Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Game Boy's North American launch. Say goodbye to your knees and your metabolism, Game Boy. If they're not already shot, they're about to be. I know this from experience.
At over 118 million units sold worldwide, the Game Boy is the third best-selling game system of all time behind the PlayStation 2 and the Nintendo DS. It's certainly one of the longest-lived game systems ever released: The Pokemon boom of the late '90s was a veritable dip in the Fountain of Youth for the hard-working handheld. Nintendo eventually improved on the Game Boy with the (smaller, lighter) Game Boy Pocket and the Game Boy Color, but when we think "Game Boy," we generally think of the good old "grey brick" that simply wouldn't die. Even Sega's increasingly savage attempts to make the Game Boy seem uncool next to its own portable Game Gear did nothing to slow the Game Boy's momentum.
In the end, the Game Boy's sales lapped the Game Gear's comparatively modest numbers. There's no hard data on how many units the Game Gear sold (between 10 and 11 million is the popular estimate), but it's safe to say the Game Boy performed far more admirably. Given how the '90s were all about Sega dunking on Nintendo for being behind the times, it must've vexed Sega of America's talented marketing team to see its proven tactics prove utterly ineffective. In fact, the Game Boy succeeded because it was behind the times, which probably proved especially dizzying to said marketing team. Sega's "Genesis Does What Nintendon't" and "Welcome to the Next Level" campaigns leaned heavily on the power of the Genesis next to the NES and the newborn SNES. The Game Gear ads tried a repeat attack, but fans who adopted Sega's portable quickly learned power isn't an asset for a handheld when six double-A batteries are required to run said handheld for half an hour.
I'm not suggesting the Game Gear commercials have no merit. The "dog" commercial remains fully-formed in my memory all these decades later, and that's what a good ad is supposed to do. It's just funny to look back and observe how the Game Gear's "strengths" and the Game Boy's "weaknesses" are exactly why the former got trounced in the marketplace.
Oh, heavens. Look at that ugly "creamed spinach" color that let the Game Boy run for ages on four double-A batteries. Look at dinky, unexciting Tetris game that played no small part in propelling the Game Boy to its astronomical popularity. Look at the bright, colorful Game Gear graphics that gobbled up batteries! Look at those exciting action games that blur like crazy and suffer for the Game Gear's low screen resolution. (No, seriously, it's nearly impossible to beat the first boss of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 unless you memorize exactly where Dr. Eggman's projectiles are going to land.)
There you have it: Game Boy owners are colorblind and like to drink toilet water. Surely subsequent commercials became more tasteful once Sega realized "Ha ha, look at the two-color system!" wasn't an effective plan of attack?
"Okay," said Sega, pitching another ad into the garbage can, "How about 'Game Boy owners are so desperate to play portable games in color, they'll give themselves a concussion using dead animals they find on the ground?"
Still ineffective. And still funny, to be honest.
In retrospect, Sega's tenacity wasn't the worst idea. No doubt the marketing team believed the Game Boy's graphics would look embarrassingly aged as the '90s wore on, and it expected kids would change over to the Game Gear as long as they were reminded the handheld was an alternative. Sega wasn't wrong about the Game Boy's graphics aging poorly, but the longer the Game Boy lived, the better its games—especially its first-party games—became. Even before Pokemon's release, the Game Boy was worth owning for Tetris, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, Donkey Kong '94, and the Super Mario World series alone. The Game Boy was also a great frugal option outside of consoles. If Game Gear was a wild and reckless teenager, then the Game Boy was the sensible dad who was always right, whether you wanted to admit it or not.
Overall, the Game Boy is a fascinating cultural study. It must've seemed like the world's slowest, stodgiest target for Sega's marketing team, but no matter how many times it was shot at, it just kept lumbering on like some kind of zombie ox. Then again, if a literal bomb couldn't stop the Game Boy, what chance did the Game Gear ever have? Even if it does have a few RPGs worth talking about.
Title image: Retro Gaming Australia