The Game Boy was a gray brick with a green screen and two purple action buttons, and it completely annihilated the competition for years on end. When people discuss in hindsight how Game Boy achieved this great conquest, they touch upon some common themes: its superior battery life, cheaper price point, and quality games. And that is totally true. But there are a couple additional important reasons why Nintendo won out. So today, as Game Boy officially turns 30 years old, I would like to briefly break down all of the most crucial reasons that Game Boy became king.
Yes, cost matters
Research and Development 1, which included Satoru Okada and legendary designer Gunpei Yokoi, designed the Game Boy. Yokoi popularized a design philosophy that has been at the heart of every piece of Nintendo hardware for decades: “lateral thinking with seasoned technology.” Put simply, it means you take old, cheap technology and find new and novel ways to use it.
As such, the Game Boy hardware was “seasoned” and inexpensive to produce. That resulted in its affordable $90 price point in North America. Its simple design allowed for great battery life as well, somewhere between 15 and 30 hours of gameplay for four AA batteries. Game Boy had a 160×144 dot-matrix display, no backlighting, and could display only four colors — almost the technological bare minimum — so it was clear Nintendo valued battery life over (literal) flashiness.
Just a matter of months after Game Boy released in 1989, the 16-bit Atari Lynx released. It boasted the first color display on a handheld, a backlit screen, and a quirky ambidextrous design. However, it cost two Game Boys — $179.99 — and required six AA batteries that lasted a handful of hours at best.
Then TurboExpress came in December 1990. It too was 16-bit, backlit, and featured color; it was really just a portable TurboGrafx-16. But it was an obese $249.99 and required six AA batteries to again squeeze out just a few hours of life.
Finally, Game Gear appeared in April 1991 (October 1990 in Japan). Backlit and in color but only 8-bit, it was a more reasonable $149.99. Yet Sega’s black handheld developed the worst reputation of all for devouring batteries; six AA batteries could last as little as three hours.
In essence, when it came to handheld gaming, you had three choices: buy a ton of batteries for your power hog, buy an AC adapter and play the power hog mostly at home, or just buy a Game Boy. Buying a Game Boy was the most affordable option.
You couldn’t play Tetris on a Game Gear
Game Boy didn’t just have first-party power like Super Mario Land on its side — it had the support of Nintendo’s full third-party catalogue. And in the beginning, in North America at least, it had Tetris as a pack-in game included with the system.
Tetris was chosen over Super Mario Land as the pack-in game specifically for its wide-reaching appeal and replayable nature. In essence, Tetris was the ultimate time waster, and Game Boy was the perfect platform for killing time in-between other tasks. It was a match made in heaven, and it was inevitably one of the boosters on Game Boy’s rocket into stardom. (Incidentally, Game Boy had no pack-in game in Japan, but it still sold out of its initial 300,000 units in two weeks.)
But beyond Tetris — and beyond the surprisingly sparse offerings of 1989 — the Game Boy library really exploded with content. Among many others, 1990 brought North America Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan, Double Dragon, The Final Fantasy Legend, and Dr. Mario, a healthy mix of remodeled NES hits and brand new experiences. The variety of genres and franchises available only expanded until it was directly comparable to that of the NES.
That’s not to say other early handheld systems didn’t have worthwhile libraries; Game Gear had several gems, and TurboExpress had a home console’s library to work with. But they didn’t have Mario, Samus, Kirby, or Donkey Kong. They didn’t have a host of Squaresoft RPGs or a small army of Mega Man and Castlevania titles (though Game Gear had one Mega Man). Game Boy, for the most part, had both quantity and quality on its side. Competition sometimes had to settle for quality in doses.
It’s funny to think that Game Boy had killed and buried all of its initial competition before Pokémon Red and Blue even arrived in North America.
