As someone who has a thoughtfully defined list of favourites for pretty much everything that interests me, I caught myself by surprise recently when asked what’s my favourite console. Never thought about that one! And with very little time for further thought, I replied the original Game Boy. Is it really though? Well, a bit more thought confirmed probably – PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable (or PSP) and Game Boy Advance SP would also be in the running, and if I’m allowed them then the PC-Engine Mini and Sega Astro City Mini are too…
But I keep coming back to that groundbreaking little handheld that changed my life in late 1990, then kept me company through university, and kept me occupied through the 90% monotony of band tours, and I was still playing (albeit mainly Tetris and Tennis by then) after I’d got married and owned house number three and then the GBA came along… And then a decade later again, now a father, I’d go back to it again to curate gaps in my collection like Elevator Action and Kung Fu Master, right until it finally gave up the ghost in 2017.
Now as I write my GBA SP is also on the way out, and I’m potentially looking to the new Analogue Pocket handheld to slot my beloved cartridge collection into, but in the meantime I’ve also come to the realisation that the gaps in that collection were way bigger than I originally understood, and that’s all thanks to another wonderful book (and then some!) by Bitmap Books, and that wonderful book is Game Boy: The Box Art Collection. Now, at this point when I’m reviewing games I’ll usually include a disclaimer to say I was given a copy for the purpose, but not this time – I got this from my wife for Christmas 2021! I just really enjoyed looking at a book for a change when we looked at The Games That Weren’t (also from Bitmap Books) a little while ago, so figured I’d share the love here again regardless…
What we’ve got here is a bumper 372 page, 25x25cm, 2.3kg lump of hardback, celebrating the very finest cover artwork for our handheld monochrome marvel! It’s a quality item too, with thread-sewn binding for extra durability and print lithographically on high-quality paper, all inside a very solid metallic silver textured cover with metallic blue foil logos on the front and spine.
Diving inside, we’ve got a foreword by Jean-Jacques Calbayrac, aka Gameboycameraman, who’s notable for doing exactly what his handle says, followed by a bit more beautifully creative photography of the unit itself, as well as some of its games and quirky peripherals, as we’re given a comprehensive history of the Game Boy. As much as I was here for the games, the far-reaching twelve pages devoted to this are a must read! Things like Nintendo’s classic lateral thinking that led to the monochrome display when it could have been colour, or insights from the likes of Rare into getting the most out of the system are absolutely fascinating! The preamble is capped off by interviews with a few notable collectors and general obsessives who were consulted to put together the main event here, a varied selection of both Western and Eastern games plucked from the thousand-plus titles released for the original handheld over its lifetime.
Right, let’s dive into the almost 350 games that are covered here, and we’re talking far more than just the beautifully presented box art that dominates the full page dedicated to each one! You’ve got release information and a generous paragraph on the game and its history, and then another on the Game Boy cover art itself. The icing on the cake is a set of six small but perfectly clear in-game screenshots across the bottom of the page. Another nice touch are the professional translations of the Japanese-only game titles into Romaji, which, according to the best knowledge of the publisher, has never been properly attempted before in any English-language book. Obviously, I can’t go into too much detail on all the games here, so I’ll pick a handful – a couple of old favourites of mine, the one that jumps out of these pages at me the most, something I don’t know at all and finally something I’ve never played but would like to as a result of reading the book. Here goes…
Apart from the too-obvious choice of Tetris, Tennis is probably my favourite Game Boy game, and it’s certainly up there with Tetris in terms of hours spent playing – in fact, that puts it up there with most games I’ve ever played! From the time I picked it up before I really appreciated how short money was about to be just after starting university in 1990, I was playing it well into the 2000s, as a minimum for my annual Wimbledon play-along! What I didn’t realise until I read this book though, was that this very early Game Boy game was based on the 1984 NES game, which I’ve never played but based on the above reckon I probably should now! I’m not entirely sure I agree with the analysis about limited scope for tactical play and cheap opponent AI, but definitely do agree with the responsive controls making up for any shortcomings! There’s not a huge amount to see in the screenshots, apart from Mario’s cameo in the umpire’s chair, but it’s great to see the Japanese cover art for the first time. The book points out that its drama is very much at odds with the more “sedate pace” of the game (not played on level 4 difficulty?), and also with the cuter Western release, which of course also featured Mario.
