So the Nintendo Game Boy is 25 years old. I’m in the UK, so we didn’t actually get it here until 1990, but I didn’t get my own one until the summer of 1993 – around the time of my birthday, in fact – my family got it for me in the Southend-on-Sea branch of Argos, bundled with – surprise, surprise – Tetris! I think Tetris came free with absolutely every Game Boy back in its first phase, so it was weird to see it also available as a stand-alone game that you could buy in the shops. Didn’t everyone have this game? I suppose if you bought a Game Boy second-hand then you might not have had a copy, and to be fair, you had to have a copy. It is so heartening to know that the Game Boy’s flagship game was such an intelligent one. Seriously. I took the time to play one of those retro-compilation games for the Xbox that put together a barrel load of old Mega Drive games and I was staggered by how brain-dead so many of those games were – just punch, punch, punch, jump, jump, jump, kick, kick, kick and so on. With Tetris you had to be on the ball, all the time. It was a great game, except for the fact that it didn’t appear to have an ending. It just got faster and faster until it was physically impossible – for your eyes and your fingers – to keep up. I like games to have an ending, even if nearly all endings to games back then were shit. I just like closure. Almost as bad was when games ‘rewarded’ you by sending you back to the very start of the game so that you had to play it all over again, albeit this time with slightly more difficult opponents. Grr.
The Game Boy’s portability was the obvious and vital key to its success. Coming after the 8-bit wave of consoles – Nintendo’s NES and Sega’s Master System – the Game Boy games were far from cutting edge in regards to graphics and sound. They weren’t even in colour for God’s sake. The games weren’t that much cheaper than the 8-bit ones either. Somehow £29.99 for a Game Boy cartridge felt like a rip-off. No wonder I got so many of mine cheap and second-hand. Also – wanted to go 2-player with your mate? Well, you had to have one of those connectivity cables and your mate had to have his or her own copy of the game!!! Yet so many of us took the console to our hearts because, because… you could play the thing outside. Yeah, everything’s portable nowadays, but back then it was only Walkmans and Game Boys. The freedom of playing a computer game outside that wasn’t one of those crappy Game & Watch thingies was a joy unparalleled. Speaking of Tetris – it seemed perfect for the Game Boy. Have you ever tried playing it on a home console? It never felt right. Too big a screen for something as small and intimately confined as Tetris. True, the 2-player option was a far easier proposition, but knowing you could see what your mate was up to on the other side of the screen made their sneaky moves feel a lot less sneaky. It felt more of an attack when you couldn’t see what they were up to on their own Game Boy.
Design wise it was a classic of simplicity – a lean, no-nonsense grey, two (just two!!!) control buttons, the necessary ‘start’ and ‘select’ buttons and yes, yes, yes – a headphone port! I never understood it at the time but I could see how the tinny soundtracks to all those game could drive anyone not playing them at that moment completely nuts. Now you could shut out all those other humans and lose yourself entirely! I also think the Game Boy was the first ever console to have absolutely every single game begin with the same identifiable logo and sound. Not every Master System game began with the Sega logo, and I don’t think any NES game began with any standard logo. The Game Boy games would always start with the ‘Nintendo’ text scrolling down to the centre of the screen, culminating in that two-note ding that can bring a tear to any nostalgic-waxing gamer these days.
Power-wise, the Game Boy took four AA batteries and they lasted a healthy amount of time to be honest – there was also an AC adaptor for home use which meant you didn’t have to waste those batteries unnecessarily. Compare this to Sega’s attempt to conquer the portable market – the Game Gear- which definitely had the edge in some regards such as its colour screen, but its battery life was minimal and expensive to maintain. I never owned a Game Gear, and I always wanted one – the TV tuner sounded fantastic (never knew how well it worked in reality though) – but no one I knew had one, so how could you ever swap or sell or buy games to your mates? Also, the one game I did play on it was Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which merely took the Master System version and strangely cropped the screen so you couldn’t see what was coming until you were already dead. Now some fans liked the fact that this made the game more difficult, but it pissed me off to no end. Besides, why would I want to play a smaller, inferior version of a game that was already out for the Master System? That’s what gave the Game Boy an edge, that its Mario games were not mere copies of the NES versions.
While the NES had the first three Super Mario Bros games and the SNES had the formidable Super Mario World, the Game Boy was all too aware of its limitations and wisely didn’t try to Xerox those games to fit on a small monochrome screen. Instead it blessed itself with its own unique game – Super Mario Land – that was intentionally designed to fit inside its smaller scale and didn’t feel cropped or compromised as a result. True, there was some pixel blur when you made Mario run instead of walk, but overall this felt like the perfect alternative sequel to the original Mario game – not as anomalous as Mario Madness (Mario 2 in the US and Europe) but not as insanely difficult as The Lost Levels (Mario 2 in Japan). Here you had the tried-and-tested fun of the overground/underground levels (not to mention the plethora of secret rooms) but you could also fly an aircraft, which officially made it cooler than the original. Also, the final credit music used to get me close to tears. I don’t know why, I always found it so beautiful and strangely sad. That I only ever got to hear this music by completing the game made it all the sweeter. The fact that I can hear this music on youtube at the click of a button has robbed it of its magic for me.
That was probably my all-time favourite Game Boy game, but there were plenty of others that I recall – here’s a rundown of some of the games I remember playing.
Bart Simpson’s Escape from Camp Deadly – Simpsons in shock ‘not shite’ video game cash-in. The show itself was remarkably a remote presence in my life for a good while so I jumped on anything with their name on. As spin-offs go, not as good as the ‘Deep, Deep Trouble’ single by Bart and Homer, but what was?
The Castlevania Adventure – atmospheric platformer with vampires. Perfect. Was a real favourite until my copy mysteriously vanished. Cue many tears.
Dynablaster – Insanely addictive maze/blow up the bad guys strategy craziness commonly known as Bomberman that admittedly wasn’t as much fun as the multiplayer versions available on home consoles where you could trap your mates between a dead end and a bomb and watch them squirm ‘til the fuse runs out.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch – I think this must have been very cheap when I bought it as even as a stupid kid I knew all too well the general crappiness of movie tie-in games. Amazingly, I remember this being quite entertaining.
Hyper Lode Runner – definitely a second hand purchase (I don’t even recall getting it with the box or instructions) and a platform with a little bit of strategy thrown in.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening – aka Zelda IV. Massively popular, highly acclaimed, vastly epic, and yet it didn’t do it for me. I guess I had already been spoiled by the astonishing A Link to the Past on the SNES.
Revenge of the Gator – it was a pinball game, and an alligator was involved somehow. I played this one a lot.
Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan – simple platformer but so much fun I must have re-played it and re-completed it at least 678 times. The music in the sewer levels still reverberates inside my skull to this day.
Tennis – it was tennis. Simple, straight-up tennis. Yet it worked for me. I got so into this that I was genuinely disappointed to find out how difficult the sport was when I tried it in real life.
Come to think of it, there were absolutely loads of Game Boy games I never played, and never will. The games were expensive back then, and from what I recall from relevant magazines from the time like Total!, there was a fair amount of crap as well, but the ones I did play, I really, really played. Less was more, and I definitely got my money’s worth back then. A lot of those games have probably dated appallingly, so I’m tempted not to revisit them– let the past be the past. Besides, for me – it’s the memory of the whole gaming experience itself, not just the game, that I love. A warm summer evening, sitting cross-legged on the patch of ground overlooking the car park near the back of my house, playing Super Mario Land as the sun started to set… beautiful.