Game Boy Camera

Developer: Game Freak
U.S. Manufacturer: Nintendo
U.S. Release: June 1998
Format: Camera-enhanced cartridge

Based on: Reminding everyone that, at heart, Game Boy is a toy. And a frickin' sweet one, at that.

Games | Game Boy | Game Boy Camera

Article by Anthony Rogers | August 1, 2009

Videogames, by and large, are about technology. One might argue that they’re supposed to be about fun, but anyone that’s played edutainment software knows this isn’t the case. No, videogames are a form of entertainment that was born out of technology, and we all know it, which is why CELL processors, graphics engines, and Internet play are all the rage these days.

Even Nintendo, the hucksters that duct taped two GameCubes together and tricked most of the planet into buying it, used to play the tech game, positioning the SNES’s superior audio quality and kickass Mode 7 graphics as major selling points. This makes the SNES an oddity in Nintendo’s storied history, though, the one time they decided to puff out their chest and say, "Me too." Everything else—whether the Nintendo 64 (hampered by its cartridge format) or the aforementioned lackluster upgrade that is Wii—has been a modest step forward, something that uses affordable technology developers already understand. Sony and Microsoft may be content with selling hardware at a loss and making up the difference in licensing fees, but that’s not really how Nintendo rolls. Look no further than their handheld dominance over the last twenty years, which time and time again has shown Nintendo’s "weaker" system batting away any and all "superior" competition, Sony and Sega included.

The genesis of this successful strategy is often credited to the late Gumpei Yokoi, who thought to use a surplus of LCD calculator components to create Nintendo’s Game & Watch series. He also devised a certain sexy monochrome handheld that combined the ideas behind Game & Watch and Famicom. Game Boy was the epitome of Yokoi’s belief that fun gameplay was more important than impressive technology, which came into focus beautifully toward the end of the system's lifespan. 1998 was the American debut of Pokémon, sure, but it also saw Pokémon creators Game Freak spinning cheap technology into something innovative, resulting in a beautiful fusion of affordable hardware and sensible '90s marketing: the Game Boy Camera.

The best way to describe the Game Boy Camera itself is, well, awful. The device -- which plugs into the cartridge slot of the Game Boy and looks like something you’d shoot with an arrow in a Zelda game -- was a simple digital camera that offered meager quality even by 1998’s standards. It was only capable of taking grainy black and white images at the low, low resolution of 160x144, and it came packed with a few minigames and simple activities (filters, stamps, etc.) to dress up photos. The Game Boy Printer -- sold separately, of course -- made it possible to print out pictures from the photo album. (Sadly, even the Game Boy Printer was arguably more useful than the Camera, as some Game Boy Color games allowed it to print screenshots as well.) In short, the Game Boy Camera did nothing a cell phone can’t do a lot better these days.

But therein lay its charm. The Game Boy Camera is undeniably a product of its time no matter how you slice it. Marketed primarily towards children and young adults with no common sense, it was one of the last artifacts of a time before digital picture technology became so cheap that you could buy it at the checkout counter in the grocery store. The Game Boy Camera itself became so impractical so quickly that it’s become something of an icon amongst gamers; it’s "cool" to have your picture taken with the Game Boy Camera. Sure, the result looks like an ugly, pixelated grey mess, but the ugliness has a certain quaint charm, the same way most NES games are "ugly." That Game Boy Camera photos are instantly recognizable as having been taken with the Game Boy Camera, and not just any crappy digital camera, is probably the device's most enduring quality.

