Nintendo Game Boy

Game Boy Light

It was the summer 1989, and I had finished suffering through the 2nd grade. George H.W. Bush had been president for less than six months, and for the first time in my life, I knew the name of the president. I hadn’t quite turned eight yet, so although slightly embarrassing now, it was a milestone. I probably only knew who he was due to a Dana Carvey impersonation, but that’s for another time and place. This is an ode to what I consider to be the original portable gadget: Nintendo’s Game Boy.

For Christmas of 1987, I had received a Nintendo Entertainment System. The must have accessory for nerdy kids in the late 80’s I received later on was a subscription to Nintendo Power. Looking back through these old issues, my parents essentially paid Nintendo to advertise to me. Shrewdly, they announced the Game Boy within their pages and, being eight, I had to have one. Prior to the NES, my dad had an ancient Hewlett Packard terminal for dialing in to work each evening, so I was used to monochrome graphics. After its successful launch, I proudly brought the magazine to the dinner table, ready to make my case for a potential birthday present.

I was ill prepared for the arguments I faced. Mom reminded me that I had already asked for a Lego pirate ship for my birthday, and logic would dictate that my birthday being less than a month away, it was presumably already purchased, wrapped, and stashed under her bed. I knew I couldn’t ask for two high end gifts in one year, so that sank any immediate plans for owning a Game Boy. I don’t want to revisit my entire childhood here, but it was another five years before I knew anyone who owned the sought after portable device. I think it was part of some vast maternal conspiracy far too complex even now for me to understand, designed to encourage game trading amongst ourselves over purchasing. After those five years I had a Super Nintendo, and a second hand Sega Game Gear my parents bought off an uncle for $30, which after a few summer cross country trips was retired to the back of a closet, and eventually the basement, and with that AA batteries were once again freely available in our home. Even the dentist’s office had a Game Boy at this point, a fitting punch line to go with those jokes about old magazines.

In high school, I noticed a couple of my friends with original Game Boys playing Pokémon between classes. As disinterested as I felt, part of me knew, once again, I wanted to buy a Game Boy. Maybe it was because I now had an income, or the fact that the Game Boy Color had just launched a revival of sorts, but now it was on me whether or not to make the purchase. Of course, just about any electronics purchase is a big deal. I had already given up maintaining a gaming PC so I could buy a car, which caused a large portion of my income to regularly be spent on purchases from the Motorcraft division of the Ford Motor Company as well as meals at the local Perkins. Instead of diverting a portion my income back to gaming, I moved the SNES into my room, and that cured the urge for a while.

Despite the hype and the buildup, how I ended up getting my first Game Boy is amazingly unremarkable. I drove over to GameStop with my girlfriend, and I bought one, with a copy of Tetris, for something like $23. By this point, it was the summer of 2001. It came in a plain white cardboard box with a store branded sticker on it with a box checked that indicated the model. Later that night, I popped the batteries in, and turned it on. I squinted through a few rounds of Tetris, then I went to bed. The next day changed everything.

It was warm outside that day, with a comfortable breeze. After trying to squeeze in some pre-breakfast Tetris, I became frustrated with the lighting situation in the basement and took the Game Boy out on the deck. Then it all made sense. At the right angle, everything was clear. I no longer believed the screen was a design limitation. Rather, it had to be a way to pull gaming away from dim basements and the stench of stale Doritos and into the daylight. Not entirely confident the public shared my view, I spent the rest of the summer sneaking around with it in my glove box or in a book bag, picking up a used game every now and again and squeezing in a few minutes here and there. That fall, I dragged it around campus and played on lonely benches along the river. The summer launch of the Game Boy Advance had been completely off my radar, and I wasn’t impressed when a neighbor in the dorms showed me a GBC game on it with the screen all stretched out. Later in the year, one night a work, a girl I worked with, one of those blonde, size one, active in school events types busted out her GBA.

She was what game companies wanted; an attractive, popular young girl playing a game in public. When she handed me the system to “try a level,” I immediately recognized the particular arrangement of pixels on the screen. It was Super Mario World, likely my favorite game of all time. She even seemed excited when I blew through Vanilla Secret 1, even after I admitted to her I had been playing that game since I was eleven. Before next summer came, I had one of my own, my first modern Game Boy. And that is how, in my lifetime, the Game Boy pulled gaming and gadgets out of the closet.

Plain and simple, the Game Boy is the iPod of gaming. Without the Game Boy, I doubt Apple could have so easily had the masses boldly wearing their slick white earbuds in public. Palm wouldn’t have been able to bring the PDA from the briefcase to the pocket. Even the successor to the Game Boy, the DS, can be likened to the iPod’s successor, the iPhone. Both are devices seen as even more acceptable to bust out in public, and both contain a friendlier interface (they also both lose some backwards compatibility, but never mind that). It’s to the point now that if I’m going to be somewhere for any period of time, by Game Boy and/or my DS are with me.

Anywhere I go, I bring entertainment. My wife has even started carrying a DS (original, not lite, making it that much more impressive) in her purse in case one of us gets bored. I essentially am able to remove myself from boredom at key points in my life; when the previews are playing at the movies, when my wife is trying on clothes at the mall, etc. Pretty much everywhere I have to wait, I’m set.

Happy birthday, Game Boy.

Posted on July 31, 2009 at 17:56 by socketeer · Permalink
In: Technology, Video Games · Tagged with: , ,

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  1. Written by Peter Beacom
    on August 2, 2009 at 13:36

    There was a classmate of mine in elementary school with overly generous parents who had one of the original Game Boys. Your mention of the Game Boy paving the way for mobile Apple products is spot on. The Game Boy was the first portable electronic device I remember to come with ear bud head phones that became ubiquitous with the launch of the iPod. It may not have been the first device shipped with such head phones, but it was likely the first highly coveted device shipped with such head phone.

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