On July 31st, 1989, the original Game Boy was released in North America.
It was originally packaged with a version of Tetris, and went on to sell 118 million units (when combined with sales of the Game Boy Color.)
Some of my fondest gaming memories were played on this unwieldily brick. Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins and Pokémon Blue defined my childhood almost more than the Super Nintendo did.
The original Game Boy was a very limited piece of hardware. It only had a four-color palette (rendered in various shades of green by the dot-matrix screen) and a 160-by-144 resolution display. Only 40 sprites could be shown on-screen at the same time, and no more than 10 could exist on the same scan line. Sprites were limited to 8-by-8 or 8-by-16 pixels, so any “sprites” you see larger than this were a combination of multiple actual sprites.
What strikes me the most when playing original Game Boy games is how timeless the music is. I’m an avowed fan of chiptunes, of course, but despite extreme limitations there are many games on the system with music I still enjoy listening to today. Pokemon is probably the most concrete example. It’s no wonder that the entire chiptune scene is based around the Game Boy, with the homebrew program LSDJ for Game Boy being by far the most popular creation tool.
Why was the system so low-fi? As later competitors would attest, back in the day the most important aspects of a handheld system were price and battery life. Nintendo itself learned this the hard way with the launch of the original Nintendo 3DS, which cost $250 and lasted as little as three and a half hours on a single charge. The original Game Boy lasted 15 hours on four AA batteries, and the Color could last up to 35 hours on just two AA batteries!
And despite including a free copy of Tetris, the original Game Boy cost $90 at release (about $174 today.) There were two redesigns, the far smaller Game Boy Pocket and the Japan-exclusive Game Boy Light, and a pseudo-successor in the form of the Game Boy Color (I say pseudo in the same sense as the Nintendo DSi; it has a library of its own exclusive games, but many could still be played on the original system and the hardware wasn’t a true generational leap.)
A big happy birthday to one of the most classic systems of all time.