GAME BOY ESSENTIALS

Mission Statement

What is Game Boy Essentials?

Game Boy Essentials is a project to discuss the games that are essential to understand the appeal of the Game Boy. 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 you should 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 a dreadful game that sold millions, sometimes that means playing a truly forgotten classic.

​I plan on writing approximately one article per month until the list is deemed complete. At this pace, it will take me years to get through every game I deem essential on Game Boy.

Why Game Boy Essentials?

I could have started a website about movies, TV shows or books. But those are talked about with the scrutiny they deserve. The Game Boy library, however, is criminally overlooked. Nobody talks about it properly. Except for Jeremy Parish, with the excellent Game Boy World. I hope that with this website I can be the second. Game coverage can be guilty of several things:

Think how much websites talk about the NES and SNES then put it into perspective with this: 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 was ultimately surpassed by the PS2 and lost the number one spot. The Game Boy family 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. How important?

Hillary Clinton playing Game Boy on Air Force One: How much more popular can you get?

All these serve to show you how big it was and how long it took for something to get bigger (which was Nintendo’s own DS).

I often seem to 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, played 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. 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 damn popular.

How do you decide if a game is essential?

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, number of sales, 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.

Why not do all the Game Boy games?

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’s happening.

Honestly, Jeremy Parish, I don’t know how you do it.

I want to play the games you recommend. What should I play them on?

Use what you have. You will hear people say that to truly understand what it means to play the Game Boy, you need to play the original hardware. I get the idea but I personally spent my childhood playing an original Game Boy, I know what it’s like. The ghosting, the colours, the fiddling with the contrast, I’ve done it thousands of hours already. If you’ve never experienced the original DMG–01 before, I’d say you should strive to try it but you can do much better to play those games. People will do all sort of weird modifications to the DMG–01 to get a better contrast, but the screen is still galling.

Next, chronologically, is the Super Game Boy, who would be a good recommendation if not for the fact that it played games 2.4% faster due to a timing quirk. Its successor, The Super Game Boy 2 does not have that timing problem but it was only released in Japan and is thus very expensive. And to be honest, you’re not getting the best experience by playing games on a distant TV screen meant to really be played between your palms.

You could get a Game Boy Pocket, which features a better, bigger screen, but the screen is still not lit. The Game Boy Light is basically a Game Boy Pocket with a very green frontlit LED. I have personally never tried one because it is very expensive, having being released only in Japan, very close to the release of the Game Boy Color. Speaking of the Game Boy Color, all the previous systems we have talked about will not play clear cartridges. You need at least a GBC to play GBC games, of course. It is also the only system that will 100% display the colours of clear cartridges correctly but it is not lit and can be hard to see.

Moving on to the Game Boy Advance line, the original Game Boy Advance is a step back from the Game Boy Color because it’s still not lit, very hard to see and off-color for GBC games.

Next off is the first Game Boy Advance SP, the AGS–001. Its got a lot of good qualities but its light is frontlit, so my recommendation is the Game Boy Advance SP with backlit display, the AGS–101. What do you mean backlit? I mean the screen you’re looking at right now. A smartphone, a laptop screen, an LCD TV, they’re all backlit. This is the type of screen we’re all used to and the AGS–101 is the only portable system able to play Game Boy cartridges that has a truly great screen. The colours of Game Boy Color games are not exact, being slightly brighter than they are on the original color system, but it is backlit and has an internal battery. The cartridges jut out, but from the bottom of the console so it’s not a deal-breaker. It lacks an headphone jack, but you can find cheap adapters on eBay that plug into the charging port and give you a standard headphone jack.

There’s the Game Boy Player, an add-on for the Gamecube that allows you to play Game Boy titles on a TV. It is better than a Super Game Boy 2 since it will play Color cartridges. However, using its original disc, you will see timing issues. So you have to get a fan-made disc from forums somewhere. And you need a disc, the Player will not play games if you don’t have one. You also need to get a first-generation Gamecube made with a component output and get an expensive Gamecube component cable. Are you a caveman, plugging a console with composite! And did I talk about the cable that allows you to plug a GBA and use that as a controller instead of the funky layout of the Gamecube controller. You get my point. It gets complicated real quick with the Game Boy Player for a system who’s whole point is simplicity.

Finally, emulation. The 3DS features the Virtual Console, which allows you to buy the games and play them on the 3DS. It’s a great way to buy games that might be difficult to find otherwise. However, the 3DS Virtual Console does not allow you to play the black cartridges as if they were running on the original Game Boy. Otherwise, go for it, although I haven’t tried it. I don’t own a 3DS.

Why include the Game Boy Color on Game Boy Essentials?

If we only look at the hardware, the Game Boy and Game Boy Color are indeed distinct systems. The Game Boy Color features an 8 MHZ processor (twice as fast as the Game Boy), more RAM and obviously a color screen. However, everything else is exactly the same. The processor is the same family (a custom Zilog 80 instruction set), the screen has the same resolution, the system features the same button layouts and the Color is perfectly backward compatible with all Game Boy titles. The Game Boy Color is Nintendo’s first backward compatible system, and I would argue its marketing made the idea of backwards compatibility mainstream to begin with. Previous backward compatible consoles include Sega’s SG–1000 family and the Atari 7800 featuring straightforward Atari 2600 compatibility. However, the first blockbuster system to bank on backwards compatibility and be recognized for its ability to play a previous system is the Game Boy Color. The similarities between Game Boy and Game Boy Color are not enough to allow us to call them the same system; we still end up with the conclusion that they are two distinct consoles. But if we look at the games, their release dates and Nintendo’s own explanation of what the system was we get a different answer.

