Ever since the first Game Boy released, hardware engineer Satoru Okada wished for a chance to go back and build something better. After Gunpei Yokoi's departure and subsequent death, Okada took over designing the next generation of Game Boy to finally drag handheld gaming out of the 8-bit era. Preliminary work on the project began way back in 1996, but once again costs and practical constraints made it too difficult to pursue. The Game Boy Color was meant a stopgap, and proved to be one of the few to ever actually work in the game industry. Within two years of its release, the world was already buzzing about Nintendo's next step. The extra time in the cooker did Nintendo's system good, and Okada could finally realize all of his dreams.
The spec was still modest, as you'd expect, but it made the Neo Geo Pocket Color and the Wonderswan look silly. It featured all the video capabilities of the Super NES, a 32-bit CPU that could out-muscle the Super FX2, and full backward compatibility with all prior Game Boy games. It was as small and light as the Game Boy Pocket, and ran on only two AA batteries. Even the price was right, launching for under $100 on day one.
The GBA went virtually uncontested. Atari Lynx designer RJ Mical, working with Ericsson, hoped to strike back in 2001 with a powerful 3D-capable handheld called Red Jade, but when Sony bought the Swedish cell phone manufacturer out, they crushed their ambitious plans (in favor of a more distant system of their own). The market was simply Nintendo's for the taking, and they dominated.
The Game Boy Advance launched in March 2001 in Japan and in June internationally, far from the hustle and bustle of the Christmas shopping season. The modest price and larger than usual lineup made it an appealing buy, and the system sold even faster than the original. Nintendo's remake of Super Mario Bros. 2 – largely a repackaging of the Super Mario All-Stars release, and the least popular game in the series – somehow proved to be enough to sell millions. A long-overdue F-Zero sequel satisfied cravings for something new.
The Game Boy Advance sold 80 million units – considerably less than the 118 million moved by previous models – but its success was far greater. The attach rate for previous Game Boy systems was always fairly low, without a lot of million-selling hits. The Game Boy Advance, on the other hand, was a commercial monster. A steady stream of both first and third party software lit up the sales charts, far outstripping the 12 year legacy of the Game Boy brand up to that point.
By the end of 2003, it seemed like the Game Boy brand could continue forever, which made the revelation of the Nintendo DS all the more shocking. Nintendo admitted, in a rare show of insecurity, that they were working on a next generation Game Boy alongside their more experimental effort, and claimed the new handheld would stand as a "third pillar," alongside the Game Boy Advance and GameCube. This was a bit of a fib, but it was Nintendo's way of testing the water with a new approach to mass market gaming without committing to a long-term change of direction.
The Nintendo DS boasted an unconventional two-screen design and touch screen input, in addition to next-gen hardware that preserved backward compatibility with the GBA. Nintendo hoped that in simplifying the controls in an intuitive way, they'd be able to capture the kind of audience traditionally intimidating by videogame controls.
Whether or not their intuition was correct (many of the system's top-selling games made minimal use of touch controls) the system was an unmistakable success. Despite a strong hand played by Sony with the launch of the PSP, the Nintendo DS became so popular that it was, for a time, the leading platform in Japan for first and third party games. Nintendo took a similar approach with their new console, and the rest is history.
And so the Game Boy brand was retired almost by accident. Had Nintendo known the DS would be so popular, they might not have hedged their bets with a new brand, and we could be playing the Game Boy DS today. Its spirit lives on all the same, and Nintendo's record remains unblemished. Whether or not we ever see the name make a comeback, few will forget the walls it broke down.