Game Boy at 25: The Games

Editor’s Note: This is the first of four features leading up to the 25th birthday of the Game Boy on September 28th. In the next three weeks we’ll also be looking at the hardware, the competitors and the legacy of this amazing little machine.

If you were anything like me as a kid, the Game Boy would have held a special place in your heart, for lack of pocket sizes big enough. It was big, clunky, unsightly and wonderful. The many hours spent at home, away or in transit engrossed in the remarkably charming and surprisingly engaging titles available were a revelation. It was the NES that went out shopping with you! The NES that made the bathroom a fun and lengthy experience, much to the chagrin of the rest of the family.

Now that’s a lot of nostalgia, but hold on a minute. Not long ago I witnessed someone playing a Game Boy on the bus and it got me wondering why. The answer I came to was the quality of the titles and the uniqueness of their experience is all but unreplicated in today’s age. The Game Boy’s technical limitations compared to the quality handheld devices available today was actually its strength.

Allow me to explain. The lack of technical prowess and the inhibiting factors of the platform resulted in the game developers only having one job – make the game really fun.

Games like Super Mario Land, a launch title no less, relied on occasional background clouds (or random Easter Island Heads) as the only visual thrill the player could expect. On top of that, story and game narratives were at a premium, relegated to Princess Daisy being kidnapped and well, off you go. But my God, wasn’t it fun? The game spawned a couple of sequels, both for the Game Boy, which established the character of Wario in our hearts at such an early age. Both of these seriously pushed the boat out on what this platform could achieve and I would be hard pressed to criticize any aspect in comparison to their peers.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is an unfair example for anything. I say that because many, myself included, feel it to be the purest and most satisfying instalment in the series, which is really saying something. The padded elements of the previous games were stripped and condensed to an epic experience in just about every facet. Take a look at the game map – there’s barely a single pixel that goes unused. The dungeons were fun, the bosses were challenging, the story was thread-bare but actually moving in it’s own way and the inhabitants of Koholint Island didn’t say much, but had surprising personality. Oh and hey, you like platforming from Mario right? We’ll throw some of that in for good measure. With apologies to Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time fans, the lowly Game Boy gave Zelda the legend and she wasn’t even in it.

The Gameboy itself was the linchpin for a number of games that probably would have taken off but for being on a handheld. In school, the black market currency among my peers was Game Boy games. Along came Game Freak and made a pair of games called Pokémon Red and Green (Pokémon Red and Blue, when localized internationally) which utilized the very mechanic of playing together. You could trade your Pokémon and even battle each other. Oh and because Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue had access to different Pokémon, you really needed to have a friend with the other version if you wanted to answer the rallying cry emblazoned on the front of the box: “Gotta catch em all!” The games themselves boasted length, they had strategy, and they were oh so addictive. Some people still swear by the original 150 (151 for pedants) and why not? There’s just something special about the Game Boy’s Pokémon.

Metroid II was a game much more than the sum of it’s parts. Today’s youth may be appalled at the bland and uninspiring (even for the time) visuals and the difficult to defend soundtrack, if one could even describe it as that. Yet what it did, it did well. All the traditional elements of gameplay were preserved and even in some ways enhanced from the original. On top of that, much like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the player is treated to a surprisingly interesting story and setting, paving the way for its direct sequel Super Metroid. There is much to be said about the pivotal events that take place in this game, perhaps as important as any other.

Wait – we aren’t done yet. Do you remember Kirby’s Dream Land? Course you do. This was THE first Kirby game. The original. Green Greens. Whispy Woods. King Dedede. All of it started right here on the Game Boy in 1992 and it was thrilling. Mindless certainly, but the game existing outside the realms of plot and reason. Here’s this bad guy, now go swallow his minions and use them to defeat him. I don’t need to describe the merits of Kirby because the series and it’s reputation speak volumes for themselves. The very first instalment on the Game Boy however was unique, and birthed a series spanning some 25 titles and over 35 million in sales.

The Game Boy was wonderful. Wonderful not because of some misplaced virtue put on classics in an ever-evolving hobby nor a worldview coloured by nostalgia glasses, but because of its games. The games it brought defined gaming then and today, for all it’s evolutions. It may not be enough to make me join that brave soul playing his Game Boy on the bus, but maybe I’ll see what’s available on the 3DS eShop these days. Who’s with me?

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