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Game Boy Color and New 3DS: History Repeats

The New 3DS won't launch in America until next year, but history already gives us a sense of how it may go.

Analysis by Jeremy Parish, .

Like the philosopher once said, "Time flows like a river... and history repeats...." And for that reason, it's probably not entirely a coincidence that Nintendo released the New 3DS in Japan almost exactly 16 years after the launch of the Game Boy Color. It was inevitable. It was destiny.

Incremental, user-base breaking portable console revisions have been one of Nintendo's favorite tricks for years. I'm not talking about tweaked models like the 3DS XL or Game Boy Pocket, which simply translate a system's core functionality into a larger or smaller format. Even the 2DS was effectively the same thing as the 3DS... minus the 3D, of course. No, I'm talking about a massive change to a format that nevertheless doesn't qualify entirely as a new platform. A half-step. A stopgap.

A half-step... in glorious Atomic Purple.

16 years ago today, Nintendo struck out into this brave new world of alienating millions of consumers by creating a device that was remarkably similar to the one they already owned and could even play their old games! But their existing systems couldn't run the software for the new machine. If they wanted to keep up with the latest releases, they needed to upgrade.

The device in question was the Game Boy Color, and even though it looked remarkably similar to a Game Boy Pocket, you couldn't play Game Boy Color software on a a Pocket or on an original Game Boy. Not only did the Color model offer, you know, color (as opposed to Game Boy's four shades of grey), it also ran twice as fast, included four times as much memory, and twice the video RAM.

What makes Game Boy Color so interesting is what a modest improvement it offered over the classic Game Boy. By late 1998, the original Game Boy was going on a decade old — well past its sell-by date. And Nintendo knew it. They had already tried to replace Game Boy twice: First with the disastrous Virtual Boy, and then with the mysterious Project Atlantis.

Project Atlantis is a particularly interesting case. Planned for launch in the summer of 1996 alongside the Atlanta Olympics — hence its codename — Project Atlantis was basically a first attempt at creating the hardware that would eventually see the light of day as Game Boy Advance. But in the '90s, Nintendo couldn't get Project Atlantis to live up to their specifications; it would have been too bulky, too energy-hungry, too expensive to succeed Game Boy. No doubt the Virtual Boy's stunning and far-reaching failure made the beefy Atlantis far too much of a risk. So they shelved it and tweaked the Game Boy instead.

As seen at Game Developers Conference 2010.

Nintendo admittedly had a rare luxury in the mid-'90s: They owned the portable game space uncontested. Even though Virtual Boy fizzled, there was no real urgency to come up with a Game Boy sequel. After all, Sega's Game Gear had faded away around 1995, and Atari's Lynx never really amounted to much of anything at all. And then Pokémon came along and suddenly made the creaky old Game Boy relevant again.

But in 1998, at long last, both SNK and Bandai announced their respective bids at portable gaming dominance with the Neo Geo Pocket and the WonderSwan. Both systems amounted to amped-up Game Boys: While they lacked color screens, they had far more processing power and a much greater range of shades of grey than Nintendo's aging beast. WonderSwan was the final brainchild of Game Boy designer Gumpei Yokoi, a system at once more powerful and less expensive than Nintendo's own handheld. And Neo Geo Pocket was, fittingly, the Neo Geo of monochrome handhelds: A bit more expensive, but bursting with power.

In that sense, Game Boy Color came off as a hastily assembled response to the threat these new systems posed. Both of these new competitors had learned from Sega and Atari's mistakes and brought their systems to market with lean, battery-friendly hardware at a budget-conscious price. They matched Nintendo on its own terms. Indulgent shoppers could buy a Sega Nomad and burn through several batteries in a couple of hours, sure, but for everyone else there was a sudden explosion of options for handheld gaming.

So, Nintendo presented the Game Boy Color: The same brand and games kids knew and loved, but now with color! And still at a reasonable price of $90, capable of running for hours and hours on a pair of standard AA batteries. (Unsurprisingly, both Neo Geo Pocket and WonderSwan received color revisions almost immediately.)

Game Boy Color never felt like anything more than a visual upgrade to its predecessor, despite the fundamental improvements it contained under the hood.

Unlike with generational leaps in their home consoles, Nintendo took a much more considerate approach to their existing customers with Game Boy Color. This was the company that had scrapped the Super NES's planned NES compatibility as unnecessary, and there was never even talk of Nintendo 64 offering backward compatibility. But Game Boy Color could run Game Boy games — it could even improve them, in fact. The system took a cue from Super NES's Super Game Boy add-on and included both custom color palettes and built-in color tweaks for select first-party games. It lacked the more advanced color upgrades and borders of Super Game Boy, but it still offered a little reason to replay those old classics.

The Game Boy Color opened up the door for new and old games alike. There were quite a few notable Color-only titles, including Metal Gear Solid (aka Ghost Babel), Bionic Commando: Elite Forces, and Wario Land 3. Plus, several Game Boy classics enjoyed colorful remakes, including a great color revamp of The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. And finally, a fair few NES games made the jump to Game Boy Color with reasonable success, including Crystalis, Shadowgate, and Super Mario Bros. DX (which was basically the test run for the Super Mario Advance series).

