Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Cultural Impact Of The Game Boy

Image shamelessly stolen from USGamer.  This ad really shows the diversity of the
Game Boy game library.  Represented here, we have 2 puzzle games, 2 racing games,
an action/platformer adventure title, an action puzzler, a beat-em-up, a shoot-em-up,
a sports game, a light-hearted action title, and a puzzle/adventure game.

I work in healthcare.  More specifically, I'm an "IT guy", one of those overly geeky "computer nerds" who takes care of all things technology.  I work for a hospital, and we work, in turn, with a local nursing home.  I was visiting that location a few weeks ago, when I was struck by a conversation I overheard.  There was some apparent shuffling that needed to take place of some people within the organization, and the woman who was doing most of the talking stated that they need to effectively "play Tetris" with some people and some rooms.  This woman is probably a few years younger than I am, and she was speaking to another person who is several years older.  Both parties knew what the other was talking about, and the Tetris comment was clearly understood.  This isn't the only gaming-related phrasing or metaphor I've heard from people I wouldn't consider to be "gamers" in the traditional sense, but as I've begun to collect a large number of Game Boy carts, and consumed a lot of related content on the internet, it got me thinking about the long-term cultural impact of the Game Boy, and the legacy it has created.

The ubiquity of Tetris is due, in no small part, to Nintendo wisely choosing to include it with the original Game Boy upon its launch in North America.  Sure, everyone knows now what a great game Tetris is, but looking back 30 years ago, who would have thought that an obscure, Russian-designed computer puzzle game would have had such widespread appeal and acclaim?  Who would have guessed that the game would be referenced in casual conversation like my example above, talking about having to rearrange things, much like you do in the game?  I seriously doubt many would have had the foresight to predict such a thing.  Nintendo themselves knew they had a hit on their hand, when they licensed it for the home console market, but I don't think anyone at Nintendo could have foreseen the runaway success their little handheld would bring them.

Image shamelessly linked from Alchetron.
The fact that Alexey Pajitnov isn't a multi-millionaire because of Tetris
is a sad result of the USSR, as well as the perils of software licensing.

If you look at handheld gaming from the mid-1970's until 1989 when the Game Boy was introduced, you'll find that while Nintendo wasn't the first to offer a portable gaming system with interchangeable cartridges, they were the first to do so successfully.  Most famously, the first handheld game console with individual cartridges was Milton Bradley's Microvision in 1979, though its relatively modest success was short-lived, and the line was discontinued in 1981.  A few other companies put products into the market between 1981 and the Game Boy's North American debut in 1989, but none of them were met with much success, and often had a lot of shortcomings due to utilizing relatively old technology.  Nintendo's entry into the handheld gaming console market (not just single-game portable machines) was a landmark that would forever alter the course of gaming.

The interesting thing was, as the technology to make a powerful, handheld gaming system came into being, Nintendo wasn't the only company to be developing such a concept.  Epyx, a software company fresh off a handful of successful titles, began developing their own handheld gaming device in 1986, nearly a year before Game Boy designer Gunpei Yokoi began work on his handheld system.  Epyx didn't have the financial capabilities to mass produce their "Portable Computer Entertainment System", however, so Atari Corp. stepped in to help them make it a reality.  If only the Atari Lynx had debuted 6 months ahead of the Nintendo Game Boy, instead of the other way around, the gaming landscape might be somewhat different than it is today.  Would the Lynx have sold enough at its initial $179.99 price point to keep Nintendo from totally dominating the handheld gaming market?  Probably not, but the Game Boy might have been a bit less ubiquitous, and the poor Lynx might have become more than just the forgotten competitor from the worn out Atari.

The initial model of the Atari Lynx was quite large, and not nearly as portable as Nintendo's
Game Boy system, despite the latter still being a large, white plastic brick on its own.

While Tetris was a large part of the success of the Game Boy, due to its near-universal appeal, the fact that Nintendo marketed the Game Boy so well is another factor that contributed to its runaway success.  Unlike the Nintendo of the last decade or so, Nintendo in the late 1980's was dominating the market, but that didn't stop them from advertising their new product to anyone and everyone.  It was marketed as a fun system with a lot of games for kids.  It was marketed as "edgy" and "cool" to the teenage set.  It was also marketed toward adults, as a diversion from the doldrums of daily life.  Nintendo reaped the reward for all their efforts, as history has shown us, because the Game Boy line sold in the tens of millions within its first few years.

