Nintendo Game Boy console, location

Gameboys and Girls: Nintendo’s 1990s Charm Offensive vs Everyone

Last Updated on October 10, 2023

I was just recently looking up the pricing for an original Gameboy on eBay, only to be surprised. I’m not going to be rinsed for wanting to buy one. As a first-time-around Sega Saturn fan, I can get twitchy just thinking about retro prices. It is not a complaint, but it is a fascial twitch.

Not with Nintendo’s Gameboy though. As I write this I can see a good condition original with one unspecified game for just £75 smackers, ono. Others are cheaper. I’m not suggesting that you go cheaper, just that there are reasonable options abundant across the whole spectrum of Gameboy opportunities.

Go there.

My Nintendo Gameboy

I did, back somewhere in the early nineties. I can’t remember exactly but it was before I went to America because I remember playing on one on the plane over. It was Wario World I was playing, with a bit of Contra thrown in. A good conversion of Contra as well, I always thought. I mean, it was hard as nails so it felt like the real thing. It got me over the Atlantic and I have never thought flying natural to the human experience, however much I might think a pair of wings might be handy. I could have just flown over myself then. Anyway, that is more than an aside and more than enough time taken up.

The Gameboy and other handhelds. Both a weird name and a weird definition, at least in modern parlance. I think that if you asked the average teenager today if they had a Gameboy or a handheld, they would look at you very queer indeed. Different times for sometimes the same words. I suppose that is just clearing forty. Mind you, the Gameboy is pushing towards that sort of age too. It still looks dignified. Handhelds haven’t always.

You gelled with the Gameboy but operated the Lynx. Then you handed it back when the batteries ran out.

Nintendo’s world-beating mobile console debuted in 1989 and immediately set the mood in a manner that I think had more impact than Sony’s Walkman. It was certainly amongst it as a peer; a fat pre-iPhone shape with a thin screen. It even had minimal buttons. So forward thinking. Marks for Nintendo there. They almost struck it right again for the GameQuad, before that final design breakdown into the imbecilic mess that we got. That controller. The whole thing looked like it belonged in a soft play centre for pensioners. I had an old Volvo once which had the same button layout as that controller. I suppose it always has been easy to get the button layout wrong. Ask Atari.

The Atari Lynx

The Atari Lynx also found its way to market in 1989, at least in its North America. The rest of us plebs had to wait the next year. It was some hi-tech stuff, looking like it belonged next to someone’s subscription to Hi-Fi Serious magazine. The Gameboy by comparison, looked like something that Nintendo would make. So why didn’t Atari take them to/up the cleaners? Well, Atari were by the start of the nineties deep into the sort of commercial furrow which Sega would shortly find themselves, following early success with a period of trying to keep up.

Atari Lynx game console (hand-held game console; computers; games)
Atari Lynx game console (hand-held game console; computers; games) by Atari Corporation is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

The Lynx was a bit attention desperate and people could smell it. Yeah, it looked relevant and it did have that colour screen and console-matching processing. But then you actually held the thing and it was as wide as an arch angel’s wings and the buttons felt like just that; buttons. Something modular to the machine and not a part of the design in the way Nintendo made theirs. It was all a bit clunky and at a distance from itself. You gelled with the Gameboy but operated the Lynx. Then you handed it back when the batteries ran out.

Thank goodness Atari had the Jaguar on the horizon or they could have been in real trouble.

Get your Game Gear

Speaking of trouble, the once small-time Sega was growing in power against Nintendo in the home market of the late eighties and was quickly fancying a piece of their mobile market as well. By October of 1990 they had their mobile Master System, the Game Gear, out in Japan. It would make North America and Europe the following year, and it looked like a contender, having all the apparent attributes of Atari’s Lynx without being made by Atari.

It was made in Japan, and in the early nineties that was gold. Honda Civic, Yamaha Piano, Sega Game Gear. If you could import it from the Land of the Rising Sun, you could sell it in the West by sundown. This was good news for Sega fans, and from back in a time when they valued their custom. They supported this system, and not just in the homeland. A lesson from history. Not for me personally as I am one of those old-time Sega pervert fans who actually enjoyed how more import cost added to the allure of their later machines.

They properly made an effort with the Game Gear though, and in turn, rode off a rising wave of third-party support for Sega hardware in general. My cousin had one and it seemed like something of a little mobile marvel. It wasn’t up to the Mega Drive specs that I had by that time, but then it could be taken on holiday without parents complaining. That has always been part of the attraction of handhelds of course. The sense of private in the public. Or a sitting room with other members of the family.

Like the Honda Civic and the Yamaha Piano, the Sega Game Gear was made in Japan, and in the early nineties that was gold. If you could import it from the Land of the Rising Sun, you could sell it in the West by sundown.

The Gameboy had already captured this spirit but there was always room for some more Japanese technology in anyone’s home, and Sega took advantage of the free market approach to this in style with the Game Gear. Mini ports of all your favourites were available, the buttons felt good and the cost of battery life fell on my cousin while I was playing on his. So full marks there.

But it couldn’t beat the Gameboy, topping out with ten million Game Gear’s shifted out the doors. Not terrible considering that the handhelds were satellite to the home market, and it certainly did better than the Lynx, which curled up to die in a quiet room with only two million units to its name. The Gameboy was technologically defunct by the time it arrived but it defined and retained its position from 1989 until Nintendo finally got around to releasing a colour screen update of the machine in 1998. I didn’t care for it though and think that the true cultural follow-up to the Gameboy wasn’t the colour palate update or even the 2001 released Gameboy Advance.

It didn’t even come from Nintendo.

A Neo Geo Pocket Color

Screen size; decent. Button and control quality; amazing. Company heritage; outstanding. The chance of success in the West; irrelevant. Welcome to SNK and their sunshine portable, the Neo Geo Pocket Color. Apologies have having the spell that incorrectly. I wasn’t a part of the meeting. But they got the rest of it right; not trying to compete technologically with the home market, but making something distinct for its own.

SNK got it to market in 1999, well before Nintendo’s next move. It looked the part and the control layout would have dribbled if it were any more simple. Classic handheld stuff. I was excited enough for a mobile SNK machine that I got one quickly on import along with a copy of prized pocket punch em up, SNK vs Capcom. The controls worked so well. If anything was going to sell SNK into the west it was going to be this I thought. I was always wrong about those things.

It didn’t, of course, and a couple of years later SNK would light the afterburners on their dissolution, leaving their handheld short of long-term support and two million units in the bank. I loved it but couldn’t even consider buying enough other machines to keep the first-party games going. I was doing my best to keep Sega in pocket money already at the time. My pockets were only so deep.

Sorry, SNK.

About the author

John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90's Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.

Leave a Reply

Discover more from RetroGamerBase

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading