Even though the 25th anniversary of the Game Boy in North America isn’t until June, everyone else seems to be going with the Japanese anniversary date here so I guess I’ll write down some kind of account of my experiences with the system. In a way it’s a bit of a reflection of what got the Game Boy to where it was in the market, especially in the years before the platform’s post-Pokémon explosion.
The Game Boy was a really old system by the time Nintendo finally put it to bed. Even counting to the release of the Game Boy Color, the original Game Boy hardware basically dominated handheld video games for nine years. Not only that, it’s top-selling non-packed-in game, the killer app for which it is most remembered, came out at the tail end of its lifespan. The original Game Boy is pretty remarkable not only for what it achieved but also for the environment surrounding it throughout the 90’s.
I actually couldn’t even get a Game Boy of my own until around 1993 or 1994. I spent years watching other people play Tetris and Super Mario Land. When I finally got one, I spent most of my time with it prior to 1998 stuck with the same handful of games: Yoshi, a port of Pac-Man, a port of Killer Instinct, Tom & Jerry, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back From the Sewers.
My mom ended up enjoying Pac-Man and Yoshi more than I did. As bland as those other games were (Okay TMNTII was pretty cool), I still played the crap out of them for nearly four years because there really was nothing else to play while on the go. That’s the story of most of the Game Boy’s lifespan — it had no real competition. The Game Gear was cool for while, but software support for it died pretty quickly, not to mention its ridiculous power issues, leaving me with the same old Game Boy games.
Oh Nintendo released some excellent first party hits in the Game Boy’s early years, just not very many considering the span of time we’re talking about here prior to Pokémon. Plus, I didn’t even own most of them until near or after Pokémon. I occasionally got access to other people’s copies of games like Land, but I didn’t get my own copy of that game until at least 1997, and I didn’t get Land 2 until much later. Link’s Awakening? The Game Boy Color version in 1998 was the first time I got to play that game. I didn’t get a Game Boy copy of Tetris until it came out on 3DS Virtual Console in 2011. Virtual Console is probably how I’m experiencing most of what the original Game Boy had to offer. I still haven’t gotten a chance to touch the Wario Land series. Maybe the Game Boy’s best early games were just unknown to all but the most well-informed Nintendo fans. I don’t think any Game Boy game prior to Pokémon, with the exception of Tetris, got as much exposure.
But man when Pokémon did hit, it was like a revelation. For starters, looking back, there were almost no substantial portable role-playing games available before Pokémon, which is crazy considering how handhelds are a center for JRPGs today. But after that game and the subsequent Game Boy Color it was like development of Game Boy games was reinvigorated despite the GBC not being a quantum leap for the platform. We got subsequent Pokémon games, Pokémon Pinball, Metal Gear, Mega Man Xtreme, Shantae,the Zelda Oracle games, etc. It was like I had actual reasons to play the system, even when consoles were within reach. It’s just weird that the best times for the Game Boy were probably towards the end of a very long lifespan. I guess a system in its position could afford to do that though. Even afterwards, no one was really able to erode Nintendo’s position in the handheld market until Apple came along.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that no matter what happened, Game Boy pretty much was handheld gaming for around a decade. Yeah it had some great games if you knew what they were, but even if you didn’t, no other real options ever stepped up.