Game Boy Color

A Game Boy with colour graph­ics was al­ways go­ing to hap­pen, it was just a case when. Yet few would have guessed that Nin­tendo would wait nine and a half years be­fore re­leas­ing the Game Boy Color, So was it worth wait­ing for?

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by Mar­tyn Car­roll

The Game Boy Color was part of the Game Boy line, an up­grade of the orig­i­nal mono­chrome ma­chine that sold mil­lions and won the hand­held gam­ing mar­ket for Nin­tendo. The firm it­self has al­ways been clear that it waas not a suc­ces­sor. In­deed it groups worldwide sales of the orig­i­nals Game Boy, the smaller Game Boy Pocket, the back­lit Game Boy Light and the Game Boy Color to­gether (that's a to­tal of 119 mil­lion units, big num­ber fans).

But whereas the Pocket and the Light were up­grades in the most func­tional sense, the Game Boy Color was a clear en­hance­ment over ear­lier mod­els. Ob­vi­ously, color graph­ics were its key rea­son for ex­ist­ing. Com­pared to the mono­chrome Game Boy and its four shades of grey the GBC was able to dis­play 56 si­mul­ta­ne­ous colours from a pal­ette of 32.000. Nin­tendo claimed that the de­vice dis­played "bril­liant color (sic)", but that was a slight stretch as the screen wasn't back­lit in or­der to save all-im­por­tant bat­tery life). In­stead the screen utilised re­flec­tive tech­nol­ogy, so just like the orig­i­nal Game Boy, it locked great if you were playing out­side on a sunny day, put its lus­tre di­min­ished in low-light con­di­tions.

The colour dis­play was the main sell­ing point, but the de­vice also ben­e­fit­ted from an over­all hard­ware boost to bet­ter serve game de­vel­op­ers. The pro­ces­sor re­mained the same - a cus­tom 8-bit CPU that was sim­i­lar to the Z80 - but its clock speed, was dou­bled to 8MHz. Video RAM was also dou­bled, to 16Kb, while main me­mory was quadru­pled to 32Kb (which still sounds minute but remember that game data was stores on ROM car­tridges, which could now be up to 8Mb in size). The DMA (Di­rect Me­mory Ac­cess) ca­pa­bil­i­ties were en­hanced too, speed­ing up data trans­fer to the new screen.

Out­wardly the Game Boy Color was very sim­i­lar to the ear­lier Game Boy Pocket, al­though the de­vice was a lit­tle larger and the screen was slightly smaller. Most fa­mil­iar fea­tures were re­tained - the clas­sic d-pad, the four but­tons (A, B, Start, Se­lect), the vol­ume dial. the head­phone jack, link cable port and so on. It took two AA bat­ter­ies, com­pared to the Pocket's two AAA bat­ter­ies, but bat­tery life was com­pa­ra­ble at aroung ten hours of play from a full change. Con­sid­er­ing the faster pro­ces­sor and colour screen, that was quite a coup from Nin­tendo.

The Game Boy Color was re­leased worldwide in 1998, yet ru­mours about a colour hand­held had been around al­most as long as the Game Boy it­self. "It does ex­ist, I have seen it", claimed Ja­son Spiller in the launch is­sue of GB Ac­tion mag­a­zine - pub­lished in 1992! "Dur­ing a brief wan­der around the Con­sumer Elec­tronic Show, I popped my head around a

corner of a mys­te­ri­ous-look­ing room and there it was. No doubt about it. The colour Game Boy is real.”

The ar­ti­cle pre­dicted a re­lease date of Septem­ber 1993. So just five years out. We should go easy on the team as this was a clas­sic gam­ing mag ‘ex­pose’. Hav­ing no ac­tual as­sets to show, the ar­ti­cle was il­lus­trated with a mocked-up photo of an orig­i­nal Game Boy with a ‘coloured-in’ ver­sion of Tetris slapped on the screen. Other pre­dic­tions were ac­cu­rate, though ob­vi­ous – as portable as the orig­i­nal and priced un­der £100 (it would even­tu­ally re­tail for £80 at launch in the UK). But there was a very in­ter­est­ing fore­cast at the end of the ar­ti­cle: “It’s ru­moured that the colour ma­chine will play your old mono games.”

