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Circuit Breaker

The Game Boy paved the way for the Nintendo Switch

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Thirty years ago, Nintendo proved that power isn’t the most important thing

My first portable console wasn’t a Game Boy. It was a Game Gear, Sega’s giant black brick of a gaming platform. Technically, I had the superior device. The Game Gear featured a display that felt incredibly bleeding edge, with colorful graphics and a bright backlit screen that let you admire the visuals from anywhere, even the dark. I used to show off just how cool Sonic and Virtua Fighter looked on Game Gear to my friends whenever I had the chance.

In reality, though, I was jealous of my friends with the comparably low-fi Game Boy. Nintendo’s portable had an ugly display with a greenish tint, and you had to play it in good lighting to see what was going on. But it also had a massive collection of incredible games, a design that made it easy to take anywhere, and it was powered by four AA batteries (compared to the six batteries the Game Gear required). It was a device designed to be played with, not ogled. It was a little gray box that eased into your life, rather than forcing its way in like the Game Gear did.

In this way, the Game Boy is emblematic of Nintendo as a whole. The company has rarely chased cutting-edge technology for the sake of it. Instead, Nintendo typically uses new technology only when it improves the play experience. It doesn’t always work, to be sure, but the same thinking that made the Game Boy such a hit is now responsible for the Switch’s breakout success.

This isn’t to say that the Game Boy wasn’t innovative. It also wasn’t Nintendo’s first stab at portable gaming. Prior to the launch of the Game Boy in 1989, the company had a hit on its hands with the Game & Watch, an ongoing series of electronic games. As rumor has it, the late Gunpei Yokoi — who is credited as the creator of the Game & Watch line and the Game Boy — was inspired by seeing people play around with calculators.

Each Game & Watch unit featured a single game, along with simple features like a built-in clock. There was a total of 59 games, which became increasingly complex as time went on. One of the most iconic games is a port of the Donkey Kong arcade game, complete with dual-screens, a clamshell design, and a proper directional pad. (It looks like an ancient version of the Nintendo DS.) The series has sold more than 43 million units globally. “If it weren’t for Game & Watch, today’s handheld game systems would probably be different,” the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said back in 2010. “I doubt the Game Boy and Nintendo DS systems would have made it out into the world.”

Game Boy
Game Boy
Game Boy

The key drawback of the Game & Watch was that each unit could only play a single game. When it came time to design a new experience, the small team at Nintendo had to create not just a game, but also the hardware to go along with it. The company had already seen success with its cartridge-based home console, the NES, and it decided to take that same concept and apply it to its next portable system.

It didn’t take long before competitors arrived. The Game Boy launched in 1989, and Sega followed it with the Game Gear a year later. But while Sega’s portable was flashier and more powerful, it was also far less practical. That beautiful screen required a lot of battery power, so many players were forced to use an AC adapter instead, which largely defeated the point of a portable game console. Other competitors had similar shortcomings. The Game Boy, meanwhile, was small and durable, and you could get a lot of Zelda in before having to swap batteries. Nintendo’s handheld went on to sell an estimated 118 million units, dwarfing the 10 million sold by Sega.

This is a trend that would continue with other Nintendo platforms, particularly in the portable space. The company liked to offer just enough innovation to keep a product interesting, without making it impractical for the majority of users. The Game Boy didn’t get a color version until 1998, and when the Game Boy Advance launched in 2001, it still didn’t have a backlit screen. That didn’t stop either product from selling tens of millions of units. Meanwhile, the Nintendo DS was a strange dual-screened handheld that went up against the console-quality power of Sony’s PSP. Not only did the DS come out victorious, but it remains Nintendo’s best-selling platform ever. It doesn’t always work, of course, as failures like the Wii U can attest, but Nintendo’s history is one that proves that cutting-edge tech doesn’t necessarily make for the best gaming experience.

Despite this, today, new gaming platforms are still typically sold on the premise of technological prowess. You’ll hear terms like 4K and 60 fps thrown around regularly during E3 keynotes. When Google unveiled Stadia, its upcoming cloud gaming platform, the company proudly boasted about teraflops.

That brings us to the Switch. Compared to the likes of the PS4 and Xbox One, Nintendo’s latest hardware isn’t very powerful. Many of us still marvel when a modern blockbuster game is crammed onto it, or when it’s capable of offering fun virtual reality experiences. But that’s because the Switch isn’t a traditional home console. By those standards, it’s low-fi. But for a device you can take anywhere, it’s at the high-end. The Switch’s innovation isn’t specs. It’s flexibility.

The result? The Switch is Nintendo’s most popular hardware since the Wii, outselling its predecessor in less than 10 months on the market. Thirty million people didn’t buy a Switch because it can play the latest first-person shooter in 4K. They bought it because, like the Game Boy, it offers an experience that’s built around people, not specs, and it features games so good that the rest doesn’t really matter.