We don’t talk about the Game Boy enough

Nintendo’s Game Boy was a huge deal on its original release. Selling millions of units and ridiculous quantities of games, it was a genuine worldwide phenomenon — and kicked off Nintendo’s near-total dominance of the handheld gaming market for at least four generations — five if you count the Switch.

And yet these days, the people who talk the most and/or the loudest about retro games online don’t seem to talk about the Game Boy or its immediate successor the Game Boy Color all that much. That’s a real shame — ’cause both systems play host to some truly excellent games.

And even in the cases where Game Boy titles can also be found on other platforms, the limited resolution and power of the Game Boy system often meant that developers had to get a bit creative in order to make the game in question work. That often led to Game Boy versions of popular games that felt noticeably distinct from their “big brothers” on the TV-connected consoles.

Let’s talk about this a bit.

Why don’t we talk about the Game Boy today?

Game Boy games: Rod Land
Game Boy versions of arcade games like Rod Land may not be arcade perfect, but they provide a distinctive experience.

A significant part of the reason why the retro gaming community doesn’t tend to talk about the Game Boy all that much is down to how we have changed the ways in which we enjoy online media. While there’s still very much a place for written material — and a very sincere “thank you” if you’re supporting the written word by reading this — a significant chunk of gaming content on today’s Web is video-based, be it livestreaming on Twitch or making videos for YouTube.

While it’s not impossible to hook up a Game Boy to a TV in various ways — most commonly by going through a Super Game Boy for the Super NES or the GameCube’s Game Boy Player add-on — for whatever reason a lot of people who make videos don’t seem to think it’s worth the effort. And likewise, the even easier task of capturing video from a Game Boy emulator doesn’t seem to appeal to a lot of creators either.

Part of this may be down to the fact that Game Boy games are, by their very nature, less obviously “impressive” than games built for TV-connected consoles. The resolution is low, there aren’t that many colours — none at all aside from four shades of grey in the case of original Game Boy games! — and thus many creators likely feel that Game Boy titles perhaps don’t have enough in the way of visual appeal to make for interesting videos.

That is, of course, a boring and shallow way to look at things. Retro games are old, and they’re going to look inherently dated by virtue of the hardware they’re running on. Not exploring Game Boy games because they’re black and white is like refusing to look at the early days of movies for the same reason — sure, you can get a reasonable understanding of part of the overall media landscape, but you’re leaving a big hole in your knowledge.

Why should we be talking about the Game Boy today?

Game Boy games: Trax
Trax is super-fun and well worth spending some time with.

Aside from the system’s popularity and consequent importance to the overall health of the games industry for many years, there are also a variety of fascinating, unique experiences available for Game Boy that you simply can’t get anywhere else. And many of these provide exciting, lesser-known examples of what various developers were up to when they weren’t making their big-name franchises.

Take HAL Laboratory’s Trax (aka Ponkotsu Tank Totsugeki), for example, which they put out the year before they kicked off the Kirby series — which also started on Game Boy, for that matter.

Trax is a really enjoyable top-down shoot ’em up with an unusual twist: you control a tank whose turret can only rotate in a single direction. As such, you’ll need to carefully move around and fire at enemies from the best angle, taking the opportunity to spin your turret around when you find a safe area in which to take cover. Levels proceed down a linear path but scroll in all directions as you progress, making for a fun feeling of going on a journey rather than simply running in a straight line.

Trax is a game that works particularly well on Game Boy because it’s been specifically designed for that small screen and the two-button control scheme. As a game by HAL Laboratory, you’d think it would be of at least some historical note — and yet Googling it provides little more than a couple of eBay listings; it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia article at the time of writing.

Trax is far from an isolated example, either; the Game Boy’s library is full of fascinating exclusives, many of which are at great risk of being forgotten. And that’d be a terrible shame!

The road to Star Fox

Game Boy games: X
It’s a shame X never made it west — and a fair amount of Japanese text makes it tricky to wing your way through an import version, too.

Probably one of the most impressive things that the Game Boy did was pioneer the use of true 3D graphics in a handheld system. A number of different developers had a go at this over the course of the system’s lifetime, but probably the most noteworthy was Argonaut Software, who had made a name for themselves with their polygonal 3D games for the 8- and 16-bit home computers in the UK, and who quickly became fascinated with the possibilities that the diminutive handheld had to offer.

Argonaut’s work for Game Boy included the simply named X, a polygonal space combat simulator based on Argonaut’s Starglider 2 for ST and Amiga. X was released only in Japan due to 1992’s Nintendo of America feeling it was “too complex” for a games console primarily marketed at children, and these days it is one of the most hard-to-find and sought-after Game Boy cartridges.

That’s not the only 3D game that Argonaut put out on Game Boy, either. They also did a Game Boy port of Mindscape’s Days of Thunder video game adaptation, which was a fully polygonal stock car racer that actually outperformed the 16-bit micro versions in terms of frame rate; and they were also responsible for a seriously impressive Game Boy adaptation of Atari Games’ polygonal stunt racer and Hard Drivin’ follow-up, Race Drivin’. Both of these were on original Game Boy, too, not the later Game Boy Color.

Despite its obscurity in the west, X went on to be the most important of these Game Boy releases by Argonaut; Nintendo was so impressed by an early version of the game that they signed up Argonaut to help them release it as a first-party title for the platform. And from here, Nintendo had a talented group of specialists in 3D polygonal graphics on their books — just the thing they needed for a 16-bit project they had in mind called Star Fox…

Let’s celebrate the Game Boy

Game Boy games - R-Type
The Game Boy may not be the first place you’d think to go for a good version of R-Type, but here it is.

The Game Boy deserves much more credit than it gets these days. While it’s easy to acknowledge its enduring popularity — not to mention its spectacular battery life — as well as the importance of games like Tetris for broadening the overall appeal of gaming, the system’s library at large is worthy of a lot more exploration. So whether you’re collecting for original hardware or exploring the library through emulation — the Anbernic RG351V is a great handheld for doing the latter while keeping an authentic feel to the experience — be sure to take in the many and varied titles the Game Boy has to offer. And enjoy yourself!

With that in mind, you can expect to see some more Game Boy material here on Retrounite in the coming weeks; we’ve got a lot of games to catch up on, after all, so this should keep us busy for a while, eh?

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