Saturday, January 3, 2009

potent portables part 4: game boy, advance

In this wonderful industry, innovation is driven by competition, especially where hardware is concerned. The Wii's unique controller exists because Nintendo needed a game-changer to remain competitive - the company was facing irrelevancy otherwise. The Xbox 360 was rushed to market in late 2005 despite show-stopping manufacturing issues because Microsoft felt that it needed to beat Sony and Nintendo out of the gate to steal their market share. Sony continues to sell the PS3 for less money than it costs to make. The home console market is crowded with giants, each trying to make its own impression on a fickle public. What would happen, though, if there was only one person in the console market? For a glimpse into this bleak alternate timeline, let's return once again to the World of Portables.

When last we left our story, Nintendo's Game Boy was the king of the hill. It had subjugated its nearest competition in spite of notable shortcomings. Hooray. Nintendo's early flattening of all of its rivals in the portable space continues to effect the market even in the present day, but had its most severe ramifications in the stagnation of the late 90s and early 2000s.

The 1989 Game Boy was not succeeded by more powerful hardware until the release of the Game Boy Color in late 1998 - this is nearly unheard of in any sector of the game market. In the same time period, the Nintendo Entertainment System was replaced by the Super Nintendo, which was succeeded by the Nintendo 64 in 1996. The Sega Genesis was replaced by the Sega Saturn and then the Dreamcast. A brand new competitor, Sony, had entered the business and dethroned Nintendo in the home console market with its Playstation. In such a fast moving industry, a nine year gap is far from the norm.

Yes, the Game Boy was refreshed in 1995 by the Game Boy Pocket, but this was just a more compact version of the old system with an updated screen - from a hardware perspective, there was no difference, and both systems played the exact same games. No progress here.

Even the Game Boy Color was little more than a speed bump for the original hardware - its processor ran at twice the speed (8 MHz up from 4 MHz) and its screen could display 56 colors at a time, but the screen was the same size and games for the system basically look like colorized versions of regular Game Boy games. To emphasize just how far behind the hardware in the portable space was, consider 1999's Super Mario Bros Deluxe, a port of the original Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System. One of the Game Boy Color's best looking games was a perfect replica of a game released on home consoles in 1985.

Super Mario Bros. (1985)

The postage stamp sized Super Mario Bros. Deluxe (1999)

No, graphics certainly aren't everything, but with more powerful hardware comes more possibilities. By 1999, home consoles had long since embraced 3D, and were delivering experiences hitherto impossible outside of the dying arcade or the inhospitable PC. With its extremely slow hardware updates, the Game Boy line couldn't keep up with the newest, most fashionable game experiences, and as such was limited mostly to Pokemon and puzzle games.

The Game Boy couldn't even keep up with 1991's Super Nintendo, a system regularly stretched to its limits by ambitious developers. Using a variety of graphical tricks, including the famous Mode 7 and a variety of special chips which could be added in to cartridges, developers could make games that simulated 3D - even these modest efforts were completely impossible on the Game Boy and Game Boy Color. With no serious competition to push them, Nintendo did not deliver a SNES-like portable until 2001 with the Game Boy Advance.

Nintendo's default color scheme circa 2001 was purple, an unfortunate choice.

It was a step up, for sure, and at the time it was an exciting prospect. Here was the first impressive upgrade to Nintendo's handheld line in more than a decade! But in retrospect, the system's game library was glutted with SNES ports - Nintendo itself preferred to re-release old games on the platform rather than create new ones, as it later did for the DS. Its first revision hardware was also a mess - the horizontal orientation was nice, but Nintendo inexplicably refused to add the backlit screen consumers wanted, and the system's more-detailed graphics suffered because of it. This was fixed in later hardware revisions, but what couldn't be fixed was that the system still didn't have enough buttons. The NES and the Game Boy had the same buttons - A, B, start, select and a control pad. The Game Boy Advance added two more on the left and right shoulders of the device, but this was still two buttons fewer than the SNES had, and even fewer than could be found on the contemporary console controllers of Nintendo and Sony.

Still, people ate it up, because there was no alternative. Progress was sluggish at best, and slowed progress meant that portable games were still second fiddle to their console counterparts. In the next and final installment of this series, we'll be looking at the DS and the PSP, how they changed portable games from distractions to the fuller experiences they are today, and how true competition helped to push the portable space in new directions.