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Nintendo's original Game Boy turns 25


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Gadgets have an uncanny tendency to put on weight with age. To my eight-year-old self the Game Boy was an impossibly advanced machine with bafflingly slim dimensions. Now, with a powerful smartphone in my hand, it’s hard to imagine how it won space in so many school satchels.

As is so often the case with iconic products, it wasn’t the first on the market - just the one which arrived at the right time. The Microvision handheld beat it by almost a decade, but Nintendo waited for hardware costs to fall and cunningly designed a system cheap enough for schoolboy budgets. It also developed games which used charm to make up for what was, even at launch, quite basic hardware.

That simplicity, in hardware if not software, has become a Nintendo trademark over the years. The Game Boy launched in Japan on April 21 1989, but in the UK we had to wait over a year for it to hit shops on September 28 1990.

With a 4.19MHz processor and just 8KB of RAM, it was simply not capable of crunching complex graphics. And the display offered just 160 by 144 pixels and four shades of gray – no colour screens here, at least until the Game Boy Color emerged in 1998.

But simple games like Tetris - synonymous with the original Game Boy - helped to drive popularity. Being able to play a game like that on the school bus was as revolutionary then as the first iPhone felt back in 2007 or Google Glass does now.

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The screen was tiny, the graphics limited to shades of gray on a dull green background, but the Nintendo Game Boy was a revolution when it launched in Japan 25 years ago today. The original version may look hopelessly chunky now, but back then it was unimaginably svelte, a proper console that you play on anywhere – an ingenious gaming equivalent of the personal stereo.

To celebrate its anniversary, here are 25 facts about the machine that brought Tetris to worldwide fame and spawned a pocket gaming dynasty that lasts to this day.

1. The best, but not the first
The Game Boy was not actually the first handheld games machine with interchangeable cartridges – that was the Microvision, released in 1979 and described as a "programmable electronic game system" by its manufacturer, toy giant Milton Bradley. Interestingly, the console itself was just a container with a small screen, each game cart had its own central processor and memory chip. (Oh, and the machine was bundled with a clone of the classic Atari game Breakout named Block Buster. Ten years later, one of the Game Boy launch games was Alleyway – a clone of, yes, the classic Atari game Breakout.)

2. Nintendo's pocket genius
The console was designed by Nintendo's Research and Development 1 team, headed by legendary engineer Gunpei Yokoi, the genius behind the company's Game & Watch series of handheld LCD games. Yokoi came up with a pivotal design philosophy – "Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology" – which meant using cheap, readily available components in interesting ways...

3. Portability over perfomance
...So while rival handheld consoles like the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear boasted expensive hardware and battery-zapping colour displays, the Game Boy was comparatively cheap thanks to its dated Z80-based CPU. And while the 2.5-inch screen could barely handle four different greys, the console promised up to 30 hours of play on four AA batteries – which made it much more useful. As the hugely successful Wii console later confirmed (by easily outselling the technically superior PS3 and Xbox 360), looks aren't everything.

4. Perfect control
The Game Boy has an eight-way D-pad controller (originally designed by Yokoi for the Game & Watch series), and four buttons: A, B, Start and Select. It's exactly the same set up as the Nintendo Entertainment System controller, making it hugely familiar to gamers. This also meant that it was easy for developers to convert games from the hugely successful NES to the new handheld machine.

5. The boy arrives
The Game Boy launched in Japan on 21 April, 1989, at the price of 12,500 yen and immediately sold out of its initial run of 300,000 units (it didn't arrive in the UK until September, 1990). The must-have game at the time was Super Mario Land, a typically quirky and enjoyable platformer which replicated many features of the classic Super Mario Bros series. It would go on to sell over 18 million copies.

