The Game Boy’s perfect pixel art and our obsession with reclaiming it

Image: Nintendo Life / Damien McFerran

The Game Boy is an iconic piece of gaming hardware, but the quest to improve and celebrate its games has continued over the course of more than 30 years. Backward compatibility with the later Game Boy series allowed us all to play the OG library on updated, improved screens, and the quest to present 8-bit retro classics at their best continues to this day.

The coveted Analogue Pocket is the latest all-singing, all-dancing handheld that’s wowing retro gamers with its beautiful screen – it’s amazing what a difference a good panel can make to a portable game, so today let’s look back and remember that Over the years we’ve looked at the Game Boy’s classic library in different ways…

[Not So] humble beginnings

Nintendo’s original Game Boy was – miraculously – an instant success and continued to sell 64 million units worldwide. To put that in context, the humble Game Boy has outperformed the NES, SNES, N64, GameCube, SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive, Xbox One and many more. And those are just the sales it’s garnered at box offices around the world In front the advent of the extended Game Boy Color family, well before the end of the handheld’s supported lifespan.

Not bad for a device with a low-resolution 160 x 144 dot matrix display that can only display four shades of grey/green and measures just 6cm diagonally, right?

Zelda Link's Awakening with backlight
Image: Nintendo Life

Greatness from the green

Naturally, the handheld’s phenomenal success encouraged developers big and small not just to get on the Nintendo bandwagon, but to stay there. Talented artists and programmers spent much of their time working within the confines of the hardware, creating glorious, tech-defying showcases that pushed the Game Boy to make what was once unimaginable look easy, from the huge and intricate pixel Art bosses found within Gradius: The interstellar attack to the sci-fi wireframe 3D of the practically-impossible-for-Google X

When Game Boy titles push the envelope graphically, they ooze character and stunning detail, whether they take Link on a dreamy adventure around Koholint Island Link’s Awakeningor used as part of a remake (or enMake if you prefer) Port of the Neo Geo arcade classic Samurai Shotdown.

Regardless of its age, the best Game Boy art still looks Well.

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The slightest in-game movement would cause green streaks to slide across the screen, making the platforming challenges in the launch title, Super Mario Land, far more difficult than they really were.

Unfortunately, while the developers worked hard to make small miracles a reality, Nintendo didn’t. Considering the advanced age of the original Game Boy – it will turn thirty three this year – and its utter dominance of advertising and Cultural sides of portable gaming since time immemorial, it’s easy to assume that the technology found within the familiar gray brick was the very best the late ’80s had to offer; that for all his faults it would have been foolish to ask for anything better. And that’s just not true.

Atari’s Lynx as well as Sega’s Game Gear were both released shortly after Nintendo’s portable device, both had full-color backlit displays, and both outperformed the Game Boy with little effort. The former is strong enough to handle it Sprite Scaling straight out of the box (the year before the SNES was released) and the latter pretty much a portable master system – a powerful 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 home cartridges right on the Thing. In fairness, the image on Sega’s handheld was still mighty blurry even when moving, but the backlight and color made it easier on the eyes.

In comparison, the Game Boy had two major strengths. Thanks to the extended life of its four AA batteries, it was cheap to run and also (comparatively) cheap to buy. It was cheap to buy because it was cheap to make.

And you could tell that back then. The original screen was, to be blunt, a smeared mess – that is, if the room was bright enough to see it. The slightest movement in the game made green streaks slide across the screen and made the platforming challenges in the launch title Super Mario Land much more difficult than they really were.

It has probably spoiled some good action games and, in a strange twist, maybe even helped passively Pokemon do well, if only because the largely static combat visuals meant people could actually do it see it. Forgotten drawers and neon fanny packs (known as “fanny packs” in some parts of the world) are still stuffed with the worm lights and screen magnifiers we needed to make playing on old Game Boys bearable.

Modern solutions to retro problems

For a long time, the only solution was to either grin and put up with upgrading the Game Boy to a newer model – although even then the front- and backlit variants of the Game Boy Advance SP had their own fresh drawbacks and trade-offs – or give up and play through an emulator, which was usually fine but not that much fun.

Until relatively recently, that is. New ports of old games (think Konami’s Castlevania and against Packs as well as those from Square-Enix collection of mana) now usually come with high-quality screen filters that optionally give us that Game Boy look we’ve always wanted. Crisp olive-colored grids of well-defined pixels that make the art – once hidden behind retro “blur” – now look as amazing as they should have the first time.

Unleashed from its original shackles, Game Boy’s signature 8-bit style isn’t just “bearable,” it is Nice

But as good as they may look, these filters only scratch the surface at best, and are subject to the developer who has the time, money, and tech to make the magic happen. Why wait for someone else to port it (and then hope it’s a decent one) when you can create the Game Boy experience you’ve always wanted? Original hardware can now be easily modified and outfitted with bright IPS screens to deliver incredible viewing experiences with minimal effort (and expense).

For those wanting to go further, you can pick and choose with the sharpest pixels and multiple display modes available on the stunning (and wallet-busting) FPGA-powered, LTPS LCD-equipped Analogue Pocket exactly what you want your games to look like, on a wider range of emulated hardware than any official Game Boy has ever been supported. It may have taken decades, but we finally have devices that truly do justice to the art that has always been there.

When the Game Boy’s distinctive 8-bit style is freed from its original limitations, not only is it “tolerable,” it is Nice, and can be clearly seen reflected in brand new releases such as thunderbolt and the rest of the ‘Game Buddy’ offerings in the Pixel Game Maker series – and also in genuine new games for the old hardware such as Tales from Monsterland. In both cases, the style is not only appreciated, but also chosen, the severe constraints that challenge creativity to thrive 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 really happy to see these projects keeping the style alive .

Devices like Analogue Pocket and modded hardware help transform Game Boy titles
Devices like Analogue Pocket and modded hardware help transform Game Boy titles (Image: Nintendo Life)

There’s still plenty of life and interest from gamers in Nintendo’s company-saving handheld and its Classic catalogue. It may be 2022, but somehow the future – and the screen – has never looked brighter for Nintendo’s oldest handheld.

Green or grey, smudged or sharp – what do your Game Boy games like to look like and what do you like to play them on? Let us know in the usual place.

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