Nintendo Game Boy 101: A Beginners Guide

Game Boy 101

By Ack, Noiseredux, and Zen Albatross
Check  out other Guides in the Retro Gaming 101 Series

In 1989, Nintendo released the Game Boy, a grey brick of plastic with a green screen and only four audio channels.  Nintendo’s leadership believed it would be popular.  But it wasn’t just popular, it became a cultural icon.  Now the Game Boy is one of the most easily recognized pieces of machinery in the entire world, Pokemon is a common household name, and nearly everyone and their mother has heard of Tetris.  It is a testament to toymaker Gunpei Yokoi that his creation has brought so many years of laughter and joy to the people of the world.  In the realm of video games, few machines can claim to have had the impact of the Game Boy, and fewer still can claim its longevity.  Its legacy continues to inspire and to fill our hearts with wonder.

It should be noted that this piece focuses on the Game Boy, not the Game Boy Color or Game Boy Advance, though they are mentioned at several points.  All three featured different hardware, bring different strengths to the table, and are important enough to warrant separate articles.

I would like to thank both Noiseredux and Zen Albatross for their help creating this article.  Noiseredux is well known in the Racketboy community for his love and knowledge of the Game Boy and maintains a blog on the handheld at RFGeneration, while Zen Albatross has contributed in the past to Racketboy, including an excellent piece on the handheld’s 20th anniversary in 2009.

Background Information

  • The Game Boy was Nintendo’s second handheld idea and Gunpei Yokoi’s concept, modeled after his earlier Game & Watch line.  The project was three years in development.
  • The Game Boy was released in Japan on April 21, 1989, in the USA on July 31, 1989, and in Europe on Sept. 28, 1990.  In South Korea, where it was distributed by Hyundai, it was known as the Mini Comboy.
  • Between the Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket, and Game Boy Color, a combined 118.69 million units were sold worldwide.
  • Despite releasing at the same time as the more powerful Atari Lynx and a year before the Sega Game Gear, the Game Boy had a much lower price of $89.99, which helped it outsell the competition.
  • The handheld was also aided by its simple button layout, which was reminiscent of the NES controller.

Gameboy Timeline by Gizmodo

Historical Relevance

  • The Game Boy was the start of the Game Boy lineage, which included its release in 1989, the Game Boy Color in 1998 and the Game Boy Advance in 2001.
  • The Game Boy would feature a variety of popular titles, some of which would have a profound impact on gaming, including the likes of Tetris, Kirby’s Dreamland, Pokemon, and many, many more.  Pokemon even made the aging handheld a bestseller again based on the hype, and during the troubled N64 era, the handheld RPG series would help keep Nintendo afloat while also showing the company that older technology can still dominate in sales, a trend continued with the Nintendo DS and the Wii.
  • When first shown a prototype in 1987, global Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi believed the unit could sell 25 million units in three years.  The unit did better than expected, selling 32 million units by the end of the three year deadline.
  • Following the release of music titles Nanoloop, by Oliver Wittchow, and Johan Kotlinski’s Little Sound DJ, the chiptunes community has taken a shine to the Game Boy, further increasing the handheld’s popularity and longevity.
  • In 2009, the Game Boy was inducted into the US National Toy Hall of Fame.
  • The Game Boy was also the best selling item created by Nintendo R&D1 head Gunpei Yokoi.  Yokoi developed many popular items, such as the Ultra Hand, Game & Watch, R.O.B., popular series like Metroid and Kid Icarus, and even helped pioneer the D-Pad and develop the Beam Gun with Masayuki Uemura, a predecessor of the NES Zapper.  After the Game Boy, Yokoi went on to develop the Virtual Boy before leaving Nintendo in 1996 and forming Koto Laboratories, where he made a deal with Bandai to help develop the Wonderswan before his tragic death on October 4, 1997.

