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Behind The Design: Nintendo Game Boy & Its Cheap Design Created A Gaming Legacy

by rrollins, April 16, 2021

Behind The Design is a segment by DesignTAXI where we wind back to the pioneering products and icons that steered the design world forward and transformed consumer perceptions forever.


Image via padu_foto / Shutterstock.com

What: The Game Boy

Who designed it: Nintendo

When: 1989

The device boasts a tiny screen, its graphics limited to shades of gray on a dull green background, but the Nintendo Game Boy was a revolution when it launched in Japan in the 1980s.

The Game Boy was not actually the first handheld games machine with interchangeable cartridges. That was the Microvision, which was released in 1979. The Nintendo Company saw this as an opportunity for portable gaming and launched the Game Boy & Watch in 1980, which was a huge success.

On April 21, 1989, the Nintendo’s research and development team, headed by legendary engineer Gunpei Yokoi, created the Game Boy, which incorporated the hardware of the Game & Watch and the NES home system. The entire Game Boy stock was sold within the first few days of its release.

The innovative design of the Game Boy was unique. Yokoi came up with a pivotal design philosophy, “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology,” which meant using cheap, readily-available components in interesting ways.

Pocket-Sized, Pocket-Friendly


Image via Wikimedia Commons

While rival handheld consoles like the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear boasted expensive hardware, the Game Boy was comparatively cheap, thanks to its dated Z80-based CPU. And even though its 2.5-inch screen could barely handle four different grays, the console promised up to 30 hours of play on four AA batteries – which made it much more useful.

While its dot matrix, monotone interface appeared a step down from the typical full-color screen play of its competitors, the iconic Game Boy ‘green screen’ exuded a charm all of its own.

The Game Boy has an eight-way D-pad controller and four buttons: A, B, Start and Select. It’s exactly the same setup as the Nintendo Entertainment System controller, making it hugely familiar for existing gamers. This also meant that it was easy for developers to convert games from the hugely successful NES to the new handheld machine.

The original Game Boy came with Tetris built in, which became one of its best-selling games and drove up sales. Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow, were some of the popular games played on the portable system.

Game Boys & Game Girls

Ironically, considering its name, the Game Boy was also one of the first game machines to successfully target female players. In 1995, Nintendo claimed that almost half of Game Boy users were female, a major leap from 29 percent on the Nintendo Entertainment System.


Image via Wikimedia Commons

In retrospect, the Game Boy – by way of its ground-breaking design and utilization of simple and existing technology– set the stage for portable gaming well into the smartphone era.

[via Catawiki, Financial Times, Venture Beat, Computing History, images via various sources]

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