First, Nintendo did not release any Game Boy Color launch titles. You read that right. The system launched with black cartridges only, games that are ultimately original Game Boy titles. Centipede, Game & Watch Gallery 2, Pocket Bomberman and Tetris DX were those games in the US; all Game Boy games with special Game Boy Color palettes. They are not strictly Game Boy Color games: since they can run on an original system, they cannot take advantage of the Game Boy Color’s extra RAM or processor speed. They feature color, of course, but without being able to use all the colours at the same time. They’re Game Boy games with limited colour palettes.

This an interesting quirk but not enough to call them one system. We’re getting there but not quite. Second, we have to look at the release calendar to truly tip the scales. You see, after the release of the Game Boy, third-party developers kept developing Game Boy games with Color palettes. Keep in mind, those games also featured different Super Game Boy palettes. So for those black cartridges, the Game Boy Color was basically a second color palette distinct from the Super Game Boy (there are some very strange exceptions). You have to wait six months until Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. Deluxe to see a true Game Boy Color game from Nintendo. A port of Super Mario Bros. from the NES, it truly looks impossible to do on the Game Boy. Most developers, though, started shipping games only for Game Boy Color­ a year after the initial release of the system. Everybody was basically following Nintendo’s lead. On top of that, big releases like Pokémon Gold & Silver were still Game Boy titles. There are black cartridges, Game Boy releases with Color palettes, up to three months after the release of the Game Boy Advance.

So you basically have a library of games that slowly transition from Game Boy cartridges to Super Game Boy enhanced cartridges to Game Boy Color enhanced games to finally exclusive Game Boy Color games. This slow transition is on purpose, intended to slowly ease people into the idea of a new system progressively. At the same time, you keep taking advantage of the record-breaking installed base of the Game Boy for large scale blockbusters. I mean, the one game that truly sold people on the idea of the Game Boy Color, Pokémon Gold & Silver, was not a game only for Game Boy Color! Original Game Boy games were still being released in 2001 with the last game being Dragon Warrior Monsters 2.

So to me, what we have here is a distinct hardware platform that Nintendo did not want to completely differentiate. Nintendo wanted to present the Game Boy Color as a new way to play Game Boy games, first and foremost. The Game Boy is now in Color. Some of those games have better colours and they’re black cartridges, and some of those game have colours that are so good they’re only playable on a Color Game Boy. By slowly releasing games only for Game Boy Color as time went on, Nintendo eased people into accepting that some games were unplayable on the original Game Boy. While still in the eye of the average consumer looking like it was one system.

Why not include the Game Boy Advance on Game Boy Essentials?

The same two reasons explain the Game Boy Advance’s difference and the Game Boy Color’s similarity: the hardware and the release titles.

The Game Boy Advance is a totally different beast from the Game Boy Color. It’s a 32-bit ARM machine with a wider display and two extra shoulder buttons. The layout of the system is horizontal, in an obvious ploy to differentiate the system from its forebear. Everything about it screams I’m not a Game Boy, I’m much better!

With release titles, the Game Boy Advance had one of the largest release library. Developers immediately flocked to the Game Boy Advance. The few developers that still released games for Game Boy Color did so in small quantities with the public mostly ignoring then. It was a quick and swift transition.

To me they’re two different systems and so I can safely ignore the Game Boy Advance on this website. There’s also the painful reality of time. I’m having a hard time envisioning the endgame with only Game Boy and Game Boy Color to cover. I’d have to write from the grave to properly cover the Game Boy Advance as well.

I’m confused. Can you explain what’s the deal with all those cartridge types?

Absolutely! The first cartridge type is the original grey. They have nothing inherently special about them. They feature the notch on the left side of the cartridge and will play on anything with the name Game Boy (except the Game Boy Micro). There is a subset inside that group, however, of games who have the Super Game Boy logo. While games without Super Game Boy support will play on it but use standard palettes, Super Game Boy cartridges will have a custom border and custom color palettes when played on the Super Game Boy. The Super Game Boy was released alongside Donkey Kong, and it is the game with the best support for it. Christine Love has the best article on the subject.

When the Game Boy Color was released, the black cartridges were introduced. They are still Game Boy games, but the black colouring of the cartridge denotes Game Boy Color functionality. This means they have specific Game Boy Color palettes. They also have Super Game Boy palettes, different from the GBC palettes. There are also weird edge cases (Conker’s Pocket Tales, Wario Land 2, The Legend of Zelda DX for example) of black cartridges that have different content wether you play them on a Game Boy or Game Boy Color. But basically, those are still Game Boy titles (denoted by their product ID still starting with DMG, the code for the original Game Boy). Their packaging also featured the Game Boy Color word mark on the left side of the box.

Then comes the final type of cartridge, the clear cartridge. These do not feature the notch, meaning a Game Boy will physically not be able to start with them inserted. They will start on the Super Game Boy but will only display a message saying the game cannot be played on a Game Boy (technically they do run on the Game Boy, the issue being the only thing they display is a screen saying it won’t play on that particular system; an interesting case of an oxymoron). Those feature the CGB code in their product ID, denoting they are for a completely different system. Their packaging featured the Game Boy Color word mark and a little triangle on the right side of the box with the words only for Game Boy Color. Just to make things more complicated, starting with Pokémon Crystal in 2001 that little box disappeared and only the back of the box indicated the title was a clear cartridge for Game Boy Color only.

On top of all this madness, some titles were originally released in grey cartridges and rereleased later on black cartridges. This includes Wario Land II, which was originally released very close to the release of the Game Boy Color, and thus was rereleased to take advantage of the new system. Another example, Harvest Moon GB, got retitled Harvest Moon GBC in the black cartridge rerelease.

How do you take your screenshots?

Right now, with an emulator. I am not playing the games on an emulator, however. I’m playing them on my trusty Spongebob Squarepants AGS–101.