In Canada we have a holiday called Victoria Day, also referred to as the May 24th weekend or affectionately May 2-4, even though it often happens a week or so before the twenty-fourth of the month. In any case, it marks the start of the camping season, and people will tow their campers to RV parks to reserve a good spot in advance of the official start of the camping season. During the summers, camping was a common weekend retreat for my family and I. Mostly we would frequent a place called Backside Pond, an RV park in a community called Green’s Harbour, with the exception being the big summer getaway when we would make the voyage to the center of the island to rest our trailer at Terra Nova National Park.
I liked camping fine enough: riding my bike around the enclosed park; exploring the woods and climbing trees; swimming and sitting by the fire in the evening hours, roasting marshmallows and hot dogs. My only issue is that these weekend retreats took me away from my precious video game consoles. On the way to Backside, we would stop into a convenience store called Red Circle to pick up supplies or a bag of potato chips. Red Circle also served a rental spot for that community, and for years I was teased with Nintendo games – some of which we didn’t have around our area – that I couldn’t play because the NES was something that we simply couldn’t bring with us. To get my video game fix when I was roughing it in nature, I had my Game Boy, the first ever video game device I could call my own.
Nintendo’s debut portable gaming device – the first with the ability to insert interchangeable cartridges anyway – launched in North America in 1989. It arrived in our household a year later when I got one for my sixth birthday in 1990. My earliest memory of the ground breaking handheld was my frustration in getting my copy of Tetris out of the package. Unlike NES games which came with a protective sleeve to help preserve them, Game Boy software came in plastic cases akin to what you would get when you akin to what you would get at a rental store. I was shocked that I couldn’t get my game, my ONLY game, out of its translucent prison, that is, until I realized that there was a small button you had to press in to get the case to open. I was six, cut me some slack.
The Game Boy was one of my more cherished possessions, and not just because it helped occupy my time when we went camping or took long car rides. For someone who had to share the television, whether with the whole family or my brother when we get a small set for our bedroom, it gave me the freedom to play whenever I wanted. I didn’t have to wait for the TV to be free or cut my game time short when the news was about to start. All I needed was some decent lighting, four AA batteries and then I popped in a game, flicked the power switch over and I was good to go.
Because Game Boy software was considerably cheaper than that of the NES, my Game Boy library grew much faster than that of the NES. On top of getting the console on my birthday, my grandparents gifted me a second game, Balloon Kid, and with the money I was given at my party, I added Super Mario Land to my collection also. Inexpensive accessories like an AC adaptor to save on batteries, a peripheral that allowed you to play in the dark and a scaly, gray carrying case from a company called Nuby that allowed me to carry around up to seven games would shortly follow. Sometimes if you were lucky you could even score a game for free.
In 1991, there was a contest in select bags of chips where you could win a copy of the game F-1 Race, which also game with an adaptor to link four Game Boy’s together, if you managed to collect four cards: SU, PER, MA and RIO. Once all were gathered, you mailed them away and the game was yours. There was also another card that rewarded you with a free hat should you manage to claim it.
I must’ve been on a hot streak as within three bags, I had three of the four cards I needed to score a free video game. The fourth card eluded me for quite some time until I discovered a loophole of sorts: a certain bag of chips had a small plastic strip down the back so you could see the contents inside. On the way back from a camping trip, we stopped into Red Circle for a snack before we hit the road to go home. We kept picking up chips until I found the card I needed, and a free hat for good measure. The clerk must’ve thought we were crazy people.
Something that was both a positive and negative for the Gamy Boy, at least from where I lived, is that you couldn’t rent Game Boy titles anywhere. I missed out on a lot of classic Game Boy titles, or only came to them late in my life, because I didn’t have the means to buy a lot of games even though they were much less expensive than traditional console titles. I would see games from franchises I loved like Contra, Castlevania, and most importantly, Mega Man that I had no way to access. I only played The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the first portable entry in the series, because a friend of mine let me borrow his copy. This was in the year 2000 after the Game Boy Color had came out.
Because I lacked the capacity to demo Game Boy titles, this meant that I carefully curated the games I managed to own. Titles like Metroid II: Return of Samus, the game where I personally found out the main character’s gender when studying the instruction manual and it calls Samus’ spaceship “hers,” and Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins, a game that honestly gave me nightmare. Let me explain.
Super Mario Land 2 saw the debut of a new villain in the Mario universe, Wario, an inverse of Mario that was jealous of him since they were boys. The commercial for the game featured a cartoon version of Wario attempting to hypnotize the audience into turning on Mario with dialogue like “obey me, Wario.”. A part of me must’ve been afraid that this somehow would work and it really freaked me out. You don’t really see Wario until the end of the game when you collect the titular golden coins, but at any time you can go to Mario’s castle that Wario has taken over on the game’s world map. On the top of the castle you can see a silhouette of Wario walking back and forth across the top of the castle while ominous music plays in the background. This didn’t help my phobia of Mario’s new antagonist.
Upon reflecting on my first experiences with the Game Boy, the device was for me back then what Nintendo’s latest console, the Switch, is to many now. The Nintendo Switch functions as a home console, but you can also take the device with you to play on the go, allowing you to enjoy console experiences wherever you want. For me, whose only experience was the NES, the Game Boy allowed me to do the exact same thing. No matter where I went, I could take my favorite Nintendo franchises with me. The technology behind the Game Boy is laughably primitive by today’s standards, but for someone who was introduced to the machine at the tender age of six, it might as well have been magic.