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?
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.