How to Win at Mobile Gaming: From Game Boys to Smartphones

This week, I’m not going to wax poetic or philosophical about the state of the gaming industry or technology in general. No, today’s topic is a new twist on something I talk about all the time: mobile gaming.

Most of you are probably sick to death of hearing my bias dumped out on the page about this specific aspect of gaming, I’d imagine. Every week it seems I’m prattling on about mobile gaming, making veiled, sweeping accusations that the medium will never reach the quality of console gaming within our lifetimes. I therefore want to take a few of this week’s 900 words to set the record straight: I don’t hate mobile gaming. I actually love it. Some of my most prized possessions are in portable format. And I guarantee you have all heard about my favorite mobile platform of all time. Here’s a hint: It’s a young male, and it plays games.

Yes, none of us should ever forget that we owe the massive popularity that mobile gaming has garnered over the past 20+ years to Nintendo’s clunky beige box that could—a power-hungry, pea soup-screened, 160×144 pixel abomination that was hardly pocket-sized, called simply the “Game Boy.” Clearly, gender stereotype sensitivity wasn’t as big of an issue in 1989.

In all seriousness, though, for all the influence the Game Boy has had on our lives and games, it is woefully unremembered. Therefore, this week, in honor of all the rambling I’ve done on mobile gaming, I think it’s worthwhile to look at exactly what made the original Game Boy the success it was and what we might take away from it as we move forward to new and better platforms. First, though: Let’s set the stage.

A large part of the Game Boy’s success resulted from the timing of its release. In the year of its release, 1989, the world had essentially recovered from the crash of 1983. The Japanese had taken over the world’s gaming stage, advertisements from the Nintendo “Power” campaign were effusing from every possible media outlet, and kids were clamoring for every piece of gaming hardware they could get their hands on—zappers, floor mats, Robotically Operated Buddies … you get the drill. The one flaw about this era was that it was simply living room-locked. Sure, simple attempts like the Game & Watch series of LCD games and even a few early attempts at cartridge-based mobile systems like the Milton-Bradley Microvision had existed since the late 1970s, but nothing could recreate the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) or Master System experience on the go. Nothing, that is, until the Game Boy hit the handheld market like a grenade in a foxhole. Given the tremendous popular interest in gaming at the time, the Game Boy’s launch timing couldn’t have been better: A generation of children, already completely hooked on the NES, suddenly had an opportunity to bring high-quality games with them wherever they went? Count everybody in!

The second notable reason for the Game Boy’s success was the spartan durability and practicality of its hardware. Despite the fact that it was only equipped with a pea green monochrome screen hardly larger than a 50¢ piece, the Game Boy knew its audience was going to be using the handheld everywhere, abusing it daily, so they built it to last accordingly. Compared to its competitors—the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx—the Game Boy had the distinct advantage in that it could actually fit in a pocket (a large one, anyway), and that it got 10 to 12 hours from a single pack of batteries as opposed to the meager four to five of the Lynx and Game Gear. Unless the color screens of the two competitors were a total game changer for the gamer, the choice was absolutely obvious.

The last, and perhaps most interesting reason for the Game Boy’s tremendous success can be stated in one simple word: Tetris. Yes, in an interesting parallel to today’s mobile gaming situations, this legendary pack-in game made the Game Boy hugely appealing not just to high-powered kids, but also to adults who wanted a quick diversion to pick up off the coffee table and play for a few minutes. To put it in modern terms, imagine that there was only one phone that combined a decent size and weight with good battery life and was the only phone that could play Angry Birds. Nobody would think twice now about getting that phone, and nobody thought twice then about getting the Game Boy.

So there you go—the Game Boy. It’s really quite interesting that nobody remembers how much of a casual crowd pleaser that clunky handheld was when it first came out. Maybe the smartphone industry needs to take a page from the Game Boy’s book and package a phone with a killer suite of good mobile games—who knows, it might just sell millions. I know I’d buy the DSiPhone.

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