Strengths

  • Long Battery Life: It was Gunpei Yokoi’s main concern to make the hardware light enough to not require excessive battery power.  The original model boasted between 10 and 30 hours, far more than the Sega Game Gear, Atari Lynx, or other handhelds.
  • Region-Free: Nintendo started a tradition with the Game Boy of keeping their handhelds region-free, exponentially increasing the size of the Game Boy’s library.
  • Large Game Library: Almost every major franchise has appeared on the Game Boy through direct ports, exclusive sequels or side games.
  • Durability: The original Game Boy is incredibly tough. It’s not a common handheld to find broken in the wild, and repairs are usually relatively easy.  Nintendo offered repair services for the handheld up until 2007.
  • Lineage: Thanks to backwards compatibility the Game Boy actually lived on until 2007 through the SNES Super Game Boy, the Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance and the GameCube Game Boy Player.
  • Cheap: Besides a handful of elusive titles and imports, the Game Boy is an especially affordable console to collect for.
  • Multiplayer: As long as players both had the same game and a link cable, Game Boys could be hooked together for player vs. player action, swapping Pokemon, or other things, depending upon the game.  A four player adapter was also manufactured, though it still requires players to have link cables.
  • Killer App Pack-In: The Game Boy debuted with Tetris, one of the most well known games ever and hands down one of the handheld’s killer apps.

Weaknesses

  • Blurry Screen: The original Game Boy is infamous for its blurry dot-matrix screen that could often make too much action difficult to perceive.
  • Limited Color Palette: In aiming at a low-battery requirement, Yokoi opted to utilize only four shades to color the original Game Boy games. In some games this limitation made differentiating sprites rather difficult.
  • Bulky: The original Game Boy is heavy and far too big to fit in a pocket. This is of course where the somewhat affectionate nickname “the gray brick” originated.
  • Link Cables: Unfortunately link cables and four player adapters for multiplayer can fluctuate wildly in price, so you’ll have to pay a bit to play with others or hope someone else has the required cable.
  • Screen Replacements: While the handheld has a low failure rate and is quite durable, the screen has a chance for burnout and isn’t easy to replace if damaged.

Technical Specs

  • The Game Boy houses an 8-bit Sharp LR35902, similar to a Zilog Z80, with a clock speed of 4.194304 MHz.
  • The handheld uses 8 kB internal S-RAM and 8 kB Video RAM.
  • The screen size is 2.6 inches diagonally, with a resolution of 160×144.  The max sprite size is 8×16, while the minimum is 8×8, on a screen which sports a mere 2-bit color palette.  The image runs at 59.7 frames per second, or 61.1 on a Super Game Boy.
  • 4 AA batteries are needed for the required 6V 0.7W, though the Game Boy Pocket requires only 3V 0.7W from two AAA batteries.
  • The Game Boy puts out sound on 4 audio channels, each with 4-bit sound.  There are two pulsewave channels, a wave channel providing basic soft-synth with a 32-bit sampler, and a white noise channel for percussion, ambience, and sound effects.  While there is only one speaker, using headphones reveals that the grey brick puts out audio in stereo.

Hardware Variations

gameboy-classic Original/Classic DMG-01
Of course, this is where it all started. The original grey brick is one of the most widely recognized and fondly remembered pieces of Nintendo hardware of all time.
Shop For Original Game Boy DMG-01 at eBay
Shop For Original Game Boy DMG-01 at Amazon.com
gameboy-playitloud Play It Loud
Play It Loud was simply a paint job and a new ad campaign for Nintendo’s already successful system. The DMG shed its drab grey skin and re-released with a number of colored models. While this may have not been a particularly effective strategy in winning over hardcore fans of Sega’s Game Gear, Play It Loud was still instrumental in renewing interest in the Game Boy during the mid-90’s.
Shop For Play It Loud Game Boy at eBay
Shop For Play It Loud Game Boy at Amazon.com
gameboy-pocket Game Boy Pocket
Intent on turning ‘portable gaming’ into ‘pocket gaming’, Nintendo release the Game Boy Pocket. The hardware had no notable improvements, but was now shrunken down to fit inside a far more sensibly sized unit. The screen was much sharper and had its charming-yet-distracting green tint removed. The Game Boy link cable port was also changed, requiring links between Original Game Boy and Game Boy Pocket to use a converter.
Shop For Game Boy Pocket at eBay
Shop For Game Boy Pocket at Amazon.com
gameboy-light Game Boy Light
This variation of the Game Boy Pocket was never released outside of Japan and contained only one notable improvement: The inclusion of a backlit screen. The unit is often coveted by chiptune artists who typically use their systems to perform in dark venues. To this day, the model is still extremely difficult to find in the US, and lucky eBayers will oftentimes need to pay a harsh premium in order to attain this rare beauty.
Shop For Game Boy Light at eBay
Super Game Boy Super Game Boy
Released in all regions, the Super Game Boy was an adapter for original Game Boy games and black Game Boy Color games which allowed them to be played via the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo on a television set.  Some color customization options and game borders were built into the cartridge.
Shop For Super Game Boy at eBay
Shop For Super Game Boy at Amazon.com
Super Game Boy 2 Super Game Boy 2
A Japan-only redux of the Super Game Boy, the Super Game Boy 2 incorporated a link port, enabling multiplayer.  New borders replaced the old ones built into the original model, and certain Japanese Game Boy games had special borders put in.
Shop For Super Game Boy 2 at eBay
Gameboy Player Game Boy Player
This Nintendo Gamecube attachment allowed players to play Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance cartridges on the television, without the Super Game Boy’s enhancements.
Shop For Game Boy Player at eBay
Shop For Game Boy Player at Amazon.com

