In the summer of 1990, I turned four. The last gift I opened on my birthday, the pièce de résistance if you will, was my Game Boy. From that moment on, I was hooked. I have never stopped playing Game Boy, through its many revisions and its countless games. As I turn 30 and now have the expendable income to collect and play the Game Boy even more than before, I have turned my appreciation into the peak of obsession: cataloguing the essential games released for the system to understand its appeal. I call this project Game Boy Essentials. It is an attempt to discuss the games we should play to fully understand the Game Boy. Good or bad.
There are over a thousand Game Boy & Game Boy Color games. Not all are worth playing. Some aren’t even worth acknowledging. I’m building a list of the games that someone could play to get a complete sense of what the Game Boy is about. Sometimes that means playing Donkey Kong Land because Rare could not be bothered to cater their game to the weird screen of the system, sometimes that means playing the games everyone seemed to have played, sometimes that means playing a dreadful game that sold millions, sometimes that means playing a truly forgotten classic.
I think I’m on to something special here since the Game Boy library is criminally overlooked. Very few talk about it in the proper context. Except for Jeremy Parish, with the excellent Game Boy World, a project within Retronauts (give him a visit at gameboy.world or retronauts.com). I hope that with this website I can do the same and escape the tropes of portable consoles discussions. Traditional Game Boy coverage is often guilty of several things:
- When you see a retrospective on the history of video games, all portable consoles are usually a side note.
- When you look at a list of all the important video games, portable games are for the most part absent. With the notable exception of Tetris or Pokémon. I would argue there are way more games warranting best game of all time on the Game Boy than only those two.
- When people try and group consoles by generations, the uniqueness of portable consoles is thoroughly ignored.
Think how much websites talk about the legacy of the NES and SNES then put this focus in perspective with this fact: the Game Boy line sold more than the NES and SNES … combined. Do you realize how popular the Game Boy was? Until 2010, the Game Boy & Game Boy Color were together the best-selling video game system of all time, when the DS surpassed them (the DS being eventually surpassed by the PS2). The Game Boy family in total sold 118.69 million systems (Game Boy & Color) & 501.11 million cartridges. In 1995, Nintendo of America said themselves that 46% of Game Boy players were female, which was trouncing the percentages of the NES (29%) and SNES (14%). The Game Boy, for a certain time, was the most important gaming console.
I keep all those numbers in mind when I see people writing that the Game Boy was a lot of people’s introduction to video games. This is diminutive to no end. This seems to imply the Game Boy is something you do before moving on to real games on consoles. For so many people, the Game Boy was their introduction, main paragraph and conclusion to video games. People bought the Game Boy in 1990, probably played a lot of Tetris, with statistics telling us they bought around four other games and that was a very enjoyable experience for them. They bought it for themselves to play on the go (Gunpei Yokoi famously had the idea for the Game & Watch when looking at a businessman play with his then-revolutionary pocket calculator on the train), they bought it for children as toys, they bought it because an NES was too expensive, they bought it so they would not always have to hog the TV, they bought it because it looked so damn fun! Nearly half of those people were women, who were clearly not playing other consoles. I want to look at the games that are meaningful for the Game Boy, the games that help us understand why the Game Boy was so much popular and attracted a different, larger public, through the games I select.
To select a game I look at many things. Quality of the game and originality, of course, but I also look at elements outside of what is burned on the silicon of the cartridge. Things like popularity, critical reception, sale numbers, impact on other games. Anything that makes a game meaningful. Even if it’s bad. It is important to look at games that did not succeed at what they attempted, games that are no fun, graphically atrocious, games with obtuse mechanics, popular games that suck. If we play those games and get a better understanding of the Game Boy, we should play them and talk about them, but if I had decided to talk about all the games, I would have gouged my eyes out by now. Simply because most titles are not worth writing deep, insightful articles about. They’re not essential. The Game Boy and Game Boy Color have around 1237 games (all the lists are somewhat flaky on the exact number), so I still discover new essential games, but most games of the system are better left to history. Finally, the system went through phases, so we can pick the most essential of every phase to get a good sense of what was happening.
I want to extend all my love and respect to Jeremy Parish and his Game Boy Works (née Game Boy World) project. I don’t know how he survives looking at every single Game Boy game in chronological order. I’d want to hide in a cabin in the middle of nowhere by this point if I were him.