6. That game about falling shapes
By the time of the US launch in July 1989, games industry entraprenuer Henk Rogers and Nintendo of America chief Minoru Arakawa had secured the handheld rights to cult "falling object" puzzler Tetris. Designed by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov, it was originally distributed on the PC to moderate success, but when bundled with the Game Boy it became a smash hit, attracting a new audience of casual users with its simple yet addictive gameplay. The game also coped well with the key limitations of the system – horrendous motion blur. It would go on to sell 35m copies on Game Boy alone.

7. Linking up
Tetris was also one of the key titles to use the Game Link cable which allowed two Game Boys to be connected together for multiplayer fun. In this mode, Tetris players could send completed lines over to their opponent's screen – a uniquely satisfying experience, until someone inevitably became frustrated and yanked the cable out, "by accident".

8. Four play
Incidentally, an extra adaptor allowed four people to gather together and play a range of compatible titles including driving game F-1 Race and early Candy Crush Saga ancestor, Yoshi's Cookie, which featured puzzles designed by Alexey Pajitnov.

9. Multiplayer mayhem
Better than that, the Game Boy version of early first-person shooter Faceball 2000 allowed 16 players to take part simultenously via a tangle of cables and adaptors. Released in 1991, this incredibly prescient title gave handheld owners a similar experience to local area network gaming on the PC, two years before the arrival of Doom.

10. Dawn of the pocket monsters
One very important fan of the link up cable was game designer Satoshi Tajiri who loved the idea of bringing people together in play. He combined this concept with his childhood love of insect collecting and came up with Pokemon Red and Green (re-branded Red and Blue in the West), the first two titles in the multi-gazillion selling monster battling series. Released on Game Boy in 1996, the titles allowed players to link up their consoles and trade pokemon with each other – indeed, this was the only way to collect the whole set.

11. Pokemon fever
The Pokemon series has since become a staple of the Game Boy and DS handheld consoles, also spawning a cartoon series (briefly famous in 1997 for causing a spate of seizures among Japanese viewers), several movies, a card trading game, and a jumbo jet. Recently, the original titles became an internet phenomenon once again thanks to live gaming experiment Twitch Plays Pokemon, in which thousands of people attempted to play the game simultaneously and cooperatively – with hilarious consequences.

12. Tiny epics
The Game Boy was the first portable system to show that handheld games could be more than just snack-sized diversions. The machine boasted dozens of epic fantasy role-playing titles familiar from home consoles – including Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening and Final Fantasy Adventure. Mammoth platformers Metroid, Castlevania and Mega Man were also highlights among the 700-odd Game Boy software library.

13. Game girls
Ironically considering its name, Game Boy was also one one of the first games machines to successfully target female players. In 1995, Nintendo claimed that 46 percent of Game Boy users were female, a major leap from 29 percent on the Nintendo Entertainment System. This has remained a cornerstone of Nintendo's marketing and design approach.

14. Game Boy in space
In 1993, cosmonaut Aleksandr A. Serebrov took his Game Boy along on the Soyuz TM-17 space mission to the Mir station. The console orbited the Earth 3000 times before safely returning with its owner. The machine was later included in an auction of space travel memorabilia held at Bonhams in New York, along with a note from Serebrov which explained, "Like all cosmonauts, I love sport. My particular favorites are football and swimming. During flight, in rare minutes of leisure, I enjoyed playing Game Boy." It sold for $1220.

15. Cartoon boy
The Game Boy makes several appearances in The Simpsons, mostly in the hands of avid gamer, Bart. However, an unlikely fan is sea captain McAllistair who appears in the episode "In Marge We Trust" bemoaning the loss of his trusty handheld, which he accidentally dropped in the sea. Later, in the Bart Simpson Treehouse of Horror comic, the captain offered to catch a sea monster in exchange for $30,000, a wife and a Game Boy. The Game Boy also provided the inspiration for the multifacted BMO gadget in Cartoon Network's Adventure Time series.

16. Cheating on the Game Boy
Along with other Nintendo consoles, the Game Boy was reverse engineered by British games publisher Codemasters in the early nineties, allowing it to produce the successful Game Genie cheat cartridge, which gave players infinite lives and other perks. I actually worked for the development team, Big Red Software, that disassembled almost every Game Boy game available in order to write the cheat codes. Through the summer of 1993, I played over 200 GB titles, testing every single cheat and typing them all out for the tiny booklet that slotted into the back of the device. Sorry, just had to include that.

