How the Game Boy Shaped Nintendo’s Future

The story behind its success still feels familiar three decades later.

A vintage game console, by the Nintendo Game Boy handheld system, when it was released in Japan in 1...
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You can’t take it with you. This conventional wisdom typically refers to what happens to your money when your life comes to an end, but it also applies to the toys, gadgets, and Legend of Zelda collectibles we obsess over in our daily lives. And in the late ‘80s, however, it was a hard truth for gaming. A decade earlier, gamers could only get their fix in arcades, so the advent of home consoles felt like a true revolution. Who would’ve thought that in just a few short years the home console breakthrough would give way to portable consoles? Gunpei Yokoi, that’s who.

Yokoi was the head of Nintendo’s research and development division and had helped create titles like Donkey Kong, Metroid and Super Mario Brothers. He is widely credited as the creator of the Game Boy, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this month, and the story behind its success still feels familiar three decades later.

Launching on April 21, 1989, the Game Boy wasn’t going to win any beauty contests. A small gray box with a dim green screen, Nintendo’s handheld was undersized on purpose. Yokoi was inspired to develop portable consoles after watching a Japanese businessman playing with a pocket calculator on a train. His first iteration of the concept was the iconic Game and Watch series, which combined simple games with, wait for it, a digital watch. Nintendo produced dozens of Game and Watch titles of varied success, but Yokoi’s team felt the real breakthrough would be in a portable console that ran cartridges, just like the NES did at home.

Much like with today’s Switch, Nintendo’s approach to the Game Boy wasn’t about making the most powerful console with the best graphics around. It was centered on the user experience and driven by creating the best game library possible. Competitors like Sega’s Game Gear and Atari’s Lynx took the opposite approach. They boasted full-color, backlit screens and 16-bit graphics. They also had abysmal battery life. An analysis from Real Engineering showed that, adjusted for inflation, it cost $2.30 an hour to run a Game Gear. Nintendo’s Game Boy? An economical 16 cents.

Dr. Mario is no substitute for med school, unfortunately.

Nintendo of America

The Game Boy’s low-fi approach worked out in the end, moving more than 118 million units in its lifespan. However, it almost destroyed the project, too. Nintendo’s president at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi, actually canceled the Game Boy after testing a prototype because the pixel quality was too low. Fortunately, new technology from Sharp came shortly after his decision that allowed for a better screen and, in Yamauchi’s eyes, an acceptable product.

Yokoi described his philosophy as Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikō which translates to “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.” In essence, it means relying on existing technology as much as possible to create products. The Game Boy screen wasn’t as impressive as its peers, but that didn’t matter to fans who got hooked on games like Tetris and Super Mario Bros. World. It embraced simple things like a headphone jack and an on/off switch that physically locked a cartridge in place for stability. The tech for the system link cable, which helped turn Pokémon into an international multiplayer sensation through battles and trades, actually came from an electronic mahjong game.

The rolling Nintendo logo on the startup screen is another interesting innovation that serves a dual purpose. There’s data for the logo stored on the Game Boys internal memory that has to sync with data on the cartridge in order for a game to launch. If the connection was faulty, it wouldn’t work. This was often remedied by the infamous “blow in it” technique to remove dust and debris and establish a clean connection. Also, by requiring the Nintendo logo to be programmed into the cartridge, Nintendo could easily police bootleg games that attempted to use it without licensing.

If you can hear this picture its probably time to schedule your first colonoscopy.


It’s easy to measure the enormous financial success of the Game Boy with units sold and games shipped, but its cultural impact is even larger, if harder to quantify. Game Boy changed the way we thought about games as an experience. They went from a fixed entertainment to a mobile distraction seemingly overnight. It would be nearly two decades later until smartphones put movies and TV shows in our pockets (not to mention loads more games). And crucially for Nintendo the Game Boy was a proving ground for what’s become a pillar of the company’s philosophy. Great games, not great tech, are what connect with people.

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