July 31, 1989 Everything you knew about handheld games changed forever, up until that point handheld units were usually subpar LCD games, often sports like football or baseball. These games were fun being what they were but didn’t compare to systems like the Nintendo or even the Atari consoles available during that time.
When the Gameboy launched you could finally take familiar games on the go with you and people snatched them up to the tune of 44+ million units sold in North America. The Gameboy came with Tetris as a pack in game as well as a few early titles like Baseball, Alleyway, Tennis and an all new Mario game called Super Mario Land.
The Gameboy was designed to be the successor to the popular Game and watch series of handheld games which only gave you one built in LCD game per unit. When the idea was pitched at Nintendo the initial response was surprisingly not one of excitement, internally there was a lot of scepticsm as to whether this new “dot matrix game” would find success.
Due to Gunpei Yokoi and Nintendo research and development 1’s previous success with the Game and watch and several NES titles the system was given the green light to continue. The Gameboy brought together aspects of the NES and the Game and watch to create a new system. When the Gameboy was initially released in Japan the first 300,000 test units sold out almost immediately and Nintendo realized they had something big and turned their sights to the North American and European markets.
As stated earlier the North American reception was huge, the Nintendo entertainment system had created a huge splash and North America’s love affair with video games was back on, so there couldn’t have been a better time to release a handheld system. NES was great but had one downside, you could only play it at home. Every kid dreamed of being able to bring Mario on the go and Nintendo was about to make that dream come true.
Super Mario Land was the next installment of the Brothers Mario after the hugely successful Mario Bros 3, most kids who opened up a Gameboy for their birthday or christmas most likely had Super Mario Land with it.
Although straying away from Mario 3 in the same way Mario 2 was a completely different experience from Super Mario Bros, it was however an interesting game and I know I definitely put some time into it as a kid until I beat it. It brought in elements never seen in a Mario game before like Mario’s sub and airplane? Princess Peach was not to be found in any castle this time around as you’re out to rescue princess Daisy instead. The game also featured all new enemies and bosses with Bowser and the Koopa family nowhere to be seen.
Even Koopa kings need a holiday
It was popular enough though to see the release of a sequel Super Mario Land 2: 6 golden coins which was far better received, brought back a familiar look to the Mario games and introduced us to a new boss: the gold hungry Wario.
The Gameboy had entrenched itself well into the gaming scene in North America through its advertising campaigns, hype and price point. The Gameboy debuted at the $90 mark, Nintendo had done it’s best to keep prices down most notably by sacraficing color for a green/black dot matrix display instead of a color LCD.
At the time nobody thought much of it until then main competitor Sega launched their Game Gear handheld featuring a color screen but at the cost of price and battery life (6 for GG vs 4 for GB). Sega was not the only competition to try to take a slice of this new game market, there were also the Atari Lynx and the TurboExpress which also offered color screens and in many cases better hardware, visuals and games.
Although these systems were often superior to the Gameboy, pricing helped to keep Nintendo the choice of most parents who were looking at having to buy systems for multiple kids. Nintendo continued to roll out games for the Gameboy creating both new titles and ports of popular NES games, because of the agreements with developers Nintendo had they were able to constantly keep 3rd party software limited to the Gameboy.
The Gameboy has gone on to have an interesting legacy, not just as the first portable gaming system but as f Nintendo research found out: it was the first system that was incredibly popular with women with 46% of users at the time compared to only 29% on NES and 14% on Super Nintendo.
Nintendo also kickstarted worldwide phenomenon when they released Pokémon on the Gameboy, it allowed players to battle/trade other players via the link cord and had a huge marketing boom with the simple tag line: “Gotta collect em all!” and man did people take that seriously making Pokémon the most successful franchise on their handheld systems with multiple versions available and creating the ability to have them interact across platforms in games like Pokémon stadium for N64.
The original Gameboy was one of Nintendo’s longest supported systems and had several interations such as the Gameboy pocket and Mini before the Gameboy color was finally rolled out. Since then Nintendo has continued to dominate the handheld market with the introduction of the Gameboy Advance, Advance Sp, the DS, 2 DS and currently the 3DS.
Nintendo has consistently dominated thanks mostly to its strong stable of 1st party franchises like Mario, Zelda, Starfox, Metroid and Pokémon. These beloved franchises have kept buyers consistently keeping the Nintendo systems at the top of the marketplace, over the decades since it was first unleashed the Gameboy has seen many handheld systems come and go while Nintendo systems continued to push forward to take it’s place as the best portable gaming systems of all time.
After thinking about all this kinda makes me want to fire up the ol Gameboy and play one of my favourite games: Super Pro AM.
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