Accessories

Game Link Cable Game Link Cable
These cables enabled Game Boys to connect to each other for multiplayer, as long as both players had the same game or compatible games.  There were several different models, with a change in size resulting from the smaller ports on the Game Boy Pocket.  Several other universal components, such as a split cable with both sizes, were released later on.
4 Player Adapter Four Player Adapter
A special link cable adapter, this enable four players to hook together for the few four-player Game Boy games, though three link cables were required beyond the adapter.
Shop For Game Boy 4 Player Adapter at eBay
Game Link Cable Game Link Cable Adapter
Because of the difference in sizes for link ports on Game Boys and Game Boy Pockets, Nintendo released this adapter to enable the two to connect for multiplayer.
Game Boy Camera Game Boy Camera
A somewhat silly accessory that would take pixilated black-and-white pictures that could be displayed on the Game Boy.
Shop For Game Boy Camera at eBay
Shop For Game Boy Camera at Amazon.com
Game Boy Printer Game Boy Printer
Could be used to print out pictures from the Game Boy Camera on sticker-paper. Also used in later Game Boy Color titles to print out passwords, high scores and other things from select games.
Shop For Game Boy Printer at eBay
Shop For Game Boy Printer at Amazon.com
Game Boy Battery Pack Battery Pack
Lasting about 4-5 hours between charges, with the ability to be recharged roughly 1000 times before a significant loss of effectiveness, the Battery Pack let Game Boy players continue to game without having to shell out for AA batteries over and over again.  Unfortunately it was a bit bulky and heavy, but included a belt clip to help.
Game Boy Game Genie Cheat Devices
Though cheat devices have existed on virtually every system, they became almost essential for Game Boy enthusiasts due to the “collect ‘em all” hysteria. Devices like the Game Genie, Game Shark made it possible to instantly collect Pokemon that were hard or impossible to find.
Game Boy Pocket Sonar Game Boy Pocket Sonar
This device from Bandai enabled the Game Boy to locate fish underwater via sonar for fishing.  It also included a fishing mini game if nothing happens to be biting.
Shop For Game Boy Pocket Sonar at eBay
Konami Hyper Boy Konami Hyper Boy
This Japan-only item turns the Game Boy into a mini arcade, running off two D batteries to do so.  The machine included a better speaker, magnifier, and a front light to better show the action.
Shop For Konami Hyper Boy at eBay
Sunsoft Sound Boy Sunsoft Sound Boy
A peripheral to improve the audio output of the Game Boy, the Sound Boy is basically a large speaker setup which plugs into the Game Boy’s headphone jack.
Shop For Sunsoft Sound Boy at eBay
Sunsoft Wide Boy
This item magnifies the Game Boy’s screen for a larger image that’s somewhat easier to see.
Shop For Sunsoft Wide Boy at eBay

Game Library

The original Game Boy had a tremendous amount of games that popularized a number of franchises and brought many established ones to the portable gaming world for the first time.   Popular games and series include Tetris, Super Mario Land Series, Wario Land Series, Pokemon series, Kirby, Final Fantasy Adventure, and many more.   Here at Racketboy, we are planning on developing some additional Game Boy game guides, but here are a few excellent lists to look over:

Emulation

  • Visual Boy Advance emulates Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance ROMs and supports Super Game Boy borders.  Versions for Windows, Linux, MacOS, and even BeOS have been created.  VBA’s predecessor Visual Boy was another Game Boy and Game Boy Color emulator, which is now outdated as it was incorporated into Visual Boy Advance
  • BGB is another Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Super Game Boy emulator for Windows which includes features like TCP/IP support.
  • TGB Dual also features Link Cable support via TCP/IP, but suffered due to only being available on Windows in Japanese.  There’s an English version out now.
  • If you have a Nintendo DS, Lameboy is an excellent solution for that portable.
  • There are numerous more Game Boy emulators across various platforms and of varying quality, including KiGB, BasicBoy, PlayGuy, HEIG-boy, GEX, GEST, DreamGBC, GB ’97, the open source gnuboy, and much, much more.  The Game Boy’s popularity has lead to a multitude of emulators to choose from, and game ROMs can be found online in droves.