17. Work and play
For a brief moment in 1992, it looked as though the Game Boy was about to become the Serious Boy. The arrival of the Psion Series 3 and Apple Newton in the early Nineties kickstarted a new market for handheld computers – or "personal digital assistants" – and enterprising eyes looked toward Nintendo's gaming system. Hence, the Work Boy, a productivity app developed by unknown company Fabtek, which would ship with its own keyboard and featured a diary, calculator, currency exchange and an accounting app. Amazingly, it never managed a full retail release. (Update: as mentioned in the comments section below, the game was also used in the auto industry as a cheap diagnostic tool. Thanks to our reader, Gadget, for that information.)

18. Fishing boy. No seriously
If you think Work Boy was the strangest productivity concept for the Game Boy you are completely wrong. In 1998, Bandai launched the Game Boy Pocket Sonar, a fish-finding gadget that attached to the console, allowing frustrated anglers to locate their prey. The device was able to spot fish at depths of up to 20 metres and displayed their whereabouts on the screen. Tragically, it was only ever available in Japan.

19. Print and play
In 1998, Nintendo launched the Game Boy digital camera and a compatible thermal printer, allowing users to take low resolution photos of themselves before printing them out onto tiny pieces of paper – pretty much inventing the selfie. Images could be customised with pixellated wigs and glasses and much hilarity ensued in schoolyards and pubs around the world. The package also included a range of strange augmented reality games and some unsettling hidden features – hitting the "Run" option, for example, would often bring up a bizarrely modified image of a man asking "why are you running?" To this day, no one is sure what the hell Nintendo was thinking of.

20. Custom machines
Throughout its lifespan, the Game Boy was released in a variety of colours and several custom designs, including the lovely yellow Pokemon Game Boy and an Official Manchester United Game Boy. One of the rarest and most sought after is the limited edition "Tezuka Osamu World Shop" design which appeared on the Game Boy Light, a smaller version of the handheld released only in Japan. This much coveted one-off was covered in characters from the legendary animator's most famous works.

21. Wonders and rarities
As with all consoles, the Game Boy also has a small range of rare and highly collectible games. Chief among them is Trip World, a cute platformer from Sunsoft that was only released in Japan and a handful of European countries. Mint copies can sell for as much as $1,000. It's also worth combing car boot sales for lesser known GB versions of successful console titles like Castlevania, Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil.

22. Musical adventures
The Game Boy is a favourite instrument of "chiptune" artists who use vintage games hardware to create electronic music. By plugging in bootleg sequencer cartridges like Nanoloop, musicians are able to tease an array of weird sounds from the hardware. Artists such as Pixelh8, Nullsleep and Mikro Orchestra have produced amazing tracks and live multimedia performances, often from hacked Game Boy units.

23. Evolution of Game Boy
The Game Boy was followed in 1996 by the thinner, lighter Game Boy Pocket, which retained the same hardware set-up, but unlike the original, did actually fit in your pocket. Two years later, the Game Boy Color made a self-evident improvement to the graphical display, but was crucially backwards compatible with most original Game Boy titles – it was one of the first modern games machines to offer this thrifty feature.

24. Reasonable success
Together, the Game Boy and Game Boy Color sold over 118m units. They were discontinued in the early 2000s in favour of the subsequent Game Boy Advance series, which arrived in 2001 and would go on to sell a further 81 million.

25. A virtual return
Thanks to Nintendo's "Virtual Console" scheme which makes retro titles available for download on its current machines, over 50 Game Boy and Game Boy Color titles are available to play on the 3DS (more in the US and Japan). Better still, the new console features a hidden Game Boy mode, which displays the old classics in their original resolution, complete with the familiar green background. The Game Boy lives on..
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