridges which fit easily into trouser pockets. The "Jump'n'Run" games were particularly successful - games where players had to make figures jump through some kind of a course, fulfilling tasks on the fly. The games' lead characters, Super Mario, Pokémon and Donkey Kong would soon take the place of former childhood heroes such as Superman, Kermit the Frog and Pippi Longstocking.

Game Boy showing 'Legend of Zelda' (photo: Jan Schwering)
'The Legend of Zelda' runs on all Nintendo consolesImage: Jan Schwering

There were action games, puzzle games, and even martial arts games. Some 450 Game Boy games were launched in the course of the years. And the devices themselves got flashier as time went on. In the mid-1990s, a special edition was released, with casings that came in a variety of colors or were even transparent - very cool at the time - making the small computer's circuit boards visible. Nintendo kept improving the consoles, making them smaller, faster and more colorful, giving them an improved and eventually even colorful display with 56 colors.

2005 saw the release of the last Game Boy model. Nintendo had created a competitor with the latest generation of handheld gaming devices, Nintendo DS.

Game Boy vs. smartphone

25 years is a very long time considering the fast pace with which technology has evolved. Today, consumers play pin sharp games in striking colors on their smartphones and tablets. Savvy developers have since created apps, so-called emulators, with which the Game Boy surface can be replicated, bringing back fond memories to some users.

Screenshot Pokémon (photo: Karsten Kaminski)
Pokémon goes Windows - emulators help consumers replicate the Game Boy surface on their PCsImage: Karsten Kaminski

And yet, loyal fans around the world still enjoy playing on the ‘real' thing. On websites and countless YouTube channels, users demonstrate and comment on Game Boy games. The German-language website "Gameboyland" - in the four shades of gray - is a particularly affectionate portal for Game Boy fans. Their avatars are grainy figures, and the website offers sound files with the classic games' original score.

And when they hear them, they may just find themselves rummaging through their own old toy boxes, dusting off their awful old Game Boy Color, putting in some batteries - just to see whether they can have one more go at Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.