Thursday, May 2, 2019

30 Years of GamBoy: How I Persevered Through the 90s with Nintendo's Brick at my Side!


Over the past couple weeks social media has been buzzing with tributes and testimonials for the legacy of the GameBoy on its 30th anniversary of its Japan launch and fast approaching North American launch in 1989. There was also that pic a couple weeks ago of Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson playing linked two player Tetris that went viral that sent waves of nostalgia down my spine! Like countless other 90s kids I had a devout affection for the GameBoy’s (and its 1998 Color update) enduring legacy into 2001 when its true successor, the GameBoy Advance launched. So it is time to lay out my history with the little gray brick that could, but before I do I would be remiss if I were not to point you towards someone who has been doing phenomenal work chronicling the GameBoy’s history first. Retronauts host, Jeremy Parish has been painstakingly crafting videos detailing every GameBoy release for America and Japan in chronological order and currently is nearing the end of covering games released through 1990. So if you want to catch up and find out about the early hits and likely a plethora of titles you have never heard of before, then click here to dive in.

Unlike a lot of the excellent retrospectives I have been reading these past couple of weeks, minus a couple exceptions, I did not play that many of the AAA GameBoy titles from Nintendo. I was a sucker for licenses from my favorite sports leagues and watered down ports of the latest console games as you will later read about. It was not until I much later got the Official GameBoy Player’s Guide with my first Nintendo Power subscription a few years after I got a GameBoy that I realized what were the key titles for the system. However even after re-reading that bible of GameBoy knowledge multiple times I was adamant on avoiding the powerhouse first party titles like Super Mario Land, Metroid II, Link’s Awakening and Donkey Kong in favor for eye-blinking double take titles you will discover in a bit. My childhood preference of games went against the grain to say the least. With that out of the way, let us flashback to 1993….

I remember begging my parents for a GameBoy for Christmas in 1993 when I was 10. I cannot specifically remember why, but after ruminating about it I pinpointed it down to the fact in 1993 I still had a NES and my parents understandably did not want to budge on dropping $200 for the 16-bit upgrade. The GameBoy was at its height of its popularity at this time and advertisements for the green and black handheld dominated my Saturday morning cartoon lineup. The GameBoy launched at $90 in 1989 so by 1993 I think it was going for around $70 which seemed like a much more realistic sell to my folks at being my one-and-only ‘Santa’ gift for Christmas.

Also around this time I was going through serious pro-wrestling withdrawal. From about 1988 until early 1993 I was an avid WWF kiddo. Big Bossman and The Rockers were my favorites, and I have fond memories of braving the classrooms of Catholic school with my Big Bossman tennis shoes. However, growing up with three other siblings who detested the squared circle made it a battle for control of the household’s sole television. Eventually, the numbers game caught up and I got so use to being bullied out of getting my weekly then-WWF fix that I went nearly three years from early ’93 until late ’95 not watching my favorites on the airwaves. The only other way at that time for me to get my dose of wrestling at home was in the mostly mediocre-to-horrible wrestling games on NES. I played far too many hours of duds like Wrestlemania and Steel Cage Challenge than any kid should have, and double that for the decent at best grapplers on the system like Pro Wrestling and Tecmo World Wrestling.

Enter 1993 and Royal Rumble for the Super Nintendo and Genesis. I lost track at the number of times I would play that game setup on free play at store kiosks. I was dazzled by Royal Rumble’s superior 16-bit graphics and standout feature, the Royal Rumble match that saw up to six wrestlers in the ring at once trying to throw everyone out and subsequently replaced with a fresh combatant until the game went through its entire 12-man roster. It seemed as close as it was going to get at the time to the insanely awesome Rumble match in one of my all-time favorite arcade games, WWF WrestleFest. Being able to participate in the chaos of the Royal Rumble match with a controller after endless hours of only one-on-one and tag team matches on various NES games was mind-blowing to 10-year old Dale. All the gaming magazines at the time were echoed my sentiments and gushed with glowing reviews which only served to exacerbate my demand.

Again I pleaded for a SNES and a copy of Royal Rumble for Christmas and again I was denied courtesy of its tall asking price. It was then I went with the aforementioned plan b for the GameBoy. Also hitting NES and GameBoy in 1993 was WWF King of the Ring. King of the Ring sported inferior 8-bit graphics and had a smaller roster of wrestlers and no awesome Royal Rumble match to play, but it did have the not-so-great King of the Ring tournament to play which was only a series of one-on-one matches, but most importantly it would be portable and I could play it anywhere and not have to worry about battling for control of the TV with my siblings to play it. Looking back now those were the catalysts to relentlessly ask my parents for the GameBoy.

