Only Nintendo could kill the Game Boy

The Game Boy was the most dominant line of products in the history of video games. Every iteration of Game Boy faced several competitors, often with greater technical capabilities. Yet, every time, Nintendo won out. This week marks three straight decades of handheld gaming supremacy from Kyoto.

How did Nintendo do it?

Over the past 30 years, it’s been pretty much the same story. Nintendo has competed the exact same way it always has: on price, simplicity, and sheer quality of its games. Take the Atari Lynx. Released just a few months after the Game Boy, it was technically superior in almost every way. It had a backlit color screen, and it was based around 16-bit architecture, making launch titles like Blue Lightning look impressive even next to the home consoles of the day. But at $179.99, the Lynx cost nearly twice as much as the Game Boy, and the games just weren’t there.

Two more major color-screen competitors to the Game Boy emerged the following year. Sega’s $149.99 8-bit Game Gear was slightly more affordable than the Lynx, and it at least had big names like Sonic the Hedgehog on board, but it was notorious for its short battery life, which was a big deal in the days when you had to buy AA replacements. NEC’s TurboExpress, meanwhile, was a technically impressive portable version of the TurboGrafx-16, but its high price of $249.99 and its parent console’s niche status meant it was never going to be a major player.

With its early competitors all but vanquished, Nintendo solidified its grip on the market in 1996 with the release of the Game Boy Pocket. To this day, it’s one of the more dramatic “slim” console revisions of all time, and the Pocket shed a huge amount of the original Game Boy’s bulk and did away with its notorious green-on-green display. The Pocket’s screen was the same size, but it had a faster refresh rate and a much more attractive grayscale look. The system also ran off of just two AAA batteries, compared to the original’s four AAs.

The Pocket didn’t change anything about the Game Boy as a platform. At that point, the system’s library of games spoke for itself, and it wasn’t until two years later that Nintendo would do anything to expand its capabilities. 1998’s Game Boy Color was roughly as powerful as an NES, allowing for Color-exclusive ports of games like Super Mario Bros. But crucially, the Color maintained full backwards compatibility with the Game Boy, so games like Pokémon Yellow were able to support the color screen while also running on the tens of millions of monochrome systems that were already out there.

1998 also saw the release of SNK’s Japan-only Neo Geo Pocket, followed the next year by the globally sold Neo Geo Pocket Color. This was arguably the best shot anyone had taken at the Game Boy until this point. The hardware was similarly solid and affordable, with strong battery life and a great microswitched mini-joystick. The software library also contained several impressive titles. Fans of SNK’s fighting franchises were particularly well-served, and the system even played host to a surprisingly good Sonic the Hedgehog game years before Sega would consider putting its IP on Nintendo platforms.

It would prove impossible to compete with the exploding Pokémon phenomenon, however, and SNK’s financial troubles caused it to back out of its global operations in 2000 before going bankrupt in Japan the next year. It didn’t help that, in Japan, the NGPC had another serious competitor to deal with: Bandai’s WonderSwan.

Dreamed up by Gunpei Yokoi, the designer behind the original Game Boy and its predecessor the Game & Watch, the WonderSwan was an innovative system that achieved a respectable level of success in Japan. It was playable in both horizontal and vertical orientations, and Bandai released the original monochrome version at a low price of 4,800 yen to undercut the Game Boy Color. A color version followed in late 2000, and while the system managed to outsell SNK and attract impressive ports of games like Final Fantasy IV, Bandai was ultimately steamrolled by the 2001 launch of Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance.

With enough power to handle SNES games like Super Mario World, the Game Boy Advance was a predictable hit, even if Nintendo didn’t add a light for the screen until the 2003 SP revision. (Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was one of the system’s best early releases, but it was difficult to play in anything other than thematically inappropriate direct sunlight.) The GBA followed the same playbook as previous Game Boy consoles: it was cheap, it had a good battery life, and it maintained backwards compatibility with the entire Game Boy library. Oh, and Nintendo made a bunch of incredible games for it.

