Tomorrow, the 21st of April 2019, marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of the original Nintendo Game Boy in Japan. The Game Boy was arguably technologically inferior to other portable handheld consoles released around that time such as the Atari Lynx and the Sega Game Gear, yet Nintendo’s Game Boy still managed to create and maintain a gigantic sales lead compared to the competition throughout it’s lifecycle. The Game Boy and it’s subsequent iterations even became something of a massive cultural phenomenon in terms of brand recognition and loyalty whose legacy lives on to this day and goes down in history as one of the top-selling dedicated gaming consoles of all time.
While I personally owned an original Game Boy, and a Game Boy Color, I could never really get over the fact that the Game Boy didn’t have a backlight. Meaning, I always found it very difficult to see what I was doing in the game. Even the updated Game Boy Color didn’t have a backlit screen.
However, when playing outside in daylight – as opposed to the dim-ness of our early-90s home – it was actually very acceptable and you could more clearly see what was going on in your game. It was this lack of a backlight though that contributed to the devices long battery life. Powered from 4 AA batteries, the Game Boy could run for as long as 15 hours. This was an incredible achievement to say the least, especially compared to Sega’s Game Gear, which might have only gotten 3 to 5 hours from 6 AA batteries.
This longer battery life through the way Nintendo targeted a lower-spec machine also resulted in a lower cost product to the consumer, and that also heavily contributed to its success, but one also cannot forget the games…
Released alongside the original Game Boy as a launch title, Alexey Pajitnov’s Magnum Opus – Tetris – was most certainly what one may refer to as the killer-app to end all killer-apps.
Selling over 35 million copies, never before and possibly never again will we see a launch game become more synonymous with a system. It would have been easy for those not in-the-know to even mistake Tetris for being a Nintendo property, such was the amazing fluidity with which the two brands stood together.
For me, Tetris is still the number one reason to own a Game Boy today.
Even Tetris DX, an updated version of the original game, which came out for the Game Boy Color just couldn’t live up the supreme perfection of the Game Boy original.
The reason? It’s the music. You see, Tetris DX was missing the Tetris tune that so many people (myself included) had grown to know and love and the feel of the game just wasn’t the same without it.
If you’re not sure what song I mean, it’s called Music A-TYPE and you can listen to it here:
Amazing! I’m sure you agree.
Experiencing Game Boy Today
Unless you’re a retro-gaming aficionado, you probably don’t have the older retro consoles lying around anymore to get a taste of that sweet nostalgia on this day of celebration. And even if you do, I’m still not 100% sure I can recommend cracking them out to actually play due to the original handhelds’ lack of backlighting, which can wreck havok on your eyes. (Anybody who experienced Game Boy at the height of its popularity for certain isn’t a kid anymore, so we must protect those peepers!)
Instead, arguably the best way to experience the games of the Game Boy today is through the use of emulation on your computer or mobile device.
The legality of emulation is certainly a grey area, which is why I won’t be providing links to any game roms on this site. It’s generally understood that the emulation software itself is legal, and you’re entitled to emulate games which you own a physical copy of. Google here, is your friend.
On macOS, you have OpenEmu, which is an open-source emulation project that uses the concept of cores, which are basically plugins for each system OpenEmu emulates. This allows the software to offer you a unified, clean and beautiful front-end UI to manage your games, screenshots and savestates without having to juggle a separate emulator for each system you’d like to emulate.
While the cores supported in OpenEmu are not always the latest versions, it’s really a small price to pay for just how user friendly everything is - the overall package functions extremely well. The Game Boy and Game Boy Color core within the current version of OpenEmu is based on Gambatte - widely considered to be the most accurate of all Game Boy emulators, of which there are many.
To round out your experience, it’s recommended you pair OpenEmu (or any emulator) with a controller, such as a Sony PS4 DualShock 4. OpenEmu makes it trivial to set up the controller bindings for each individual system you’re emulating.
If you prefer a controller with a more retro-feel however, I would highly recommend you look at some of the offerings from 8BitDo. They produce some amazingly high-quality bluetooth wireless reproductions of classic controllers, like those of the NES, Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo.
The controller pictured above is no longer produced by 8BitDo, replaced instead with a similar-looking product, but without the beautiful, iconic 4-coloured face buttons. I managed to pick up two from EBay quite recently, so if you’re in the market for this particular controller, I recommend you fetch one quickly, before they’re gone for good.
Another great piece of emulation software you might look into is RetroArch. This open-source software has a similar concept of cores like OpenEmu, but instead of being Mac-only, RetroArch supports nearly every system under the sun, including Android, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 2 (Yes, Playstation Two) to name but a few, and there is even a browser version you can try out.
There are also an order of magnitude more cores available in RetroArch compared to OpenEmu and infinitely more options for you to play around with. If you’re like me, and you love to tweak and adjust settings to your heart’s content, RetroArch is highly recommended, but sometimes if you want to just play a game quickly, OpenEmu might be the better option.
Note on Game Saves: normally save (
.sav) files produced from one emulator are compatible with those from another emulator (and even usually compatible with original hardware!), but this is not guaranteed. Save States on the other hand are most often not cross-compatible, but again, your milage may vary. It’s best to test these things out before putting too much time into a game.
One of the newer cores to be released on RetroArch is SameBoy. This emulator purports to be a highly accurate Game Boy emulator and there are also stand-alone versions of this emulator also available for macOS and Windows available from their homepage. I’ve only just discovered this emulator/core myself, and I’m writing about it here to demonstrate the vibrancy and enthusiasm of the Game Boy emulation scene in particular, and for the Game Boy in general that still exists to this day. I’ll be putting the emulator through it’s paces over the next few days for sure, but intial impressions are very positive.
Sometimes, you really just feel like you want to hold something in your hands like the original Game Boy hardware to properly recreate that classic feeling. That is something that is really difficult to do with just emulation software. Which is why there are many projects out there that use a Raspberry Pi single-board computer as a base for an emulation system that you put inside the body of a retro console, such an original Game Boy shell or a replica of same. The best of these products is looking to be the GPi by RetroFlag. While there is no information about this product on their website as of this writing, there are a number of recent YouTube videos showing it off, such as this one by Lon.TV:
The GPi is reportedly going on sale on the 21st of April, 2019, through their Amazon Store at a price of USD$69.99. This doesn’t include the price of the Raspberry Pi Zero W which you will need to purchase separately for about USD$10, depending on where you purchase. Not coincedentally I’m sure, the GPi goes on the sale the same day as the 30th anniversary of the Original Game Boy.
While the GPi is yet to go up on their Amazon Store as of this writing, I will report back on this site when it becomes available, but from my estimation, for the ultimate on Game Boy retro gaming experience, it will probably be through this device, or something quite similar.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this rundown of the Game Boy, its history and how to experience the games of the system today! Thank you to Nintendo and the original creator of Game Boy (Gunpei Yokoi - RIP), for creating such an amazing system and all the wonderful, timeless gaming memories. Happy [retro] gaming everyone!