The Game Boy turns 30: how it’s changed over time

The Game Boy marked an era in gaming, opening the door to the world of portable consoles. Over the course of its life, it changed several times: here's how

Happy birthday Game Boy. The mythical, iconic, totemic "portable" Nintendo console was presented on April 21, 1989 and today it turns 30 years old exactly. Since that day, in fact, an era in videogaming has closed and another one has opened. On a global level.

The era that closed was that of the "Game & Watch", portable foldable electronic video games created for Nintendo by Gunpei Yokoi, the same designer-inventor who later created the Game Boy. With the latter, unlike the first, you could change the game by buying new "cartridges" Game Pak and this made it, in essence, a portable Nintendo NES with low performance. The success was huge: from 1989 to 2003, when the Game Boy was released from the market, Nintendo has sold 118 million pieces and has created 6 versions (plus one, sold only in Japan): in addition to the original Game Boy (1989), Game Boy Pocket (1996), Game Boy Color (1998), Game Boy Advance (2001), Game Boy Advance SP (2003) and Game Boy Micro (2005). The version sold only in Japan is the 1997 Game Boy Light.

Game Boy (1989)

The original version of the Game Boy is not very powerful nor very pocketable. It has a not-so-large, non-backlit, grayscale (or, rather, green) screen. Today no one would think to buy it, back then everyone wanted it. If you were a kid in the 80s and 90s then you either had a Game Boy or you wanted one. The hardware architecture was 8-bit (derived from Sharp's Z80 chip at 4 MHz), the RAM was 8 Kb (plus another 8 of video RAM), the screen was liquid crystal (resolution of 160×144 pixels) and required 4 stylus batteries to operate. Only later came the Game Boy Battery Pack, a portable power supply with rechargeable batteries inside.

Game Boy Pocket (1996)

The Game Boy did so well on the market that Nintendo waited until 1996 to make a second version that, moreover, was almost the same as the previous one: the Game Boy Pocket. It was a normal Game Boy with a more compact and handy design that, however, required to remove two batteries (and a lot of autonomy) from the original model. The following year, in 1997, Nintendo started selling in Japan a version of the Pocket with a backlit screen: the Game Boy Light.

Game Boy Color (1998)

Two years after presenting the Game Boy Pocket, Nintendo made the first real technological leap for the Game Boy: the color screen and a more robust hardware configuration. The processor, also by Sharp and 8-bit, is now 8 MHz and the RAM goes up to 32 Kb plus 16 Kb of video RAM. The colors available are 32 thousand but are usable only 10 at a time, the screen maintains the same size of 2.32 inches and the resolution of 160×144 pixels.

Game Boy Advance (2001)

The Game Boy Advance is the first 32-bit Game Boy (but integrated a Z80 coprocessor 8-bit to ensure backward compatibility with old titles) and was considered the pocket version of the Super Nintendo. The design was changed from the past, with the pads and buttons no longer under the screen but on the sides. A design that still holds up today and that we find for example on the Nintendo Switch. The GBA had a 16 MHz ARM processor, 288 Kb of RAM (of which 32 Kb built directly into the processor) and 96 Kb of video RAM. The maximum colors were still 32 thousand, but now you could view 512 simultaneously. It is the first Game Boy that can handle games "almost" 3D.

Game Boy Advance SP (2003)

The acronym SP of the Game Boy Advanced SP stands for "Special Project" and, in fact, this Game Boy is really special. The design goes back to the past, with the controls under the screen, but the console is foldable and can be put in your pocket conveniently. The screen, finally, is backlit. Another novelty compared to the past: the battery finally rechargeable.

Game Boy Micro (2005)

Also from the Game Boy Advance derives the Game Boy Micro of 2005, the last Game Boy before Nintendo bet everything on the portable console DS (followed by 3DS and Switch). The Game Boy Micro is what the name implies: a GBA shrunk to the max at the cost of losing compatibility with old games for the original Game Boy and Color. It never sold a whole lot, but in the collector's showcase it can't be missed.