Game Boy Color definitely qualified as a success, though it's hard to say how much of a success since Nintendo tallies its sales together with those of all its predecessors: Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket, and the Japan-exclusive Game Boy Light. It had a rather short life, though. Barely two and a half years later, the Game Boy Advance launched, bringing with it a legitimate generational transition.

Despite its short life, Game Boy Color saw tons of interesting games. A sampling, from left: Balloon Fight, Bionic Commando: Elite Forces, Dragon Warrior I & II, Ghosts 'N Goblins, Metal Gear Solid, Pokémon The Card Game, Mega Man Xtreme, Wario Land 3.

Game Boy Color never felt like anything more than a visual upgrade to its predecessor, despite the fundamental improvements it contained under the hood and in its screen. It definitely didn't feel like a generational leap the way WonderSwan Color and Neo Geo Pocket Color did; though it did have Pokémon, which handily explains the way Game Boy continued to stomp the competition.

And the brevity of its life found an echo ten years later with the DSi, which was even more of a half-step than Game Boy Color and was succeeded by the 3DS about two years later. The DSi ran exclusive software, too, but basically only for digital releases like Shantae: Risky's Revenge and an ocean of mobile phone shovelware. The platform basically existed as a sort of dry run for 3DS's eShop; despite featuring a processor twice as powerful as that of the DS, only four games ever came to retail that would only run on DSi.

Well, the DSi did have one other feature: It introduced region-locking to Nintendo's handheld family. After nearly two decades of cross-region freedom, Nintendo finally battened down the hatches to prevent importing. This also made piracy much more difficult, which was probably the main point in region-locking, but either way it was a play to protect the bottom line.

Will New 3DS be a respectable update like Game Boy Color, or a seemingly aimless cash grab like DSi?

So what does this mean for Nintendo's latest half-measure upgrade, the New 3DS? Going by history, we can probably expect most publishers to hedge their bets and not fully commit to making many New 3DS-exclusive games. It's also a pretty safe bet that we'll see a true 3DS successor by the end of 2016, or maybe early in 2017. Given Nintendo's legacy with these incremental upgrades, it's kind of hard to throw yourself wholeheartedly into buying a new platform with such demonstrably low life expectancy.

Then again, New 3DS does offer some genuine improvements over the standard 3DS, from cosmetic options like faceplates to impressive 3D head-tracking and, best of all, a built-in right stick to make 3D action games friendlier. So it's a better purchase on its own, even if it doesn't qualify as a true generational upgrade.

But again, history repeats. Which means portable gaming fanatics are bound to buy New 3DS anyway, just like they did Game Boy Color. Who needs to be sensible with money when there are newer, shinier games to play?

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Comments 21

  • Avatar for SpoonyBardOL #1 SpoonyBardOL 2 years ago
    I think you mean 'Link's Awakening' when you mention GBC remakes, not 'A Link to the Past'.

    I got a clear violet GBC shortly after it came out, largely as a result of me picking up Super Mario Bros Deluxe thinking it would work on my original GB. I don't know WHY I thought that, looking back, it should have been obvious it would be GBC-only, but nevertheless instead of returning the game itself I picked up a GBC instead.

    I only played a handful of GBC only titles, mostly the Zeldas and Mario Deluxe. I also picked up the port of Crystalis, but... well, the less said about that thing the better.
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  • Avatar for cullenlea33 #2 cullenlea33 2 years ago
    @jeremy parish

    Hi Jeremy. There's a typo in your article in the paragraph above the turquoise DSi. You say "after nearly 20 decades of cross region freedom" and I think you mean two decades or 20 years.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #3 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @SpoonyBardOL@cullenlea33 Ugh. It's been a rough week.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #4 SargeSmash 2 years ago
    I completely skipped the Game Boy Color. No, it was the Game Boy Advance that got me into that side of gaming, mainly because it had Circle of the Moon. It's the first system that I had ever purchased brand new, at launch.

    I almost hope that the New 3DS turns out more like the DSi, I definitely don't want to feel guilt after already chasing the upgrade cycle with that system and the 3DS XL. Actually, as long as there is backwards compatibility in the next Nintendo handheld (probably not a bad bet), I should probably mirror my decision with the GBA.

