The Quiet Restrained Progress of the Game Boy Color

Craig Lupienski

I lived with my grandparents in 1998. I was 15, the carpets were rusty copper shag and my bedroom was lined with wood paneling. Puffy Disney VHS cases filled shelves in a spare bedroom, but in the office we had a pretty modern PC. It was like being stuck in a time warp with little bits of disparate eras slamming into each other.

Nintendo was in a similar position by then with their aging Game Boy hardware and its incremental follow up, the Game Boy Color. Nintendo had coasted on the Game Boy for nearly a decade with only two revisions that altered the mass or screen, but never the guts. The Game Boy Color’s Z80 processor is twice as fast as the original Game Boy’s Z80, and the GBC has three times as much memory as the GB, making it the first real update to the innards, but even then it was still only a stepping stone to the real successor, the Game Boy Advance.

Reeling from the then extravagant cost of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time released the same month, I had to wait until Christmas for a Game Boy Color. I remember sitting on that shag carpeting surrounded by scraps of wrapping paper, utterly floored that I could now play The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening in color.

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And Link’s Awakening perfectly exemplifies the time warp the Game Boy Color was trapped in. Like many other early GBC games, Link’s Awakening was really a Game Boy game masquerading in a black cartridge and a severely limited color palette. These “dual compatible” games maybe made good business sense because of the potential to reach both legacy Game Boy owners as well as new Game Boy Color owners, but because they also work in the original system, they take no advantage of the GBC’s updated specs.

Games strictly compatible with only the Game Boy Color were housed in translucent cartridges and had been around since launch, becoming increasingly more common the longer the machine was on store shelves. Nintendo has never provided a breakdown of system sales in the Game Boy line, so it’s impossible to say for sure how well the Game Boy Color actually sold, but given there are more dedicated GBC games than dual compatible games, it either sold well or developers were extraordinarily confident that their game would succeed in a fractured market.

The Game Boy Color was only around for about two and a half years before the Game Boy Advance made its debut, but in that time, there are a number of games that really pushed the system to the limit. Not necessarily just in terms of raw processing power, but also conceptually. There are games that straight up might have just been a better fit on another platform.

Lufia: The Legend Returns, for instance, did begin life on another platform, the PlayStation. It was reworked significantly for the Game Boy Color, of course, but its battle system is exceptionally deft for a handheld title, probably owing a great deal to originally being designed for a console.

Warlocked is an excellent little known Nintendo published title for the system, probably passed over in favor of Pokemon Gold and Silver Versons which released just a few months later. Real-time strategy games are not very common on home consoles, they’re usually best left to PCs, but the fact that developer Bits Studio crafted a good one on the Game Boy Color is a remarkable feat.

I’m personally a big fan of Magi-Nation, an impressive western developed turn based Pokemon-style RPG. Metal Gear Solid is a fantastic game that borrows heavily from previous titles in the series designed for more capable hardware. Shantae’s animations are second to none. There are games with rumble feedback, motion controls, fully voiced dialog, and even games that connected to a mobile network in Japan. The Game Boy Color ushered in an explosion of often overlooked technical and creative advancement.

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It’s as if developers were desperate for something more powerful in the handheld space and almost immediately created games far richer than anyone would ever dream. But just as quickly as these games surpassed their predecessors, they just as quickly hit the Game Boy Color’s wall of limitations: Lufia struggles to communicate everything it needs to in its cluttered menu screens, Magi-Nation’s battles are sluggish, Metal Gear Solid is begging for a couple extra buttons, and Warlocked could probably use a bigger screen.

There is tremendous innovation and ambition in these games. The drive to create something new, something beyond what the original Game Boy was capable of, is clearly evident. But it was a progression of restraint, bound by the confines of the Game Boy Color’s humble specifications. A brand new computer in a home of shag carpets and wood paneling.

I Was Never Cool

Craig Lupienski

Nestled in my bottom dresser drawer were five Game Boy games: Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins, Metroid II: Return of Samus, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back From the Sewers and Skate or Die: Tour de Thrash (perhaps putting an end to notion that sequelitis is a modern phenomenon). I was eight and it was 1992, and it would still be another six months before I could play any of the games in my dresser. While I saved up for a new Game Boy, I kept the boxes pristine and read every manual religiously. I lived vicariously through the tiny screenshots and control diagrams.

Despite sitting amongst more recognizable titles, it’s really Skate or Die: Tour de Thrash that has stuck with me through the years.

FullSizeRenderToday, it’s the economy of design that I appreciate. A handful of folks at Electronic Arts in the early 90s put together a tight, simply crafted skateboarding game. No frills, and I admire that. The arcade scoring and racing are perfectly complimented by the terrific music and uncomplicated graphics, and nearly a quarter decade later, it still holds up! A gimmick or two might have helped Tour de Thrash stand out in 1991, but it is its simplicity that makes it such a great little gem in 2015. It’s a perfect game of both restraint and exploitation. Tour de Thrash maximizes the hardware it is on without overstepping its bounds with superfluous nonsense.

I didn’t quite catch on to any of this as a kid though. No eight year old knows what “economy of design” even means, much less uses it in a sentence. I was attracted to Tour de Thrash because it felt countercultural. I wore acid washed Bugle Boy jeans my mom laid out for me and went to bed at 8 PM every night, even on the weekends. To a kid like that? Tour de Thrash, a game that invited you to skate until “ya shred yer feet off” was flat out scandalous. When a great uncle furrowed his brow and glanced at my mother when I told him I got a game called “Skate or Die” for Christmas, I knew I was in uncharted territory. I felt cool just knowing what “Santa Cruz Skateboards” was, even if the term “stale fish” soared completely over my head.

Of course, the game, fun as it may be, is completely tame. The dialog is a little colorful, but mostly just silly 90s California skateboarding gibberish. That’s about it. There’s really nothing countercultural to Tour de Thrash at all. There’s an irony in that a skateboarding video game made me feel cool when I was nine and now writing about it at 31 has probably made me feel a little less so.

Ah whatever. I was never cool.