Game Boy’s perfect pixel art and our obsession with getting it back
The Game Boy is an iconic piece of gaming hardware, but the quest to elevate and celebrate its games has continued for over 30 years. Backward compatibility with the latest Game Boy line has allowed us all to replay the OG library on improved and updated displays and the quest to showcase 8-bit retro classics at their best continues to this day.
The highly sought after Analogue Pocket is the latest handheld that sings and dances to wow retro gamers with its beautiful display – it’s amazing what a difference a good panel can make to handheld gaming, so today we’re looking at back and reminisce about the different ways we’ve seen the classic Game Boy library over the years…
[Not So] Humble beginnings
Nintendo’s original Game Boy was – miraculously – an instant hit, and would continue to sell out 64 million units worldwide. To put that into context, the humble Game Boy outsold the NES, SNES, N64, GameCube, SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive, Xbox One and many more. And it’s only by counting the sales that he rang the boxes around the world before the advent of the extended Game Boy Color family, well before the end of the handheld’s lifespan.
Not bad for a device with a low-res 160×144 matrix display capable of displaying just four shades of gray/muddy green and measuring just 6cm diagonally, eh?
Greatness out of the green
The phenomenal success of the handheld naturally encouraged developers young and old to not just jump on the Nintendo train, but to stay on it. Talented artists and programmers have spent an inordinate amount of time working within the limitations of hardware, creating glorious technology-defying showcases that have driven the Game Boy to make easy what were once unimaginable, huge and complex pixel art patterns found in Gradius: Interstellar Assault to near-impossible-to-Google sci-fi wireframe 3D X.
When Game Boy titles graphically push the boundaries, they’re bursting with character and impressive detail, whether they take Link on a dreamy adventure around the island of Koholint in Link’s Awakeningor used as part of a remake (or ofdo, if you prefer) the port of Neo Geo arcade classic samurai fight.
No matter how old he is, the best Game Boy art always looks Well.
The slightest movement in the game sent streaks of green sliding across the screen, making the Super Mario Land launch title’s platforming challenges much harder than they actually were.
Unfortunately, while the developers worked hard to make small miracles a reality, Nintendo…wasn’t. Given the advanced age of the original Game Boy – it’s going to spin thirty three this year – and its total dominance in the market and cultural aspects of handheld gaming forever, it’s easy to assume that the technology found in the familiar gray brick was the best the late 80s had to offer; that, despite all its faults, to ask for better would have been foolish. And that’s just not true.
Both Atari’s Lynx as well as Sega’s Game Gear came out shortly after Nintendo’s handheld, both had color backlit screens and both outperformed the Game Boy with little effort; the first powerful enough to handle sprite scaling straight out of the box (the year before the SNES was released), and the latter pretty much a portable master system – a capable 8-bit console that was only a few years old at the time. With a simple store-bought adapter, Game Gear owners could even play homemade cartridges directly on the thing. In fairness, the image on Sega’s handheld was still very blurry in motion, but the backlighting and color made it easy on the eyes.
In comparison, the Game Boy had two major strengths. It was inexpensive to use thanks to the extended life of its four AA batteries, and it was also (comparatively) cheap to buy. It was cheap to buy because it was cheap to make.
And you could tell, even back then. The original screen was, not to put too fine a point on it, a smudged mess – when the room was bright enough to see it, that is. The slightest movement in the game sent streaks of green sliding across the screen, rendering the platforming challenges in the launch title Super Mario Land much harder than they actually were.
It arguably ruined many good action games and, in a weird twist, maybe even passively helped the likes of Pokemon do well, if only because the largely static combat graphics meant people could actually see this. Forgotten drawers and neon-colored fanny packs (called “bum bags” in some parts of the world) are still filled with the worm lights and screen magnifiers we needed to make gaming on the old Game Boys tolerable.
Modern Solutions to Retro Problems
For a long time, the only solutions were either to smile and bear it, or to upgrade your Game Boy to a newer model – although even then the front and backlit variants of the Game Boy Advance SP featured their own set of features. downsides and compromises – or to give up and play through an emulator, which tended to be good but not so much fun.
Until relatively recently, that is. New ports of old games (think Konami Castlevania and Contra packs, as well as those from Square-Enix Mana Gathering) now tend to offer high-quality screen filters that eventually give us the Game Boy look we always wished we had. Crisp, olive-tinted grids of clearly defined pixels used to render the art – once hidden behind retro “blur” – now look as fantastic as they should have looked the first time around.
freed from its original restraints, the unmistakable 8-bit style of the Game Boy is not only “tolerable”, it is beautiful
But even as beautiful as they may look, these filters only scratch the surface at best and are subject to the developer having the time, money and technology to make the magic happen. Why wait for someone else to port (and then expect it to be decent), when you can create the Game Boy experience you’ve always wanted for yourself? The stock hardware is now easily updatable and outfitted with bright IPS displays to deliver amazing viewing experiences with minimal hassle (and expense).
For those who want to go even further, the sharpest pixels and multiple display modes found on the FPGA-powered FPGA Analog Pocket with LTPS LCD display give you the choice. exactly how you want your games to look, on a wider range of emulated hardware than any official Game Boy ever supported. It may have taken decades, but we finally have devices that truly do justice to the art that has always been there.
When freed from its original restraints, the Game Boy’s unmistakable 8-bit style isn’t just “tolerable,” it’s beautiful, and can be clearly seen echoed in brand new releases like thunder attack and the rest of the Pixel Game Maker Series “Game Buddy” offerings – and also found in real new games for older hardware such as Monsterland Tales. In both cases, the style is not only appreciated but selected, the strict limitations defying creativity to flourish in narrowly focused circumstances. You see it all the time with modern 8-bit NES-style throwbacks like Shovel Knight or the upcoming Infernax, but it’s less common with the OG Game Boy aesthetic and we’re very happy to see these projects keep the style living.
With new approaches to aging hardware, along with easy access to a whole range of Game Boy-compatible devices and technical tweaks capable of making the experience better than it’s ever been, it There’s still plenty of life and gamer interest in the handheld and its catalog of classics. It may be 2022, but somehow the future – and the screen – has never looked brighter for Nintendo’s oldest handheld.
Green or gray, smudged or sharp – what do you like your Game Boy games to be like and what do you like to play them on? Let us know at the usual place.