GameSpite Quarterly #1 | Chapter 5

Article by Jeremy Parish | Posted July 28, 2009

People often wag their finger at Sega's confusing hardware strategy from the mid-'90s, and with good reason. At the time of the Saturn's debut, the company was supporting no less than five formats simultaneously: Saturn, Genesis, Sega CD, 32X, and Game Gear. It was a mess for retailers, a nightmare for publishers, and confusing for consumers.

But Sega was hardly the only company that seemed adrift and uncertain in those days. The industry as a whole was looking for direction as console manufacturers sought to capitalize on the burgeoning possibilities of 3D visuals, and a rapid succession of would-be contenders marched into the console arena and were just as quickly abandoned: Jaguar, 3DO, and CDi among them.

Nintendo had rather foolishly hitched its wagon to the latter of these when their Play Station add-on project for Super NES with Sony fell through. (And by "fell through" I mean "Nintendo broke their agreement with Sony and screwed over their Play Station partner the day before it was set to premiere.") Nothing good came of Nintendo's CDi connection; planned Play Station CD games were scrapped (7th Guest) or hastily edited down to fit onto cartridge (Secret of Mana). Super NES developers instead fell back on convoluted production trickery to keep up with advances in game tech -- Donkey Kong Country? being the marquee example -- or relied on expensive add-on chips to enhance their graphics. Few publishers could afford to compete on these terms, and in fact a number of Nintendo's own internally-developed Super FX games were canned, likely due to expense.

Elsewhere, Game Boy's intended replacement Virtual Boy had been an embarrassing, headache-inducing boondoggle that saw prices quickly slashed and its creator Gumpei Yokoi reassigned within the company. (In a tenure-driven old-school Japanese corporation like Nintendo, that was a fate worse than being fired.) Even the promising Ultra 64 project was starting to show signs of trouble: reportedly Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto had exerted his influence to ensure the system would rely on pricey proprietary cartridges, which would be perfect for a simple-looking action game like Super Mario 64 and a terrible onus for anyone hoping to do something more graphically intricate. A rewritable removable media disk add-on was announced to expand the system's capabilities, but publishers -- who had taken a beating on unsold carts when the Super NES market caved in -- saw the N64 as another example of Nintendo serving its own bottom line first at the expense of third parties. They migrated en masse to Sony, who welcomed developers and publishers alike with open arms for its revenge-minded PlayStation console. Nintendo's Ultra 64 "Dream Team" was conspicuously absent familiar Nintendo allies like Konami, Capcom and Square, instead offering such dreamy names as Acclaim and GameTek. The franchises that had built their reputation on NES -- Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Castlevania, Mega Man, Metal Gear -- had migrated to Sony's camp, and Nintendo was left with a handful of cutting-edge internally-developed masterpieces... and a desperate need to scramble for addition content. And on the rare occasion a game did make its way to N64, it was inevitably $20-30 more expensive than an equivalent PlayStation title, especially once Sony began twisting the knife with vigor and slashed its standard software price from $60 to $50.

Things could have gone horribly wrong at this point, and Nintendo could have marched along right behind its former rival Sega on the way out the door, except that Game Boy saved the day. Game Boy, with its four shades of greyscale bitmaps and a core processor that was practically a 20-year-old off-the-shelf component, kept Nintendo afloat in a market dominated by systems running on custom chips that could render more polygons per second than the Game Boy had pixels.

A tiny light of hope began shining quietly in Nintendo's darkest hour. Publishers were defecting left and right, Virtual Boy was dead in the water, and the aging Super NES had used up its last trick. Without fanfare, and almost without anyone noticing, Nintendo published a Game Freak-developed RPG called Pocket Monsters in Japan to modest sales, which never actually tapered off. In fact, they began to snowball and accelerate through word-of-mouth as people tried this seemingly simplistic battling game, only to discover it offered hundreds of party combinations. It was packed with charming monsters—and near-infinite playability thanks to the game's ability to link up with friends and take on their own six-monster team head-to-head to see whose beast-training skills were superior. Thousands of sales became millions, and Nintendo found itself sitting on an unexpected goldmine of genuine enthusiasm and skyrocketing sales. So they did what any publisher would have done: they milked the hell out of it.

