Game Boy – 30 years of design simplicity at play

Back in 1989, the Nintendo Game Boy was the hottest gift for Christmas in the US and Japan – European gamers had to wait another year. To mark its 30th anniversary, Top League Brand Design takes a nostalgic look back at what made the Game Boy the games console of their childhood for millions and a cherished cultural icon.

Legend has it that while riding a Shinkansen (bullet train) in 1979, Japanese video game developer Gunpei Yokoi was inspired to produce a portable games series after observing a business man passing his time by punching numbers into his calculator. The following year, Nintendo released Yokoi’s Game & Watch handheld series which featured a single game to be played on an LCD screen in addition to a clock, an alarm, or both. The series proved the first major success and foray into the video gaming industry for Nintendo but it was its successor, the Game Boy, released nine years later in 1989 that really took the world by storm. While the Game Boy was neither the first handheld games console of its kind or the most advanced – utilising technology already nearly a decade old – it instantly took the title as the most successful portable console on the international market making it, to this day, a cult classic.

Iconic design

The innovative design of the Game Boy was unique. While its dot matrix, monotone interface appeared a step down in comparison to the full colour screen play of its competitors, the iconic Game Boy ‘green screen’ exuded a charm all of its own and enabled a battery life offering an amazing 30-hours of play. Competitors the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear featured screens in the centre of the device and controls on either side, while the Game Boy controls – reminiscent of the hugely popular Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) – were positioned beneath the screen making the device less of a burden to pocket. Also, the simplicity of the device and its manufacture made it comparatively cheap at just 89 US dollars and incredibly robust, famously surviving a bomb blast in the 1990-1991 Gulf War and put to the test by Youtubers. Furthermore, with the addition of a multiplayer cable, Game Boys could be linked up to enable head-to-head gameplay and in some cases up to four players. This wider appeal helped broaden its customer base to the extent that in 1995, Nintendo claimed that 46% of Game Boy users were female – a portion of the market which had previously been slow to emerge. But it wasn’t just the brilliance in design that powered the Game Boy in the marketplace. It’s launch titles, such as Super Mario Land – a bite-size edition of the smash-hit NES title Super Mario Bros – and subsequent releases capitalised on and centred around tried-and-tested Nintendo gaming mascots frontlining titles such as Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Castlevania, Metroid and Pokémon. Owing to the simplicity of the software, developers were keen to capitise on the Game Boy and, before long, gamers had a repertoire of hundreds of titles to choose from.

The takeaway

In retrospect, the Game Boy – by way of its ground-breaking design, utilisation of simple and existing technology, and the shrewd marketing by Nintendo of its games catalogue – set the stage for portable gaming well into the smart phone era. Today, millions of us have our beloved Game Boys, and its various reincarnations, to offer up that delightful dose of nostalgia. The loveable ‘grey brick’, provides us with another lesson; while cutting-edge technology brings with it progress, inventive and innovative use of old technology can bring about something all new and very special. Happy 30th Birthday Game Boy!

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