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Evolution of portable gaming, Part 1

Posted: 02 Mar 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Sony Playstation Portable  Game Boy  SRAMs 

As a result, Game Boy units flew off the store shelves. According to Giles Slade's book Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, Tetris alone brought Nintendo more than Rs.397.75 crore ($80 million) in revenue. Figuring a price of Rs.174.02 crore ($35) a unit for the game, you can do the math and estimate how many units of the actual console were sold. To this day, my colleagues and I still hum the "Nintendo Tetris Theme" whenever we have some timely, menial work to get done.

Figure 3: Reversed engineering schematic of the circuitry behind the Nintendo Game Boy. Source: www.devrs.com. Click on image to enlarge.

The Nintendo Game Boy was a success from the moment it launched, warding off numerous contenders throughout its nine years on the market. Atari released the Lynx in the same year as the Game Boy but failed to make any impact because of hardware issues and a lack of support from game developers (most having chosen to align with Nintendo). Nintendo also fended off competition from systems such as NEC's TurboExpress (released in 1990) and the Neo Geo Pocket (released in 1998).

Only Sega's Game Gear (released in 1990) was able to make a significant dent in Nintendo's market dominance, selling 11 million systems over an eight-year span. Compared with the 75 million-plus Game Boy units sold worldwide, Game Gear rarely posed a threat to Nintendo, but Sega was happy to run a distant second.

Perhaps what was most amazing about the Game Boy's run was that the competition all featured color screens and, in some cases, much faster processors and better graphics--and yet Nintendo still outsold them. The common denominator among the Game Boy's competitors was that design issues and a lack of game developer support had resulted in a short shelf life.

Nintendo achieved success with the Game Boy by using a simple design featuring a fully tested microprocessor and a power management system that enabled a much longer battery life than the competition (seven to nine hours on four AA batteries for the Game Boy, vs. three to six hours for completing platforms). The Game Boy reigned supreme until 1998, when Nintendo finally decided to take the system into the world of color.

For the Game Boy Color, Nintendo largely stuck with the design formula that had worked for the first Game Boy. In fact, if you were to place an earlier Game Boy next to the color version, you wouldn't notice any difference in the physical look of the systems.

For the newer system, Nintendo again went with a Sharp-manufactured microprocessor, based again on the Zilog Z80 architecture. The device, labeled CPU-GBC, doubled the clock speed from the original Game Boy's processor, to 8 MHz, to account for the processing required for the addition of color. Total SRAM density was increased to 32 kbytes, and the two SRAMs, labeled LH52CV256JT-10LL, were again provided by Sharp.

Sharp again scored major design wins in this next iteration of Game Boy, providing the LCD voltage generator (IR3E06N) and the audio amplifier (IR3R53N) in addition to the aforementioned parts. Sharp maintained its goodwill with Nintendo to see continued use of its ICs in the highly successful series of handhelds.

The dot-matrix display was replaced with a reflective LCD screen that offered the same resolution as its predecessor (160 x 144 pixels) but was capable of displaying up to 56 colors. The strength of the Game Boy brand name, a large catalog of game developers and backward compatibility with the original Game Boy games let Nintendo score another success in handhelds with the Game Boy Color.

But the color version, though popular, couldn't match the sales numbers of its predecessor. By 1998, the graphics of the system (which were similar to the original Game Boy graphics) seemed outdated compared with the graphics being seen in home consoles such as the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64. People were beginning to ask for more from the handheld gaming experience.

Thus, Nintendo very quietly began development on a handheld system that would stray not only in look but also in technology from the tried-and-true Game Boy model.

In Part 2, I'll investigate the technological changes Nintendo made for the next generation of Game Boy.

- Allan Yogasingam
Technology analyst
TechOnline


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