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How the Game Boy went from video game console to music-making machine.

It is December 1989, and you are about to open your Christmas present: a small rectangular box. You open the colorful wrapping to uncover the handheld video game console that will one day be iconic―the Nintendo Game Boy. It comes with a game called Tetris, the cover design depicting blocks of different shapes, colors, and sizes. You quickly open the box and take out the pale grey console, load it up with four AA batteries, open the plastic case, and remove the Tetris cartridge. “This side out” the text instructs, and you insert the game cartridge with that side facing you. You locate the power button on top of the Game Boy, slide it to the “on” mode, and see the red battery indicator next to the screen light up. The word “Nintendo” slowly descends on the screen. Bleep, the sound that will one day charge your creative life. You are ready to play.

Fast-forward to December 2001, and you are about to perform at a music event. You open your case and remove your gear―wires and instrument. You plug the wire into the mixing console on the table, making sure the fader is set at zero. You remove your musical instrument―the Nintendo Game Boy. You load it with your cartridge; “LSDJ” is written on the label, the funky Terminus font black on a white background. You switch on the Game Boy by flicking the power button and the battery indicator shines its red light. The word “Nintendo” shows up on the screen followed by the familiar bleep. You set the console’s volume on maximum and slide up the fader on the mixing console. You are ready to play.

The Nintendo Game Boy was a revolutionary handheld console, embraced by a generation of gamers in the late 1980s and 1990s. Encoded with social meanings by its intended and unintended audiences, the Game Boy moved in and out of the commodity state, from game play controlled by its manufacturer Nintendo to music play initiated by prosumers who transformed the console into an active music-making platform.

Game Boy offered its audience of video game fans hours of playtime with one set of batteries, a variety of video games, new monochromatic worlds, multiplayer gaming via the Nintendo link cable, and a rich sonic soundscape based on the console’s four audio channels.

First released in 1989, the boxy, grey-colored Game Boy was still the second most popular handheld console in 2021 with 118.69 million units sold worldwide, and this only accounts for the official sales, not the secondhand market. Its design is attributed to Gunpei Yokoi, who worked as a designer for Nintendo from the mid-1960s. The history of Yokoi’s contribution to its success, revolves around an anecdote featuring the designer’s observations of a train commuter who punched numbers on their calculator to pass the time. Inspired by this ludic action on a mundane object, Yokoi thought it would be possible to repurpose a calculator to create a kind of handheld electronic game, which could even be used by commuters. This is how the Nintendo Game & Watch series of electronic handheld games was created—single games with a clock on an LCD screen.

Yokoi’s influential design philosophy combined “lateral thinking with withered technology.” This alludes to the idea of reusing affordable mature technology in new and inventive ways, a model similar to Arthur Koestler’s theory of human creativity, which finds bisociation as the drive of creation: the merging of two seemingly dissimilar ideas to create something new. Nintendo products did not develop overnight; rather, each product introduced a new concept, idea, or design, but was based on preexisting technologies. The Game Boy reintroduced the directional pad (d-pad), which Yokoi first developed for Nintendo’s split screen Donkey Kong Game & Watch; featured interchangeable cartridges like the Milton Bradley Micro vision (1979); had a monochromatic LCD dot matrix screen, which was cheap to produce and would make battery consumption efficient; and operated from a single chip housing most of the components used for graphics and audio.

The success of Game Boy meant that many games were developed in a short period of time and delivered to global markets ready for consumers to buy and play. Some of the most popular games were met with such success that they are still developed for newer Nintendo consoles: Super Mario Land, The Legend of Zelda, Pokémon, Kirby’s Dream Land, and Donkey Kong. Game Boy became a cultural phenomenon, an intrinsic part of global gaming culture. Its competitors―the Atari Lynx, Sega Game Gear, and NEC TurboExpress―were not able to compete with the affordability, practicality, and popularity of the Game Boy; their color screens drained batteries quickly and made them less portable.

Credit: Marilou Polymeropoulou
Photo of a repurposed yellow GameBoy with a grey GameBoy in the background

Intuitive and simple design rendered the Game Boy user-friendly: playing was as simple as manipulating the buttons “A” and “B” and the d-pad. Occasionally things did go wrong or get slightly more complicated. One of the infamous mythological components of Game Boy-related consumption knowledge is the strategy for resolving occasional bad loads when inserting a game cartridge and finding oneself greeted by a glitched Nintendo logo. How did we fix this issue? By following a simple ritual: removing the cartridge, blowing on it, and reinserting it into the Game Boy―sometimes more than once!

Game Boy offered its audience of video game fans hours of playtime with one set of batteries, a variety of video games, new monochromatic worlds, multiplayer gaming via the Nintendo link cable, and a rich sonic soundscape based on the console’s four audio channels. Video game music was an inherent aspect of Game Boy consumption. Play a few notes of “Korobeiniki” to a Game Boy user and they will recognize this familiar tune as the Tetris soundtrack rather than a Russian folk song. Video game music is suffused with the potential to evoke nostalgic sentiments, as James Ellis finds in the music of the Pokémon franchise. Such nostalgic associations can assign new meanings and value to music―the significance of nostalgic value can also be seen in the fact that “nostalgia” is a marketing strategy aimed at delivering products through which consumers can relive positive experiences of their past.