Now this was a bold pre­dic­tion. These days Nin­tendo is known as an ad­vo­cate of back­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity, but back then its home con­soles were not com­pat­i­ble with each other. Surely it would be paint­ing it­self into a Qix-style corner by re­tain­ing com­pat­i­bil­ity for the old Game Boy? Maybe not in 1993, but five years later? The truth is that Nin­tendo did scope out a much more pow­er­ful 32-bit hand­held in the mid-nineties, un­der the Project At­lantis moniker, but in the end it opted for a suc­ces­sor that could play the vast cat­a­logue of mono GB games. And that de­ci­sion had ram­i­fi­ca­tions for the GBC.

“Back­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity more or less de­fined tech­ni­cally what the Game Boy Color would even­tu­ally have to be­come,” says Bob Pape, who de­vel­oped games for both the Game Boy and GBC, in­clud­ing the cel­e­brated con­ver­sion R-type DX. “Nin­tendo prob­a­bly came up with all sorts of al­ter­na­tives and I’m sure they looked at the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx for what not to do with a colour hand­held. As a suc­ces­sor to the orig­i­nal the GBC ticked all the right boxes with re­gard to size, bat­tery life, re­li­a­bil­ity and most im­por­tantly back­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity. Rad­i­cally chang­ing any­thing would have dis­rupted the up­grade path. It would have pretty much killed off the pre-ex­ist­ing Game

Boy mar­ket and an­noyed cus­tomers left with a game col­lec­tion they could only play on yes­ter­day’s con­sole.”

“as a suc­ces­sor to the orig­i­nal the GBC ticked all the right boxes” Bob Pape

The Game Boy Color could play all of the ex­ist­ing grey-coloured Game Boy carts, and as an added bonus it would ‘colourise’ old games. This worked a lot like the Su­per Game Boy add-on for the SNES, where the shades of grey could be sub­sti­tuted for dis­tinct colours. There were a num­ber of pre­set pal­ettes which the user could se­lect when the game started up. Fur­ther­more, the de­vice in­cluded ded­i­cated pal­ettes for more than 90 key ti­tles (mainly first-party re­leases and popular games from other pub­lish­ers). So an­cient ti­tles like Tetris and Su­per Mario Land were given a new and en­hanced lease of life on the GBC. It was clever tech, where the GBC would grab the game ti­tle from the cart’s header dur­ing the boot pro­ce­dure and then ap­ply a ded­i­cated pal­ette if one was avail­able. It was so clever that it gave birth to an amus­ing myth that all monochro­matic GB games were ac­tu­ally de­vel­oped with colour graph­ics, it was just that the poor GB couldn’t dis­play them!

In ad­di­tion to back­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity, Nin­tendo also in­tro­duced for­wards com­pat­i­bil­ity to the Game Boy line. Many of the early Game Boy Color ti­tles, such as Tetris DX and Pocket Bomber­man, were de­signed to play on the older GB by ef­fec­tively ig­nor­ing the colour in­for­ma­tion. It was also pos­si­ble to store sep­a­rate GB and GBC ver­sions on a sin­gle cart, with the cor­rect ver­sion se­lected on start-up (R-type DX and Conker’s Pock­ets Tales were two ex­am­ples that did this). These com­pat­i­ble ‘dual mode’ carts were iden­ti­fied by their black cases, while later games that would only run on the GBC came in clear cases.

The com­pre­hen­sive up­grade path cho­sen by Nin­tendo was wel­comed by Mike Mika, direc­tor and pro­gram­mer at pro­lific Game Boy de­vel­oper Dig­i­tal Eclipse. He says: “I was al­ready a huge fan of the orig­i­nal Game Boy, so when the Game Boy Color was an­nounced I was wor­ried that I’d have to learn an en­tirely new ar­chi­tec­ture. It was amaz­ing how Nin­tendo man­aged to cre­ate a de­vice that played GB games as well as in­tro­duc­ing some key bits of hard­ware that made the sys­tem feel en­tirely new. It dou­bled the pro­cess­ing and in­tro­duced hard­ware DMA trans­fers, which be­came crit­i­cal to our suc­cess on the plat­form. We could pretty much reload en­tire graphic sets ev­ery frame to give us full-screen an­i­ma­tion and com­plex sprite dis­plays. It was pow­er­ful enough for us to deliver a pretty de­cent ver­sion of Dragon’s Lair and de­velop Dis­ney qual­ity an­i­ma­tion that paid homage to some of Vir­gin’s Dis­ney ti­tles on home con­soles.”

