33 years ago, one Nintendo innovation changed how we game forever

Where do you game? At a desk, your living room, your man cave? Most of our gaming spaces are designed around a single box, be it a console or PC. But when Nintendo released the original Game Boy in North America in the summer of 1989, everything changed.

Suddenly gaming was free to go wherever you did. Nintendo’s handheld system not only redefined how we play games but also encouraged a design philosophy of experimentation. Today AAA games can be played on the go thanks to the Nintendo Switch and the Steam Deck, but they can all trace their lineage back to Nintendo’s small but mighty handheld system.

Gaming on the go

Priced at $89.99 at launch, the Nintendo Game Boy was not better than its competition in technical terms. But what the Game Boy did have going for it was three key features: battery life, price, and games. Competitors like the Atari Lynx and the Sega Game Gear may have offered a technically better gaming experience, but neither was under $150 nor had a blockbuster title. The Game Boy on the other hand launched with Super Mario Land and Tetris.

Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto showing off the original Game Boy.Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

If there was ever a perfect example of a console-seller, Tetris on Game Boy is it. Why would you ever want to stop playing Tetris? It is designed to be so engaging that you can’t put it down. With the Game Boy, for the first time, you didn’t have to. In addition, the link cable let you play games with other friends. It led to some absolutely amazing commercials from Nintendo.

The Game Boy was billed as an NES in your pocket, but it quickly became so much more. Game Boy games took on a design philosophy of their own, often creating unique experiences designed around the handheld experience. This would lead to Pokémon, which remains one of the most popular franchises in gaming decades later. The simplified JRPG experience grabbed onto the cultural consciousness of kids in the ‘90s and refused to let go.

I should know, the first gaming system that was my own was a Game Boy with Pokémon Blue. I played it for hundreds of hours. While I don’t own that Game Boy anymore, I still have Pokémon Blue, and my childhood save file untouched. The Game Boy became an iconic piece of gaming culture and solidified Nintendo as the king of handheld gaming.

The imitation game

The Steam Deck brings the power of PC gaming to handhelds.Valve

In the 33 years since the Game Boy, handheld gaming has only risen in popularity. Maybe because many of us who grew up playing Game Boy now have adult lives that require things like working (gross). Being able to pull out a handheld system or mobile phone and put in thirty minutes on a game during your morning commute is one of the best ways to keep up with all the games you want to play. While Nintendo has maintained the monopoly, especially with the hybrid Switch console, some challengers over the years have appeared.

Sony dipped their toes in the water with the PSP and then the massively underrated PS Vita. While they do offer streaming peripherals to make gaming on your phone a bit easier, they have given up on their traditional handheld market. Most new handheld makers are creating emulation systems that can run games from the past several decades of games, all in the palm of your hand.

But for the sheer number of games available on the go, nothing can rival the Steam Deck. Perhaps the most sought-after piece of gaming technology this year, the Steam Deck is a miracle machine for many gamers. For a fairly reasonable price for such a high-end machine (sadly not $89.99), you can play the entire backlog that you have sworn for years you would get around to. Yet as good as these new systems are, the perfect storm that created the original Game Boy cements it as not only the first but one of the best handheld gaming systems.

Where do you game? At a desk, your living room, your man cave? Most of our gaming spaces are designed around a single box, be it a console or PC. But when Nintendo released the original Game Boy in North America in the summer of 1989, everything changed. Suddenly gaming was free to go wherever…

Where do you game? At a desk, your living room, your man cave? Most of our gaming spaces are designed around a single box, be it a console or PC. But when Nintendo released the original Game Boy in North America in the summer of 1989, everything changed. Suddenly gaming was free to go wherever…