Nintendo’s Game Boy consoles were a stepping stone to smartphones, says video game historian


When the original Nintendo Game Boy was released in April 1989, its primary focus was playing video games on the go.

But as time passed and the Game Boy family grew, so did the range of system accessories and its usefulness outside of the game.

“With the right accessories or cartridges, you can do just about anything,” said Kelsey Lewin, video game historian and co-director of the Video Game History Foundation.

While the original Game Boy consoles are technologically inferior to their competition, including Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx, Lewin says their withered technology has actually worked in their favor. The Game Boys were less expensive than the competition, had longer lasting batteries, and weren’t as power hungry as their competition.

This made them attractive not only to game developers, but also to businesses outside of the gaming industry.

Kelsey Lewin is a video game historian and co-director of the Video Game History Foundation. (Kelsey Lewin)

“It’s a computer you can actually build on. You can create software or hardware, even accessories, to use with that already existing computer,” Lewin said. Day 6.

While the systems can never make or receive phone calls, Lewin says their popularity, versatility, and portability make them similar to smartphones.

“I would say the Game Boys are really kind of a stepping stone to what we think of as modern smartphones,” she said.

Just as apps have turned modern smartphones into all-in-one portable devices, accessories and add-ons have allowed Game Boys to be used in different – and sometimes unexpected – ways.

Work on the go

One way that companies tried to expand the capabilities of the Game Boy was to create accessories that allowed them to act as cheap alternatives to other more expensive devices. Examples include the low-quality, grayscale Game Boy camera as well as the Game Boy printer.

Likewise, there’s the WorkBoy, a keyboard device that plugged into a Game Boy system and turned it into a tiny laptop.

The WorkBoy featured a wide variety of apps, including a calendar, calculator, phone book, and currency converter, Lewin said.

Although the WorkBoy was never released, Lewin says it shows how some companies saw the Game Boy as more than just a gaming device.

“There was a lot of productivity stuff that made it useful as a small computer – things that I think are now standard apps on a smartphone, but back then it wasn’t something you had in your computer yet. pocket, ”she said.

Game Boy for sewing machines

The Game Boys’ abilities weren’t limited to photography, printing, and computing. He could even sew intricate and detailed designs into fabric when attached to devices like the Singer Izek.

“It’s a sewing machine that interfaces with the Game Boy,” Lewin said.

Digital interfaces were becoming a standard for sewing machines in the 1990s and early 2000s, but they were expensive to develop. So, to combat this problem, the Japanese manufacturer Jaguar collaborated with Nintendo to develop a sewing machine using the Game Boy as a digital interface.

A Jaguar employee poses with the Game Boy Color and the company’s Game Boy compatible sewing machine. (AFP via Getty Images)

The device caught the attention of US sewing machine maker Singer, which was about to file for bankruptcy. With home sewing going out of fashion in the United States, Singer took to the product by licensing it and selling it for around US $ 799.

“The singer… felt like it was a really good way to get the kids back to sewing,” Lewin said. “They know video games well, they know the feel of the Game Boy, so they kind of mix those two hobbies.”

Although the sewing machines failed to attract a more tech-savvy audience, Lewin says the collaboration was understandable on paper.

“When you already have a digital interface that you can use with this stuff, it makes a lot of sense for businesses to kind of mix those two things,” she said.

The Game Boy Advance was the fifth of seven different versions of the Game Boy. (Sion Touhig / GettyImages)

Measuring blood sugar with a Game Boy

In all of the most surprising accessories in the Game Boy family, Lewin says that one of the most interesting applications is the GlucoBoy.

“The GlucoBoy was a mix of two things. It was a blood sugar monitor, but it was also a video game to help encourage children to check their blood sugar and monitor their blood sugar,” he said. she declared.

The accessory was invented by Paul Wessel, whose son has type 1 diabetes. Lewin says Wessel’s son often lost his blood glucose meter, which made it impossible for him to check his blood sugar.

“So Paul had the idea to tie him to something that really mattered to his son: his Game Boy,” she said. “Paul decided to create something that would help his son, something that would make his son want to test his blood sugar, and what he came up with was this thing called the GlucoBoy.”

WATCH | Kelsey Lewin on the GlucoBoy

According to Lewin, Nintendo was initially concerned with licensing the device due to the risks of medical liability. But after three years, Wessel finally got approval to make the Game Boy Advance compatible accessory in 2007.

Games on the GlucoBoy encouraged players to regularly check their blood sugar by unlocking items and bonuses – an approach similar to how modern mobile games encourage daily play by offering rewards, Lewin explains.

“You get the beginnings of login bonuses and that sort of thing that you get from a lot of mobile games today,” she said. “It encourages people to continue using the device.”

Written and produced by Mouhamad Rachini.

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