Marketing is the real hero
When you say that costs and game exclusives are the reasons Game Boy reigned supreme and stop there, you’re leaving out something monumental: marketing. Marketing often makes all the difference in a product’s success or failure, and Nintendo went into a total blitz over Game Boy marketing. In contrast to Nintendo’s usual penny-pinching ways, then-Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa intended to spend potentially tens of millions on marketing to guarantee demand. After all, one*1 translation of the name “Nintendo” is, “Leave luck to heaven.”
Marketing came in the form of bombastic TV advertisements that barely had anything to do with the Game Boy games themselves. It also came in the form of Nintendo Power promotions and a flood of store kiosks to try the system out. These things made sense considering it was difficult to explain the fun of Tetris without actually playing it.
By comparison, you can decide if Atari Lynx and TurboExpress received enough marketing with a simple litmus test. Find all your friends/family/acquaintances in their 30s and ask how many of them know what exactly a Lynx or TurboExpress is. The results likely won’t be pretty.
However, Sega put up a noble effort with Game Gear marketing, injecting an ample supply of ‘90s weirdness into its commercials. Indeed, the system at least had an audience, ultimately selling over 10 million units. It just never stood up to the numbers Game Boy put up.
By January 1995, right before the “Play It Loud” marketing campaign introduced Game Boy in new (non-gray) colors, Game Boy already had an install base of over 40 million users globally.
Don’t forget — Game Boy blew kids’ minds
The final thing we must never take for granted about Game Boy is just how incredible it felt to the kids who first played it. Yes, it’s an antiquated joke of hardware by today’s standards, and it was even old by the standards of 1989. But to the kids who were seeing a genuinely portable game console for the first time?*2 Not just a standalone LCD game? This was game-changing.
I was busy in my mom’s womb for the first few months of Game Boy, so I asked Todd, my middle brother, for a firsthand account of what the beginning was like. He shared this:
When I was a kid, Game Boy was like MAGIC. Today we take for granted that you can play a game on the go on a zillion different devices without much thought or effort. That just wasn’t possible then … So when, all of a sudden, it WAS possible to play a high-quality game — something like Super Mario Land or, my gosh, Link’s Awakening — practically anywhere at any time, it was mind-blowing. I couldn’t have cared less that it was four-color monochrome and hard to see in certain lighting situations. I could take my favorite hobby with me wherever I went, and it was awesome.
Then he told me that when he got Game Boy for Christmas, the adjustable contrast dial on it was set way too dim but he didn’t even care. He was just having too much fun; our parents finally had to take it away and figure out how the contrast dial worked in order to save his vision. (But it was too late. Todd still needed to get LASIK years later.)
Most people who owned a Game Boy, even (or especially?) the late ones who got started around the time of Pokémon, have a story like that. Game Boy let bored kids and adults go on inexpensive adventures at any time of day. And what do people usually do after they’ve gone on an adventure? They tell other people about them. But in the case of a Game Boy, which you can slip right out of your pocket? They show other people the adventure. Elated impromptu demos of Tetris, Zelda, or Pokémon were far and away the most powerful form of marketing of all.
Nintendo lit a fuse with its commercials and promotions, but it was the buyers themselves who really ensured an explosion.
Happy 30th anniversary, Game Boy
It was a multi-pronged assault that won Nintendo its conquest. Game Boy consciously leaned on battery life to increase utility and keep its cost down. It had both quantity and quality in its game library. Nintendo put serious thought and dollars into marketing it. And the players themselves were only too happy to evangelize others to the console and its games.
In fact, Game Boy sold so well for so long that it was one of the reasons Nintendo waited so much to create a successor. Instead, interim devices like the slimmer Game Boy Pocket or (only in Japan) backlit Game Boy Light filled Nintendo’s coffers even further with minimal fuss. But when the true successor, the backwards-compatible Game Boy Color, finally arrived, it continued to be dominant.
Total lifetime sales of all Game Boy and Game Boy Color devices add up to 118.69 million units. On the 30th anniversary of its release, we can only wonder how much Game Boy shaped the childhoods of millions.