Growing up with divorced parents meant celebrating most holidays and birthdays twice. I got to celebrate Christmas first with my dad a few days before the actual date of Christmas and was elated to unwrap and discover my very own GameBoy with a copy of its killer-app, Tetris! Over the next couple of days I played an un-healthy amount of Tetris. ‘Gee, if this block-puzzle game I barely heard of before is this awesome, imagine how good the wrestling game would be’ na├»ve me daydreamed of at the time. However, before I could get to that moment, something unexpected and terrible transpired!

On Christmas Eve I was with my family that night going to church for its annual Christmas Eve dinner gathering. To get through the night of being with my family I brought my new electronic best friend with me and snuck in as much Tetris as I could between bites. After we wrapped up and my family got back into the car to go back home my GameBoy was not as snugly tucked into my pocket as I thought and as I shut the car door my GameBoy slid out of my pocket and collided with the blunt force of me shutting the door onto it. As you can see in the screenshot here, the incident caused about 95% of the screen to get cracked and impossible to see and I balled my eyes out that entire night. Kids, do not bring your GameBoy to church or God will strike down upon you when least expected!

To make matters worse on Christmas morning the next day I opened up a copy of WWF King of the Ring for GameBoy from Santa. I plugged it into my cracked GameBoy and was stunned to see it still worked and played the music and it would display the miniscule amount of graphics that were possible in the tiny corners of the GameBoy screen that were not damaged. I must have begged my parents for days to see if they could get the GameBoy replaced or returned or something. I feel horrible now for how irritating I must have been at that time. To my surprise, my mom came through a week or two later and got me a new GameBoy. Once again I was thrilled and beyond belief of how those past couple weeks played out, but from then on I was extra careful with my GameBoy and to this day I still own both my busted and replacement brick GameBoys.

For a few months all I had was Tetris and King of the Ring. I loved Tetris and even found a classmate to link up and play two player with a few times and it remains in my GameBoy library to this day! However, even with my childhood adoration for wrestling I could tell King of the Ring would be nothing more than a middling wrestling game and nothing compared to its 16-bit brethren (though it did have some rocking wrestler chiptune entrance themes). At this point a few months into 1994 our local videogame shop was a place called Tiger Play, which was essentially a modern day GameStop that bought, sold and traded new and used games. It was the same store where I persistently requested to put Royal Rumble for play in its kiosk to the chagrin of the employees. I have no idea how they tolerated me back then. I decided it was time to part ways with King of the Ring and trade it in for something else.


Not having a 16-bit console at the time I got my MK fix at home with the GB version and did what I could with its stripped down roster and limited gameplay. At least the GB version as pictured above was only version of original at the time where you could play as Goro!

In early 1994 Mortal Kombat fever was running wild with the sequel dominating arcades and the home release being super popular with all my classmates. Mortal Kombat did not come out for NES, but it did for GameBoy and the now much wiser 11-year old Dale thought the GameBoy version would be just as good as the SNES, but only not in color and was thrilled to hear Tiger Play would happily do a straight-up trade of King of the Ring for Mortal Kombat. Right away I could tell something was not right to discover it was missing Johnny Cage from its roster and it ran a significantly slower framerate. I still remember having to ever--so—slowly--like--this input the button sequences for the special moves in order to get them to work. Even worse, facing Shang Tsung on there was super cheap because he would automatically cast a projectile when one input away from pulling off a special move so I had to learn to beat him without special moves which took forever, but I eventually pulled it off. The GameBoy version of MK did have one thing going for it over the rest and that would be it was the only version of MK that let you play as Goro! Goro was unstoppable, but even with that trump card, the handheld MK was pretty lousy, but I forced myself to get some enjoyment out of it before marching back to Tiger Play a few months later and trading MK in for Bo Jackson: Baseball and Football. Turns out ‘Bo Knows…’ how to endorse subpar sports game, but the sports nut in me played that to death for a couple years because Tiger Play closed its doors around this time and it would be a few years until our town got another videogame store.

After that brief flirtation with trading games in I would only receive two games a year for GameBoy from 1994 through 1998 shortly before I got my first job and could afford my own games then. At that period in my life those two games a year meant everything to me. As hinted above, I was still drawn towards games based on my favorite licenses at that point and Bart vs. the Juggernauts was one of my early games I received as a present. The mini-game collection featured a lot of hair-pulling cheap controls, but I forced myself to stick with it and lit up when it became one of the first games I ever finished. A much better game I got as a present that I also finished was Donkey Kong Land. I have no idea how Rare was able to get graphics that seemed somewhat comparable to the SNES Donkey Kong Country, but I remember loving playing it, but being bummed at its lackluster ending of only ‘congratulations’ with no accompanying DK crew victory graphic. At least Bart vs. the Juggernauts had a wicked ending with Bart getting rewarded with his very own ‘Truck-a-Saurus.’

