Thirty Years of Game Boy

We celebrate the Game Boy's 30th anniversary with Andy Robertson


It’s a rainy Spring day when my taxi driver drops me in front of Andy’s house in Exeter, Devon. It’s a residential neighbourhood, a five-minute drive from the station, and the morning air is fresh and crispy.

The Andy I’m referring to is Andy Robertson, freelance family technology expert for the BBC and The Guardian (among others) and one of Nintendo’s greatest fans.

As he greets me in the house with a warm smile and friendly handshake, Andy invites me to take off my shoes. He offers me a drink - I accept a glass of water - and he asks me to follow him to the living room.

There, beautifully laid out on a low, wooden table, are thirteen Nintendo handheld devices, from the original Game Boy released in 1989 to the Color, Advance, the Mini, and various Nintendo DS versions.

When looking for someone able to truly celebrate the Game Boy’s 30th anniversary, we have stumbled upon Andy on Twitter.

He’s a man who, for more than a decade, has been working to make parents realise the importance of video games, not only for their children but also as a tool of parental bonding. Because of his expertise and personal history, Andy was the perfect man for the job.

And so, this article is going to be a celebration of the Game Boy, a console that changed a generation of gamers. But it is also going to be Andy’s story, from his first Game Boy when he was only a teenager, until the present day, when he has a wife and three kids he regularly plays video games with.

A Game Boy Story

I remember clearly, as a 10-year-old, how I could not wait to finish studying for my primary school exams just so I could go and play Pokémon Ruby with my best friend. As I skimmed through basic maths concepts, I was calculating how many Pokémon I had left to complete the Pokedex. As I studied geography, I was visualising the Hoenn region of the game, thinking where I could catch those Pokémon.

But that was on the Game Boy Advance, released only in 2001. This story starts way before that, exactly twelve years earlier, in the Spring of 1989.

The first Game Boy was released by Nintendo the 21st of April 1989. Designed by Gumpei Yokoi, it was a tacky, 8-bit handheld game console sitting in a plastic grey shell. It had five control buttons, a basic 2-voice speaker, and his overall softly rounded design was characterised by its curved bottom right corner.

Now a legendary device, the Game Boy was initially criticised for its monochrome screen at a time where home consoles were already in colour.

However, it soon became clear that the small LCD screen was there for a purpose. A Game Boy could last up to 30 hours before the two AA batteries inside died. This made the console extremely popular. So much, in fact, that it sold out in two weeks from its launch.

Andy firstly encountered the Game Boy as a 16-year old boy. And his impressions were pretty much along those lines.

“Although it was just black and white, the world it was creating and the experience it was creating was just like the sort of games I would play on my video game consoles on the TV. But it was portable, and so it was a revelation really.” It’s worth noting here that the Game Boy was not the first handheld games console of its kind or the most advanced, but because of its simple design and long battery life, it eventually became Nintendo’s most successful design on the international market.

So successful in fact, that despite the original Game Boy was discontinued in the early 2000s, in 2016 it remained the third-best-selling gaming device globally. And this despite Nintendo released a whopping overall of 59 handheld consoles throughout the years.

Surely, what contributed to the Game Boy’s everlasting fame were the games you could play on it. The Game Boy version of Tetris launched together with the first handheld in the US, sold more than 35 million copies.

When I ask what his favourite Game Boy game is, Andy turns on his own handheld and answers without hesitation: Top Ranking Tennis.

“As we were talking about this interview [on the phone],” he says, “I actually ended up spending about 20 minutes playing [it] to make sure it worked. And I could remember all the different shots and the different ways you had to try and curl the ball over the net.

“I've played all the Virtual Tennis and Topspin Tennis and they're good and they're realistic, and they're on a completely different league in terms of what they're representing. But the experience of playing tennis for me, this Top Ranking Tennis on the Game Boy is still my favourite and I go back to play it.”

Andy says the game was revolutionary for different reasons: ‘There was some real physics happening in the world of the game, which sounds crazy because it's such a tiny console. But for me, that was the first time I've experienced that. And so [...] it does become this sort of sentimental object and something you want to introduce your kids to.’

And true to his word, Andy did introduce its first Game Boy to his kids, but not just that one. Throughout his years of parenting, the Nintendo handhelds became almost part of his family life.

“I remember when we had our first child, that was one of the moments when I came back to gaming, and I bought a Game Boy Advance and Advance Wars. I remember while we'd be up late feeding our daughter, my wife would be feeding [her] and I'd be waiting to do the winding and burping and I'd have my Game Boy Advance [there]."

“And so [there’s] some sort of connection that carried on with each child,” he adds with a reminiscing smile, “because we had a child every couple of years during that period, you know, three kids. It felt like for each one, I ended up buying the new console.”

Andy says that by the time his youngest son was born, the Nintendo DS had come out. And every console, every handheld, became part of his daily life.

“Like a bit of music, or like a film or a series that you like, you have connections to that hardware and to those games, and all it takes is you to hear the opening ping or the opening sound on a game and you’re transported not just back to the game but to that moment in your life when you're playing it.”

Game Boy Timeline


Game Boy

The Game Boy first sees daylight in Japan. Only three months later, it premieres in the US.

21st April 1989

The Super Game Boy

The Super Game Boy, along with the Super Game Boy controller called the SGB Commander are first released in Japan.

28th June 1994

The Virtual Boy

The Virtual Boy, a new invention by Nintendo, is the first console that can display stereoscopic 3D graphics.

14th Aug 1995

Game Boy Pocket

The new, redesigned Game Boy update comes out under the name Game Boy Pocket.

