Handheld Week: The GameBoy Retrospective

Here at Leviathyn I am dedicating this week to handheld gaming and all its ups and downs through gaming history. Portable gaming has been through a heavy evolution. Some may argue even moreso than home consoles. When you think about what he played on the dot matrix GameBoy and look at the PS Vita or the 3DS, it is absolutely astounding to see what we can do with technology. This week we’re going to look into some retrospectives from Nintendo, Sony, and what devices like smartphones and tablets have to offer portable gaming.

Monday: The 3 Best Games for Each Handheld
Tuesday: The GameBoy Retrospective

Wednesday: Sony’s Gambit: The PlayStation Portable
Thursday: The Smartphone and Tablet Uprising
Friday: Top Ten Handheld Games Ever
Saturday: The Forgotten Devices: Portable Nobodies

Yesterday, I introduced the devices we’ll be talking about this week and many of them are from Nintendo. There’s a reason for that, though. Nintendo is the pioneer of the handheld gaming market. They certainly weren’t the first to come out with a handheld gaming device, though. Before the GameBoy in 1989, people were using handheld, single game devices from companies like Bandai, Coleco, and Milton Bradley. What the GameBoy did was use an interchangeable system so different games could be made and distributed for use in the device just like a home console. The GameBoy was revolutionary not just for games but for technology, as well. Before then, game cartridges were huge. Using the dot matrix tech, the games could be stored on smaller boards and put in tiny cases. When you take what we’re using now and put it up against an old GameBoy cart, you should be surprised as how far we’ve come. It all started here, with the GameBoy.


The GameBoy’s Impact (1989 to 1998)

The GameBoy reigned king for nearly ten years. It wasn’t until Nintendo’s next handheld did the original die out. With over 800 games, it is hard to deny the success Nintendo saw. Game developers flocked to the handheld. With over 64 million GameBoys sold during its lifetime, the first true gaming handheld wow’ed audiences and became the most wanted electronic by kids.

Nintendo brought about the portable gaming market. Without them, it wouldn’t have matured like it had. Companies back then thought singular games on an electronic device was the way to go. Think of how the handheld market would look like if Tiger Electronics was still king. The GameBoy changed everything. It didn’t go unchallenged, though. Sega, who at the time was Nintendo’s biggest rival in gaming, also came out with their own handheld. The Game Gear sported a color screen and some crazy accessories like a TV tuner. The thing suffered from terrible battery life and a small game library. It couldn’t come close to the GameBoy’s success and as such, developers looked towards Nintendo for their time and effort. Sega did its best to get its greatest exclusives to come out with Game Gear titles but overall the device had a short life on the market just like all the others who tried to challenge the might of The Big N.

That’s what it came down to for other companies. Was it going to be worth it to go up against the king? It was almost like committing treason against your liege. You had to hope that there was enough people who would crowd your banners and support your claim to the throne. It was war if you came out with something during this era in handheld gaming. A war where you had 20,000 soldiers against a few armadas with a back-up navy. Fair? Not even close. Aside from the Game Gear, Sega tried again but this time they were upping the ante. The Sega Nomad promised to bring gamers a portable Genesis. You would literally slap in Genesis carts into the Nomad and play low-res Sonic and Golden Axe. Neo Geo, Atari, and Tiger tried to best Nintendo with low to moderate success. What did Nintendo do to combat all these competitors? Remodel.

The GameBoy Pocket was released in 1996 and did everything the original did but just in smaller form. It was crazy how much smaller this thing was compared to the hulk before it. We saw the beginnings of many great handheld franchises from 1989 to 1998. Super Mario Land, Tetris, and Pokemon Red and Blue have all sold over 15 millions copies and have spawned many sequels and spin-offs. There was also the last remodel of the GameBoy from 1998 that only was released in Japan called GameBoy Light. It was a bit bigger then the Pocket but came with a backlight. Oh, this is just the beginning of Nintendo’s remodel obsessed handheld life.

With the market firmly in its grasp, Nintendo looked to the future and began creation on its new project.


Nintendo’s World — In Color ( 1998 to 2001)

In late 1998, Nintendo released the successor to the GameBoy kindom: The GameBoy Color. The GBC was a major hit and sold over 54 million units during its lifetime. Its library held over 500 games with plenty of classics including the continuation of the Pokemon series with Gold and Silver, Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages & Seasons, Shantae, and much more. Surprisingly, this is the only handheld from Nintendo that never received a remodel.

