Ninetndo‘s original Game Boy was a bit of an odd ball. Released 30 years ago in April 1989, it was extremely underpowered, even for the time. It ran on a processor common in the mid-70’s, nearly a decade before the Game Boy’s release. Sega’s competition, the Game Gear, out-shined the Game Boy 10-to-1 — at least in the power department.
But the Game Boy’s graphical and power limitations forced developers to be a bit more creative. More often than not, they’d tweak a previously existing game into something derivative, and it would end up being fantastic anyway.
Zelda on the Go
The best example of this might be The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. The game was originally an unreported after-hours project, built in the developers’ free time. The team added all sorts of random Easter eggs, like characters from the Mario and Kirby series. This little side project eventually turned into a full-blown product, and strangely enough, those weird cameos remained in the final game. 20 years later, Link’s Awakening is one of the best in the series, and it’s actually getting a full-on remake later this year.
Link’s Awakening came immediately after A Link to The Past, the single most influential game in the Zelda series. As such, Awakening’s puzzle and world design drew heavily from A Link to The Past, but was scaled down for the Game Boy’s hardware.
That’s not to say Awakening didn’t have its own strengths — Zelda director Eiji Aonuma says that “it wasn’t until Link’s Awakening that the Zelda titles started having a proper plot.” As we’ll see, a number of Game Boy titles introduced new gameplay elements to their respective series.
Mario, but Weirder
Super Mario Land was one of the only Mario games that Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t lead. Instead, famous inventor of the D-pad Gunpei Yokoi took the helm. He had previously made the original Metroid and Kid Icarus, two games that were thematically very different from Mario. His vision was different than Miyamoto’s, so the resulting Mario games were a bit untraditional.
It makes sense – both Super Mario Land games are some of the most bizarre in the series. In what other Mario games will you find a Rabbit suit or a fire flower that shoots bouncing balls? Mario Land 2 is closer to the physics of the mainline console games, but still feels very strange to play.
A Puzzle-y Arcade Remake
Nintendo even drew from their own arcade lineup with the 1994 Game Boy version of Donkey Kong. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a simple port of the arcade version. After beating the first four arcade-style levels, Donkey Kong rises from the ashes, grabs Pauline again, and rushes into the city. From there on, Donkey Kong ’94 turns into a clever puzzle game, where you manipulate items and enemies to get a key to the door. The levels are each only a screen or two long, so every puzzle is bite-sized and manageable.
Donkey Kong ’94 successfully took the premise of one of the most successful arcade games ever, and pared it down into something entirely new. It’s crazy that it’s never quite gotten the attention it deserves, but maybe naming the game Donkey Kong without any others descriptors doomed it from the start.
A Bounty Hunter Returns
Metroid II: Return of Samus has aged poorly, unfortunately. Many have criticized this sequel for being overly linear, yet open enough to make traveling without a map annoying. It’s a flawed game, but considering the hardware it was on, it certainly could have been worse. Imagine trying to cram a world the size of the original Metroid into a decade-old piece of hardware. Somehow, they pulled it off, and came up with a competent Metroid game in the process.
If nothing else, Metroid II has inspired at least two remakes in the last five years. AM2R (Another Metroid 2 Remake) was a fan remake of the original Game Boy game with updated sprite-work, soundtrack, and pretty much everything else. Nintendo and their legal team shut that down to make way for their own 3DS remake, Metroid: Samus Returns. Both games are solid Metroidvanias, and improve on the original in almost every way. For those two games alone, Metroid II eventually proved its worth.
There are plenty of other worthy Game Boy interpretations. Mega Man 5, Harvest Moon GB, Kid Dracula, Final Fantasy Legend, and Donkey Kong Land all took their home console counter-parts and condensed them into a micro, portable format. When it wasn’t busy with Pokémon or Tetris, the Game Boy excelled with scaled-down versions of already-existing franchises. For those reasons alone, the Game Boy is one of our favorite consoles, even thirty years later.