21st July 1996

The Game Boy Light

The Game Boy Light is released exclusively in Japan with a new electroluminescent screen that can be turned off and allows use in darker places, powered by two AA batteries instead of two AAA batteries.

14th April 1998

The Game Boy Color

The Game Boy Color brings Nintendo into a 5th generation with double the processor speed, three times as much memory and an infrared communications port.

18th Nov 1998

The Game Boy Advance

The Game Boy Advance starts a new line of Game Boys, changing from portrait to landscape orientation.

21st June 2001

The Game Boy Advance SP

The Game Boy Advance SP is out. It's an updated version from the new family, improving many of the features of the previous model,including better back-lit technology and returning to vertical orientation with a new 'laptop design'.

23rd March 2003

The Game Boy Player

The Game Boy Player is released. It’s Nintendo’s first release that allows Game Boy, including Color line and Advance line, cartridges to be played on a television.

24th June 2003

The Game Boy Micro

The Game Boy Micro is released. With its 2/3 size of the original size and higher quality display, is the smallest device in the Game Boy family.

19th Sept 2005

Game Boy Virtual Console

Game Boy games appear on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console, which marks the end of the Game Boy lines.

6th June 2011

From the Game Boy to the Nintendo DS

But if all these game consoles were a faithful companion to Andy throughout his years as a teenager, young man, and eventually a parent, he also analysed and enjoyed them from a technical perspective.

Andy has been a journalist for more than ten years, and he gradually established his authority as a family video game expert by writing for virtually any national publication in the UK. Since 2011, he has been running a YouTube channel for families, FamilyGamerTV, and most recently is working on Taming Gaming, a book on the same topic.

When I ask Andy what was so special about the Nintendo handheld devices, he pauses for a second and looks at all the devices tidily arranged on the rectangular table.

“I think Nintendo, as a company, are really good at surprising consumers. They’re really good at innovating.”

Andy says that with almost every new Game Boy version, Nintendo managed to introduce something new and valuable.

Like the transition between the original Game Boy and the Game Boy Color, for example. “I thought that was very clever,” Andy says, “how some existing cartridges I had, when I put them in the Game Boy Color suddenly had a new coat of paint.”

“So Top Ranking Tennis was the same but here [on the first Game Boy] is just black and white, and you put it in a Game Boy Color you discover that actually those players have got programmed in different coloured outfits [...] And so I like that there is some kind of future proofing almost in what they have over-delivered in the original Game Boy games.”

Andy also talks about the fun he experienced playing Game Boy games on the Super Game Boy, a cartridge for the Super Nintendo console that had a slot for Game Boy games allowing them to be played on a TV.

In the case of the original Donkey Kong game, for example, Nintendo not only had programmed in colours into the original cartridge but even added a secret arcade-like decor you could only see on the Game Boy Color and Super. “So if you put it into the cartridge converter and you play [the game] on the TV, you’d have like an arcade’s surround to the game and the game sits it.

“That image was all there in the cartridge, and for many years I didn't know it was there until I put it into a new system and suddenly I realised that.”

And throughout the years, Andy says, Nintendo kept on innovating, one device after the other. “It's nice to see how the console itself develop[ed]. From the Game Boy Color to the new Game Boy Advance [and then SP], which is obviously a whole new world in terms of what they [could] do on the screen, and you get into proper backlight.”

After the Game Boy Advance SP in 2003 and then Game Boy Micro in 2005 (which dropped backwards compatibility with original Game Boy and Game Boy Color games), Nintendo officially stopped releasing new versions of Game Boy handhelds and started the distribution of the Nintendo DS in 2004.

Test your Game Boy knowledge!


A New Game Boy?

As this is a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Game Boy, we had to look at its past, but also at its future. Officially, Nintendo released a Game Boy emulator on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console in 2011, and a Game Boy Advance one on the Wii U Virtual Console in 2014. In terms of actual physical remakes though, the company has been extremely secretive, with no more than rumours populating social media channels and newsrooms.

However, in January 2018, video game peripheral manufacturer Hyperkin announced a new, unofficial version of the Game Boy at CES 2018. Its under-development name was ‘Ultra Game Boy’, a £75 aluminium-cased device with USB charging and back-lit LCD ready for release in the same month.

No one knows what went wrong with Hyperkin’s Game Boy, but at the time of writing, the device hasn’t been released yet, and no further information has appeared on the company’s website or anywhere else really. We have contacted Hyperkin for comment but they haven’t so far replied.

But what about Nintendo? Will the company ever release an official Game Boy remake? Andy thinks so. “If we were sat here and you were saying ‘do you think Nintendo will re-release the NES and SNES’ before they’d done it, I think I’d say that’s unlikely”, Andy says: “that their effort and business is about making money from the new consoles.”

“But of course then they did do it.”

Andy thinks the reason why Nintendo has not released a Game Boy virtual console on the Switch yet might mean they are planning a new version of the Game Boy.

“There’s a grey area there,” he tells me, “why haven’t they done that yet? And I’d love to see a [new] Game Boy, a sort of Game Boy Mini maybe […] I think there’d certainly be a market for it. Whether they will do it or not, I don’t know, but it feels like they will probably work through all their consoles, cause it’s successful.”

Whatever the future holds for Game Boy, 30 years after its first release, the console is still one of the most discussed and adored by fans. It was a game changer in the mobile gaming industry and the precursor not only of the Switch but arguably of smartphone gaming as well.

I am sure Andy is going to keep playing with his Game Boy, also with his kids. And you know what? Writing so much about it made me want to go back to play it as well. I’ve never had the first version of the Game Boy, but my Color and Advance are just there laying on the shelf, and I can’t wait to see how many Pokemon I have left to catch in Pokémon Ruby.