Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
February 2011

A Five Dollar Game Boy

When my friend Ben offered to sell me his Game Boy for five dollars, it would be fair to say I was skeptical. For one, Ben had always been a bit of a shady fellow. At least as shady as a fifth grader can be. More than that though, a Game Boy for five dollars just seemed too good to be true. Granted, the system wasn't new in 1998 but it was still the dominant handheld of the era. Even a used one should have cost me well more than a measly five bucks.

Despite my doubts Ben showed up the next day with a Game Boy. It wasn't in the best shape. The power switch stuck, the battery cover was missing, and all in all it looked as though it had spent the better part of its life buried in his backyard. Even so, it turned on and five dollars later it was mine. I brought my acquisition home, visions of gamedom floating about my head. I had several years worth of old Nintendo Power magazines I could flip through looking for purchase ideas. I wound up selecting several of the gold standards -- Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy -- and subsequently played them to death.

This was a time before I had anything resembling substantial funding for my developing game hobby. I had to stretch the twenty dollars I got from my mom and the other twenty I got from my dad (yay for divorce!) into something that would last me a long time. There was no buying games on a whim and in general I lived and breathed by what games were occupying the bargain bin. Which, I suppose, isn't much to complain about. By 1998 the Game Boy had been on the market for almost ten years. The used game market was loaded with good stuff to keep a pre-pubescent nerd like myself occupied.

I eventually upgraded to a Game Boy Color, followed by a Game Boy Advance and later a DS. Now only a few weeks from the launch of Nintendo's latest handheld, the 3DS, I can't help but look back and think at how far portable video games have come. Rather than clunky 8-bit graphics that looked ugly in their own time, we now have handhelds that can pretty much do exactly what consoles can. The 3DS can produce visuals on par with Nintendo Wii, while the recently announced Sony NGP (we'll see how long they call it that) can match the PS3's visuals. Even now weeks after the announcement, I have to pinch myself to be sure this isn't all some crazy dream.

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It's not just the quality of the visuals that has grown with time either. The most recent generation of handhelds, dominated by the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP respectively, were both driven by their expanded control and gameplay options. The DS was sold almost entirely on it featuring a touch screen, and the PSP was heralded for its ability to produce console quality games. Both systems would go on to have their flaws -- the DS's touch screen was mostly a gimmick while the PSP was crippled by its lack of a second analog stick -- but they both expanded upon what a portable game could be. The forthcoming generation looks to do the same. The NGP in particular looks to push the threshold, stacking on control options that could conceivably make it the first toe to toe contender a Nintendo handheld has ever had.

As excited as I am however, there is a lingering feeling inside me that things are moving in a direction that I will ultimately dislike. One of the strengths of the original Game Boy was its simplicity. It wasn't the only handheld of its time, but it survived because it was a no-frills take on portability. It needed only two batteries where Sega's Game Gear needed six. It originally lacked color visuals, but made up for it with brilliant games. And the thing was well built! The Nintendo World Store in New York City currently has a Game Boy that survived a bomb blast during the first Gulf War and still works to this day. I could never imagine a modern handheld taking such punishment. I dropped my PSP once and was convinced it was done for.

Modern handhelds just try to be too much. The PSP's biggest failing aside from its flawed controls was that it tried to pack too many features under its hood. In addition to being a game platform, it could play movies, music and surf the internet. The thing is, it couldn't do any of those particularly well. They felt tacked on, and doubtless helped to drive the price of the PSP up to a point where many people bought the simpler, less pricey DS out of pure frugalness.

Both the 3DS and the NGP will have multimedia features outside of video games, and honestly I couldn't be less interested. If I want to watch a movie I have a TV. If I want to surf the internet I have a laptop. If I want to listen to music I reach for my iPod, which ironically now also features video games. The iPod can call me back when it grows some buttons. For now it's little more than a novelty for when I'm bored on the bus.

I'm not saying I think the 3DS or NGP will be bad. I'm actually quite excited to see how well they'll do and how the next round of portable competition will play out. That said, my respect lies with the original Game Boy. It was on the market for a good ten years before it was succeeded by a real upgrade. In that time it trounced every competitor foolish enough to take it on and single-handedly established Nintendo as the king of portable gaming. I don't see that with the current and future handhelds. New iterations of hardware come out almost yearly offering new bells and whistles whereas all I want to do is play a good game. Why must a handheld try to be everything when a dirty, five dollar Game Boy was more than enough to get the job done?

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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