Gamers manipulated d-pads, moved brightly colored tetrominoes, explored gaming worlds, and enjoyed catchy theme tunes for 10 years. And then, a decade after the console’s first circulation, the Game Boy underwent a transformation from handheld game console to musical instrument. In the late 1990s, Oliver Wittchow, a student at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, created Nanoloop, a music sequencer in the form of a cartridge for the Nintendo Game Boy, which used its sound chip to generate sounds. Wittchow gave his first performance at the Liquid Sky club in Cologne in early 1998 and Nanoloop cartridges became available on the market soon after. At the same time, Johan Kotlinski started work on Little Sound DJ, a music tracker for the Game Boy. Kotlinski was already making chiptunes on the Amiga and by the end of 2000, his LSDJ v1.0 was commercially available. These two pieces of software changed practices in chiptune making.

This repurposed Game Boy found a new audience among chiptune enthusiasts. But the chipscene―a global network of chiptune musicians who made music and distributed it in online communities―was not new, however. It emerged from the demoscene, a 1980s computer subculture whose devotees composed music on early home computers. Composing and playing chiptune on the Game Boy made the scene more accessible, opening it up to new chipmusicians.

Playing music on the Game Boy was also based on refashioning old technology (Game Boy), subverting its design for a new purpose (electronic music making)

Chiptune sound is often described in the chipscene as “raw,” as it is based on basic wave forms such as square waves, which do sound like rather unpolished, oscillating frequencies. What drives chipmusicians to create is the idea of manipulating and overcoming technological limitations and making a raw frequency sound more interesting by employing compositional techniques such as creating arpeggios. Chiptune is a sound pad of “bleeps” and “bloops,” reminiscent of the 8-bit sound architecture that we find in some video games of the 1980s era. The chipscene is spread out in more than 50 countries worldwide, with creators uploading and sharing their chiptunes in online communities and performing at local events and online. Online chiptune gigs were the norm before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the platformization of gigs through Twitch has certainly made chiptune events more accessible to a wider audience.

The Nintendo Game Boy then, makes chiptune available to commuters, as you can compose a chiptune on the go―not far from Yokoi’s initial idea for handheld gaming. Playing music on the Game Boy was also based on refashioning old technology (Game Boy), subverting its design for a new purpose (electronic music making). Hacking and reverse engineering have long been central design methods in the demoscene and the chipscene. Game Boys can be hacked or modded to add a backlit screen, which is very useful when performing in the dark; speed switches; high resolution audio output; and other electronic components.

But the rebirth of Game Boy coincided with its commercial end as Nintendo ceased production by 2003. Consumers now had to purchase their Game Boy consoles from secondhand retailers, charity shops, or even car boot and yard sales, and then rely on do-it-yourself practices to have them modded. DIY ideology is a key aspect of the chipscene, and instructions on how to modify the Game Boy or flash LSDJ cartridges are available online.

Using the Game Boy to play music unlocked new meanings and nostalgic potential. Game Boy gradually became the chipscene’s material culture, particularly for the second generation of chipmusicians who were active at the beginning of the twenty-first century. DIY practices to some extent bring prosumers closer to the commodity, limiting alienation and entrenching the value of learning by experience to the newly modded platforms. For purists, the Game Boy was a symbol of knowledge, a seal of authenticity which inferred an ability to play: in the literal sense (how to compose chiptunes using the software, how to manipulate the sound chip’s technological constraints, and how to interchange compositional techniques to create a chiptune) and in the metaphorical sense (to play by the rules that govern the chipscene habitus and use hardware to make chiptunes ). Music made using software emulations of the original sound chips was anathema to purist practice. Its quality was considered inferior and its output dismissed as mere “fakebit,” a semiotic play on “fake” 8-bit music, which suggested that the quality of fakebit was lower than that of a chiptune composed on the original hardware. The enchantment of technology, to quote Alfred Gell’s term, was strong among purists.

Second generation chipmusicians established the Game Boy as a musical instrument rather than a handheld toy. There was a strong anti-nostalgic element attached to the image of a chipmusician playing a Game Boy: it was not about playing video games; it was about making music. The juxtaposition of play and work, fun and seriousness, or, arguably, the profane and sacred, was at the heart of a chipscene discourse that aimed at removing the nostalgia of childhood memories of playing Tetris or Pokémon. Composing and performing on the Game Boy became veiled in mysticism and magic stemming from the manipulation of hardware, software, and sounds to generate a creative experience. Or, as Gell would have put it, this was the technology of the enchantment.

The political economy of chipscene and the needs and demands of chipmusicians have extended Game Boy’s life beyond the video game. Today, secondhand Game Boys are sold for more than its original price and modded Game Boys can reach $300 in online retailers and modders’ stores. The shifts in its social life―as game console and musical instrument―have a cultural dimension that extends beyond technological developments and market fluctuations. Although stocks can only last for as long as the original hardware exists, one can build a custom copy of the console from scratch or buy modern handheld consoles that can play Game Boy cartridges. The machine may be dead, but its story, culture, and legacy will live on.

Authors

Marilou Polymeropoulou

Marilou Polymeropoulou is a research affiliate at the University of Oxford, School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. Her area of interest lies in digital culture, with an emphasis on digital music and internet cultures. She received her first Game Boy at the age of seven and attempted to mod it (eventually breaking it) at the age of 26.

Cite as

Polymeropoulou, Marilou. 2022. “Game Boy Afterlives.” Anthropology News website, October 24, 2022.

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