Japan, an unspecified day in the late 1970s on a train full of commuters. Who reads the newspaper, who a book, who stares into space. Among all these “salary man” who every day pour into the city from the province, however, there is one who is playing with a calculator, perhaps trying to create words with numbers. This is noticeable by another passenger who is not an ordinary person, it is Gunpei Yokoi, brilliant inventor who has ferried Nintendo from the world of playing cards to toys.
Yokoi has an intuition: to use liquid crystals to create simple and fun electronic games, cheap objects that people can carry around without worrying too much, based on consolidated technologies: the Game & Watches.
Gunpei Yokoi, inventor of the Game Boy
These simple portable games are the cornerstone on which Nintendo will begin to build its portable empire (we are talking about over 40 million pieces sold) and thanks to them Yokoi will invent a fundamental element for video games: the directional cross. Then the NES and its huge worldwide success will come and Yokoi was part of it, contributing to the development of fundamental titles like Metroid and Kid Icarus , but in 1987 his mind set to work to answer a question: Game & Watch are cute, but limited, how could we make real games portable with a specially designed console?
Until then there had been examples of portable consoles, but the technologies did not allow to obtain great results, the costs were high and consequently the fiasco was a real risk. Yokoi therefore set to work together with his trusted collaborator Satoru Okada in the Research and Development division of Nintendo. Okada started by aiming higher with spectacular prototypes, equipped with colorful screens, but since a winning team doesn’t change, Yokoi stayed true to its design strategy: a product that didn’t represent the best that technology could offer, but something. of solid, inexpensive and proven where the most important features had to be games and battery life. No matter how much Okada complained about having to “ugly” his prototypes,
On April 21, 1989 the Game Boy debuted in Japan, inside was a modified Sharp Z80 processor, 8 kB of RAM, sound with 4 stereo channels, single speaker, 160 X 144 pixel LCD display with 4 degrees of gray and four styluses that guaranteed 36 hours of autonomy. The screen was not lit, so either you played with it during the day, or under a light source or while traveling, you had to hope for a dense array of street lamps. The code name was DMG-o1, which meant Dot Matrix Game, but which for some particularly dubious Nintendo employees became “DameGame” or “Game without hope”, today no one would ever admit to having called it that.
To accompany the Game Boy Nintendo deployed the heavyweight: Super Mario World, a portable version of its great classic that did not lose even an ounce of its playability compared to the home version. The idea of being able to play such a title anywhere and not just in front of the home television was a concept bordering on science fiction and in fact the initial 300,000 copies of the Game Boy ended in two weeks. In the following July, the console arrived in the United States and you sell 40,000 in one day.
Hillary Clinton plays with a Game Boy
But the real change of pace came with an unexpected ally from Russia. One day Dutch entrepreneur Henk Rogers knocked on Nintendo’s door with a license for a title developed by a Russian researcher: Tetris .
Super Mario was perfect for convincing Nintendo fans, but Tetris convinced everyone else. It was the perfect game for the Game Boy: the graphics weren’t important, the mechanics were addicting and let you play while waiting for the bus, queuing at the doctor, at the beach, anywhere. The success of Tetris was such that it overshadowed even the most famous plumber in the world and only the Pokémon, 9 years later, managed to embody the concept of “killer app” as well, that game so desired to convince you to buy a console.
But the competition did not stand by: Atari deployed the Lynx and Sega sent out the Game Gear, both were definitely more beautiful to look at, with their colored screens, but they cost more, they ate the batteries as if they had been candy, they missed Nintendo’s incredible title offering and were soon pushed aside by that gray box. How to see an overweight middle-aged gentleman scoring an overhead kick in the Champions League.
While changing skin, colors and technology over the years, the Game Boy officially ended its run on March 23, 2003, having sold over 118 million units in its various editions. Nintendo drew a lesson from its success still valid today: form, functionality and playability count more than raw power and graphics can earn you a spot in the showcase, but it will be the games that bring you in triumph. Today its shape has become an icon, a way to define the world of video games or portable consoles, a recognizable brand everywhere that brings back to afternoons of challenges, consoles connected with a cable, a travel bag with the best games behind it and a pack of batteries, because you never know.
Legends never die, that’s why today the Game Boy resists in the drawers and cellars of millions of players who still play a game every now and then, but above all over the years it has become the musical instrument of a genre called chiptune, which mixes sounds. electronics, videogame nostalgia and techno.
Who knows if Yokoi, who after the failure of Virtual Boy left Nintendo and died in a car accident just before launching another handheld console, the Wonderswan, would have ever imagined that a lot of people in the world today dance using the its creation as a musical instrument.