Sunday, July 10, 2011


Remember the Game Boy Color?

I have never once missed my Game Boy Color, not a single day in my life. This is because I've never gotten rid of it. I didn't get rid of it when it turned out to be a hot Christmas item and I could have turned a tidy profit by reselling it to desperate parents, I didn't get rid of it when it started coming out in snazzier colors, and I didn't get rid of it when I bought my first Game Boy Advance. From the first day it was available for sale in North America, my chunky purple Game Boy Color has never once left my possession. Sure, it may have spent the last few years stuck in the back of my desk drawer without even a set of batteries in its butt, but I was serene in the knowledge that, when I was ready, it would be there for me again.

If there's anything I miss, it's the period in my life in which the Game Boy Color was a commercially viable product. It followed me through my college years almost precisely -- I bought it at the beginning of my sophomore year, and it was succeeded by the Game Boy Advance the year that I graduated. Three short years, but were they ever excellent. I lived at home when I was going to school, so I didn't have a lot of real financial responsibilities, but I also had a part-time job, so I had money to spend when I wanted to. It was a period in my life where I had the time and money to invest in a hobby like video games, and everything was still new and exciting enough that I wanted to try it all. Every trip to Funcoland or Babbage's was magical -- there was always a chance that I'd find something cool that I'd missed out on in my pre-employment years, and I acted on every single childish longing that I'd accumulated from years of depending on Christmas for new video games. Sure, there were plenty of bad eggs and disappointments, but hey, that's why they invented the trade-in, right?

Even ignoring the fact that this took place during a period of my life that was exceptionally appropriate for being excited about video games, the Game Boy Color was still a pretty big deal when it came out. When the original Game Boy came out in black and white, it didn't take very long at all for Sega and Atari to come out with color portables. Sure, they were unwieldly for portable systems, and they sucked batteries like mad, and the libraries were crap, and they (like everything afterward) completely failed to reach the same level of popularity as the Game Boy... BUT AT LEAST THEY WERE IN COLOR! Ha ha, Nintendo nerds! You're obviously the ones doing it wrong!

But even when the industry was going 16-bit, the Game Boy soldiered on. Hardware advances in Super Marioland 2 heralded a rebirth for Game Boy software. (But it was still black and white.) The Super Game Boy allowed us to play our games on the big screen in glorious color. (But it wasn't portable.) The Game Boy Pocket gave us a slimmer unit with a more efficient battery life and a beautiful, sharper screen. (But it was still black and white.) And, of course, Nintendo tried to spin the Game Boy series off into the Virtual Boy. (Another subject for another time.)

So when Nintendo finally, finally, finally, FINALLY announced that the Game Boy would at long last go color... it's kind of hard to describe just exactly how exciting that was for long-time Nintendo fans. It was the thing we'd always wanted but never dared to expect.

And when we opened up that thick cardboard box with the playful crayon lettering on the front and held it in our hands, there would be no going back.

The System

The Game Boy Color comes from a time when video games were toylike -- flamboyantly so. It's thick, chunky, and monolithic, the sort of thing that you might toss to the household three-month-old to practice his teething. It was the first piece of hardware to come in what would later be called "Nintendo Purple" (and which would take on derogatory connotations), and at the time, the color was striking. Fun, exotic, candy-like. For the most part, it resembled the Game Boy Pocket, but with one obvious difference: since it ran on two AA batteries instead of two AAAs, the battery compartment bulged out slightly from the back, making it the first video game system with a pronounced butt.

It was kind of weird at the time to see a color portable that was so tiny. But what was even weirder was the screen. The display was crisp, clear, and vibrant -- but it wasn't back-lit in any way. I imagine that this was the first time that a lot of people had seen a display that worked like this; it was colorful, but it didn't actively shoot light into your eyes. It was a novel thing to look at at the time, and even today, it's kind of refreshing to use something with a display that doesn't put that kind of stress on your eyes. And remember the first time you turned it off, the way the image stayed on the screen and slowly faded? That was cool.

Yeah, the lack of a lit screen was a point against the Game Boy Color, but an enterprising company by the name of Nyko came up with an ingenious solution: the Worm Light. It was basically an LED lamp that plugged into the link cable socket and hovered over the screen. It drew power from the system's battery and shone a perfect white light that filled the whole screen. They were cheap, compact, didn't require a separate set of batteries to use -- it was basically a perfect solution.