I learned my lesson from Bo Jackson and MK to do my research for better games on the GameBoy….actually no because I kept asking for more fighting and sports games for Christmas and birthdays, but at least getting varying degrees of better ones this time. The original NFL Quarterback Club on GameBoy I had a ton of fun with. It only featured the ‘Quarterback Club’ mini-games, but no actual game of football that was playable in its console versions. That was not a problem though as me and my siblings had a surprising amount of fun alternating back-and-forth with the various QB drill mini-games available and I could not help but crack up that my sister only played as Jim Kelley because of how close it sounded to ‘Jim Carrey’ who was wildly popular in the mid-90s. NFL Quarterback Club ‘96 was only actual football and no mini-games, but that was fine because it featured a far better handheld rendition of football compared to Bo Jackson and even a season mode with password save option! Yes, I still have my passwords saved inside the instruction manual

Ken Griffey Jr. Presents: MLB is an awesome port of the SNES original and blew away the baseball from Bo Jackson. It had a battery-save season mode along with the ability to trade players with no restrictions so I created my team of all-stars and rocked through an entire season throughout many family car rides. Mortal Kombat II is a huge upgrade from the first portable version, and while it also had a scaled back roster it did feature more precise gameplay, more friendly controls to pull off special moves and fatalities and a stable framerate resulting in me not trading this one away and playing it way too much.

That wraps up all the games I got as gifts and by the time I got my first job the GameBoy Color hit the market so I eagerly picked that up. There were a couple classmates over the years I met where we borrowed games to each other. I did not discover many new gems that way as most kids were also picking up the dreck of LJN licensed games and I could one can only tolerate so much out of WWF RAW, Fist of the North Star and Home Alone on GameBoy before getting out of the game borrowing market. I managed not to get swept up in PokeFever as I was just a couple years older than that targeted demographic. I did pick up Pokemon Blue shortly after its release after reading about the hype for it and got a little ways into it before my younger brother noticed me playing it and asked to borrow it around the time it was blowing up with younger kids so I did not mind letting him hold onto it until it for his GameBoy until he remembered to give it back to me about ten years later.

Since the GameBoy Color was only on the market for a few years I will not meander on as long about it. With that said, the GameBoy Color far surpassed the meek GameBoy in every way with the exception of not having a backlit screen. Other than that, it was smaller, fit more comfortably in my pocket, took two less batteries and well….the addition of color! Yes, I picked up a few too many sports and wrestling games on it again that were mediocre at best, but I did have a lot of fun with some enhanced NES re-releases on there with Super Mario Bros. Deluxe, the first three Dragon Warrior games and Micro Machines 1 & 2: Twin Turbo. For original titles my favorites were Mario Golf and Mario Tennis. For people familiar with the recent Golf Story on Switch Mario Golf is a lot like that where it is a sports-RPG hybrid where it has a fairly in-depth narrative at attending a golf/tennis academy to become the best player and being able to take lessons and play mini-games to level-up and prepare for the tournaments. Super Mario Bros. Deluxe had a lot of fun extras and even a two player competitive mode to see who can finish a stage first that I absolutely ate up.

A couple years ago some unearthly thing got me craving the basic, watered down platformers that dominated GameBoy and I hunted down the five Turok games released for GameBoy platforms and I played through the entirety of the first one on the original GameBoy and had a somewhat decent time with it. I did not play it on the actual GameBoy, mind you but instead on my TV courtesy of the Retron 5. I should mention I am a proud owner of the Super GameBoy, GameBoy Player and Retron 5 which made it convenient to bust out these portable games at a much friendlier resolution and not have to worry about the GameBoy’s non-backlit screen. In honor of the 30th anniversary last week I popped in the GameBoy Color version of Turok 2 and played a couple levels into it. For as weak and watered down most handheld versions of console games were, there was something about it that kept me coming back to them.

The GameBoy helped me through my childhood, too many family trip car rides to count and several summers on a farm. I probably had an unorthodox library of games for my GameBoy compared to the average owner who probably owned a majority of vastly superior games released by Nintendo, Capcom and Konami. What can I say, I was too young to realize what to ask my folks for. No matter how strong or weak each game wound up, I made sure to get the absolute most out of each game. Thank you Nintendo for releasing and supporting the GameBoy well after you should have throughout the 90s and enabling me to enjoy games anywhere! Thank you to everyone who got through this indulging my childhood memories of portable gaming with me! I hope you all have just as many great childhood handheld system gaming memories as I did whether it was on GameBoy, GameGear or later generations like GBA, PSP, DS, mobile, etc.

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