34 Years Ago, Nintendo Changed How We Play Video Games Forever

Gaming on the go.

A vintage game console, by the Nintendo Game Boy handheld system, when it was released in Japan in 1...
NurPhoto/NurPhoto/Getty Images

The best-selling console currently on store shelves today is the Nintendo Switch, which is coming close to 130 million units sold. While the plethora of iconic games from Nintendo is one reason to buy the system, the biggest selling point is the hybrid design.

It can be played on a TV or in your hands and marks the combination of Nintendo's long history of home and handheld consoles. But it wouldn’t exist without the industry-changing release of the company’s first handheld console in 1989 — the Game Boy.

Nintendo’s handheld changed how we play video games.

Future Publishing/Future/Getty Images

While not technically the first handheld gaming device, gaming on the go before the Game Boy was a pale imitation of home consoles. Before 1989, Nintendo had dipped its toes in the handheld market with the Game & Watch line of handhelds.

While you could play games on the system, each Game & Watch handheld only had one game on it. If you were leaving the comfort of your home and wanted to game, you had to either carry all of the different systems or decide on the one game you wanted to play. Meanwhile home consoles allowed you to swap cartridges at will and play any game you wanted.

The Game Boy changed that with its cartridge system that emulated the experience of home consoles in your hand. The now iconic design of the original Game Boy was functional and stylish while being incredibly portable. But a well-designed handheld was only half the journey for the console.

Nintendo’s mentality for the Game Boy was that any console — handheld or otherwise — is only as good as its games. So, when it came to making games to ship with the new handheld, Nintendo wanted only the best. Similar to the NES, the Game Boy would launch with a game starring Nintendo’s iconic plumber.

Nintendo’s handheld was all about great games.


Super Mario Land launched became a launch title that lived up to Mario’s platforming adventures on home consoles (it also introduced Princess Daisy). For the North American launch of the handheld, Nintendo also brought Tetris to the system, which would go down as one of (if not the best) puzzle games ever made. The system quickly became a platform for amazing Nintendo games, not just a pale imitation of the company’s home consoles.

The Game Boy (and Game Boy Color) would eventually become the third best-selling Nintendo console ever made, with a combined 118 million units sold. That leaves only the DS and Switch ahead of it. While the innovative handheld design was partially responsible for this, Nintendo’s belief that the games made the system is an equally impactful part of the Game Boy’s success.

To this day there is a perception of Nintendo handhelds as a bastion for innovative and creative game design. Whether it was the hardware limitations, the novelty of handheld systems, or both — the Game Boy and its successors managed to capture the pure joy that video games provide. There is no better example of this than the Pokémon series, which began its life on the Game Boy in 1996 with the release of the first generation. A series itself inspired by childhood adventures quickly became one of Nintendo’s most popular franchises that continues to be one of the biggest names in video games, period. For the longest time, it was a handheld exclusive.

Today the Nintendo Switch is the final form of Nintendo’s goals when creating the original Game Boy. It merges the home console with the portability of the Game Boy while continuing to deliver amazing gaming experiences that feel innovative. You can even play some classic Game Boy games on the Switch thanks to Nintendo Switch Online. So next time you are exploring Hyrule on your morning commute, remember that it all started with the humble Game Boy.

Related Tags