The golden age of arcade games helped solidify the medium, and it didn’t take long for the creators to begin experimenting. During that time, the only way to play a video game was to visit an arcade and insert coins into a cabinet. Because of this, the idea of being able to easily port one around on one’s person was particularly enticing. One of the earliest attempts at creating a handheld experience came in the form of Nintendo’s Game & Watch product line. This idea resulted from its creator, Gunpei Yokoi, observing a bored businessman on the Shinkansen playing around with his LCD calculator in 1977. The first few models sold under the Game & Watch trademark sold millions of units, effectively inventing a secondary market within the industry.
Though the subsequent success of their Famicom console cemented their status as one of the big players in the home gaming market, Nintendo wasn’t done experimenting with handhelds. As the eighties drew to a close, Research & Development 1, the team led by Mr. Yokoi, worked on a product to succeed their Game & Watch line: the Game Boy. However, this product had one important distinction from what came before. Still images were printed onto the LCD screen of a Game & Watch unit akin to how numbers are displayed on a basic calculator. This allowed the creators to get around strict memory limitations by not having to animate sprites. This wasn’t going to be the case with the Game Boy. It was to be a true 8-bit console, making full use of interchangeable cartridges – just like the Famicom. The only drawback is that it would lack color.
Part of what allowed the Famicom, or the Nintendo Entertainment System as it would be dubbed overseas, to enjoy the success it had was thanks to a little game called Super Mario Bros. It became a phenomenon upon release in 1985, not only pushing the sales of more units, but also revitalizing the American gaming market after its debilitating crash in 1983. Partially because it often came bundled with the console itself in package deals, the game went on to sell over forty-million copies. Overnight, Mario became one of the most recognizable video game characters of all time, so it was only natural that he should star in one of the Game Boy’s launch titles as well.
Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who created Super Mario Bros., left development of this new Mario title in the hands of Gunpei Yokoi’s team. Appropriately, the one who invented the Game Boy, Satoru Okada, would serve as its director. It was planned as the console’s premier title until Dutch gaming publisher Henk Rogers brought the highly popular Tetris to Nintendo of America’s attention. From there, he convinced branch founder Minoru Arakawa that the game would help Nintendo reach the largest audience. The company then agreed to bundle Tetris with every Game Boy purchase.
April 24, 1989 marked the domestic release of the Game Boy. The entire stock, which consisted of 300,000 units sold out within two weeks. It then proceeded to sell 40,000 units on its very first day when it launched in North America a few months later. Despite Nintendo electing to make Tetris the showcase title, the finished Mario installment, Super Mario Land, was among the handheld console’s launch titles. That it wasn’t bundled with the Game Boy did nothing to deter fans, for it managed to sell over eighteen-million copies, eclipsing figures of the series’ previous installment, Super Mario Bros. 3. Does it hold up to the same degree as its generation-defining predecessors?