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I freely confess that I feel like an absolute dinosaur in writing about this product. After all, this isn't the Game Boy Advance, it's not the Game Boy "Color" (blasted US spelling...), it's not even the "Pocket Game Boy". No, what we have here is the one that started it all - and, in many ways, blasted the entire handheld market from a niche sector into the mainstream - the good old, 100-million-plus-selling, Nintendo Game Boy itself. Just let me drag myself away from Alfred Chicken for a minute (no officer, it's nothing like that. Honestly) and I'll be with you.
At first glance, it looks rather dull. At second glance, even more so - really nothing more than a grey brick with a tiny LCD screen, an even tinier speaker and a few buttons dotted about. The most exciting feature it can muster is probably the legend above the screen, which informs you breathlessly, "Dot matrix with stereo sound". Possibly not the most promising base for world domination, then. But the Game Boy is the supreme embodiment of that oft-abused line "content is king". It may be less than beautiful; one might even call it ugly - but it fully deserves its place in the sun.
With a product such as this, it's absolutely vital to make a big impression early on. That means getting people talking about it (well, provided they're not saying, "I 'ad one of them Game things - load of rubbish, mate, fell apart after five minutes). Nintendo did this by selling many early Game Boys bundled with a game. Not a new strategy, of course - people always feel better if they haven't got to shell out extra on top of the console, even if the total cost works out much the same. What made it work this time was the identity of the bundled game - one of the very first games to hail from what was then still the Soviet Union. The name of the game's author was Alexei Pajitnov; the name of the game... was Tetris.
So, now there were millions of Game Boy owners all around the world. But one game, no matter how addictive - and I can still hear Tetris' tune as I type! - couldn't last forever. Nintendo being Nintendo, though, there was little chance of that. The Game Boy market expanded hugely as it devoured the technically more advanced colour handheld consoles from Atari (RIP) and Sega (ditto, if they don't get their act together soon), and games flooded onto the shelves from all quarters. Nintendo were strict about their "Seal of Quality" - it was very rare to see a game sold without one. Some might say that this stifled independent developers, but it does have to be said that you could be sure that you could buy a Game Boy cartridge, plug it in, and *know* it would work perfectly first time. That's worth a lot.
And before long developers were doing things with the Game Boy which were miracles of programming. Games thought impossible to squeeze into such a small space were converted from other formats. Lemmings (I still have fond memories of first playing this, illicitly, on my school's Archimedes) turned out to work brilliantly, the restricted dimensions of the screen bringing to life the confined spaces of the lemmings' caverns. One of the last black and white games before developers moved entirely to the colour platform was an astounding conversion of V-Rally. There was the fluorescent yellow cartridge of Donkey Kong Land, which brought Game Boy graphical brilliance to new heights. And if, for some reason, you actually find fighting games interesting, there's - believe it or not - a conversion of Street Fighter 2 Alpha Turbo Plus Extra Championship Ibble Obble Black Bobble Special Edition (or whatever).
It wasn't all straight conversions, though - there were plenty of original titles as well. On the platform side, I have a particular soft spot for the ultra-cute Kirby's Dreamland... mainly because, incompetent gamer that I am, it's the only platform game I've ever completed without cheating! Nintendo's own Golf, although rather simplistic as far as graphics were concerned, and a little "Japanesey" in the animations, worked very well because of thoughtful course design. Monster Max brought 3D isometric games to the handheld - looking at it, you can tell at once that it's by the great Jon Ritman, who was also responsible for that 8-bit classic, Head Over Heels. Unfortunately Monster Max was criminally undervalued by the publishers, and release was delayed for months, ruining its chances.
One other game cannot pass unmentioned. Most platforms, whether they be computer or console, have one, perhaps two games that define them to future generations. Elite for the BBC Micro; Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy for the Spectrum; MineStorm for the Vectrex; and so on. The Game Boy has one too, and it's so good that I even forgive it its unwieldy title. All rise please for The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. This is, by common consent, the best of all the Zelda games released up to that point, on any format. An RPG set in a vast, superbly realised fantasy world, Zelda has it all - fighting, adventure, humour, irritating subgames ("The Trendy Game" - I ask you...), and even a battery backup that actually works. There's so much freedom in this game that - and I'm being quite serious here - the game it most brings to mind is Black and White. Frankly, if you own a Game Boy and don't have Zelda, then one can only despair....
That's the games, then. What of the console on which you play them? Well, as Nintendo have clearly recognised judging by their later versions, it is a little bit bulky unless you have large hands - your thumbs are sure to feel the strain after a while (especially if you're playing Track and Field!), and you do start to notice the weight before too long. The four AA batteries (the Pocket version downsized this to AAA) are an unavoidable weight, but even so the console feels very old-fashioned in its bulkiness these days. The buttons themselves are surprisingly comfortable, and have lasted nine years without any trouble on my machine, and the sockets for mains adapter and link cable appear still to be intact.
The screen, of course, is the number one concern for most Game Boy owners. There's no getting away from it: it's too small, and too dim. A couple of inches in each direction ain't a great deal considering how cluttered some screens, especially on the platform games, can become. The best developers, of course, plan for this (Zelda is especially clear) but even so there are often problems with telling a moving foreground from a static background, or vice versa. Various magnifiers and lights have appeared on the market over the years, and these do help somewhat, but even with the contrast turned right up it can be a little hard on the eyes.
When you think of the fact that the monochrome Game Boy first appeared in 1989 - a year, let us remember, when the British market was still dominated by Spectrums, Commodores and Amstrads - it's quite remarkable that it's held out for so long. Over a decade in production is quite an achievement in the computer industry, but one that the little handheld quite deserves. It may be getting to the end of its lifespan now, despite the Indian Summer it has recently enjoyed thanks to the almighty Pokemon, but it's still a fine piece of kit, and as such we should salute it.
Not forgetting Donkey Kong and Mario. It might be my age but I'm still addicted to
Tetris. I didn't realise you could write so much information about it. A well deserved VH.
Thanks for your useful points on my op. Angie
arcadionseyes 04.08.2001 03:51
Why have I never read any of your opinions before? This is an excellent opinion, funny too! I still have the old original one, but I have to twiddle the batteries about for it to turn on sometimes. I got mine xmas 1990 with Beetlejuice...shoulda got tetris, but me being the ignoratn child I was demanded the game with the cartoon on the packaging...pfft!
Nameless 31.07.2001 01:17
It may be a dull grey brick, but it is among the most addictive things ever made. Great op, Cheers, Martin :o)