I'll tell you what I do miss. I miss my Worm Light. :(

The Games

Of course, what really made the Game Boy Color memorable was the software. Thanks to its backward compatibility and the fact that it was a contemporary to the Nintendo 64, the Game Boy Color enjoyed a wealth of software from a rich and varied cross-section of video game history, from the arcadey simplicity of the first Tetris all the way to the epic two-cartridge Legend of Zelda Oracle games. Here are a few of the high water marks:

Warioland 2, Link's Awakening DX

When I got my Game Boy Color home, I didn't waste any time. I wanted to see these amazing new color graphics IMMEDIATELY. I had heard that the system recognized certain games and gave them color enhancements; surely Pokemon, Nintendo's biggest hit in years, would be on that list? So I slotted in my Red version, snapped it on, and...


It was that blah four-toned "color" effect that I'd come to know and no longer be impressed by on the Super Game Boy. Even worse, because it didn't recognize all of the custom palettes built into the game. It was better than nothing, but a far cry from the vibrant re-awakening that I had been expecting.

The Game Boy Color had a slow launch, as consoles tend to, with only a handful of games that were built specifically for the hardware. And while it was okay to see things like Tetris DX and Game & Watch Gallery 2, I was a late-teens game nerd with time on my hands. I needed tons of levels and bosses and items to collect. I needed adventure games.

So I really didn't mind repurchasing Warioland 2 and Link's Awakening. They were both marvelous games to begin with, but seeing them in full color was a real treat. It helped me keep the faith until more, bigger games started to roll to the end of their development cycle.

Game & Watch Gallery 2 and 3

The 90s had spoiled me. After becoming so used to huge games -- Super Mario Brothers, Zelda, RPGs -- I had developed a sense of disdain toward "small" games. And I wasn't alone. This was the time when the save slot was ubiquitous and the epic had become the coin of the realm. Gamers were demanding games that lasted longer. To assign a game a ten-hour lifespan in a review was to give it a death sentence. Partly this was justified by the bigger price tags that games were carrying (and the fact that we were paying our of our own pockets now!). But this was a poisonous environment for something like, say, a collection of those cheap-looking LCD games from the early 80s.

Early launch desperation and a recommendation from Game Boy Color Dojo prompted me to do the unthinkable: I actually bought Game & Watch Gallery 2. Even more amazing: I loved it.

The Game & Watch Gallery series really kicked off my appreciation for "quick burst" games. The Modern versions were flashy and colorful, and there's a lot of variety on each cartridge; Gallery 2 has six games and Gallery 3 has eleven. Most importantly, it did something that most retro collections don't: it had an overall goal that tied all of the games together. Your high scores earned you stars, and stars allowed you to unlock bonuses -- more games, game demos, and other fun stuff. So there was a reason to play every game on the cartridge, not just your favorites. And after you had unlocked all of the bonuses, you often found that, hey, a lot of the games are pretty decent in their own right.

Gallery 2 remains my favorite in the series. Although the later entries had more games, I liked all of the games in Gallery 2, every one of them. I admit that I'm more likely to carry Gallery 4 around, but I'll never forget where my interest in the series began.

Super Mario Brothers DX

These days, it seems like you can find the original Super Mario Brothers anydangwhere. But for a long, long time, the only place you could find it was on your NES. Sure, there was Super Mario All-Stars on the Super NES, but the only way you could get anyone interested in that one was by giving it a huge graphic overhaul and packing it in with Super Mario Brothers 3. The NES had basically been forgotten in the West by the late 90s. With the PSX smashing the industry wide open and the push for polys over pixels, NES games were becoming an endangered species at the used game shops. And even if you did have your NES hooked up, it's pretty likely you weren't using it to play Super Mario Brothers.

Compared to Super Mario Brothers 3, the original SMB looks like a dinosaur. Fewer enemies, blockier graphics, primitive music, fewer levels, no Hammer Brothers suit, all of the bosses are the same damned sprite -- hell, you can't even move to the left!

So when Nintendo announced that they were reissuing Super Mario Brothers for the Game Boy Color in the original graphic style and everything, there was a pretty vocal backlash. Why, the argument went, would I spend $30 on a game that I could find for five cents at Funcoland if I wanted to, which I don't?

But some of us saw the preview screenshots, filled with colorful characters and worlds that we'd forgotten about a decade ago, and felt a little warmer inside.

It helps that the game is packed with extras and bonuses, like new animation in the original graphic style, printable stickers (remember the Game Boy Printer?), special challenges, a two-player race game, and a good chunk of The Lost Levels, but even ignoring all of that, there's something about this version that makes the game feel completely new. Maybe it's the zoomed-in view, the subtly remixed levels, the different color format, or the limited ability to scroll backward, but even just playing the "normal" game feels like a different experience. It may not be as flashy as Super Mario Brothers 3, but it's still a really good, solid game.

