___ The Decline of the Game Boy -- by Chris Covell ___
The Decline of the Game Boy -- in Numbers

What are your memories of the Game Boy? Getting one for Christmas '89? Amazement at its tiny cartridges? Relief over its complex games after years of frustration from crappy Tiger and Radio Shack LCD handhelds? But, how long was it before you started wishing for a colour handheld, something fit for the '90s, eh?

I, too, wanted to put my mixed feelings about the GB into words, so that's what this page is. A mere rant, however, wouldn't be any more interesting than any of the other rants on the Web, so I'm backing up my disappointment with actual raw data, some statistical food for thought. This is the story of the decline of the Game Boy -- in numbers.

-- Chris Covell

In short:

Pokemon saved the Game Boy's life.
The GB wasn't swamped with a glut of puzzle games.
But shovelware, in its many forms, did swamp the GB.
Pokemon accelerated the downward spiral of originality.
Conclusion, Numbers

I got the idea for this page as I was reading through an encyclopedia-type book (these things are popular in Japan now) that listed all the games released (in Japan) for the Game Boy from its launch in 1989 to its "death" in 2003. As I was going from one year to the next, I started getting a little disgusted at how many clearly awful licensed character games were clogging up the GB's library, and furthermore, how many cynical cash-ins on the Pokemon phenomenon there seemed to be.

Before I knew it I was going through the more offensive years and actually counting how many Pokemon clones & useless cutesy anime-licensed princess games there were. I wanted to know if crap games were taking over the system, signaling its decline as a viable gaming system -- similar to what happened with the PC-Engine at the end of its life ('93/'94) and with the PC-FX, 3D0, etc, during their entire lifespans.

Or perhaps shitty games aren't a mark of a dying system, but rather an affliction that hit the whole games industry at the time?
In North America, we sure saw a licensing explosion on the Game Boy Color and Advance. A Nickelodeon mark on the box was the sign of the beast, a sure warning for all to keep well away, unless, well... maybe you actually liked watching an episode of SpongeBob encoded as a blurry movie and plopped all by itself onto a GameBoy Advance cartridge.

What a waste of ROM.

So anyway, that is the theme of this little essay: a post-mortem of the Game Boy's life in Japan, and an analysis of the various factors that signaled -- or perhaps, hastened -- its death.

Pokemon saved the life of the lacklustre, dying Game Boy. (Well, duh.)

First, let's look at the number of games released on the Game Boy for each year. As some of us may remember, the GB burst onto the scene with a few Nintendo classics, really picking up the pace in 1990 and 1991. By this point, consumers were already waiting for Nintendo to release their colour upgrade... which they didn't... for another seven years. Thus, in the mid-90s, the GB's appeal had clearly faded, as seen in the dwindling number of releases at this time. Most companies unenthusiastically released conversions of their console hits onto the GB, simply because sales of portable games remained profitable, if not exactly exciting; and one needed to cover all the bases including the "portable" market, anyway.

Releases really picked up first with the start of the Pokemon phenomenon in 1997, and then the Color GB's release in 1998 (though this didn't really give the GB market as big a boost as the whole "monster collecting" fad did, I believe.) But more on the whole "monster" thing later...

(Hover your pointer over any of the following charts to see the releases as a percentage of games released that year.)

The Game Boy wasn't swamped with a glut of puzzle games.

Okay, so 1990 had a big spike of puzzle games coming out for the Game Boy. But after that, the proportion of puzzlers kept falling and falling until they made up a mere 11% of total GB releases. I suppose you could say that developers found more innovative ways to put action and RPG games on the blurry, spinach-green screen as time went on. So, let's put to rest the idea that puzzle games killed off the Game Boy.

But shovelware, in its many forms, did swamp the GB.

Just look at that chart above. It's sickening. Sure, the occasional licensed game based off a movie or hit TV show (Batman, TMNT) can be really good, but usually only in the skilled hands of a top developer, like Sunsoft or Konami. Unfortunately, most of the top kids' media companies in Japan had their own video game publishing arms, so we constantly find reams of shit being shat out by the likes of Bandai, Banpresto, Tomy, Takara, and so on. Is it just me, or did the licensing blight just spin out of control in the mid-late '90s, on both sides of the Pacific? 'Nuff said about this.