Bandai and SNK hadn’t been able to compete on Nintendo’s terms, so the GBA’s competitors took a different approach. The most powerful Game Boy yet was still a Game Boy through and through, which meant that it could have been a lot more capable. Mobile technology was becoming faster and more mainstream around the turn of the millennium; it was clear that everyone would soon carry a mobile phone if they already didn’t. And the idea of a phone that could play advanced mobile games didn’t seem like a terrible idea — particularly to Nokia, which, as the world’s leading phone manufacturer, had seen its preloaded Snake game become a minor phenomenon. In 2003, the company released a PDA-style phone called the N-Gage that ran Symbian OS and could play actual 3D games off physical cards.

Unfortunately, the N-Gage was a disaster. Despite its technically impressive ports of games like Tomb Raider and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, the phone-style number keys were terrible to actually play with, and Nokia made some bizarre design decisions like requiring you to remove the battery to switch game cards. It wasn’t great as a phone, either: the phone’s odd taco-shaped design and side-mounted earpiece spawned countless mocking “side-talking” memes. By the time Nokia released the improved N-Gage QD in 2005, the damage had already been done.

Nokia wasn’t the only company attempting to combine PDA and games console. Tapwave, a startup founded by former Palm executives, released an entertainment-focused PDA called the Zodiac in 2003. The Tapwave Zodiac ran Palm OS and had a large 480 x 320 display designed for video and games, as well as MP3 playback and general PDA functionality. It had ports of games like Doom II and Madden NFL 2005, and, overall, it was considered to be a pretty good device. But, as has often been the case with Palm-adjacent products, the Zodiac’s timing was terrible. It ran head-first into a device that not only outclassed it on a technical level but posed the biggest threat yet to Nintendo’s dominance.

It’s hard to overstate just how cool the Sony PlayStation Portable seemed in 2004. The PS2 was, by far, the most popular games console at the time, and here was a portable device that was almost as powerful while also offering a beautiful screen and advanced multimedia capabilities. Sony positioned the PSP as the Walkman of the future — an important pitch, considering how its lunch had just been comprehensively devoured by Apple’s iPod — and even with a high price of $249, it was clear that this would be the first true competitor to Nintendo in the handheld gaming space.

It didn’t help that Nintendo’s own move in 2004 was way out of left field. The DS, a strange dual-screened system with a stylus and a microphone, was going directly up against the PSP, and the difference couldn’t have been starker. Its graphical capabilities were more like the PS1 than the PS2, its media functionality was non-existent, and its initial batch of software was experimental in the extreme. Nintendo was at pains to describe the DS as a “third pillar” alongside the Game Boy Advance and the GameCube rather than the next step in its handheld lineage, and it released the tiny Game Boy Micro in 2005 as an attempt to sustain the GBA platform.

You probably know how that turned out. The PSP performed well, but the DS ended up as Nintendo’s most successful system ever. Innovative titles like Nintendogs and Brain Age brought in people who’d never bought a games console before, while the sheer depth and breadth of the DS library meant there was something for everyone who had one. Even though the PSP was more powerful, its games were often less well-suited to portable play, with convoluted control schemes, a short battery life, and slow loading times due to the UMD optical disc format. The DS, meanwhile, kept the same advantages that the Game Boy line always had. Earlier versions of the DS even featured a slot for GBA games.

That’s why the Game Boy Micro was the last Game Boy. In the early days of the DS, an awful lot of people expected Nintendo to come through with a more traditional, more powerful system that would play GameCube-level games, and all would be right with the world. Instead, the stratospheric success of the DS meant that Nintendo’s next system, the 3DS, was more or less a direct successor. It wasn’t as big a hit as the DS, but it still sold very well and comfortably crushed Sony’s ill-fated PS Vita. No one is asking for a new Game Boy these days.

With the Switch, of course, this is all a moot point. Nintendo doesn’t even have a dedicated handheld division anymore, and it doesn’t look like the company will make any more 3DS games. The Switch’s use of mobile hardware that’s powerful enough to look passable on a TV is probably the death knell for dedicated Nintendo handhelds, even as rumors swirl about a more portable version.

But the Switch is also the reason that, as we mark the 30th anniversary of the Game Boy, we’re also marking 30 years of Nintendo defining and owning the portable gaming market. Ever since the Game Boy launched, many have tried to take it down. But in the end, the only company that could truly kill the Game Boy was Nintendo.

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