GameSpite Quarterly #1 | Chapter 2
Article by Jeremy Parish | Posted May 25, 2009
The Game Boy launched in Japan on April 21, 1989. It's safe to assume that it was a pretty big deal over there, given the mania that Nintendo's Famicom had engendered, but of course none of us here at GameSpite lived in Japan at the time and can't really speak from first-hand experience. We can safely say that when the system arrived in the U.S. a few months later -- August 1989 -- it was immediately a schoolyard success. It launched at roughly the same time as the Sega Genesis, but was surrounded by far more buzz among the classroom set. Maybe that's because the collective unconscious of America's youth was plugged in to Nintendo Power and thus vulnerable to manipulation by Nintendo's brazen marketing -- but more likely it's because Game Boy felt like a natural extension of the NES experience in which American gamers were already immersed. Sonic the Hedgehog? and even EA's 16-bit sports empire belonged to a dim and distant future that, as of summer 1989, had yet to be envisioned by young nerds across America. Game Boy, on the other hand, offered plenty of familiar favorites right out of the gate.
Without question, Super Mario Land was the single title that got Nintendo fans salivating. The mania surrounding the upcoming spring 1990 release of Super Mario Bros. 3 was building to a fever pitch: the release of Fred Savage's Nintendo infomercial The Wizard loomed large, and enticing photos of the Japanese version of the game constantly found their way into magazines, where import-savvy editors coyly boasted about having spent some quality time with the Next Big Thing. Mario was at his peak popularity, and in the two-year lull between the U.S. release of his second and third NES outings, Super Mario Land made for an enticing, bite-sized snack to hold gamers over between courses.
No one really minded that the game was a strange and sometimes un-Mario-like adventure where Fire Flowers were replaced by bounding rubber balls and the platforming mechanics were often interrupted by side-scrolling shooters. After all, we hadn't played Mario 3 yet; the franchise had yet to codify itself in our minds. When Mario Land arrived, the series yet had a bit of Donkey Kong?'s protean nature about it, as no two entries had yet been the same. Of course, that was simply the American perception. Our Mario experience was vastly different from the one Nintendo had originally intended. Japanese gamers had already mastered Mario 3 by the time Game Boy arrived, and the line of succession within Japan's Mario trilogy for Famicom was far more direct than the wild leaps between Super Mario Bros. and its U.S. sequel. For us, saving Sarasaland's Princess Daisy from Tatanga wasn't any more out of character for the franchise than liberating Sub-con from a vegatable-hating frog. It's only in retrospect that Mario Land has been regarded with suspicion and contempt. At the Game Boy's U.S. launch, though, it was a certifiable hit that sold countless systems.
No less important was the presence of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, Fall of the Foot Clan, soon after launch. The sheer popularity of the TMNT brand in those days is difficult to overstate, and 1990 was the peak of Turtlemania in America; the game launched a few months after the wildly successful movie. The prospect of being able to take Leonardo, Raphael, Michaelangelo, and Donatello on adventures anywhere was a system-selling prospect in its own right... even despite the fact that Fall of the Foot Clan concisely demonstrated many of the Game Boy's shortcomings. Gamers had complained about Mario's teeny-tiny sprite in his first portable outing, but the oversized turtle sprites in their Game Boy adventure demonstrated the distinct advantage of scaling things down. Splinter's lads were huge and unwieldy on the system's tiny screen, and the constrained field of vision around their large frames made for a game that was terribly frustrating at times. To make matters worse, the blurry visuals caused by the system's passive-matrix screen made it difficult to pick out enemies from the busy backgrounds. The turtles looked pretty good in stills, but their adventure was something of a mess in motion.
Surprisingly, the Game Boy's true killer app was what, up until then, had been a fairly unknown title: Tetris. Nintendo Power had dutifully plugged the NES version of the game, though its merits were difficult to convey with screens and text alone. Yet the magazine's enthusiasm was justified; not only was Tetris an instant, addictive classic, but Nintendo's rights to the Russian puzzler were hard-won via one of the most complex and heated legal battles yet seen in the adolescent gaming industry. Nintendo's team of crack lawyer commandos under the purview of Howard Lincoln walked away with the home console rights, pulling the rug out from beneath Atari offshoot Tengen, and the company's PR division was more than happy to crow about its victory.
In the end, though, it wasn't the candy-colored console version of Tetris that canonized the game; in fact, Nintendo's NES rendition was widely panned for being inferior to the Tengen version it had killed off. Instead, people were drawn to the modest greyscale rendition on Game Boy, which Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa prudently campaigned to have packed in with the system itself. This may well have been the single smartest pack-in in gaming history, or at least until Wii Sports?. Tetris and Game Boy were made for one another; the system encouraged short, lightweight play sessions, and a round of Tetris could last anywhere from two to 20 minutes. It was simple, addictive, and hypnotic. Perhaps equally important was the fact that it showed off the Game Boy's link cable capabilities with a head-to head mode... a feature that Nintendo had culled from the NES version, much to the dismay of early adopters who had gotten a taste for competitive Tetris from Sega's arcade version or the recalled Tengen NES cart. Significantly, Tetris's single-screen game design and high-contrast playing field minimized the impact of Game Boy's visual shortcomings. It was a perfect selection for an in-store demo, and ultimately had far more impact on the system's success than even Mario.
Nintendo bolstered its position by playing as many third-party trump cards as possible over the course of the Game Boy's early years. The strength of the Famicom and NES placed Nintendo in a position of strength when it came to licensing, granting them the power to dictate terms and limitations to prospective publishers. Not only did Nintendo have an exclusive claim on many popular franchises, the company harshly limited the number of releases its licensees could produce in a given year. Needless to say, the more successful third parties jumped at the idea of Game Boy: it was a new and burgeoning platform... and it was a means by which they could stretch beyond the strict release quotas of the NES.
Before long, gamers were enjoying all their favorite NES titles on the go: Mega Man, Castlevania, even Final Fantasy, sort of. On top of that, Nintendo was producing a healthy number of interesting and sometimes innovative Game Boy creations in-house as well. These ranged from the basic block-breaker Alleyway? to the ambitious four-player F-1 Race?. The Game Boy's exceptional library of familiar and fantastic titles combined with its compact form and modest power demands helped its sales skyrocket in its first two years.
Meanwhile, Atari finally launched its Lynx, a month after Game Boy. It was too little (or perhaps too much) too late. Twice the price of Game Boy, twice the size of Game Boy, five or six times as expensive to power, with no big-name titles to speak of, and facing a retail marketplace dominated (arguably intimidated) by Nintendo at its pinnacle of power, the Lynx struggled to find a niche. Game Boy had notched up its first casualty -- though hardly its last.