Game Boy

My love affair with video games started with the Game Boy. I’m fortunate enough to have been born at the perfect time to enjoy it when it was released here in the UK, just old enough at 10 to have the hand-eye coordination required to tackle its games. And what amazing games they are, the technical limitations of the platform shaping the nascent titles available in so many ways.

Game designers had to be so creative back then because of the bounding box of the hardware’s ability, and the resulting pieces of playable art push those boundaries in a way that’s so rare to see these days. Overwhelmingly simple in concept and execution, there’s something about the games that’s almost completely lost today, even on the fixed console platforms.

At the time of writing I’m holed up at home with a viral illness of some kind. As I kid I remember doses of antibiotics to get rid of stuff like this, but the common wisdom today is that your immune system should really do the hard work. My doctor sent me home with strict instructions to stay hydrated, try and eat, and rest.

By rest, he meant it. No sitting in the office tapping at the keys to work, even though it’s physically easy. No checking work email or Slack. He prescribed sleep to remove the stress on my body, and anything other than work to remove the stress on my mind. Both are as important as the other when recovering.

What to do with my time, then? In the last few days I’ve finished one book and started another. I’ve slowly cleaned my house from top-to-bottom in 2-3 minute gentle bursts, as I organically move around it. I’ve napped for hours with the pups. I’ve played my Game Boy.

It’s not an original one. Despite preferring the size of the original since it’s nicer to hold, these days I have a Game Boy Pocket. Smaller, requiring less battery power, and with a much nicer screen, it’s the Game Boy of choice for connoisseurs (unless you can get your hands on a Game Boy Light, a model which was only available in Japan). The size means its much more suited to a child’s hands, but genetics means I’ve still mostly got a pair of those anyway.

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While modern consoles have moved on in terms of their input system, with analogue sticks, touch surfaces, and way more buttons, the basic D-pad and staggered B/A button pair will be familiar to any gamer as the basis of what they hold in their hand to play today. Before I switch it on I always feel out the rubber Start and Select buttons for some reason.

The D-pad is one of the magical things on the Game Boy, because of the limitations of the system. Because of how it works, it makes control of what’s on the screen more difficult than with today’s much more precise analogue systems. Pixel-accurate moves are harder. Things need to be timed perfectly, not just well, especially when combined with presses of A or B.

I’ve played through Super Mario Land hundreds of times — maybe even thousands of times now — and often multiple times in a row. In fact, after completing it twice in a row you get a stage select system to let you skip to any of them, as a reward for your efforts. I usually challenge myself to try and complete it without dying now, since I’m pretty good at it, and that’s difficult because of the control system.

Due to the scarcity of available processor performance, sometimes the action slows down when there’s a lot on screen. That means the rate at which your inputs are considered also slows down, since they’re sampled at the start or end of every frame in that game. So at certain points you need to adjust your button timing to compensate, otherwise you have a higher chance of dying. If I’m playing in competitive mode that means turning the Game Boy off and on again to start again.

That leads me to the physicality of the Game Boy. There’s no rewritable storage to put whatever games you like on, and no Internet access to get them. There’s not even any system UI. Games come on physical cartridges that you need to insert and remove yourself, like some kind of Barbarian. In today’s age of Internet delivery for games, that turns out to be a really joyful thing to do. Not quite as satisfying as inserting an original NES cart, but close.

Flip the power switch on the top-left edge of the Game Boy and the power light comes on — if your Game Boy has a power light that is; early revisions of the Pocket didn’t have one! — and the Nintendo logo scrolls down the screen as the game code is loaded so you can get started. Flip the power without a cartridge and a black box with ® scrolls down instead, because the logo is actually stored on the cart to save space in the system ROM!

The games are short but oh-so sweet because of the hardware. The storage space on the cartridges was tight — commonly just 256 Kib, less than the amount of space taken up by the icon for the program I’m using to write this — and the system had just 8 Kib of RAM. The display only has 160x144 pixels and is limited to just 4 shades of colour. The display I’m using to write this could show 320 full-resolution Game Boy screens on it at the same time, and can show 268,435,456 times the number of different shades of colour.

Yes, that’s two hundred and sixty eight million, four hundred and thirty five thousand, four hundred and fifty six times more shades of colour. Not that the Game Boy really had “colour”, since the original and Pocket variants were monochrome. The Game Boy follow-on in 1998, the Color — so innovative a jump that it became part of the name — had up to 56 real RGB colours. That’s still almost 5 million times less than this iMac, though.

The processor ran at 4.19 MHz. That’s less than one thousandth of the frequency of the processor in this system as I type, and the Mac has 4 of them. It was a custom 8-bit Z80-like design, and microarchitecturally it’s light years behind the 2014-era Intel “Devil’s Canyon” Core-i7 in this iMac. It’s so simple that it wouldn’t be out of place to be asked to implement one in its entirety in a college-level electronics class.

Yet despite the limitations on storage, processing power and display, the games — to me at least — are as compelling as anything I could play on this iMac, my even more powerful gaming PC, or the PlayStation 4 downstairs connected to my TV. The contemporary games on those platforms are much more colourful, rich, and interactive. There’s no denying that they’re magnitudes more technically impressive in their visuals and sound. Yet their complexity and richness is almost their undoing.

There are entire classes of games today that I can’t get into enough to enjoy their depth and complex natures, despite the enticing visuals and lifelike audio. There’s nothing really to get into with a Game Boy game, even the most complex on the platform. You just switch the system on and often the entire game mechanic is often revealed within the first sixty seconds of play in most of the games. You’re instantly immersed in what you’re playing, despite the simplicity of design, what you see on screen, and what you can hear. There’s no complexity to the controls.

I can complete the entirety of Super Mario Land in the same time it takes for just the end bit of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, which I’ve just completed on PS4, to play out to completion. There are just 12 levels in Super Mario Land, and the first can be completed in well under 60 seconds, including the healthy time counter after you hit the exit. There is more completely unplayable cinematic in Uncharted 4 than the entirety of gameplay in an average run of Super Mario Land.

That’s not to say that Uncharted 4 is worse. It’s just different. It’s a masterpiece of cinematic gameplay, storytelling, visual technology and immersive interaction, and undoubtedly one of the best games ever made. But it’s the complete antithesis of something like Super Mario Land, showing you just how far video games have come in the almost 28 years between one and the other. Both are pure art, but they couldn’t be more different.

Today, as I’m supposed to be resting, I know which one I prefer. There’s really no contest if I’m honest, and it’s why I treasure my small collection of old console systems and their games. One day a future PlayStation probably won’t even work if it can’t connect to Sony any more, rendering the system and its games useless. The simplicity of older systems mean that nostalgic digital archaeology on them will always deliver.