From one of the first games I bought for the Game Boy to what I think was the last – Gauntlet II first arrived in 1991, but given its predecessor on bigger systems is one of my top ten games of all time, I’m not sure why it took me until 2012 to actually pick it up… Possibly appreciating the value of money (or serious lack of) by then! I’m going to start with the cover art this time because it’s a real beauty! Mindscape did the conversion for both Game Boy and NES, and commissioned this bespoke artwork featuring the four playable fantasy heroes on an atmospheric stormy hilltop, set off by the game’s iconic logo. Unlike the NES version, the most people you could have playing here was two, via a link cable, but otherwise it’s a great conversion, albeit a little sparse at times, as evidenced by the screenshots here!
Now we move to the cover art that jumped out at me from the page the most, and I’ve gone with Dr. Franken, although honestly I could have picked from any number – Bomber Boy or Pocket Bass Fishing or Radar Mission or TwinBee Da! in particular, but there’s loads of contenders! And after all of that, I have to admit to liking the cover art more than the game with Dr. Franken! It’s a mammoth 1992 Kemco metroidvania, with bits of your girlfriend scattered across 230 rooms on seven floors and up to six exits per room that’s all too confusing for someone like me with no sense of direction! As the screenshots attest, it looks the part though, with its big, detailed take on Frankenstein’s Monster roaming the haunted gothic mansion. The cover art is less gothic and more cartoon-like, unintentionally representative of the floaty, bumbling character controls over the game’s art style! It reminds me of colour photos of the Addams Family’s black and white set, or the Munster, Go Home movie that is (to its detriment) in colour but looks like it was designed for black and white. Either way, they used garish colours in reality to bring contrast to the black and white you eventually see on film, and that’s what you find within the ominous black vignette of Dr. Franken’s cover art here. The monster in his pyjamas, besieged by creeps coming out of everywhere, captures the essence of the game’s plot perfectly, with the bright yellow glow of the bright yellow moon outside the crumbling walls making everything pop out of the darkness. Always nice to see that familiar old Elite logo make a reappearance too!
Less familiar is Pinball: 66 Piki no Wani Daikoushin from HAL Laboratory in 1989, but what a cover! The Japanese ones are certainly more colourful, and this has a whole rainbow backing up the cute alligators prowling the tropical pinball table. I’m going to switch to the English name for this now if you don’t mind, which we’re informed is Pinball: Revenge of the Gator, and I can additionally inform you that there’s a good reason the Japanese cover was included here rather than the mundane in comparison Western one! It plays out on a single table with the playing field divided into three screens with alligators all over the place to cause you problems, and if you lose your ball down the bottom drain there’ll be another waiting there to gobble it up. Another fantastic example of Game Boy cover art, and I’m starting to see where those collectors we met at the start of the book are coming from! HAL’s trademark attention to detail is in evidence all over the screenshots, and we’re also told it still plays well, so that’s what I’m going to do when I’m done here!
But not before Nigel Mansell’s World Championship Racing, which is where we’ll close with a game I said I’d never played but would like to as a result of reading the book. But actually, that’s all down to looking at the screenshots here over cover art or reading anything – it looks almost as good as the SNES version that I have played before! This one comes from Gremlin Graphics in 1992, and it came out in one form or another on everything else too. On the Game Boy, we’re told you can take part in a driving school, race a single track, have the maestro perform a track in Mansell Circuit or do a password-saved full season. We also get a good paragraph on the cover art, which might not be festooned with alligators and rainbows, but does have an action photo of the Williams Formula 1 car that Mansell won the 1992 championship in. We even get a bit of background on the car too, but being a car philistine, I’m going to go back to those graphics! We’re right in the cockpit, looking through the driver’s eyes which is exactly how every racing game should be presented, and look at the size of everything – way more like the real thing than I’ve seen elsewhere on the Game Boy!
Maybe not my favourite cover art in the book, but still a great way to finish, and there’s still hundreds more here for me to find other favourites from. Game Boy: The Box Art Collection is essential for anyone that’s ever been touched by the hand of the Game Boy or remembers the time when cover art was king when making a buying decision. It’s perfect coffee table reading and it’s the Christmas gift that will keep on giving to me for a very long time to come. Long enough for a Game Boy Colour version to arrive, maybe? If not, I did also receive the lovely Bitmap Books Atari 2600/7800: a visual compendium for Christmas, so maybe we’ll have a look at that before then too!