    No, seriously, Nintendo, I love giving you my money, but even I have my limits! :)

    (Oh, and yes, Metal Gear Solid for GBC is awesome stuff. I bought my copy on my study abroad trip, despite it not being an amazing deal. Darn you, U.K. conversion rates!)Edited 2 times. Last edited October 2014 by SargeSmash
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #5 Roto13 2 years ago
    I'm really not expecting the New 3DS to make much of a splash. I don't think people will run out and buy it to replace their existing 3DSes like they did with the DSi. At least DSi had exclusive DSiWare.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #6 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @Roto13 New 3DS will have exclusive content — Xenoblade and presumably some others. The question is whether or not anyone but Nintendo designs for it.
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #7 DiscordInc 2 years ago
    I actually really love the Game Boy Color. While the original Game Boy was my first video game system, it was actually shared between myself and my two brothers. When I got a Game Boy Color though, it was actually my system that I could play whenever I wanted. I did get most of the highlights from the GBC era, but even replaying old GB games was still enjoyable since I didn't have to split time on the system.
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  • Avatar for pertusaria #8 pertusaria 2 years ago
    The Game Boy Color left a bad taste in my mouth. I grew up without any knowledge of the wider gaming scene, and one day my mother brought me into Toys R Us (an infrequent occurrence) and we found out that half the games on the shelves (or so it seemed) couldn't be played by our venerable Game Boy Classic. (My mom played at least as much as I did.) Not a nice feeling, as there was no chance of my parents stumping up for a new system.

    I'm looking forward to getting a New 3DS, if not at European release then sometime in 2015. Is this in spite of, or because of the experience of being left behind once before? I think it has more to do with enjoying the 2DS and wanting to upgrade to 3D regardless of a new model. Still, the first system I bought for myself (DS Lite) was a great feeling.
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  • Avatar for The-Fool #9 The-Fool 2 years ago
    Excellent article, Mr Parish.
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBarnstorm #10 JohnnyBarnstorm 2 years ago
    Great article.

    When did the translucent plastic form factor (like the GBC cases) come in vogue? I know the iMac was one of the first systems I remember using it.
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  • Avatar for uberbryan #11 uberbryan 2 years ago
    I loved my GBC more than any other portable system.

    It was May of 2000 and I had just landed a college job working phone customer service at a bank call center. Once you got the hang of the job, you had a lot of downtime (especially as I worked weekends). I picked up the GBC on a lark and discovered I could play it all day every day while I worked.

    The game that stands out the most is Mario Tennis. I logged near 100 hours on that game, beat it every way possible, and still love it to this day. And the GBC provided a more polished experience (with a less dim screen) than the original GBA. It wasn't until the GBA SP came out that I retired the old GBC.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #12 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @JohnnyBarnstorm Nintendo dabbled in clear plastic with the "Play It Loud" Game Boy well before the iMac launched, but the iMac definitely made clear plastics A Thing.
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #13 nadiaoxford 2 years ago
    Don't forget Dragon Warrior III! The whole reason I bought the GBC (clear purple). My first experience with animated DW / DQ sprites.
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  • Avatar for aquarium #14 aquarium 2 years ago
    @nadiaoxford
    I just picked that one up for myself last month and I couldn't put it down for a good solid week. What an excellent game! It was my first Dragon Quest, but it won't be my last.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #15 Roto13 2 years ago
    @jeremy.parish It will have exclusive content in theory. I doubt there will be anything beyond Xenoblade, though. (And even then, at no point during Xenoblade did I ever think "You know, this epic, sprawling game would be gorgeous in HD, but know what would be even better? If it ran at an even LOWER res!")
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  • Avatar for orient #16 orient 2 years ago
    Clear plastic is so late '90s! I even remember thinking it was gross at the time. I had a turquoise GBC -- my first handheld -- and the machine on which I collected all the Pokemon.

    I fully admit that the original GBA had a terrible screen, but I loved the look and feel. The nondescript clam shell design of the SP was totally unappealing to me, especially in the common silver/blue-silver colours, which would rub off fairly easily.

    The original GBA and the DSi are my favourite pieces of handheld Nintendo hardware. I like the screen size of the XL models, but they're not as comfortable to hold. The original 3DS has to be my least favourite -- yes, even worse than the DS Phat.
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  • Avatar for elthesensai #17 elthesensai 2 years ago
    Great article. I had forgotten that Nintendo has in fact done this many times. Here I was getting pissed at the fact that the new 3DS was coming out to fragment the market without realizing Nintendo has actually done this with every single one of their portables anyway.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #18 SargeSmash 2 years ago
    Well, the quest structure in Xenoblade does lend itself well to portable play, though. That, and the ability to save anywhere. I'm playing through it right now, and there have been quite a few times I wish it were a bit higher resolution. Or at least be able to disable the flicker filter stuff they have going on like you can in Smash.
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  • Avatar for Thad #19 Thad 2 years ago
    Fourteen years ago, I spent most of my first semester programming course playing DW1&2 on a Game Boy Color.

    (I like to think this is not the reason I have failed to find long-term employment in the computer industry in the years since. The instructor was obnoxious and incompetent -- her previous products included Lotus Notes and that Motorola satellite that crashed -- and I am of the opinion that if I had actually been paying attention to her I would not have been able to make it through the semester without shouting at her. I got a B in the class -- which ties me with my friend who actually DID pay attention and is the best programmer I know, who got a "B" after she lost one of his homework assignments and claimed he'd never submitted it.)
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  • Avatar for mganai #20 mganai 2 years ago
    Early example: the Famicom Salamander cart was light transparent blue.
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  • Avatar for brianrossen #21 brianrossen 2 years ago
    Really great article Jeremy.
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