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The history of the Nintendo Game Boy is something I've read, if not hundreds of times over the years, as that's ridiculous, certainly tens. Several tens. I've even written it myself on a few occasions, online and in print. Ergo, I am well versed in the inspiration of designer Gunpei Yokoi, in Nintendo's initial aversion to the cheap-looking handheld, its consumer-appealing perks (affordability, battery life) over the Atari Lynx and SEGA Game Gear, and its tens of millions of sales. However, I've never sat down with a Game Boy history that's quite as gorgeous as this one.
Available now from British publishers Bitmap Books, Game Boy: The Box Art Collection is a heavyweight, hardback brute of a tome that will take no prisoners should it topple from the top of a bookshelf. It was available in a special Gold Version, which is sold out, but can still be picked up both with a really nice Silver Edition with an outer sleeve bearing art from Wil Overton (who used to do the amazing illustrations for Super Play magazine) and including a poster of said art; and as a sleeveless version where its textured cover is inlaid with metallic blue lettering. Even on the outside, this thing is very attractive, indeed.
Above: watch GAMINGbible's own short history of the Game Boy,
marking its 30th anniversary in 2019
At the risk of stating the obvious, The Box Art Collection dedicates most of its 372 pages to showing off the packaging of a handsome heap of Game Boy titles, ranging from cult classics to commercial juggernauts via a great number of weird and wonderful cartridges you've probably never heard of. The box art on show is a mix of European, North American and Japanese - and, more often than not, it's the photographs of the games from the Game Boy's own homeland that really stand out, especially when they're exceptionally different to what we received in the West.
Kirby's Dream Land is included as Hoshi no Kirby, and loses the Whispy Woods boss from its European art for a background that's more colourful, almost tropical. Pokémon Green and Yellow seem so much more dynamic, enticing and fun as their Japanese Pocket Monsters versions. (Tell me this Pikachu is cuter than this Pikachu, and I'll call you a liar.) Even something as should-be dull as a golf game, Konami's Konamic Golf (Ultra Golf in the US) looks more fantastic than it has any right to be in its Japanese guise.
Alongside every box art entry is a few paragraphs of text, digging into the key points about the game in question. This is the kind of stuff to make trivia hounds salivate - even if some of the bigger games in the book are well documented already, and their entries are as familiar as the Game Boy's own power-up 'ding' at this point. (Which is to say: yes, Super Mario Land really is quite different to the NES games, isn't it.) But I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who knew the Game Boy as a new console - if you're just getting started with the stories behind some of Nintendo's biggest handheld hits, you're going to love exploring the information included in The Box Art Collection.
Beneath the box art and the text, each page has a selection of screens from the games - and while these won't initially look like much to gamers schooled in the ways of PlayStations and Xboxes, they really were windows into wholly engrossing other worlds, back at the start of the 1990s. Also, these screenshots really show off just how creative artists could be with the Game Boy's limited capabilities and four-shades-of-green display.
There's some terrific pixel art to be seen in titles like Titus the Fox, Rockman World 4 (aka Mega Man IV), and Dr Franken II - the latter one of the final monochrome Game Boy titles to be released. There are some pretty bland-looking offerings, too - but the Game Boy was always more about how a game played, than how it looked. No, Mortal Kombat doesn't hold up to its 16-bit brethren, but that fact that you could play it at all on Nintendo's handheld felt miraculous.
And at its heart, that's what Game Boy: The Box Art Collection is a celebration of - innovation in spite of significant restrictions. The Game Boy wasn't the most powerful console in its class, it wasn't the best looking, and arguably it wasn't the most comfortable to play - but it came out on top by cannily cutting corners that didn't matter, and absolutely respecting those that did. The gameplay. The value. The longevity.
At the very start of the book is that aforementioned Game Boy history - deeper and more detailed than some, penned by NintendoLife.com director Damien McFerran, and calling upon collectors and developers alike for insights into what made this console tick, and why it connected so comprehensively with a huge audience. The words are complemented by some wonderful, close-up photography of a pristine Game Boy DMG-01 (the original, grey-white model - yours may have yellowed in the years since release), as well as cartridges and peripherals including the low-key iconic Game Boy Camera. Fittingly, the foreword is from Gameboycameraman - real name Jean-Jacques Calbayrac - who talks about his art using the handheld, and the book finds space for some of his photos, too.
"I used to take it with me everywhere I went," Calbayrac writes. "To school, on holiday, to my friend's house, everywhere." And that's another magical ingredient of the Game Boy's success - it was a portable games system that you actually could take out with you, for a few days a time, without the need to plug it into a mains outlet, or spend a small fortune on new batteries. It was just the right console at the right time - a time when Nintendo's star was ascending rapidly, and video games were taking over the world like they'd never done before.
Game Boy: The Box Art Collection most certainly isn't a book you'll want to take everywhere with you - unless you're working on your upper-body strength. But in those moments when you take ten minutes to yourself, get a cup of tea in and sit down with it, it's a beautiful window all of its own into a wealth of other worlds - ones we rarely visit anymore, but ones that will never be forgotten.
Game Boy: The Box Art Collection is available now at Bitmap Books. Review copy provided by the publisher. All photos except the book cover in the header image taken by the author.
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