To this day, I love the characters I first met through a Game Boy screen.
(Animation by Bassim)
I was born two years after the 1989 release of the original Nintendo Game Boy, but the 8-bit handheld game console and its ancestors turned me into the gamer I am today. The Game Boy (1989) and the Game Boy Pocket (released in 1996, which was smaller and lighter, but merely a redesign of the same console), spark nostalgic memories from my childhood. Long before a smartphone became my handheld gaming device of choice, my Game Boy allowed me to play anywhere.
There was a lot to choose from when it came time to play. The games came in small cartridges that plugged into the back of the console, and I remember blowing into them before I plugged them in. I don’t know how effective blowing into cartridges was, but I did it every time I plugged one in without fail. I would also blow into the Game Boy for good measure.
In 1998 things got colorful with the release of the Game Boy Color, but I want to dedicate this article only to its black-and-white predecessors.
The Game Boy had a dull green color to its screen, which got upgraded to black-and-white with the release of the Game Boy Pocket. It doesn’t sound like it, but it was a significant upgrade. It became much clearer, and faster-paced games became much more playable.
Both versions, however, failed in the dark. It wasn’t until after the Game Boy Color that Nintendo included a backlit screen, something we take for granted today. I have vivid memories of being in the back of my mom’s minivan, trying to catch the light from streetlights to keep playing. The struggle was real.
It got worse. Game Boys used batteries. The Game Boy took two AA batteries, and the Game Boy Pocket took two AAA batteries. It must have been at least once a week. I would go down to the kitchen in search of more batteries. I am not sure why my family stored batteries in the refrigerator, we just did. As a child, I was the most motivated to talk to my parents when the battery stock ran out. The ‘90s were an exciting time.
Now to the Game Boy games. The U.S. saw 526 different games released for the Game Boy from 1989 to 1999. I am going to list a few of the best and most memorable titles.
Tetris (1989) was the first game released and sold with the original Game Boy. It’s a classic, and it was addicting. Something was soothing about watching the tetrads drop, and it was satisfying watching completed rows disappear. I played so much Tetris that I would see tetrads floating in my vision when I wasn’t playing the game. I can attest that the “Tetris effect” is very real.
Pokémon Red, Green, and Blue (1996) are iconic games that quickly gained a massive following across the globe. Pokémon Yellow (1998) followed two years later with similar success. I had all the games except Pokémon Green because it was never released in the U.S.
I was obsessed with Pokémon and also collected the trading cards. I remember being brought to tears when my Pokémon cards went through the wash. Seeing my prized holographic Zapdos card destroyed was heartbreaking.
Pokémon games were fantastic, and they had something for everyone. Battling, collecting, leveling up, and exploring were all compelling facets of the games. I played through each game multiple times. When I think of my Game Boy, the Pokémon games are the first ones that come to mind.
Super Mario Land (1989), Dr. Mario (1990), Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (1992), and Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 (1994) were all incredibly successful games.
Super Mario Land and its sequel followed the classic Mario game format already available on home consoles. Nintendo, as usual, delivered on bringing its most famous characters to a new platform. Mario collecting coins and clearing levels: it’s classic.
Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 changed things up. Wario was the main character, and I admit I was shocked when I first saw a friend play the game. Wario, a villain, as the lead character in a Mario game, was unsettling for my childhood sense of justice. It took time to recover.
Dr. Mario is a puzzle game, which could have gotten its own spot on the list, but because it used Mario’s name, I categorized it here. You have to help Mario, who somehow found time to become a doctor, arrange colored pills to make all the bacteria disappear. It reminded me a lot of Tetris.
For me, Nintendo and Mario are almost synonymous.
Kirby’s Dream Land (1992) introduced the lovable Kirby to gamers everywhere. The success of the first game led to other successful Game Boy games, including Kirby’s Pinball Land (1993), and Kirby’s Dream Land 2 (1995).
I loved playing Kirby’s Dream Land. It felt like a Mario game, but you could inhale things. Enemies to defeat them, or air to float like a balloon. The floating was a fun mechanic that added an interesting element to the game. The boss fights were especially fun and challenging, especially the final boss fight with King Dedede.
#5 Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong (1994), Donkey Kong Land (1995), and its sequels Donkey Kong Land 2 (1996) and Donkey Kong Land III (1997), were great successes.
Donkey Kong brought a new generation, the classic 1981 arcade game that had introduced the world to Mario. The game stands the test of time, and each level seems to present a unique challenge that takes a few tries to figure out.
Donkey Kong Land explored an interesting world from the perspective of a gorilla and his family. Exploring the world was always interesting, and I was a big fan of character movements. Donkey Kong’s movements especially always seemed to do him justice.
Below are a few of my favorite games that did not appear on the above list. I’m sorry if your favorite game didn’t make my list.
- Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991)
- Speedy Gonzales (1993)
- The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993)
- Toy Story (1995)
- Game & Watch Gallery (1997)
The classic Game Boy exposed me to gaming and helped foster what became a lifelong love of gaming. It was my first exposure to many of the characters I would later play in Nintendo 64’s Super Smash Bros. It was amazingly satisfying to see many of my favorite characters from the Game Boy all in one place, and it is still my favorite video game of all-time. To this day, I love the characters I first met through a Game Boy screen, including Mario, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Link, Samus, and Pikachu.
I wish I still had my Game Boy Pocket and all my game cartridges, but I lost them long ago. The memories, however, will never die, and I will always smile when I think back on those times.