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Begin Your Week With Fascinating Relics of Gaming's Patchwork Past

Sometimes the best gaming experiences come in the form of desperate hacks, as these obscure Game Boy galleries demonstrate.

News by Jeremy Parish, .

Did you know? Nintendo's Game Boy sold better than any other game system in the 20th century, remaining a viable platform until roughly 2002—13 years after its debut. That's an impressive fact, but it becomes even more remarkable when you take into consideration the innate limitations of Nintendo's 8-bit handhelds.

Even at launch, the Game Boy was woefully underpowered; that was, in fact, the secret behind its success. Because its processor and screen used such feeble technology, they sold at a far lower price—and used far fewer batteries!—than more impressive competitors like Atari's Lynx and SEGA's Game Gear. That proved to be a massive advantage in many respects... but it also meant that Nintendo went to some pretty extreme lengths in order to keep the Game Boy thriving for so long.

The most remarkable of these efforts, of course, was completely overhauling the system for a color screen upgrade. The Game Boy Color wasn't precisely a new platform altogether; while it added color graphics to the mix, and somewhat improved processing power, it also featured many of the same limitations as the original Game Boy. And most significantly, it provided full backward compatibility—a feature that had rarely been seen in consoles to that point, but which Game Boy Color would help establish as an industry standard for the next 15 years (right up until 2013, when both Sony and Microsoft decided to abandon it as a cost-cutting measure for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One).

With the arrival of Game Boy Color, Game Boy software shipped in three different standard cartridge types. There was the standard grey, for original Game Boy software that would run on both systems. There were black carts, which could run on original Game Boys but would also feature color enhancements when played in Game Boy Colors. And finally, you had your clear cartridges, which could only run on Game Boy Color.

In theory, Game Boy Color games shouldn't have been able to work at all on standard Game Boys: The transparent Color carts were designed in such a way that while they could be inserted into a monochrome Game Boy or Game Boy Pocket, the system couldn't be turned on with the game inside. Grey and black Game Boy carts had a small, square notch designed into an upper corner, which worked as a sort of safety feature: When you slid the Game Boy's power switch into the "on" position, a plastic tab would slide as well, locking the cart into place to prevent it from being removed while in use. Game Boy Color did away with this tab, meaning its carts no longer included the notch. Carts lacking that notch would prevent the power switch from being activated on older hardware — a simple preventative measure that took advantage of a subtle, rarely noticed feature included on Game Boy software from day one.

But what if you figured out a way to turn on a mono Game Boy with a Color-exclusive cart inside? Say... by cutting off the security tab? Or by popping the game into a Super Game Boy, which lacked the power-and-safety-tab switch altogether? In these rare instances, the game would launch — but it would go immediately to a warning screen letting you know that you had stumbled across an incompatibility.

Despite the fact that few people ever encountered the need for such warnings, every Game Boy Color release in every region of the world included a classic Game Boy boot-up screen. And Rey Esteban over at the Video Game Museum has put together a comprehensive gallery of every Game Boy Color monochrome warning screen ever programmed. It's a fascinating piece of gaming ephemera that has gone more or less completely overlooked for nearly 20 years — made all the more fascinating by the fact that so many of these games demonstrate far more love and care than was ever strictly necessary for a disclaimer screen few players would ever see. While some warning screens consist of simple text, others include snippets of in-game art and even original illustrations to accompany their messages.

Even more impressively, Esteban has also assembled a gallery of similar warnings for Neo Geo Pocket games. SNK launched their monochrome Neo Geo Pocket as a competitor for the original Game Boy the very same week that Game Boy Color debuted — rotten timing to be sure, and quickly remedied by the launch a few months later of the Neo Geo Pocket Color. As with Game Boy, some games featured a dual-boot mode... but many simply wouldn't work on monochrome hardware. So SNK required developers to publish a color-only warning as well. While there are far fewer of these games than the 800-plus to be found on Game Boy Color, they arguably have more personality. Heck, Match of the Millennium alone features more than half a dozen different variants!

And, for the sake of completion, there's also a modest WonderSwan Color gallery. As with Neo Geo Pocket, the Japan-only WonderSwan debuted in monochrome and was soon followed by a color-capable upgrade. These screens demonstrate far less personality, but they're notable if nothing else for the presence of the Dicing Knight warning screen. It's by far the rarest and most expensive WonderSwan release ever; in order to see Dicing Knight's color warning you'd have to drop about $2000 on a hard-to-find game, then shove it into a system it's incompatible with. This is what is colloquially known as "a stupid thing to do." But Esteban has captured that elusive image here:

Esteban has also published a related treat for the Game Boy faithful: A comprehensive gallery of Super Game Boy borders. The SGB, of course, was a device that allowed players to use Game Boy software on televisions: It consisted of a Super NES cartridge containing the innards of a Game Boy. Were it simply that and nothing more—a Game Boy inside a Super NES cart—it would have been great. But the Super Game Boy included a number of 16-bit enhancements that juiced up the games it ran.