This game marked the real beginning of Nintendo reaching back to cash in on people's memories of the NES. Even among people who had no interest in buying "Mario 1" again, the re-release got people chattering about the possibility of other NES games being reissued on the Game Boy Color. The Legend of Zelda was a popular candidate, but it had to wait for the Game Boy Advance. Still, a few games like Shadowgate were revived at this time, and the trend continued with the Classic NES series and Wii Virtual Console.

Warioland 3

Warioland 3 is a masterpiece, full stop. It's a huge game and it's a fun game, but what really sets it apart is how many ideas it brought together and how well it works as an action adventure game.

It starts with Warioland 2's gameplay concept -- you're immortal, enemies transform you in ways that could help or hinder you, and the levels are filled with puzzles and tricky jumps that would be completely unfair under any other circumstances. But instead of linear levels, the game is filled with huge, sprawling mazes, putting the emphasis on exploration. The object is to find the four colored keys hidden in each level and use them to unlock the four colored treasure chests. There are 25 levels in all, for a total of 100 different objectives. That's monstrous in and of itself.

But the treasures aren't just pointless macguffins. There's a complex web of interdependency between all of the items you find and the effects they have on the game. For example, the very first treasure you find is an axe. This allows you to cut down a tree on the overworld map, giving you access to the next level. At one point, you find a flute. This causes snakes to appear in jars in some levels, which you can use as a platform to reach previously unreachable spots. The game world is constantly changing, and it's constantly giving you little teasing bits of foreshadowing -- spots that are just out of reach -- that make you want to go back to see what you've opened up next.

On top of that, the game plays with the day/night gimmick that Ocarina of Time had made so popular at the time, offering levels that changed depending on the time of day you visited them. And on top of that, you unlocked new moves and abilities by finding treasures in a Zelda-like progression. And on top of that, you'll eventually unlock a "Golf" minigame, where the object is to smash an enemy into a hole at the end of a 2D sidescrolling obstacle course using the fewest hits possible. It's clever and fun and a nice break from the overall adventure.

There's never been anything like this game, and I don't think there will be again.

Survival Kids and Harvest Moon

The late 90s were an interesting time for RPGs. The SNES had been a sort of incubator for the genre -- its slower processor and richer visuals made it the perfect home for turn-based role-playing games like Final Fantasy III. But the series really exploded with the mainstream popularity of Final Fantasy VII. Gamers wanted sweeping epics with lots of leveling up. The genre got so big, in fact, that it started to spread beyond the traditional sword and sorcery themes and to take on other settings.

The Harvest Moon series is probably one of the most successful non-fantasy RPG franchises, and there were fully three games on the Game Boy Color. The first of which, a colorized re-issue of the version that appeared on the black & white Game Boy, is probably my favorite. Sure, the second one had more gameplay features and was generally closer to the SNES and N64 games and the third game introduced marriage, but I prefer the first game. It's just got this perfect simplicity -- hoe the soil, plant the seed, water the plant, gather the produce. You don't have to worry about leveling up or wooing a wife or anything. It's just the simple pleasure of gardening and harvesting.

Survival Kids was another cult classic, which audiences in the West may recognize as a precursor to the Lost in Blue series. You're a ten-year-old child who has survived a shipwreck, and you have to figure out a way to escape from a deserted island. The major gameplay mechanic is that you build all of your own tools using sticks and rocks and things that you find scattered around the island. It gives me a similar vibe to Minecraft in the sense that you're trying to find recipes for useful things so that you can improve your capabilities and survive deadly predators and get enough food and water. For example, when you get kindling, you can build a fire. Cook meat over a fire to make it more satisfying. Combine cooked meat with a particular kind of herb that you find growing on the island, and you'll create preserved meat that can last a lot longer before going bad. It combines the sort of simulation and gameplay that you get in a roguelike with the sort of exploration and scripted storyline that you get in a Zelda game. And there are multiple endings, some good and some bad, depending on the choices you make during your island life.

Mario Golf and Tennis

Speaking of unusual RPGs! Camelot Software Planning teamed up with Nintendo to make the surprisingly fun Mario Golf and Mario Tennis games for the Nintendo 64. The really interesting thing about these games is that they don't add a lot of stupid Mario elements to their respective sports -- for the most part, you don't throw items at your opponents or go through warp pipes or jump on goombas or whatever. They're just sports games with colorful cartoon characters and easy controls.