Nintendo successfully fused then-modern music and fast image cuts
with game footage to produce this kid-centric commercial.

Look at this hip 1989 teenage boy with his cool denim jacket, his, "I'm
ready for 1990" haircut, and his hot sneakers! Nerds like me, when I
was in school, would have looked up to him and his Game Boy.

I'd never seen this particular Game Boy TV spot before, but it truly
demonstrates the scope of Nintendo's advertising plan for the Game
Boy handheld. Serious, hard-working adults were just as much a
target as children, and many bought into the hype.

This is the adult-focused Game Boy commercial I remember seeing
as a kid, often watching prime time TV with my parents. Of course,
they weren't interested in such things, but many adults caught the fever.

Nintendo continues to dominate the dedicated handheld gaming market today, though the ubiquitous nature of smart phones has begun to eat into the overall market share.  Still, the fact that we're even playing games on our phones is itself a tribute to what Nintendo accomplished by putting real video games into our hands, not just LCD screens with static images and little interactivity.  The Game Boy was the first system to market that gave the consumer a true video game experience on the go, and it was affordable to do so.  They also wisely chose to include the ability to connect two Game Boy systems together via the Link Cable accessory, which came with the initial hardware, and worked with the system's pack-in game, as well as 2 of the other 5 US launch titles.  I spent many hours as a kid linking up with friends for head-to-head Tetris and Dr. Mario sessions, and after buying F-1 Race, I even got to play that against a friend or two.  It was the first time handheld gaming could be truly competitive as well, a feature that may well have been part of the inspiration for much of the online gaming boon many years later.

Another interesting thing about the Game Boy is that, despite the handheld lasting for nearly 10 years on the market (from its debut in April 1989 to the debut of the Game Boy Color in November 1998), there are only just over 500 original titles for the system.  Several games received "Million Seller" re-issues, and some games were later reissued by other publishers (such as Sunsoft re-issuing the Final Fantasy Legend games), but the total number of original, licensed games released in North America was just a shade over 500.  It seems odd that the Game Boy had so few games compared to the NES, which had somewhere in the 700+ range.  Having said that, the Game Boy did have basically twice the size of library as its closest competitor, Sega's Game Gear, and it dwarfed the library of the Atari Lynx, which topped out around 50 titles.  Despite all this, there are a number of Game Boy games that went on to spawn game series that have had lasting effects over the years.  From the sleeper hit Gargoyle's Quest (that produced 2 console sequels) to Kirby's Dream Land, which continues today in new and interesting iterations, and of course, the pervasive Pokémon series, which sold nearly 10 million copies in the United States alone, and as history has shown, became a worldwide phenomenon, right at the end of the Game Boy's life, all thanks to some innovative gameplay mechanics and the monster collection theme.  For a system 1 month away from the end of its life to have a game that became one of the system's best selling stand-alone titles is no easy feat.

This iconic clip is from the 1990's TV series, Picket Fences. I wasn't
allowed to watch the show, perhaps for obvious reasons, since the
themes of the show were a bit more mature in nature, but the sheer
mainstream saturation of the Game Boy was present in this show,
which was targeted more at adults and teens than kids.

It's easy to look back 25+ years and say that the Game Boy was a resounding success.  By contrast, I understand why some say that Nintendo is floundering with the Wii U, and to a lesser extent, their 3DS line-up of handheld systems, despite that continuing to be a money maker.  Even so, the market is a much different place now than it was during the time of the Game Boy, and there's far more competition for the same gaming space these days.  Smartphones have taken over where Nintendo's white brick once ruled, and even the 3DS (and Sony's poor Vita) struggles to continue to find an audience, amid free-to-play tower defense and puzzle games.  Still, all the hipsters, millennials, and soccer moms crushing candy and slashing fruit like a ninja owe the lion's share of that ubiquity to Nintendo, and their little handheld game system that could.  Without the Game Boy to begin that portable gaming revolution, you probably wouldn't be reading this article, because the lasting legacy of the Game Boy would have been far less important than it actually is.  For that, we all owe Nintendo a debt of gratitude.  I know my life would be less interesting without having spent a lot of time with my Game Boy as a kid, and even in more recent years as I've rekindled a love for the hobby.