The Game Boy ᵃˡᵐᵒˢᵗ ruined Nintendo
By 2020 the entire Game Boy family had sold a monumental 118 million units. It was one of the most successful electronic gadgets ever. But during development, many inside Nintendo believed it was a huge mistake, that would lead the company to absolute disaster. It stirred one of the worst internal secret rivalries in tech history. It nearly ruined Nintendo's corporate reputation,
and the near cancellation of the project at one point drew its engineers and creators to some really dark places. Every piece of technology has a story and a reason to be, and this one is pretty unbelievable. I am LowSpecAlex, and Welcome: to the Amazing LowSpec Tech of the Game Boy. Brought to you by Raycon. When I was gifted a Game Boy color as a young child, it set the course of my life forever.
Since then, I have been fascinated, even obsessed, in understanding everything I can about this machine. How it worked, and how it came to be. When a friend and I first took an original Gameboy apart to study it for this video, we were both very surprised at just how small the PCB of the actual computer is. After all, this came from a time way before the miniaturization of technology that we have all gotten so accustomed to.
With barely a few chips, it was obvious that it was made to be simple and affordable. Coming with the mindset of reviewing newer technology, my initial questions were: what kind of CPU it has and how much memory it contains. However, the more I dug into the topic, the more I realized that by far, the most important piece of technology, and of this whole device was: its screen. And its story, turned out to be a lot wilder than anything I had imagined. Every gadget, console or just any technological advancement you know, is the result of a very specific environment. The Walkman, which paved the way for the modern idea of personal music consumption,
was possible due to the previous advancement in miniature tape players for journalist. The iPhone, which popularized the modern idea of a smartphone, was made possible thanks to innovations in capacitive touchscreens and ARM CPUs, among many other technologies. And in the 80s, one technology was taking the Japanese electronics manufacturing industry by storm: Liquid Crystal Displays. Starting in the 60s, a technological race was taking place for the next major revolution in personal electronics. Up until that point, displays for computers and devices relied on CRT technology; which was very heavy and notoriously difficult to miniaturize, not to mention very difficult to run on batteries. While we will never know if given enough time, we would all have been walking around with nuclear-powered wrist sized CRTs. A certain George Heilmeier, of the Radio Company of America
discovered a way of blocking light with liquid crystals, that could be electrically controlled. And soon, researchers in the world immediately realized this technology could potentially create flat, energy-efficient displays. The race was on. What you need to know is that Heilmeier's original technology, known as Dynamic Scattering Node, or DSN, lacked contrast, and required a constant electrical current; which killed batteries, and was very difficult to use for color displays. Watches using this technology were manufactured for a couple of years, and they were big, and not particularly good. Still, it was a novelty, and you can see the publicity of the time really trying to pull off a futuristic vibe. Then a physicist, called Wolfgang Helfrich, expanded on previous research on liquid crystal; and started figuring out a potentially better solution. His employer,
the American giant RCA was not interested, so he quitted, and went to the Central Research Laboratories of Hoffmann-LaRoche in Switzerland to continue his investigation. This led to the invention of Twisted Nematic displays. How this works is actually simpler than you would expect. As you might know, light is a wave.
What you might not know about, is a property of light called polarization, which is basically the orientation of these waves. For example, this will be vertical polarization, and this is horizontal polarization. Ever wondered how those "polarized" anti-reflection sunglasses work? Well, most natural light has no specific polarization, it s just all over the place. But,
the light that bounces off a surface tends to be polarized perpendicularly to the surface. Then, it is relatively simple to create a filter that blocks or lets through an specific polarization, or orientation. The human eye is mostly, incapable of distinguishing the polarization of light. So, this works.
Ok, what the hell does any of this have to do with a Game Boy? Twisted Nematic are crystals suspended in a liquid at a 90-degree angle, like half a spiral. When light goes through the crystal, it changes its polarization by 90-degrees. Now, when a small voltage is applied to the crystal, they align with the field and stretch into a straight formation. Now, they let light through without changes in polarization. Now, remember how polarized glasses are basically filters than only let light through if it has the correct orientation? Let's add a filter similar to that to make sure all incoming light has the same polarization, and another one at the end just rotated 90 degrees. Now, when there is no voltage: the light rotates and goes through without problems.