Mike’s Dig­i­tal Eclipse col­league Bob Baffy was also a fan. “I was im­pressed with how Nin­tendo han­dled the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of adding colour to an al­ready es­tab­lished plat­form with­out too much break­age or in­com­pat­i­bil­ity. It wasn’t per­fect, but man was it fun to de­velop for the Game Boy Color.” For Bob the lim­i­ta­tions were ob­vi­ous, par­tic­u­larly as he spe­cialised in sound and mu­sic. “More me­mory for au­dio and art, and a lit­tle speed boost would have made some things less painful,” he says. “But given the state of tech­nol­ogy at the time I felt it was a pretty well­rounded piece of hard­ware. Be­ing self­ish, a big­ger and more pow­er­ful speaker would have been nice.”

Au­dio was one el­e­ment that Nin­tendo over­looked, with the Game Boy Color re­tain­ing the four-chan­nel stereo sound from the orig­i­nal de­vice. “Hon­estly the au­dio was the big­gest draw­back,” says Mike. “We had enough power to deliver some pretty con­vinc­ing dig­i­tal sam­ples, and mix that with pure sound gen­er­a­tion, but it took a big chunk of the pro­cess­ing per frame and an even larger chunk of car­tridge space. Writ­ing a flex­i­ble graph­ics sys­tem and bank-switch­ing ar­chi­tec­ture was a chal­lenge, too. We had to learn how to do things the hard way, by re­verse en­gi­neer­ing it. Nin­tendo pro­vided nearly noth­ing in the way of sup­port.”

What Nin­tendo did pro­vide was a portable plat­form that beat the most op­ti­mistic sales ex­pec­ta­tions. The Game Boy Color con­quered the hand­held space, eas­ily brush­ing aside the Neo-geo Pocket Color and the Won­der­swan Color, and there was no threat yet from mo­bile phone gam­ing which was still stuck at Snake. Soft­ware sales were strong, too. Nin­tendo pub­lished games like Poké­mon and Zelda dom­i­nated the charts, but li­censed ti­tles proved to be a cash cow for firms like Dig­i­tal Eclipse. “Ev­ery­thing sold,” says Mike. “There were just so many units out there and li­censed games were sell­ing huge num­bers. We would lit­er­ally get calls from pub­lish­ers ev­ery week as this was a peak mo­ment in movie-based games. Es­sen­tially GBC games were print­ing money. I was told Tarzan sold more copies than the N64 and Playsta­tion ver­sions com­bined.”

Tarzan was one of the first games to utilise the full power of the Game Boy Color and hence came

on a clear cart. The first prom­i­nent Gbc-only re­lease was Su­per Mario Bros Deluxe in early 1999 and this set some­thing of a prece­dent, with dual mode re­leases soon be­com­ing the ex­cep­tion rather than the norm. This move was em­braced by de­vel­op­ers (and Nin­tendo too, no doubt), even though it was pos­si­ble to har­ness the GBC’S full ca­pa­bil­i­ties with a dual mode re­lease. “In or­der to sup­port both plat­forms you were de­vel­op­ing for the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor,” says Mike. “You ba­si­cally colourised a Game Boy game and didn’t do much more than that to keep pro­duc­tion costs down. Our first Gbc-only game was Klax. We showed Mid­way’s CEO what it would be like us­ing the full ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the GBC, and then showed him the old black and white ver­sion. He didn’t hes­i­tate.”

Bob adds: “I think Nin­tendo even­tu­ally started nudg­ing folks to go with the Game Boy Color-only carts when they saw what a huge suc­cess the GBC be­came. Put sim­ply, Gbc-only games just looked a lot bet­ter than the dual ones, and Nin­tendo sold enough GBCS to jus­tify drop­ping sup­port for the orig­i­nal Game Boy.”