Suddenly, Nintendo was in a curious position. The company marketed the most expensive, top-of-the-line, cutting-edge console of the time, and it was doing alright for itself; but the primitive, inexpensive, nearly-forgotten Game Boy was suddenly a viable contender again thanks to a single game that looked like Dragon Quest III? and played to the platform's unique strengths: portability and networking. Nintendo was clearly caught flatfooted by Pokémon's success, having intended to replace Game Boy with the Virtual Boy and, when that fizzled, with a 32-bit color handheld codenamed Project Atlantis which was slated to debut right around the time of the N64's launch. Instead, the company decided to hold off on Atlantis and focus instead on building new enthusiasm for Game Boy, which was basically a ticket to free money. Soon, they launched whimsical gadgets like the Game Boy Camera, transforming the system into an interactive toy, and began work on a modest upgrade that would add color capabilities to the system while retaining roughly the same internal architecture.

They also wisely decided not to take any chances with Pokémon's international debut. The company had tried for years to entice western gamers to latch onto the role-playing games that were so popular in Japan, to no avail. Final Fantasy was a modest success, but surplus copies of Dragon Warrior were ultimate given away for free, Illusion of Gaia? barely registered, and EarthBound? was a well-intended financial disaster. For Pokémon, they'd get it right. Unlike in Japan, where cartoons and merchandise had followed only after the game became a surprise hit, Americans would be bombarded simultaneously by the game and all the ancillary capitalism Nintendo could muster. The company even sneakily timed the game to launch right as Game Boy Color hype was reaching its peak. Never mind that Pokémon was designed for the old greyscale system; countless gamers walked away from Christmas 1998 with a copy of the game and a shiny new color system to match.

Pokémon's influence may well be responsible for transforming portable gaming into a long-term reality. It invigorated the flagging Game Boy, and it vindicated Yokoi's guiding philosophy by offering a killer app that used some clever lateral thinking by creator Satoshi Taijiri to make the most of "withered technology." Sadly, Yokoi had chosen to leave Nintendo rather than toil on in disgrace by the time the franchise had become a hit in Japan, and he died shortly afterwards in a freeway accident. Still, I'd like to think he lived long enough to see that Pokémon's revitalization of Game Boy stemmed from his decision to create a device whose low cost belied its unique capabilities. Surely it's no coincidence that the Game Boy soon found itself facing off against a new wave of handheld competitors that eschewed the costly opulence of Lynx, Game Gear, TurboExpress, and Nomad in favor of low-cost monochrome screens and low-power processors.

Game Boy's resurgence likely saved Nintendo from itself in another way; what little we know about Project Atlantis suggests it would have been a massive device with a battery-sucking 32-bit processor and a backlit screen. More Lynx than Game Boy, in other words. But with the 8-bit workhorse having proved itself viable well into its old age, Nintendo used the modest color upgrade as a stopgap until the tech that made up Atlantis's innards could mature a bit -- or wither, if you prefer. Even as Nintendo closed the book on the Game Boy family by announcing the DS, Yokoi's principles were in play: DS was announced well after Sony had first presented its PSP, yet its power was equivalent to an N64. That put DS a full generation beneath Sony's system, which was essentially a portable PlayStation 2. Ultimately, though, it was by capitalizing on the DS's unique features -- its dual screens and its touch input rather than its horsepower -- that Nintendo did an end-run around the competition and scored a seemingly impossible victory in the face of PSP's superior technology.

Though Game Boy's legacy has come to an effective end, with Nintendo having put the kibosh on the brand presumably for good, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the system is almost single-handedly responsible not only for the company's survival but for its complete domination of both the console and portable markets. The decade that followed the NES's truimph saw the company fighting the battle of megahertz that has been the industry's accepted standard since Intellivision laid down the gauntlet—and generally failing at it. While N64 and GameCube were both respectable contenders from the perspective of raw megahertz, Nintendo's strength has always been new ideas, not bleeding-edge prowess. The alternative was always right beneath Nintendo's own nose in Game Boy's sustained profitability and unflagging durability, and it wasn't until the company embraced the tenets upon which their most successful system ever was built that they kicked the doldrums and became a serious contender again. Both Wii and DS rule today's charts, even though both are a full generation behind the competition, because they each use proven technology in an interesting, accessible, and compelling way. Reggie Fils-Aime can dress up the company's current success with terms like "blue ocean," and Nintendo's management can take all the credit it likes for their current state of victory, but in truth the blueprint for everything Nintendo is doing right these days—dated tech, games with mass appeal, even non-gaming applications—was defined two decades ago by Gumpei Yokoi and his humble little plastic brick. On the Game Boy's 20th anniversary, it's high time the system's true impact is finally given its due. So happy birthday to Nintendo's unsung hero, and to the four shades of green that forever shaped the future of gaming.

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