Year Released: 1998
Original Price: £80
Buy It Now For: £10+
Associated magazines: Official Nintendo Magazine
Why The Game Boy Color Was Great: The Game Boy Advance was released so soon after the Game Boy Color that many of its best games were lost in a rush to upgrade to the next big thing. Returning to the GBC now reveals a wealth of great games that you never knew existed, especially those available on import…
Rumours of a colour Game Boy began to circulate almost as soon as the original monochrome handheld was released in 1989. Atari’s Lynx proved that colour gaming was possible on the move, which prompted some to question why the big N’ chose the less impressive black and white route. Nintendo’s answer, as always, showed that it had done its homework. Colour handhelds, although possible, were not practical: the massive drain on batteries and reliance on oversized hardware forced the user to play at home (close to a plug socket) and completely defeated the point of a portable games console.
Nintendo chose instead to produce a handheld that was cheap to run and light enough to carry around, pledging to only upgrade the console when technology caught up with demand. That strategy proved more than wise as the Game Boy went on to sell over 70-million units despite the lack of colour. A string of hits from Nintendo’s familiar brands, as well as new properties like Pokémon, ensured that the handheld fought off all competition and stayed in the hands of gamers for the next nine years until technology finally caught up.
By November 1998 Nintendo made good on its promise and revealed the Game Boy Color to the world at that year’s E3. The console originally used a tech demo, featuring schools of multicoloured fish, that clearly showed how advanced the handheld was in comparison to its forebears. By featuring a crisp 256×256 pixel TFT (Thin Film Transistor) screen the GBC could output vibrant colour visuals, without eating the batteries, whilst also keeping the machine small and light. In addition, the processor was twice as fast as the original Game Boy, 56 colours could be displayed from a palette of 32,0000 and the unit included an infrared device that could wirelessly transfer data between two machines. Since various coloured machines had proved successful for Nintendo in the past they planned to release the GBC in six different colours with more to follow. The first six were Atomic Purple, Berry, Teal, Dandelion, Lime and Grape although only Atomic Purple initially made it to Europe in time for launch.
With the GBC’s impressive specs and long battery life (from only two AA batteries) Nintendo fans were eager to see what games were in store for them but some were disappointed as the first batch of releases did little to take advantage of the new handheld’s power. As with the transition from NES to SNES, Nintendo was reluctant to alienate those who had stood by the Game Boy for so long and implemented a backwards compatibility system that turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. The Game Boy Color was fully backwards compatible, making it capable of playing thousands of classics straight out of the box in a simple colour scheme. Many of the original Game Boy games had a default colour palette which Game Boy Color made use of to ensure that Kirby stayed pink and Yoshi green for example. Those games that did not have a default colour scheme could be altered by holding down different combinations of buttons upon powering up the machine, although this did have its drawbacks as the palette always coloured the sprites differently to the background, which meant that the games that tried to surprise the player, by having sprites suddenly move, didn’t quite work as intended.
The backwards compatibility was a first for any handheld and a smart move, but Nintendo took the plan a step further and ran the risk of angering those who had paid the £80 asking price for the GBC. To ease the move from monochrome hardware to the Game Boy Color the first few games would be playable on the original Game Boy in black and white. This meant that owners of the ‘Game Boy Classic ‘ could enjoy the new games without feeling pressured into upgrading but, frustratingly, it also meant that early adopters of the GBC had to make do with launch titles that didn’t take full advantage of the handheld’s capabilities. Early titles like Tetris DX and Link’s Awakening DX were decent enough but some gamers couldn’t help but feel that they were playing monochrome games that had been ‘coloured in’. This continued until the release of Super Mario Bros DX (1999): a cartridge that used the full power of the GBC to perfectly recreate a portable version of the NES classic for the first time.
Quality software was finally beginning to appear but the Game Boy Color hadn’t quite captured the hearts and wallets of portable gamers just yet as it faced its stiffest ever competition. Although the previous Game Boy had enjoyed an unbelievable 99 per cent market share, the new console was up against two new rivals that were carving major inroads towards Nintendo’s once captive audience. Bandai’s Wonderswan exploited Nintendo’s rocky relationship with Squaresoft by securing the rights to all portable versions of Final Fantasy and captivated the Japanese market in the process. SNK meanwhile had a handheld of their own, in the shape of the Neo Geo Pocket, which was very popular with hardcore beat-’em-up fans. Nintendo needed a strong, system-selling game if it was to fend off these two considerable enemies. It needed a ‘killer app’. It needed “Pokémania”.
With well over 16 million copies of the original Pokémon sold by 1998, the popular RPG can take sole credit for saving the monochrome Game Boy from obsolescence. The original game had spawned a world-wide addiction for all things Pokémon and kids across the globe would hungrily consume anything with Pikachu’s face slapped on it, but what they really wanted was a brand new Game Boy adventure. After all, even though Nintendo had exploited the Pokémon brand to the nth degree, the original RPG by Game Freak was still a very compelling and highly polished game.
Pokémon Gold and Silver were released in 1999 in Japan, 2000 in the USA and 2001 in Europe. The considerable gaps in release dates can be attributed to the time needed to translate the in-game text but for Nintendo they had the added bonus of prolonging the Game Boy Color’s life span on a global scale. The new Pokémon did the trick and, even though it could be played on a monochrome Game Boy, Pokémaniacs all over the world bought a Game Boy Color just so they could see their favourite Pocket Monster in the correct hue. Sales of the handheld, helped by a “Special Pokémon Edition” skyrocketed and by 2001 had reached an estimated 50 million units.
Four Great Game Boy Color Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 24, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop