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.
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.
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.
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.
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?