The Original Game Boy Pioneered Handheld Gaming

Close up of the Super Mario Land box art

Considering the popularity of the Nintendo Switch, it’s easy to forget that there was a time where handheld games were considered a novelty. Like so many things from the early days of gaming, the Game Boy was an unorthodox, but extremely ambitious, experiment that paid off pretty wonderfully. Today I’d like to discuss the Game Boy and Game Boy Color’s place in the history of the medium, and why these systems still matter.

Nintendo’s first foray into handheld gaming was the Game & Watch, but to say that these are primitive now is a bit of an understatement. Rather than having one system that can have multiple games, these were handheld devices dedicated to one or maybe two games total, and if you wanted to play a new one, you had to shell out the money for a whole new system. The Game & Watch was undeniably important to Nintendo as a company, especially seeing how the line launched three years before the NES, but on the whole, I would say that they’re little more than collector’s items and historical novelties.

The goal of the Game Boy, on the other hand, was extremely ambitious. By the time the original Game Boy launched in 1989, Nintendo was more than just a weird and experimental company. They were a worldwide phenomenon, with medium defying classics like Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and countless third party titles under their belt. They were poised to take on the world, and they did when they released the Game Boy. It was, essentially, a portable NES. Sure the games it had may not have been quite as technically impressive as its home-console counterpart, but it was more than just a gimmick. It was the real deal.

The original was able to play games in black and white, and featured simple graphics that often betrayed hidden depths. Early hits like Tetris, which is just magnificent when played on the go, proved that this idea of a portable gaming console had staying power. And this leads me to something that I like to call…

The Super Mario Land Effect

Mario jumps in Super Mario Land

I’ll admit that it’s taken me a very long time to get around to playing Super Mario Land, and I can’t really tell you why. Maybe there was some part of my brain that thought it was a cheap imitator to the magnificent platforming series or that it hasn’t aged well. I wound up downloading the game on my 3DS last year and I was floored by exactly how well the game has aged. Sure, the black and white, chunky pixels take some getting used to, but arguably the most important part of a Mario game, the controls, felt absolutely, 100% spot on.

To me, the Mario franchise has always been about inherently enjoyable controls and movement. Even a game as dated as Super Mario 64, which hasn’t aged all that well, is still a lot of fun thanks to how much time Nintendo spent giving Mario specific but open ended physics. And going back to play the older titles, I’d argue that’s always been the big draw of a Mario game. The original holds up pretty well for the most part, and a huge part is how easy it is to get to grips with Mario as a character. It only takes a few levels before you’re confident that you know where Mario will land if you have him jump during a certain point in your sprint. This feeling translated into Super Mario Land, a launch title for the Game Boy that proved this little system was more than meets the eye.

Mario feels great to control in Super Mario Land, and there’s a lot of variety to the levels and worlds you jump through. Hell, there are even a couple of side scrolling shoot-em-up stages that were honestly more enjoyable than they should have been. The aesthetic was even creative to reflect the downgraded NES style hardware. Rather than directly mimicking the enemies of the Mushroom Kingdom, the monsters in Sarasaland, the game’s setting, are kind of warped versions of their console counterparts. It was a creative way of getting around the fact that this is still Mario, just not as grand as you might remember him.

Pretty much my only complaint with the game was the length. Even playing casually, I beat it in under an hour. That hour was time well spent. It packs in a lot of fun, but still, with just 16 levels, it’s shockingly bereft of content. That changed with the sequel Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, which is basically a full length Mario title, and considered by many to be among the best 2D games in the franchise. For me, I’ve only played a little of it, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen so far.

Why am I harping on about these very old titles, though? Well, because they were early proof that you could have an experience on the tiny, brick like handheld that you could on a console. I’d even argue that a lot of classic franchises that made their way to the Game Boy were given more room to experiment than their console siblings would have ever allowed. Link’s Awakening was another early hit, and it successfully captured the spirit of the series while still being offbeat. It is, to this day, my favorite 2D entry in the series. But I don’t know if the handheld would have been possible without the early success of the Super Mario Land titles.

