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Home » Retrogaming, Technology

Game Boy — Nintendo dominates the portable market

By: 22 January 2011 2 Comments

Kirby was popular on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and even more so on the Game Boy. Here he is in 'Kirby's Dream Land 2."

Every video game fan who was around in the mid-1980s knows Nintendo’s story very well.

A good number of people figured the console industry was pretty well dead thanks to a number of events. There was the so-called Video Game Crash of 1983 and the rise of personal computers that could handle games quite well available at price points that made them attractive to millions of people who couldn’t afford them in the past.

Industry giant Atari was on the ropes while competitors such as Coleco, Mattel and Magnavox were backing out of the console market. It seemed like the North American console gaming industry kicked off by Atari was dying or at least in serious trouble. In 1985, however, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released and it became very apparent that the ailing console market was alive and well.

In addition to putting a very good system in the market, Nintendo operated under a different set of assumptions than competitors. Bear in mind that the American console industry was in trouble, but that wasn’t the case in Japan, Nintendo’s home base. Nintendo, then, was able to market a product at a time when there was clearly a demand for one and the company simply dominated the American console industry for years.

The original Game Boy.

Why is all this relevant? Nintendo saw an opportunity in the console market and, by 1989, saw an opportunity to pretty well create another industry — portable gaming. By 1989, Nintendo wasn’t exactly treading on new ground as the company did sell the Game & Watch system in 1980. That unit was portable and cartridges could be purchased for it, but it was more than a bit simplistic.

The Game Boy, however, was a different breed of cat. When Nintendo released it in 1989, the system was actually more powerful than the NES in terms of processing power (both systems were 8 bit) and the little unit was sophisticated enough to handle complex games.

Interestingly enough, the Game Boy was — in a lot of ways — not as technologically advanced as its main competitors — the Atari Lynx and the Sega Game Gear. The screen was smaller at 2.6 inches and didn’t display color graphics. The eight-bit system’s graphics capabilities were inferior to the Lynx’s 16-bit graphics setup. The screen was not backlit, meaning playing it in the dark was difficult without an external light source.

The Game Boy, however, had a lot going for it. For one thing, it was initially sold for $90 and, therefore, was considerably cheaper than the Lynx (also released in 1989) and the Game Gear (released in 1991). Indeed, a Game Boy cost about half as much as a Lynx. The low price was only part of the appeal — Nintendo had enough marketing money to throw at the thing to grind down opponents. Also, bear in mind that Nintendo was the dominant player at the time and, as such, was able to secure enough third-party support to release a slew of games in about any genre imaginable.

Of course, Nintendo had the well-deserved reputation of designing great games. Popular characters such as Mario and Kirby were featured in Game Boy titles and new franchises such as the wildly popular Pokemon series made their debut on the system. Yes, the games were in black and white and on comparatively tiny screens, but at least the graphics were sharp and plenty of solid titles were available. It’s all about the software when it comes to the video game industry, and Nintendo understood that concept very well.

A good example of how well Nintendo understood the importance of quality software is revealed in its choice of a pack-in game — Tetris. That block-stacking game alone was responsible for a lot of sales. And, yes, the Game Boy did pile on the sales. In 1989, Nintendo sold 1 million of the things and saw those numbers increase to 3.2 million in 1990 and 4.4 million in 1991. As we’ve seen, sales figures pretty well went up from there.

The large number of Game Boys floating around out there also helped that system achieve the goal of multiplayer gaming. Sure, the Lynx, Game Gear and Game Boy could each be linked so gamers who owned the same system could play against each other on their systems. However, the Game Boy was the better multiplayer machine because of sheer numbers — it was far more likely a gamer would know someone who owned a Game Boy than a Lynx or Game Gear, after all.

And, of course, there’s the battery life to consider. A Game Boy could milk up to 30 hours (more or less) through four “AA” batteries while both the Lynx and Game Gear drained six “AA” batteries like they were going out of style. Furthermore, the Game Boy was considerably smaller than its competitors.

Game Boy Pocket.

That size shrank even more when the Game Boy Pocket was released in 1996. The screen was a bit bigger, too, and improved so that it showed “true” black and white graphics instead of the green-tinted monochrome display of the original unit. By the way, the Game Boy Pocket also required fewer batteries and switched to the smaller “AAA” size — the battery life, however, was considerably less than what was available with the original.

The small size of the Game Boy, by the way, meant the system was very portable and ergonomic. The excellent directional pad and action buttons both feel very precise and are durable enough to hold up for years. The excellent controls should come as no surprise as they were adapted from the time-tested control pad for the the NES.

Meanwhile, the sound on the unit is nothing to write home about — mono audio pumped through a tiny speaker. Stereo sound is available through the headphone jack. It works well enough, honestly.

Perhaps the best way to gauge the success of the original Game Boy lies in the longevity of the line of systems it inspired. The Game Boy series has been around for 22 years now and has been a consistent cash cow for Nintendo. Here’s another thing — the original Game Boy did go through some revisions, but it wasn’t truly phased out until the Game Boy Color was released in 1998. That’s right — the original, black and white unit was on the market for nine years and sold very well for close to a decade.

One of the fascinating things about the Game Boy is that it marks the second time in the 1980s that Nintendo showed up at just the right time with just the right product. In fact, one might argue that the Game Boy is more responsible for Nintendo’s longevity in the gaming market than the consoles. Bear in mind that Nintendo was struggling against its competition with both the Nintendo 64 and the Game Cube, yet Game Boy sales have remained strong for over two decades.

Stay tuned — more reviews to come in the “retrogaming” category here at First Arkansas News.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email =


  • Claude White said:

    The picture shown in your article, referenced as “Kirby’s Dream Land 2″ is actually “Kirby’s Dream Land.”

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