Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ranking Nintendo's Systems: Part 4

We continue our look at Nintendo's best and worst systems. Click to read part 1, part 2 and part 3.

6. Game Boy / Game Boy Color

History: Handheld games have been around for a while. Mattel made a football game as early as 1978, and Nintendo got in on the action in 1980 with their long-running Game & Watch series. These LCD handheld games were cheap games, usually only costing about $20. I was the proud owner of several of them myself, such as Super Mario Bros., Mega Man 2, Ironman Off Road and, embarassingly, Bugs Bunny.

In retrospect, they kind of sucked. They were black images superimposed over an LCD screen, they had no sound to speak of aside from squeaks and squawks, and all you had to do in order to see ALL of the graphics was press the "Reset" button and it would display every available graphic. In short, they were a good stopgap solution, but they had their problems.

Enter the Game Boy, a lightning bolt out of the blue when it released in 1989. We may look back at its green, blurry screen and roll our eyes, but the Game Boy was a definite upgrade over what we had to play at the time. With the Game Boy, you could play bona-fide real games on a portable system wherever you wanted, swap out cartridges and play new games, and have real sound instead of weird blip noises.

Results: The Game Boy series sold 118 million units over ten years before giving way to the Game Boy Advance, which sold another 81 million. To put that in perspective, other companies saw how much money Nintendo was raking in and wanted a share of the handheld market. All of them died quick deaths.

First came the Atari Lynx. It launched in 1989, sold five million units and died. There was the NEC TurboExpress, launched in 1990, which sold 1 million units and died. The most successful challenger to the Game Boy was the Sega Game Gear, which launched in 1990 and sold 11 million units, then finally succumbed in 1997.

What Went Right:
Nintendo leaped out to this early and commanding lead in part because of Tetris, the now-famous puzzle game. Tetris was incredibly addicting, easy to play, hard to put down and almost perfect for simple pick-up-and-play sessions, which made it the ideal launch game for the Game Boy. No other handheld system had anything close to it.

The low cost of the system worked in its favor too. While, yes, the screen was subpar and the graphics monochromatic, if it meant you only had to pay $89 for a fully-realized handheld gaming system it was worth it. Because it was using underpowered components, that also meant that battery life was amazing, in the range of 10-20 hours.

The Game Boy survived almost entirely because it was the only game in town that would stay well-supported. While other systems didn’t have recognizable mascots or anything worth playing long-term, Nintendo had Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong and Kirby to keep people’s interest, and they leveraged them repeatedly. There were three Super Mario Land games in the span of 4 years. Link’s Awakening hit in 1993. Kirby had two entries. Donkey Kong came back, triumphantly, in 1994.

Still, it took a while for the full potential of the Game Boy to be unfurled. The Game Boy finally had its killer app in 1996, when Pokemon launched in Japan. It didn’t require you to have a link cable and other friends to share Pokemon with, but if you did you could level up your Pokemon faster and have a lot more fun, which made it one of the first social games. It brought an excitement to the Game Boy that had been missing up until that point and all but guaranteed that other handheld makers would have a hard row to hoe in order to compete.

Nintendo released the Game Boy Color in 1998, which finally brought colors to a Nintendo handheld and kept the fires lit at Nintendo for another three years until the Game Boy Advance could launch. There wasn’t much to talk about with it. They released remastered versions of games like Link’s Awakening, but a lot of the plans they had for it fell through, as Nintendo shifted its focus to the upcoming (and much more promising) Advance.

What Went Wrong: Handheld games simply weren't very good for the most part. There were a lot of crappy ports of bigger console games out there, and what few original games that didn't have "Nintendo" stamped on them were pretty lame. and though the games were still below-average,

The poor library combined with the lame screen meant that the demise of the Game Boy was prophesied repeatedly and emphatically. I had a copy of a EGM from back in 1993 that rated all of the video game systems on a scale of 1-10. Even back then, EGM was saying that the Game Boy only rated a 4 and that it was destined to be discontinued in the coming year. They weren't alone in that assertion, as it seemed that there was only so much more mileage Nintendo could squeak out of the handheld.

I thought of separating the original Game Boy and the Color, but there wasn't much difference between the two. Yes, the Color had color games, but most of those games worked on the original Game Boy as well. The Color did introduce new Game Boy models that had different colored shells, but aside from that the systems were virtually identical. Think of the Game Boy Color as version 1.1 of the Game Boy.

Besides, the games for the Game Boy Color were mostly the same. There were a few bright spots, like the Pokemon series and Metal Gear Solid, but mostly the Game Boy Color was a great system with a mediocre library that survived because it was the most reliable game in town.

Lessons Learned: The key takeaway from the Game Boy was affordability. Nintendo handhelds have never been graphical powerhouses, but they were always cheap to make, which meant more money in Nintendo's pocket. They would take that lesson with them through the creation of the Advance and the Nintendo DS and then, somewhat inexplicably, forget the lesson with the 3DS.

They also were reminded once again of their distinct advantage: Their stable of mascots. The most successful games on the Game Boy were Mario games, Zelda games, Kirby games, Donkey Kong games and the like. That was an advantage that Atari and NEC didn't have, and it was an advantage that Sega exploited excessively to their detriment.

Nintendo also learned that it was important not to listen to the hardware critics. Hardware critics were bashing the Game Boy's green screen since the day it launched and wondering how on earth anyone would want to use such an inferior piece of hardware. However, the market clearly stated that they had no problem with the hardware, so Nintendo could safely ignore the naysayers. As long as consumers were on the side of Nintendo, they knew they would be all right.