On par with the camera function itself was Nintendo’s attempt to take the idea of turning a camera into something fun to play with; that is to say, the results were mixed at best. The Game Boy Camera’s functions were split into three distinct categories: Shoot, View, and Play. Shoot and View are exactly what you’d expect out of a camera function, allowing you to take and look at photos. The Shoot menu itself is further split into four sections -- designed to look like an RPG menu -- with options to Shoot (take a picture), Items (a self-timer and time-lapse options), Magic (trick lenses, montages, panorama shots, and Game Face, where you take pictures of yourself for use in the Play area), and Check (letting you look through all the pictures saved in your album). View lets you see your pictures in a slide show, create short animations by adding pictures together, or create "Hot Spots" on pictures (which lets you set places on a picture to click to take you to other pictures—think setting a door in a picture as a hot spot that will open up the picture of the room inside and you’ve got the idea).

Play is the most unique area of the Game Boy Camera, and included the Game Boy Camera’s biggest hook, which undoubtedly inspired the Mii craze at least in part: using the player’s portrait in all the included games. Loading up Play immediately begins a game of Space Fever II (a Space Invaders clone that’s apparently a sequel to an incredibly obscure Nintendo arcade game). The twist: here the third and final boss was your own head flying through space. Shooting either of the first two ships that appear in the game will change the game to either Ball, a recreation of the juggling Game & Watch game, but with the Game Face on the juggler’s body, or Trippy-H, a confusing free-form music game where you mix your own chip tunes and your face becomes the DJ’s head. Beating Space Fever II unlocks Run! Run! Run!, a bonus game where the player’s face is attached to a cartoon body and relies on the time-tested fun of button mashing to race against mankind’s age-old nemeses, a bird and a mole. Together, these games are the Game Boy Camera’s biggest strength. It’s the one part other digital cameras can’t do, and will always be remembered as the first time a player’s face was actually in a game, that Journey arcade game notwithstanding. They're also the camera's biggest weakness, because, frankly, none of the games are particularly fun for long. If not for the presentation attached to them, it’s likely the Game Boy Camera would be entirely unremarkable.

Luckily Nintendo must have realized how lackluster the games were and put everything they had into the Game Boy Camera’s interface. While a moderate level of wacky humor occasionally showed up past in Nintendo games (Link’s Awakening being the most obvious example), spending 30 seconds with the Game Boy Camera is proof enough that they had finally cracked, as if the pressure to find a way to make a fun game based entirely around a crappy camera was simply too much. This is never more obvious than the moment the game is turned on, where the player is greeted with a terrifying animation of someone dancing in a Mario costume while crazy chip tunes play in the background. Every menu is presented with a different piece of incredibly random artwork, from pixel art of a crying boy to photos of unknown people making faces that range from hilarious to hideous. In fact, the eclectic, oh-my-god-what-were-they-smoking vibe is highly reminiscent of the WarioWare titles, so much so that it would be more surprising if the Game Boy Camera didn’t inspire that series. This also further supports the theory that the madness the Game Boy Camera let seep in has never quite left Nintendo’s system—and that's a good thing. And like WarioWare, the camera interface augments its bizarre sense of humor by sprinkling in small homages Nintendo fans will appreciate: everything from the aforementioned Space Fever reference to an EarthBound? song in the credits. And really, is it so bad to love something simply because it lets you stamp a black and white Pikachu on the eye of your best friend?

In the end, the most interesting thing about the Game Boy Camera is how willingly so many people bought into the idea. Maybe it was the crazy -- nay, zany -- marketing, and maybe it was the general hype around the Game Boy Color; but, until Pokémon overshadowed it, the Game Boy Camera was, against all odds, a must-have item. There’s certainly something to be said for the way Nintendo used to be able to command that kind of power over consumers, and, for better or for worse, it looks like they’ve returned to form with the Wii. The comparison is a fair one. Though the Game Boy Camera was hardly the hit the Wii is, both are examples of Nintendo taking withered technology and making the most of it. Sure, the Game Boy proper makes for a more apt comparison to understand the Wii’s success -- and OK, the Game & Watch makes for a better understanding of Gumpei Yokoi’s vision, but if nothing else, the Game Boy Camera at least stands as a testament to the lengths which Nintendo will go to try and provide its fans with something fun while they make a quick buck.

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