...and now we get to Pokemon.

My criteria for "monster collecting" included any kind of game where you captured monsters and used their abilities, raised monsters from eggs, trained them for battle, etc. You know... a Pokemon clone. Japanese people have a heightened sense of shame encoded in their value system, but they lose all such inhibitions when copying a big hit. I know it's a cliche to point this out, but... well, you look at that chart!

I never got into the Pokemon craze myself... of course it's partly because I was 19 when the craze caught on. The games, cards, and TV show were simply not targeted towards folks my age. But even so, any game/sticker/card series where you have to collect 100 of one thing to get the best ending just doesn't appeal to me. There's not enough of an OCD completionist in me to ever care about getting full sets of something so trivial. I wonder if today's generation of kids is being conditioned as a whole towards compulsive collecting, compulsive anything -- like tweeting the colour of their stool each day...

Of course, there are some early, great, examples: Lemmings and Oh, no! More Lemmings. Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. Games that were simply too large to sell in one package at the time. But the Pokemon Red & Blue cartridges are a far worse thing: the Downloadable Content (DLC) of the '90s. A proper, full-sized game is chopped up into two (or more) halves and sold separately. Or worse, the same game is given a slightly different cast of characters on different cartridges and sold on two, regularly-priced cartridges. Naturally, the obsessive fan is going to buy both and double the profits for the game companies. As you can see, this cash-in technique just exploded at the turn of the century. The only reason the graph above tapers off so fast is that the Game Boy Avance grabbed the baton and ran with it.


I don't want to appear to be anti-Pokemon, or anything. After all, I have great respect for GameFreak's creators and the games they made before and after the craze, like Jerry Boy, Pulseman, and Screw Breaker. But when Pokemon was a surefire hit, there was no longer an incentive for game companies to rack their brains thinking of a new game style, an original concept, to put months of development time into testing and tweaking. Just stuff the game with a quantity of animals to find, rather than work on the quality of the game as a whole. Of course, other game writers have lamented the same decline in other gaming eras, and they're probably right, too.

None of what I wrote here is exactly startling or new, but the charts I included perhaps show just how bad it was. For those of us who grew up with the creative and sometimes downright bizarre games of the NES, the GB's quick slide into mediocrity and the straitjacket of licensed orthodoxy was a sad sight to behold. Many of our favourite NES-era developers went belly-up from the mid-'90s specifically because they couldn't manage to play the new game: develop 3 "safe" licensed games for every 1 original slow-seller.

The GB was the first, and last, 8-bit system to get completely smothered in licensed shovelware, a trend that has only escalated since. I wouldn't care if it happened on the Playstation 2 or 32X or whatever. But to see an 8-bit system sink so low just, just hurts. It's the kind of thing that kills the gamer in a person.

The table from which I generated my graphs:

Genres (Absolute)

Year 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
Total Titles 25 118 111 110 79 93 58 37 53 97 143 176 120 15 2 1237
Puzzle Games 7 32 16 6 3 14 5 7 6 7 14 13 8 2 0 140
Licensed Characters 1 22 21 44 34 40 30 7 10 19 31 62 47 6 1 375
"Monster" Collecting 0 1 0 0 2 0 0 4 7 17 29 30 29 3 0 122
"Red/Blue/Gold..." Game Editions 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 2 7 16 15 20 0 0 63
Genres (Percentages)

Year 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003  
Puzzle Games 28% 27% 14% 5% 4% 15% 9% 19% 11% 7% 10% 7% 7% 13% 0% 11%
Licensed Characters 4% 19% 19% 40% 43% 43% 52% 19% 19% 20% 22% 35% 39% 40% 50% 30%
"Monster" Collecting 0% 1% 0% 0% 3% 0% 0% 11% 13% 18% 20% 17% 24% 20% 0% 10%
"Red/Blue/Gold..." Game Editions 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 8% 4% 7% 11% 9% 17% 0% 0% 5%