Nin­tendo would even­tu­ally drop sup­port for the Game Boy Color in 2003, four-and-a-half years af­ter it de­buted, dur­ing which time close to 600 games were re­leased for the sys­tem. How­ever it was su­per­seded two years ear­lier with the ar­rival of the Game Boy Ad­vance in 2001. This was the true suc­ces­sor to the Game Boy that brought 32-bit gam­ing to ea­ger mitts. Once again Nin­tendo kept the previous gen­er­a­tion alive by in­clud­ing sup­port for Game Boy and GBC games. As such the GBC is a largely re­dun­dant piece of kit these days. If you want to re­visit a GBC game then you’d be ad­vised to play it on a GBA (specif­i­cally a GBA SP thanks to its back­lit screen). Or you could play it on a TV us­ing the Game Boy Player for the Game­cube. Plus, many of the best GBC games, ti­tles such as Poké­mon Crys­tal, Wario Land 3 and Zelda: Or­a­cle of Ages/sea­sons, are avail­able on the Nin­tendo 3DS via the Vir­tual Con­sole ser­vice.

The Game Boy Color may be ob­so­lete but it’s not for­got­ten – cer­tainly not by the guys at Dig­i­tal Eclipse who en­joyed the chal­lenge of mak­ing it sing. “The tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions of the GBC some­times made for bet­ter games,” says Bob. “I’ve since worked on con­sole and PC ti­tles that had a lot less lim­i­ta­tions but were less fun to de­velop be­cause we weren’t pushed to find cre­ative so­lu­tions.”

For Mike the Game Boy Color rekin­dled the bed­room cod­ing ethic of the in­dus­try’s early days.

“In many re­spects it was like the old demo scene on the Com­modore 64 and Amiga,” he says. “For those mak­ing games on the GBC there was a sub­text to our ef­forts. We were all try­ing to show off how far we could push it. If we in­tro­duced a full-mo­tion video player, some­one like Vi­car­i­ous Vi­sions would find a way to do it with hun­dreds of colours on screen, and then some­one else would fig­ure out how to do that with great sam­pled au­dio. We were all hav­ing a great time and we’d all hang out at events and show off our games as if we were at a demo scene meet-up.”

He adds: “Most peo­ple who cre­ated Game Boy Color games were do­ing it to put off be­ing part of much big­ger teams where fight­ing for ideas was much harder. On the GBC you could still make a great game with one or two peo­ple and the de­vel­op­ment process was fast and un­hin­dered. When I got into the in­dus­try, I thought I’d missed out on the heady days of small team games. The GBC gave me a taste of that.”

For the rest of us, the Game Boy Color gave us our first taste of colour gam­ing on a Nin­tendo hand­held, and a flavour of what was to come with the Game Boy Ad­vance. His­tory may remember it as a stop­gap with a short shelf life, but it was a neat de­vice re­gard­less that played host to some gen­uine clas­sics. Above all it was a proud en­try to the Game Boy Line that en­ter­tained gamers on the go for more than a decade.

“it wasn’t per­fect, but man was it fun to de­velop for the GBC” Bob Baffy

» Bob Baffy throughly en­joyed mak­ing games for Nin­tendo's colour hand­held. » Mike Mika is a big fan of the Game Boy Color and cur­rently works at Dig­i­tal Eclipse.

» [Game Boy Color] The DX up­grade of Leg­end Of Zelda: Link’s Awak­en­ing added a ‘Color Dun­geon’ that show­cased the sys­tem’s new hues.

» GB Ac­tion mag­a­zine went big with its colour mere six years be­fore Game Boy ‘re­veal’, the hand­held ac­tu­ally a ar­rived.

» [Game Boy Color] Wario Land II was orig­i­nally de­signed for the orig­i­nal GB, but the fan­tas­tic third game, seen here, was a ded­i­cated GBC ti­tle.

» [Game Boy Color] There were some sur­pris­ingly good 3D driv­ing games re­leased for the sys­tem, in­clud­ing V-rally (pic­tured) and Top Gear Pocket.

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