But the really interesting thing is the Game Boy Color versions that went along with the N64 games. The console games are pretty much what you'd expect from a sports game from that era -- you select characters from a roster and play, and there's tournaments and everything, and that's all well and good.

The portable games are RPGs.

Sure, you can play a "simple" game, alone or with a friend, but the main point of the games is that you have a character who's on a quest to become the best at his or her sport in order to win the right to play against the greatest athlete of all time, Mario. So they give you a real world that you can wander around in, and there are places to go and people to talk to and even side-quests to complete. Everything you do earns you experience points, and as you level up, you can improve the attributes of your character -- better speed, control, range, or whatever statistic applies to the sport you're playing. And the big gimmick is that you can use the Game Boy Transfer Pak to link up and use your Game Boy character in the N64 game.

I really love the idea of a framing world for a game like this. Instead of just giving you disconnected tournaments to play, it really feels like you're visiting this little world and traveling around to visit all of the different courses and courts and meeting real people to play against. It just works really well.


I've never played a real-time strategy game before or since, so my frame of reference is kind of limited. I guess this is pretty simplistic as games of the genre go, but that didn't stop me from spending hours converting trees into fortifications and gold into waves of unthinking murderers.

Whatever its merits relative to its kin, it feels really impressive for a Game Boy game. There's a point, click, and drag interface, the capability to set up and switch between two different squads, and large numbers of somewhat autonomous sprites that talk to you. It just doesn't feel like something the Game Boy Color should be doing, and yet here it is.

Dragon's Lair

Of course, the Game Boy Color came out just around the time the Playstation was sitting at the top of the industry. Gamers were coming to expect three-dimensional graphics, CD-quality voice and music, and full motion video. The Game Boy Color was really primitive technology in comparison, but these expectations pushed game developers to do things with it that they might not otherwise have tried. There were some ooos and ahhs among Game Boy fans when Disney produced a Tarzan game that opened with a brief, yet detailed animated video sequence. The game itself was kind of bland, but the tech was impressive.

And it seemed that some developers took that as a challenge to see how much video you can fit on a Game Boy Color cartridge. And so, we got Dragon's Lair.

I'd seen Dragon's Lair in arcades when I was very young, and I even got to see the sequel around the time when Street Fighter II was heralding an arcade renaissance, but this was the first time I'd ever played the game properly, and I loved it. For all of the shortcuts and limitations the game had, it really managed to capture the spirit and fun of the game. I remember carrying the game around for days as I was learning how to solve all of the rooms, and I remember my heart skipping a beat when I finally reached Singe's lair. It's just a really solid game.

Of course, nowadays you can download a much more accurate version of the game for just about any portable device, but the Game Boy Color version stands out as a major accomplishment for what was essentially 80s technology.

Pokemon Gold and Silver

Of course, no discussion of the Game Boy Color could possibly be complete without Pokemon Gold and Silver. I mean WOW. The thing I loved about the first Pokemon games was how they managed to create this world that felt like it had a life and a purpose that went beyond the scope of its RPG story. Sure, there was a goal -- a way to "win" -- but the real appeal of the game was exploring this world and discovering all of the strange creatures that you could find and creating teams that you could use to beat your friends. Here was an RPG that gave you a reason to revisit the places where the low-level monsters lived -- you were constantly gathering new low-level monsters that you would need to train. I got to know the places in Pokemon the way I know places in my home town.

And then the Gold and Silver versions brought that feeling to the next level. Pokemon breeding opens up new avenues for strategy -- now you can create Pokemon with very particular abilities through patient and selective husbandry. When you finish the "main game", you get the opportunity to return to Kanto, the world where the first game took place, to see how things had changed over the years. There were radio shows to listen to for information and entertainment. You could trade with the prior versions of the game to mutual benefit; each generation had quirks that made it easier to find or evolve certain Pokemon.

And then there was the internal clock.

The game knows what time and day it is in real life, and it makes a difference in the game. Some Pokemon only come out at a particular time of day. Some events only happen on a particular day of the week. Items grow on trees, and they can be harvested once a day. When the game was new, you could go to message boards and talk about events that everyone had participated on that day like the Bug Hunt and compare notes. It was just so amazing -- for the first time ever, you were playing an RPG in a world where things happened around you without you having to make them happen, as if you were just a visitor to this world rather than the only reason it exists.

Best of all? It was in full color.

The nice thing about the Game Boy Color as a retro console is that, due to its portable nature, it's no great inconvenience to keep it available at all times. There's no setup or dismantling -- just pull it out of the drawer and flick it on.

Do you still have your Game Boy Color? Why not take it for a spin today? It beats waiting for something decent to come out for the 3DS, right?




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