Portable Fun Got an Upgrade

Link stands in front of a bush with Impa in Oracle of Ages
The Game Boy Color allowed for, well, vibrant and expressive colors… on the go.

While the original Game Boy was a hit, I would argue that its upgraded version, the Game Boy Color, was even more important to gaming as a whole. It was a huge stepping stone for handheld gaming, with its vibrant colors and powerful hardware. Developers took advantage of the power, too. Outstanding titles in existing franchises like Oracle of Ages and Seasons showed that not only was the Game Boy Color capable of rivaling the NES, but surpassing it as well. I have no idea if it’s nostalgia or not, but to me the Oracle titles are more high watermarks for the Zelda franchise.

New hardware brought new capabilities, though, and perhaps the most important (and lucrative) ideas came about from some little titles you may have heard of called Pokemon Red and Blue. While this wasn’t the first monster-collecting franchise ever made (Shin Megami Tensei predates it by almost a decade), these were the collecting games that everyone played, and it’s led to Pokemon being the most valuable intelligence property in the entire world. A lot of this has to do with the brilliant marketing decision of releasing two versions of each title and limiting what monsters players can collect, but this limitation led to a pretty damn important innovation: the link cable.

Red stands in front of Brock in Pokemon
Who would have known such a simple and formulaic JRPG would take off thanks to its core gimmick?

The Game Boy link cable let players trade their Pokemon with one another, letting them fill out their Pokedex regardless of title, but this weird little accessory was also one of the first instances of any other system that wasn’t a home computer letting players interact and play with one another. Dated these days? Absolutely. But I do think it was a crucial stepping stone for getting the ball rolling on home console connectivity.

The other major impact of Pokemon was similar to Super Mario Land; it showed the world that a handheld game could be just as engaging, fun, and lengthy as any console game, if not more so. People still play these titles to this day for a variety of reasons, and while I personally think the first generation was made obsolete by the second, there’s no denying just how much of a big deal these original games were, spawning everything from card games to toys to the anime and movies that people hold nostalgia for.

Trading wasn’t the only use for the link cable, though. The aforementioned Oracle of Ages and Seasons utilized a password system to unique effect. It should be noted that games at the time often used passwords as a way of saving a player’s progress, and it was… well, tedious, to say the least. You’d have to write down a very specific but random set of characters and hope you didn’t misinterpret one drawing as something else. But with the Game Boy Color came the ability to save to a battery in each individual cartridge, but Capcom used the idea of passwords to turn two separate games into one long adventure.

In what I consider to be one of the earliest examples of DLC, Ages and Seasons would let players “link their games” via passwords found in either title. For instances, if you play Ages first, you’ll find a bunch of passwords for hidden items and upgrades that you can carry over into a game of Seasons. It also brings over certain items, like your Ring collection, and even makes the title reference your time in the previous one. Releasing two Zelda games at once that were similar but unique from one another was already a great move, but this weird and strangely unimitated idea essentially took these two games and turned them into one huge, cohesive adventure. You’d get a bonus dungeon depending on which title you played first, and even an epilogue where you had to put down Ganon once more. The plot itself isn’t super creative, but this implementation of a dated part of gaming history is, to me, kind of genius and it makes me wonder why more developers don’t attempt something similar.

As I’ll be covering in future articles, Nintendo has often saved its biggest innovations for their handhelds. The Game Boy and Game Boy Color are early examples of a company meeting and exceeding their ambitions; the fact that games previously only playable on the NES were ported over to this little brick of fun speaks volumes to how ahead of the curve Nintendo was. It wasn’t the last time that their handheld systems experimented and sometimes defined gaming, though. Keep an eye out in the coming weeks when I return to discuss the Game Boy Advance and all of its amazing features and titles.

Written by Collin Henderson

Collin enjoys gaming, reading, and writing. He would love to tell you all about his two books, the crime thriller Lemon Sting, and the short horror story collection Silence Under Screams, but only if you find yourself unfortunate enough to be in a conversation with him. He lives in Massachusetts.

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