Examining Iterative Hardware: The Game Boy Color


Because I like talking about this subject and speculating  about the future, I want to bring up what I think was a pretty good example of a piece of iterative gaming hardware that was successful despite having a limited time in the limelight: the Game Boy Color.

When people discuss the GBC many get into a debate about whether it was even a separate platform from the original Game Boy, and maybe that’s kind of the point. Maybe that’s what console manufacturers might go for with the switch from stark generational separations to iterative hardware that shares a platform. The GBC was really just one part of a platform that you could say stretches from the original 1980 Game Boy all the way to the Game Boy Advance SP which wasn’t discontinued until 2007, 18 years later. There are games that require hardware from after a certain point in that chain of course, but I don’t remember anyone complaining about having to buy a new Game Boy every three years.

The GBC was a significant revision of the original Game Boy with one major new selling point — it played games in color, much like the major new selling points you see in new iPhone models. However, the games made during its lifespan were a mishmash of exclusivity and cross-compatibility. This was on top of the GBC’s backwards compatibility with the nine-year library of the original Game Boy.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, most GBC games were forwards compatible with older Game Boy models. They could play in a monochrome mode on the older Game Boy, but displayed full colors on the GBC. In effect these games took advantage of the install bases of two systems. You also however had a significant number of games that at least required a GBC, and that number included plenty of classics like Wario Land II and Wario Land 3Metal Gear: Ghost Babel, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of AgesOracle of Seasons, and Shantae. I’m guessing people were more willing to buy a new Game Boy because so much time had passed since the old hardware standard had been established.

I remember the GBC being one of the most commercially successful platforms of the time (at least in Japan). If I’m not mistaken it was the most successful piece of gaming hardware back then behind the original PlayStation. It pretty much reinvigorated the Game Boy without resetting its install base.

And yet Nintendo launched the Game Boy Advance in 2001, just three years after the Game Boy Color showed up. It was definitely a more harsh division — basically no new games were forwards compatible (the Oracle games had special functionality when played on a GBA right?), but it was backwards compatible going all the way back to the 1989 games. The GBC actually kept getting good games for a bit after the GBA’s launch. Shantae came out in 2002. The hardware iterations in this unbroken chain pretty much continued until the original DS came out in late 2004, and since then Nintendo has tried to maintain backwards compatibility going back one hardware generation. The only time I remember people complaining was in 2004 and 2005 when the Game Boy Micro and original DS became the first Nintendo handhelds that couldn’t play the original Tetris cartridge.

Maybe if Nintendo does indeed go the iterative cross-platform route with project codename NX, somewhere along the line it thought “why don’t we just take the Game Boy Line approach to all our platforms?”

Of course there’s a huge difference from what we might get with the rumored upgraded PS4 — the PS4 has only been around for three years to the original Game Boy’s nine at the point of the GBC’s launch. Otherwise though I think you can look at it as a sort of “PS4 Color.” The short span of time and the PS4’s built-in 30-plus million install base is certainly why, according to Giant Bomb’s sources, Sony is forbidding developers from developing games or features exclusive to the updated model. I think that mandate will hold at least until the base PS4 get’s too old (think six or seven years old), or maybe when the next model after this proposed upgrade releases. I still don’t think the big publishers would dare lock out the existing install base. They persisted in making “cross-generation” games that supported the PS3 and Xbox 360 to the chagrin of many people until they realized how dead PS3 and 360 software sales were.


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