GameSpite Quarterly #1 | Introduction
Article by Jeremy Parish | Posted May 11, 2009
The definitive narrative of Nintendo's history was established by David Sheff's Game Over, a book written at the peak of the NES era -- an exhaustively researched and generally even-handed work that nevertheless sold itself by catering to the contemporary middle American panic that the indestructible Japanese were conquering our nation's children with blinking devil boxes that played hypno-games. In retrospect, that fear was charmingly naďve. America hadn't seen nothin' yet; anime and console RPGs were still almost completely off the radar, although by the time those made it big in the States, Japan's bubble economy had burst and Americans were less frightened. After all, Japan had proven itself another would-be empire that expanded too fast to sustain its growth. We are not so different, you and I.
Twenty years later, Nintendo remains greatly venerated in its homeland. But Japan's truest love for Nintendo more or less begins and ends with the Famicom and its familiar grids and blocks of primary colors. Whatever the reason for Famicom's hold on Japan—the system was the nation's first home-grown success packed with games designed specifically to their tastes, it's a reminder of the good old days, mass hypnosis—you have to look long and hard to find nostalgia and retrospection that goes beyond the Famicom's twilight days, even in the nerdy depths of Akihabara. Even Square Enix, a company that ruthlessly mines the past like a raw commodity to be exploited, seems reluctant to push its remakes of 16-bit games beyond Dragon Quest V? and Final Fantasy IV, twin RPG dynamos that also happen to look an awful lot like slightly enhanced NES games.
The result of all of this is that the in-depth chronicles of Nintendo's history peter out right about the beginning of the '90s, just as the company's formative console was bracing itself for retirement and its successor, the Super NES, was rolling off the assembly line. Lost in the shuffle is the system that really mattered, the format that has quietly saved Nintendo's bacon year after year: the Game Boy.
Nintendo has had its ups and downs since its NES heyday. The arrogance engendered by the NES's success led to short-sighted policies that helped Sega's Genesis fight the Super NES to a 16-bit deadlock. In turn, the fallout of that generation's conflicts and compromises turned the Nintendo 64 into an also-ran as Sony reinvented the medium. Then the GameCube saw Nintendo struggling to catch up with the competition and never coming even close; Sony's PlayStation 2 became the best-selling game system ever made, while GameCube was the least popular machine Nintendo had ever fobbed off on our living rooms -- well, so far as TV-based systems go. The sustained success of the Wii has made Nintendo the king of the couch again -- or perhaps not, since its best-selling game these days is Wii Fit, which demands players get off their butts -- to the point that the company almost single-handedly drove the game industry's growth in the midst of 2008's sad slide into a global recession.
And yet, none of the company's current success would even slightly be possible without Game Boy. As Nintendo 64 foundered, the decrepit Game Boy experienced its second wind thanks to the Pokémon juggernaut, creating a merchandising empire that allowed Nintendo to soak up the losses of the disastrous 64DD add-on and weather a tide of third-party defections that saw mainstays like Capcom and Square experience their greatest-ever successes on Sony's PlayStation. The Game Boy's successor (Game Boy Advance) served a similar role during the flaccid GameCube years -- despite the beating Nintendo took in the first half of this decade, it recorded only a single unprofitable fiscal quarter. An astounding feat to be sure, and one that surely would never have come to pass without the company's legacy of insanely profitable portable games to prop up its earnings. And ultimately, the Game Boy family's replacement, the DS line, paved the way for the expanded content/casual gamer money factory that is the Wii.
Given all of that, you'd think the Game Boy would be one of Nintendo's more respected creations, if not downright venerated. Strangely enough, though, that's not really the case. Nintendo quietly euthanized the Game Boy brand name last year, and gamers haven't really done much to enshrine the system. I recently posted a column marking the system's 20th anniversary at 1UP.com, and the Internet's collective response was unanimous: "Oh, the Game Boy is 20? I had no idea." Despite everything the system has done for Nintendo's bottom line, despite all the collective childhood memories we have of clutching Game Boys in the back seat during a long summer vacation trip, despite all the interesting and revolutionary games it's hosted, the Game Boy is the medium's Rodney Dangerfield. It don't get no respect. Except that unlike Rodney Dangerfield, the Game Boy has more than acquitted itself. It deserves respect. No, it demands it.
The world's unconscious dismissal of the Game Boy can likely be ascribed to a few things. Portable gaming has always been regarded as something of an afterthought. Handheld systems are, by necessity, far less powerful than home consoles, and the medium's core audience gravitates toward visually impressive experiences. Game Boy and its successors in particular owe much to creator Gumpei Yokoi's philosophy of "the lateral thinking of withered technology," the idea that modestly-powered and inexpensive hardware offer a mature and well-defined base that fosters creativity and improvisation without the need for developers to grapple with untested platforms -- a maxim that's proven itself time and again. But it does result in fairly dated-looking games...and the diminutive moniker "Game Boy" probably hasn't done much for the system's prospects of being taken seriously. Nintendo's decision to abandon the brand probably has less to do with the DS being such a compelling name than it does with the fact that it's tough to market a product called "boy" to senior citizens. Hell, even Sony's PSP gets short shrift; it was the first portable platform that both developers and the media seemed to take seriously... but Sony has treated it like a secondary consideration, if that.
And maybe portable systems will always be regarded as gaming's second-class citizens. But on the eve of Game Boy's 20th anniversary, we intend to pay it the fealty it so richly deserves.