Throwback Thursday: the Nintendo Gameboy from 1989

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In another “Throwback Thursday” look at gadgets and devices of yesteryear, we take a quick look at the old classic 8-bit handheld gaming device, the Nintendo Gameboy.

Portable power from the 80’s

Launched in Japan and the US in 1989 (and in Europe in 1990), it’s hard to believe that the original Gameboy is more than 25 years old, but at the time it was the most popular and successful handheld, despite being somewhat underpowered compared to its later rivals – such as the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx, and even the NEC PC Engine handheld (in Japan).

The machine sold out in the US (all one million units) within weeks, and went on to become the best-selling handheld at all times with over 100 million sold in total.

Nintendo Gameboy - Operation C

The original model, which took 4 “AA” batteries, came bundled with one of the best puzzle games of all time – Tetris, by Alexei Pajitnov. It was a maddeningly addictive game, which worked very well on the Gameboy. All the games came on tiny cartridges that slotted directly in the back of the machine, and despite having only one speaker, pretty decent stereo sound was possible via headphones.

Unfortunately, as it had only a monochrome screen that was not backlit, it was not easy to play games in anything other than direct sunlight or a well-lit room, leading to the availability of various screen light attachments and add-ons.

Nintendo Gameboy Games

Despite the machine’s popularity, it suffered from more criticism as time went on as the gaming press bemoaned its lack of power. Rivals such as Sega introduced more powerful machines with much better specifications, but they never managed to outsell the gameboy, perhaps due to poor battery life and a lack of decent titles – in those days, Nintendo really did have some of the best games on any system.

There were hundreds of excellent games available for the original Gameboy, which helped keep the machine firmly at the top. My own personal favourites were Tetris, Operation C (a US import sometimes known as Contra), Revenge of the Gator (a pinball), Battletoads (an extremely difficult sideways platformer), Castlevania II, and of course Super Mario Land.

Nintendo Gameboy - Tetris

Seminal classic Tetris was one of the best games available for the Gameboy.

Gameboy specs

Here’s a quick rundown of the Gameboy hardware. It looks pretty unimpressive today, especially compared with the latest game-capable smartphones:

  • CPU: Custom 8-bit Sharp LR35902 core at 4.19 MHz
  • RAM: 8 kB internal S-RAM (can be extended up to 32 kB)
  • Video RAM: 8 kB internal
  • ROM: On-CPU-Die 256-byte bootstrap; 256 kb, 512 kb, 1 Mb, 2 Mb, 4 Mb and 8 Mb cartridges
  • Sound: 2 pulse wave generators, 1 PCM 4-bit wave sample (64 4-bit samples played in 1×64 bank or 2×32 bank) channel, 1 noise generator, and one audio input from the cartridge.
  • Display: Reflective STN LCD 160 × 144 pixels
  • Frame Rate: 59.7 frames per second on a regular Game Boy, 61.1 on a Super Game Boy
  • Screen size: 66 mm (2.6 in) diagonal
  • Color Palette: 2-bit (4 shades of “gray” {light to very dark olive green})

Since the original machine, Nintendo has launched umpteen new models, including the Gameboy Pocket, the Gameboy Light (in Japan only), Gameboy Color, and then the Gameboy Advance, Gameboy Advance SP, Gameboy Micro, Gameboy DS, and finally onto the new machine (and all its variants) known as the 3DS (and now, the even newer “new 3DS” which has just been released).

Nintendo New 3DS XL

Nintendo’s latest machine, the New 3DS XL.

In our opinion though, the original is still one of the very best handhelds of all time.

Let us know in the comments if you ever owned one of these pocket delights, or whether you have one of the newer machines now.

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