The GameBoy Color was by no means the first color screen-equipped handheld. That honor goes to the Atari Lynx. However, it was the most successful one at the time. The GameBoy Color fought off rivals like the WonderSwan Color and NeoGeo Color but in the long run the competition had no leeway. Besides the screen, the GBC was more powerful then the GameBoy and the games shined because of it. The device’s best seller, Pokemon Gold and Silver, were stunning in not just what they did for the franchise but also how much the game held inside the cartridge. It was two games in one. It was nearly impossible to find a portable game with as much content as those two games back then. Hell, even now you would be hard pressed. The GBC was another success that etched Nintendo’s name in the handheld market domination.


See The World In 32-Bit ( 2001 to 2004)

Nintendo changed the landscape of the handheld market with the release of the GameBoy Advance in 2001. Selling over 81 million units and totaling over 1,000 games in its library, the GBA evolved handheld gaming from simple graphics and games into huge RPG’s, adventures, and action-filled blockbusters with vibrant colors and looks. Two years later in 2003, Nintendo released the GameBoy Advance SP. This remodel completely changed the form of the system from a “candybar” form to a clam shell which helped protect the screen and make it more portable. The screen was much better thanks to a switchable backlight. Again in 2005, Nintendo came out with another remodel of the GBA in the form of the Micro. It is the smaller Nintendo system and could get lost in your pocket. They are actually rare to find now.

The move to 32-bit was a huge leap for handhelds. When I got my hands on a GBA and played my first game, I was wow’ed. Before this, we were used to dot matrix and slightly upgraded color screens. The only bad part about the GBA was that it was only out for three years before the DS hit. This was the smallest gap between handheld releases from Nintendo. However, this didn’t stop the torrent of games that released for the handheld. The library is absolutely huge with a giant love for classic and original RPG’s. Even if you were upset about the quick switch to the DS, owners of the GBA were still getting love for quite a while.


The Tip Of The Iceberg (2004 to 2011)

Yeah, that seems like a nice chunk of time between releases but Nintendo went remodel happy with the DS. The system went through three different models after its original release. Still, the DS has proven to be the most successful handheld of all time and the second best selling game device ever with 151 million units sold. With over 4,000 titles available for the DS there is so much to choose from with all genres supported. The DS is also the first Nintendo console to feature a brand new Grand Theft Auto game.

The DS is the best handheld ever made. Not only do the sales back that up, but the game library it contains is too massive. I used to work for a game store and stocking that section of the wall was an absolute horror. The DS is a major beast with classic titles and nearly every Nintendo franchise making an appearance. The remodels were the a problem, however. Everytime you upgraded to a different model of the DS or just bought one for the first time, it felt like only months before Nintendo threw out something new. The DS Lite replaced the original model pretty quickly and for good reason. The original model was gigantic. I felt like the DSi was a waste, though. The cameras weren’t good and the microphone wasn’t used very much. The DSi shop is something that could have been done without the release of a remodel. The XL was intended to give people with large hands. Was that really necessary?


The 3D Naming Error (2011)

With their latest and current handheld, Nintendo went a different route and added 3D. The screen and two cameras were able to give the effect in games and apps. The 3DS went off to a rough start. In fact, only five months after release the device saw a huge price drop and it was then that the 3DS began to plant its feet in the ground. The gaming library is lacking past the first party titles and a few 3rd party gems. The 3D can be a bit overwhelming at times, as well. Still, despite the hurdles and steep climb, the 3DS is sitting very well right now with over 15 million units sold. Expectations for a new software push at this year’s E3 should keep the momentum rolling. However, it’s what will release from now to the end of the year that decides the fate of the 3DS.


Nintendo has sat calmly at the top of the handheld dominion since 1989. They are remodel happy and seemingly can’t be happy with a product that they have made, but you cannot deny the quality of their devices. The kings of the portable realm have beaten every challenge put in front of them and never once relinquished their throne. Will a Nintendo handheld ever be topped?

Only one rival has come close to challenging them. Tomorrow we delve into the tremendous risk that Sony took in joining the handheld race with the PSP and if it succeeded or not.

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