At the most basic level, Nintendo included predetermined customized color palettes for its own first-party releases. Meanwhile, Taito figured out a way to sneak an entire Super NES ROM into its Space Invaders Game Boy cartridge, so that instead of just playing the Game Boy game on SGB you could play it with unique enhancements... or you could just boot directly to a more elaborate Super NES game featuring more arcade-accurate effects and visuals. But generally, what most Game Boy titles received on Super Game Boy were custom graphical borders. The Game Boy's resolution (160x144) was much lower than that of the Super NES (256x224), but not so low that Nintendo could double GB resolution cleanly. So, rather than distort the graphics or leave a big empty black space around the GB visuals, Nintendo added a border artwork feature to the SGB.

These borders were built into SGB-enhanced Game Boy carts, and you could only access them by playing those games on the Super Game Boy hardware. Some of these turned out to be absolutely stunning. At the most basic level, custom SGB borders simply replaced the device's default borders with game-specific artwork:

However, in some cases, the border became more than mere decoration and helped set the mood for the game. For example, the numerous arcade compilations that appeared in the system's later life began to feature wonderful pixel-art reproductions of the screen bezel illustrations on the original cabinets. Or, in the case of Konami's Japan- and Europe-only Game Boy compilations, new artwork showcasing the properties involved. Or, as with Namco's collections, completely new art combining themes of the games within (such as the great image below of Galaga somehow cosplaying as Mappy).

These took on a somewhat metatextual tone in some of Nintendo's first-party releases, such as Mario's Picross and the Game & Watch Gallery series. The former featured various treatments of the Game Boy screen and bezel, while the former surrounded the game action with loving recreations of the original Game & Watch hardware being reproduced. These aren't quite as visually exciting as many other SGB borders, but they demonstrate a certain affection for the hardware, and for game history, that adds something meaningful to the experience.

However, the most impressive of these borders come from a handful of developers who went the extra mile to enhance the Game Boy experience on SGB. Rather than simply slapping together a single border and calling it day, these creators programmed multiple borders into their games, which would change depending on the current contents of the Game Boy game being played. Of these, by far the most stunning come from Dragon Warrior I & II, which featured multiple borders for a variety of settings, all richly drawn and impressively detailed. From the bold shadows and highlights of a Slime lurking in a cave to the mosaic-effect "blur" on sunlight streaming through a forest's trees, TOSE and Enix's effort with what amounted to a remake of two very dated RPGs reveal the true meaning of the phrase "Super Game Boy enhanced."

These images here are but the tip of a massive iceberg, though. Definitely take some time today to visit VG Museum's galleries and soak in the often stunning artistry of these ephemeral details of gaming that few people even think about in this day and age.

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Comments 6

  • Avatar for victorehunter #1 victorehunter A year ago
    Oh my goodness. These are beautiful. This is going to be the rest of my day.

    Tiny Mei Ling in the Ghost Babel screen is so precious.
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  • Avatar for HandheldGuru #2 HandheldGuru A year ago
    Despite the little flub I noticed about the GB Pocket and the lockout switch, this is an excellent piece! I saw this earlier this morning and was looking at those fascinating little screens. I've actually tried putting some of these GBC Exculsives into my Pocket (so yes, no lockout switch there!) and it's kinda funny to see these little screens. Nice to see not all of them were just plain boring text about how it was a GBC only game! I didn't know that he had put together a gallery on all the Super GB boarders...I'll have to spend the rest of my morning gazing at them (the Dragon Quest 1 & 2 ones are stunning)
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #3 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @HandheldGuru I'll own that mistake. I've barely ever used GB Pocket and don't even have one handy to look at. I could have sworn it has the tab, but I'll take your word on it.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #4 link6616 A year ago
    @HandheldGuru I remember doing the same with my friend's GB pocket. I was so curious as to what the oracle games would do!
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  • Avatar for TernBird #5 TernBird A year ago
    This is a fantastic article, but what made me drop my jaw was that there was a Game Boy Alfred Chicken spin-off.

    Alfred Chicken.

    A game with the most terrifying telephone promotions.
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #6 mattcom26 A year ago
    Just awesome
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