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Remembering the Game Boy: We loved you, man

As the Game Boy turns 20, Don Reisinger looks back fondly on the old handheld.

The 20th anniversary of the Game Boy's release (in Japan, anyway) was Tuesday. Today, a whole generation of kids will grow up with nary a clue about what the Game Boy is and how it affected our lives. But the rest of us look back fondly at the handheld, so I thought it appropriate to remember our old friend.

The Game Boy was created by Gunpei Yokoi, a Nintendo employee who had moved up in the ranks from being a janitor to working on product development. It was originally a simple device with a monochrome screen, four buttons (A, B, Start, Select), and a four-way directional pad. But over the years, Nintendo transformed that simple handheld into a full-featured gaming platform, complete with a color screen and outstanding titles.

Game Boy
Ah, the good old days with the Game Boy. Nintendo

Over 118.69 million units were sold (including Game Boy Color versions) around the world. And millions more were sold in future iterations. That simple mobile device transformed the industry. It became one of the world's most celebrated video game platforms.

But instead of getting into the full history of the Game Boy (you can find that on Wikipedia, after all), I think it's important that we explore exactly how it achieved that success.

The Game Boy was, quite simply, the best handheld ever released, and for one big reason: simplicity. Unlike competitors like Atari's Lynx, which was nearly twice the size and the cost of the original Game Boy, Nintendo gave users what they wanted: a simple video game experience that kept them entertained.

When the Game Boy was first released, the video game industry was much different. There were fewer developers, less growth, and some doubt about the viability of video games in the consumer market. The Game Boy changed all that and became a significant contributing factor to the success the industry enjoys today.

And that's why we loved the Game Boy. It rebuffed the wisdom of the day and brought gaming back to its basic goal: fun.

I can still remember the first time I laid my hands on a Game Boy. I played Tetris, which came bundled with the original systems. It wasn't sophisticated like some of the games I was playing on Nintendo's home system the NES. It didn't have color, and the screen was small, but I sat there for hours arranging those falling boxes just because it was so darn fun.

I was one of many that felt the Game Boy was different, special. We all needed to have one. We all wanted to have the latest games. And we all swapped cartridges whenever one of us had a game the other wanted to play. My friends and I were content to sit in the same room with each other without talking, just playing a game on our respective Game Boys. You can't say that for many other gaming devices.

Was the Game Boy perfect? Of course not. Its screen was small and its third-party support was a little suspect at times. The company released numerous proprietary peripherals like the Game Boy camera and printer with promises of building integration into upcoming titles--all of which never materialized. But that didn't matter. I, like many others, owned every iteration of the Game Boy and couldn't wait to fire it up each day.

And though I always enjoyed the handheld's Mario games and playing Zelda titles, it was always Tetris on that old monochrome display that held a special place in my memories. And what memories they are.

Happy Birthday, Game Boy.

Check out Don's Digital Home podcast, Twitter stream, and FriendFeed.