Original Gamer

The lingering appeal of the original Game Boy.

by Carli Velocci
Jun 29 2015, 10:00am

Patrick Rodriguez holds one of his original Game Boys. Image: Patrick Rodriguez

The three original Game Boys sit side-by-side on a table in Patrick Rodriguez's Boston-area apartment. They're all gigantic, more than four times as thick as an iPhone 6, and ugly, some painted in garish colors. The screens are small, only two-and-a-half inches across. He picks up a red one and turns it on, and a familiar jingle from my childhood coming out of the speakers.

"This is my favorite one," he told me. It was the first Game Boy he ever bought and modified himself. He installed a back light to play in the dark, inverted the colors so that he could see better, added audio inputs and outputs at the top, and a stereo output on the bottom. It was originally for making music, he said, but after a while he started making games.

Rodriguez, 24, is developing games for Game Boy—yes, the original Game Boy, the one that debuted in 1989. Rodriguez is on a quest to develop eight games for the ancient handheld, releasing them through his label Patchwork Games. He calls the series "Eight Bitty Games" and so far he's made four: Yarn Ball, Orb Catcher, TinyDancer, and Dodgeball.

He also has several more planned experiments for Game Boy hardware components, such as the link cable, which connected Game Boys together before WiFi, and the Game Boy Printer, which allowed the user to print small images directly from the screen.

"The Game Boy is an old, slow, clunky, goofy looking piece of hardware that is basically capable of nothing, but thats where its beauty lies."

Why would anyone want to play games on such an antique console, let alone make them? Rodriguez seems to enjoy the creativity that comes from working within the Game Boy's limitations. Yarn Ball, for example, is a minimalist puzzle game where you have to guide a ball of yarn through 23 mazes. Rodriguez "really liked the idea of it being really small" so that he could experiment with how to make the best game with the least amount of space.

Still, building games for Game Boy is a solitary hobby. "Homebrew," the practice of modifying games to one's liking, usually refers to user-generated content for proprietary games or systems like the Game Boy. Unlike the thriving "modding" scene, in which fans tweak games to do things like make their avatars fly or remove a character's clothing, homebrew developers like Rodriguez usually have to get around hardware restrictions. (Usually the creators release their projects for free on forums and without the approval of companies.) And while the homebrew community is thriving on modern consoles such as the Wii U, older hardware has fallen through the cracks.

Rodriguez's game Yarn Ball projected on the TV. Image: Patrick Rodriguez

Rodriguez doesn't know many people who devote themselves to Game Boy homebrew, specifically when it came to game development. There is the chiptune community, built from musicians who use the sounds emitted from the Game Boy to create music, but most of the problems he runs into he has to solve by himself. For example, when he wanted to experiment with the Game Boy Printer, he had to parse through the old, unfinished documents and reconfigure them from scratch.

"There was a free Game Boy development kit released online," Rodriguez told me. "Unfortunately, it's from the year 2000, so it's 15 years old, so you kind of have to fiddle with it to get it working on newer operating systems... it's not very well documented, so you have to learn as you go."

Currently, Rodriguez makes little money through his projects. All of his games are free and people can choose to donate through his Patreon or pages. He does this as a passion project, as a way to improve his development skills.

There is still something else that attracts people to the Game Boy: that nostalgic jingle. When Rodriguez brings his games to festivals such as Indiecade East, there is always a player who marvels at the devices just being active. And whether it's adults replaying an artifact from their childhood, or younger fans learning about the Game Boy for the first time, there is a sense of awe.

"A lot of the older people I had playing said 'I remember this, this is really cool,'" Rodriguez said. "Just having fun playing on a Game Boy no matter what the game is."

A Patchwork Games logo is printed out on the Game Boy printer. Image: Patrick Rodriguez

Game Boys go for around $35 on eBay, but Rodriguez prefers to buy his gear from the refurbished video game parts website ASM Retro, where the proprietors share his passion and make a lot of the parts themselves.

"The Game Boy is an old, slow, clunky, goofy looking piece of hardware that is basically capable of nothing, but thats where its beauty lies," Christopher Antonellis, who runs ASM Retro, said in an email. "There is a common thread of love for something from our past, and we celebrate it together."

Rodriguez may feel alone on the development side, but there are modders, chiptune artists, and collectors who are still invested in keeping the handheld console's legacy alive. There will always be a market for the Game Boy, Antonellis said.

"There has never been a better time to get into Game Boy as a hobby," he said. "There is no argument against that the Game Boy is old news, but there is also no argument against that it is super duper cool."