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I’ll Never Love a Console Like I Loved the Nintendo Game Boy

How a trip to A&E began a love affair with a plastic brick of idiosyncratic pixels and pitch-perfect gameplay.

by Thomas Howells
27 April 2015, 7:17am

How many millions of gamers will have seen this screen as a child? ( More than 18 million, which is a lot.)

My torrid love affair with the Nintendo Game Boy began in September 1992, aged six – the happy result of a cycling accident that also left me with dentures and a permanently bee-stung lower lip. Mildly traumatised, with a face caked in crusted blood, I sat in an Isle of Wight A&E department, waiting for a doctor to appear and re-insert my front teeth. Ever the pragmatist, my dad offered to buy anything I wanted from the Argos catalogue to cheer me up.

The answer was a knee-jerk no-brainer. My cracked mouth forgotten, an expansive, bile-green 8bit world was about to open up in front of me. Eventually kowtowing any more significant memories, the next half-decade would become a blur of monochromatic Wind Fish, lone Apache gunships and anthropomorphic puffballs.

Obsession took hold immediately. Asides from the top-set anxieties of primary school and my inert lack of ability at sports, life as a pre-pubescent was almost pathetically stress-free, and I had plenty of free time in which to embrace the joys of my new grey brick – embellished by the fact that I was the only one of my friends not obsessed with the Sega Game Gear, then (erroneously) considered the hipper machine.

The original model Game Boy in all its glory, via Wikipedia

Retrospectively, of course, that's bunkum – rushed out in 1990 as a technologically and visually zippier alternative to the Game Boy, the Game Gear was a clunking goon of a rival. Sure, the colour graphics were better, it was designed to emulate the feel of a Mega Drive controller and you could watch crackly episodes of Neighbours via a plug-in aerial. But the Game Boy's perfunctory design, and the limitations of its Zilog Z80-derived microprocessor and four-shade monochrome screen – and, subsequently, its more idiosyncratic visuals and sound – are in part what made it so appealing. (Not to mention influential, as evinced by current trends in retro pixel worship and chiptune's lasting influence across various genres.)

For months, I owned just Super Mario Land and Hudson Soft's Bomberman port, Dynablaster, but I was hooked. I devoured copies of Mean Machines and its successor, the awkwardly titled Nintendo Magazine System, images of forgotten games I'd never play – from Parasol Stars to Dr Franken II – permanently burnt into my cortex.

My subsequent collection was average at best, pieced together with random purchases and cast-offs from friends, severely lacking many of the classics: no Metroid II or Street Fighter, Kid Dracula or Gargoyle's Quest; Super Mario Land's grander sequel, Six Golden Coins, briefly borrowed and completed; my attention segued to the SNES by the time Pokémon was released.

Instead, I developed a blinkered, fatherly love for nearly every game I owned. Sunsoft's Speedy Gonzales – an early favourite – was a shameless rip-off of Sonic (even down to the impatient foot tapping), but a decent one, imbued with a woozy, "La Cucaracha"-riffing soundtrack; while Kirby's Dream Land 2 was perhaps the superlative Game Boy platformer, a psychedelic mess of inventive level design and brilliantly cutesy graphics that stands as one of the bulimic puffballs's finest outings.

'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' gameplay

Electronic Arts' non-linear Gulf War shoot 'em up Desert Strike showed that the Game Boy could be as gritty as it could twee, gung-ho Americanisms and taste-baiting subject matter be damned. Ropey film tie-ins were rife – even I could tell that Beetlejuice was a nadir – but I played Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to the point of nausea on long drives to the Dordogne, flitting between ant-like melee battles, side-on duels and torpid wandering, ever-confused that the developers had rendered most of the character portraits accurately enough save for Costner's protagonist, who looked exactly like David Hasselhoff.

Sci-fi blasters were a running theme. Super Return of the Jedi was frustrating and visually muddy but beguiling just for the ersatz-3D hover bike sequences on Endor. Mega Man: Dr Wily's Revenge was also wincingly difficult but visually brilliant; Accolade's Turrican was its aesthetic opposite, a creepy, lifeless realisation of a cold future with huge, seemingly free-roaming levels. All flawed, but held in lofty reverence all the same.

'F1 Race' gameplay

Perhaps most underrated by myself at the time was F1 Race, a frenetic simulator replete with piercing industrial sound effects courtesy of the Game Boy's integrated white noise channel – pure parental kryptonite.

And then, then there was Zelda. Link's Awakening was (still is) a revelation. Thinking of it now drags me, Proust-like, back to the hotel poolside in Lanzarote where, after picking the game up at duty free, I took those first trepid steps on Koholint's beach, blindly feeling my way through a new control system, unaware of the sprawling island world just out of sight and the crushing melancholy that would come with finishing it. God knows how many hours I spent on the fucker; I certainly spent enough of my parents' money calling the Nintendo Hotline whenever I got stuck (which was often).

The expansive map of 'Link's Awakening' via Reddit


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The graphics, sound, rich storyline and fleshed-out characters – I was entranced with every bit of it. I loved all of my games, of course, but with Link's Awakening came the first recognition that there could be something below the surface – a deeper emotional resonance that would stay with me for years after completing it. Unlike A Link to the Past – the only other edition of the series I would play properly – the game doesn't end in a heroic climax. Your purpose, in collecting the eight Instruments of the Sirens and waking the Wind Fish, is purely self-serving, a means of escape from otherwise hopeless abandonment. That the relationships you've formed and island you've grown familiar with end up being part of an omniscient whale's naptime is superfluous to the fact that you're forced to obliterate it all, an act as nihilistic as it is painfully inevitable. The game's closing frames – Link dropped back in an endless ocean, the Wind Fish's ethereal outline drifting overhead – are truly wistful. It was, for my eight-year-old self, grindingly existential stuff. (And if you, too, love Zelda, read our piece on the series' greatest moments.)

'Link's Awakening', the final boss battle and ending

The bliss wouldn't last. As the Game Boy became something of a relic around 1996, I part-exchanged most of my games and moved on to the SNES, a glut of PC strategy and FPS titles, and the N64, my interest in video games waning steadily until my mid-20s. The old brick may be deceased – the screen finally swallowed by the black bar of dead pixels that grew up one side the longer you played it, making it little more than a noisy paperweight – but it's still there in spirit, a ghost of a gift that keeps on giving.

@gwynforhowells

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