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 elevate and celebrate its games has continued over the course of more than 30 years. Backwards compatibility with the later Game Boy line enabled us all to replay the OG library on updated, improved screens and the quest to present 8-bit retro classics at their very best continues to this day.

The sought-after Analogue Pocket is the latest all-singing, all-dancing handheld to wow retro gamers with its lovely screen — it’s amazing what difference a good panel can make to a portable game, so today we’re looking back and remembering the varying ways we’ve viewed the Game Boy’s classic library over the years…

[Not So] Humble Beginnings

Nintendo’s original Game Boy was — miraculously — an instant success, and would go on to sell over 64 million units worldwide. To put that in context the humble Game Boy outsold the NES, SNES, N64, GameCube, SEGA Genesis / Mega Drive, Xbox One, and plenty more. And that’s only counting the sales it rang up at tills around the world before the advent of the Game Boy Color extended family, long before the end of the handheld’s supported life.

Not bad for a device sporting a low resolution 160×144 dot matrix screen capable of displaying just four shades of sludgy grey/green and measuring a mere 6cm on the diagonal, is it?

Zelda Links Awakening Backlit
Image: Nintendo Life

Greatness Out Of The Green

The phenomenal success of the handheld naturally encouraged developers big and small to not only get on board the Nintendo train but stay there. Talented artists and programmers spent huge amounts of time working within the hardware’s limitations, creating glorious tech-defying showcases that pushed the Game Boy to make what was once unimaginable look easy, from the enormous and intricate pixel art bosses found in Gradius: The Interstellar Assault to the sci-fi wireframe 3D of the virtually-impossible-to-Google X.

When Game Boy titles graphically push the envelope they’re bursting with character and impressive detail, whether they’re taking Link on a dreamy adventure around Koholint Island in Link’s Awakening, or used as part of a remake (or demake, if you prefer) port of Neo Geo arcade classic Samurai Shodown.

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

Cheaping Out

The slightest in-game movement sent streaks of green sliding around the screen, making the platforming challenges in launch title Super Mario Land far more difficult than they really were.

Unfortunately, while developers were working hard to make minor miracles a reality Nintendo… was not. Considering the original Game Boy’s advanced age — it’ll turn thirty-three this year — and its utter domination of the commercial and cultural sides of portable gaming since forever, it’s easy to assume that the technology found within the familiar grey brick was the very best the late ’80s could offer; that, for all its faults, asking for anything better would have been foolish. And that’s simply not true.

Atari’s Lynx as well as Sega’s Game Gear both released shortly after Nintendo’s portable, both had full colour backlit displays, and both outperformed the Game Boy with little effort; the former powerful enough to handle sprite scaling straight out of the box (the year before the SNES released), and the latter pretty much a portable Master System — a capable 8-bit console that was only a few years old at the time. With a simple shop-bought adapter Game Gear owners could even directly play home cartridges on the thing. In fairness, the image on Sega’s handheld was still mightily blurry in motion, too, but the backlight and colour made it easier on the eyes.

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

And you could tell, even at the time. The original screen was, to not put too fine a point on it, a smeary mess — when the room was bright enough to see it, that is. The slightest in-game movement sent streaks of green sliding around the screen, making the platforming challenges in launch title Super Mario Land far more difficult than they really were.

It arguably spoiled many a good action game and in a strange twist perhaps even passively helped the likes of Pokémon do well, if only because the largely static battle graphics meant people could actually see it. Forgotten drawers and neon-coloured bum bags (known as ‘fanny packs’ in certain parts of the world) are still stuffed full of the worm lights and screen magnifiers we needed to make playing on old Game Boys tolerable.

Modern Solutions To Retro Problems

For a long time the only solutions were to either grin and bear it, upgrade your Game Boy to a newer model — although even then the Game Boy Advance SP’s front and backlit variants came with their own fresh set of drawbacks and compromises — or give up and play through an emulator, which tended to be fine but not so much fun.

Until relatively recently, that is. New ports of old games (think Konami’s Castlevania and Contra packs, as well as Square-Enix’s Collection of Mana) now tend to come with high quality screen filters that optionally give us the Game Boy look we always wish we’d had. Crisp olive-tinted grids of clearly defined pixels used to make the art — once hidden behind retro ‘blur’ — look as fantastic now as they should have done the first time around.

unleashed from its original restraints the Game Boy’s unmistakable 8-bit style isn’t just ‘tolerable’, it’s beautiful

But even as good as they can look, these filters are at best only scratching the surface, and are subject to the developer having the time, money, and tech to make the magic happen. Why wait for someone else to make a port (and then hope it’s a decent one), when you can create the Game Boy experience you always wanted for yourself? Original hardware is now easily modified and fitted with bright IPS screens to give incredible viewing experiences with the minimal amount of fuss (and expense).

For those who wish to go even further, the sharpest pixels and multiple display modes present on the show-stopping (and wallet-busting) FPGA-powered, LTPS LCD-equipped Analogue Pocket allow you to pick and choose exactly how you want your games to look, across a wider range of emulated hardware than any official Game Boy ever supported. It may have taken decades, but we finally have devices that truly do justice to the art that was always there.

When unleashed from its original restraints the Game Boy’s unmistakable 8-bit style isn’t just ‘tolerable’, it’s beautiful, and can be clearly seen echoed in brand new releases like Thunder Striker and the rest of Pixel Game Maker Series’ ‘Game Buddy’ offerings — and also found in true new games for the old hardware such as Tales Of Monsterland. In both of these cases, the style is not just appreciated but chosen, the strict limitations challenging creativity to flourish under tightly 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 very happy to see these projects keeping the style alive.

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

Thanks to new approaches to ageing hardware, plus easy access to a whole range of Game Boy compatible devices and technical modifications capable of making the experience sweeter than it has ever been, there’s still plenty of life and gamer interest in Nintendo’s company-saving handheld and its catalogue of classics. It may be 2022, but somehow the future — and the screen — has never looked brighter for Nintendo’s oldest handheld.

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

Further reading:



Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

GIPHY App Key not set. Please check settings