Special Thanks to popart prince for the featured photo

18 Comments

  1. Beak says:

    Great article! I hadn’t known about the Game Boy Light.

    The GBA is one of my favorite systems.

  2. Stranno says:

    Gambatte is the most accurate GB/GBC emulator ever developed. It can be used on Windows, MACOSX and Linux

    But KiGB have a very nice-looking filter that looks like the original green color of GB screen

  3. Pichu says:

    Fan fricking tastic article guys! Very informative and welll written.

  4. Urban Champion-e says:

    For gaming off the grid I recommend the Naki Solar Pak for Game Boy. Never use batteries again. This thing makes your Game Boy even bigger. http://tinyurl.com/6gc6he9

  5. Anne Noise says:

    Great article. The Game Boy is a beautiful product with an amazing lineage. It was the second system I ever got, with Tetris and Super Mario Land, for some Christmas or another. I’ve had almost every iteration, up to a DSi XL, heh.

  6. Alexlotl says:

    Probably worth mentioning the Hori Super Gameboy Commander in your list of accessories – a SNES pad designed for use with the Super Gameboy, similar to the later Hori Gameboy Player Controller.

    Some nice pics (inside and out) here: http://tinyurl.com/45bql58

  7. pakopako says:

    What, no HANDY BOY shout–outs?
    4colorrebellion.com/archives/2010/05/18/handy-boy-the-game-boy-swiss-army-knife/

    Or the monstrous Booster?
    gonintendo.com/viewstory.php?id=84977

    The WorkBoy keyboard for those productivity suites or Foreign Language tutors without battery backups?
    assemblergames.com/forums/showthread.php?t=20027

  8. Nick Neo says:

    Great article, I bought a Konami Hyperboy on ebay. I didn’t even know what it was officially called until reading this, or the fact that it was Japan-only. Thanks!

  9. Brandon says:

    Awesome article. Finally the GameBoy gets a 101 Guide! Absolutely worth the wait. Great job guys!

  10. James VanVoorst says:

    Wat about the handy boy,I gots it!

  11. Justin Orlando says:

    I was born in 1997 and was a member of the game boy colors final mainstream years and one thing i learned is those things are tough i left it out in the rain during a heavy storm all my dad had to do is air out the circuit board.

  12. Stevy Golden says:

    Hi everyone so new at this site and thank you for all the comments that have been left sorta helping me through all this. See I own a mint condition Gameboy 1989 portable device with 2 games one being SuperMarioLand 1 as well as Spot from virgin games as well comes in a original Gameboy portable case even with the strap that goes around you neck to carry LOL so would anyone know anything of how much all of it would be worth? My e-mail is letitrain21@hotmail.ca so please if anyone can help me that would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you, Stevy =)

  13. phase4 says:

    a little addition:
    at that time nintendo manufactured their consoles both in china and japan (china only from GBA and up) and the these gadgets were different.
    the japanese gb pocket has a red power indicator led and the chinese doesn’t have any.
    i just noticed this summer when i played tetris multiplayer with link cable with friends and one gbp discharged then we wanted to know how about with the other one and we just noticed this obvious difference- after many many years:)
    good atricle anyway, and gb is still my fav console. i even have a game boy light skeleton boxed with serial number 395 – only 5000 manufactured in japan. do not ask-not for sale, just sayin. this is the model if you are a die hard fan

  14. phase4 says:

    ifound another 001 gbp model also made in china and does have power led. a black one, and my silver doesn’t have.

  15. veilvet says:

    Cool article guys! Maybe you could update it sometime to include the new virtual console service for the Nintendo 3DS which offers some old Gameboy games, which extends the Gameboy’s lifespan even further.

  16. Patrick BBE says:

    I still have my Game Boy Color, but sadly I gave away my games to a local game store.

  17. real nice article for sure. Good sorce of info too. Learned a few things here

  18. Michael says:

    I loved this article, I found it really interesting since a friend of mine decided to feed into my Nintendo habits by actually giving me a gray brick and about 20 great games (Including Pokemon Blue). Can’t wait to play it! Once I have rechargeable batteries of course