The original Nintendo Game Boy is approaching middle age, which is an inevitable reality.
Since Nintendo’s first portable hit malls and mom-and-pop electronics stores in 1989, the world could have moved on to sleeker, less bulky technology. However, a number of developers are returning to Nintendo’s flagship handheld’s green hue to explore new concepts for the app, based on the classics.
“Pokémon and Zelda are obvious, really surface level,” says Izma, the developer of the recent Game Boy game Deadeus. “However, there are others that I would consider to be a little deeper.” Lisa: [Deadeus] was strongly influenced by the vibe and sound of The Painful. Things like Tower of Heaven, a flash Game Boy-style game—the narrative’s not the emphasis of the game, but there are certain beats that I tried to match here.”
Izma, who works as a full-time UI artist at Coatsink Games, started working on Deadeus during a game jam with some Magic Leap Studios colleagues. They used GB Studio, a free engine for making games that suit the Game Boy’s requirements. Izma had been experimenting with the Game Boy’s art style in GameMaker and felt that using GB Studio was convincing enough to finish what he’d started.
Deadeus is a tad higher concept than the typical Game Boy thriller, since it revolves around a young boy attempting to escape a disastrous accident over the span of three days. This strange adventure, which borrows the trappings of Pokémon Red and Blue, is more Donnie Darko than Link’s Awakening, with numerous directions to its 11 different ends.
However, Izma claims that some of that childlike, Game Boy levity got in. “I spent a lot of time looking at the back catalogue of the Game Boy games when I was making it,” he said. “A lot of it [is what] I’ve called in the past ‘Halloween horror’—like horror-themed rather than meant to scare. Which is 100 percent understandable with it being a handheld game and the target audience, but I think a little bit of that’s in there as well.”
A small physical run of Deadeus was also sold by Spacebot Interactive, a one-man publisher created by Chris Reach, and was available for free on Itch.io. When Reach decided to sell his own Game Boy fantasy RPG, Dragonborne, Spacebot was born. He wants to create a library that goes beyond what people expect from Nintendo’s oldest handheld, slowly expanding to involve more makers.
“I find it so cool to see games being developed for the Game Boy that we would have never had back in its day,” Reach said in an email. “I actually have another game that’s very different to anything else I’ve played, which is lined up for release.”
A heartfelt labor
Spacebot is one of the developers repackaging Game Boy games as if they were already released in the mid-’90s, complete with era-appropriate boxes, instruction manuals, and cartridges. The various components are purchased in bulk and then assembled by hand by a single individual.
It’s all a labor of love, fueled by a combination of youthful longing and accessibility by people who find the physical Game Boy to be magical. There are zealous enthusiasts who are producing their own version of vinyl: tiny gray squares with less than one megabyte of data, rather than 12-inch LPs in vibrant colors.
Sentimentality is significant to Spacebot’s success. The first step for developers interested in being a part of Reach’s growing line of Game Boy games is piquing the publisher’s interest. That means presenting something that excites him and brings back memories, as well as a strong vision for the project and who it would appeal to.
After an agreement is reached, a thorough bug-testing phase begins, followed by the design of the artwork and inlays, a preorder, and finally meeting demand.
This divides the work from development to getting carts into people’s hands, and some companies operate without the use of a middleman. Since starting to sell his game, Quest Arrest, on genuine Game Boy hardware, John Roo has been his own publisher.
Quest Arrest is an investigation RPG with seven different endings that are unlocked depending on how competent you are as a player. It is a spiritual sequel to Sierra’s Police Quest games. It was created with GB Studio, just like Deadeus, while Roo had to make some custom changes to the engine to fit his needs.
A beefed-up engine
Chris Maltby, the developer of GB Studio, continues to upgrade it—version 2.0.0 has just entered beta—and its simple functionality has been a driving force behind the gradual growth of Game Boy and retro-styled development. The tool is focused on software that has been available on the internet since the late 1990s, back when finding other developers online was a very different experience.
The most recent version of GB Studio offers more options than ever before, including the ability to use the Game Boy interface to introduce point-and-click mechanics. Developers who brave the waters of manually coding Game Boy games in C and assembly, a practice defined by nearly every developer I spoke with as challenging at best, are pushing the boundaries even further. Even if your choices are limited, tools like GB Studio and GBDK 2020 make it easier to transform your concept into something playable.
Always and forever your Boy
Whatever everyone does, Game Boy game production will continue for several years to come as long as Roo, Izma, and Maltby pass on their experience as those ’90s homebrewers did before them.