GameSpite Quarterly #1 | Chapter 4

Article by Jeremy Parish | Posted July 20, 2009

The good times couldn't last forever, even for Game Boy, and by 1995 the system was feeling rather long in the tooth. As a matter of fact, most serious gamers had more or less forgotten about it. The console world had seen the rise of the 32-bit era, and both Saturn and PlayStation offered amazing 3D graphics that eclipsed the Super NES, to say nothing of Game Boy. On the PC side, the first-person shooter gold rush had almost accidentally birthed a renaissance of technical advancement that would help the Western development community reclaim the throne from Japan a decade later. Even the new portable systems made Game Boy look shabby: the "console on the go" concept behind NEC's TurboExpress found a more fully-realized life in the form of Sega's Nomad, a fully-functional Sega Genesis in handheld guise. Even Nintendo itself had crafted a successor to Game Boy, the enigmatic Virtual Boy: a system capable of convincing 3D effects, spearheaded by none other than Game Boy inventor Gumpei Yokoi. Game Boy had been swept aside by its own father.

While Game Boy remained popular for car trips and summer vacations, releases came so few and so far between that American retailers began bolstering their sales by importing old, surplus Japanese games—a feat made possible by Nintendo's smart but uncharacteristic decision to omit region-locking for the system, and a practice sadly abandoned in the company's latest handheld, the DSi. Titles like Go! Go! Tank -- a 1990-vintage Japan-only release -- began popping up at retailers like Babbage's and Waldensoftware, and in fact were the first import games many American gamers ever came into contact with.

The mid-'90s were a time of change and uncertainty, a brief knot of tremendous technical advancement for the gaming industry. Cartridge-based systems gave way to optical discs; humble bitmaps and full-motion video were phased out in favor of real-time polygons; controllers sprouted extra shoulder buttons and curious analog knobs. There was little place for Game Boy in a world like this. Nintendo slimmed down the machine and gave it a better screen, but stubbornly refused to upgrade it to color. It was essentially being kept on life support long enough to keep money flowing until Virtual Boy could take over, just as the NES had been sustained three years into the Super NES's lifespan. But make no mistake: the system's days were numbered.

Then two things happened that radically changed Nintendo's plans. Virtual Boy became the company's worst-ever failure, and an obscure little black-and-white RPG inspired by bug collecting became the company's biggest-ever success.

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