But when voltage is applied: the light does not rotate and is blocked, and you got a device that can control the pass of light with a small controlled voltage. Then, finally add a reflector and the end of the mechanism, and you get the basic building block of a display, that can be read under a light. RCA might have dropped the ball on this innovation, but the Japanese were ready to pick it up. In September of 1973, Seiko released the first TN LCD watch, the 06LC, and a commercial war ignited.
As the 70s progressed, Japanese watch and pocket electronic companies battled for LCD supremacy. By the 80s, Japan had irrevocably taken over the LCD industry from the Americans, and they would dominate this display industry for a long time. Until it was taken over, by the Koreans in the 90s, which explains why companies like LG and Samsung, have the modern dominance over display technologies and...
Oh dammit, I got sidetracked again. Where was I? LCDs? twisted nematic? right! The war between Japanese companies, to improve on this technology, flooded the market. And made LCDs very, very cheap; with their primary use case being calculators and watches. You might have heard of this story before, but the chief of Nintendo Research & Development 1, toy inventor Gunpei Yokoi; claims to have had the idea of making games out of cheap LCDs, from seeing a bored businessman playing with a calculator on a train.
An idea that led to the extremely successful Game and Watch series, starting on 1980. And again, I have to be careful on going on a tangent, because I could easily make a full video just out of that. Maybe... let me know in the comments if that is something you would find interesting? Anyway, the Game and Watch series was a smashing success that made Nintendo, and SHARP, the supplier of those cheap LCDs; a lot of money. By 1984, Nintendo s R&D1 was already experimenting with screen technologies that would allow them to create a successor to the rapidly obsolete Game and Watch. Their main concern was to find a suitable screen to build the entire console around.
There are vestiges of the priorities of the project back then, even on the final device: Dot matrix screen. What's a dot matrix screen? Well, any screen that is made up of a matrix of dots, that can be programmed into showing any image at a certain resolution. So... uh... like pixels? Like, every screen you have ever used ? And like the one you're using to watch this video right now? Yup. While this is a weird distinction to be made by modern standards, and was likely already a bit outdated as a feature by its release.
In 1987, when the project started taking shape inside Nintendo, most Twisted Nematic screens were segmented displays: like the ones you could find on a watch. But just around that time, the Japanese LCD market was making great progress in moving to dot matrix systems, thanks to the rise of personal assistants. Consider the following. A traditionally segmented display can easily be used to represent any
number or letter on the alphabet but... what do you do when your language involves symbols like this one? This market pressure, mixed with LCD leadership, led to products like the Sharp PA-7000. A relatively inexpensive digital assistant, with a two-line dot matrix screen that could display readable kanji. In fact, it appears it was one of these very devices that was
first disassembled and used to hack together the earliest concept device of the Game Boy. At this point, the then-president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi; had given green light to the project, and demanded the rather difficult task of figuring out how to make the device doable for under 10.000 yen. Before a single decision was made in terms of ram or CPU, the team at Nintendo R&D 1 started by looking for the perfect screen for the project, as it should not have been too complicated to find a supplier on the saturated LCD market. Turns out this was a bit more complicated than anticipated. This is the history of Nintendo volume 4. A book that chronicles the development history
of the Game Boy, based on direct interviews from ex-members of Nintendo R&D 1, and research all conducted by Florent Gorges. I am not good at pronunciation so I will let him do it: So, my name is Florent Gorges, and I live in France. And I am actually a translator from Japanese to French. I translated many, many mangas, like the Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Manga Adventure, and Splatoon. I also created many publishing companies, and the last one I created is Omak Books, which actually publishes a lot of video game books, official biographies, etc. This book has been one of my main sources for this video. And I reached out to Florent
during my research, to better understand some of the stories that contextualize the technology behind the Game Boy. Starting with the screen selection. Even though Nintendo already had a deep relationship with LCD maker SHARP, they decided to shop around, and contacted several others companies that could make such a screen. The Japanese takeover of the industry meant that there were far from a small number of companies able to do this: Matsushita (nowadays known as Panasonic), Optolex, Hoshiden, Citizen and Seiko Epson were all contacted.
Panasonic ghosted Nintendo, Optoflex was not interested in working with them; and Hoshiden and Seiko, although initially interested, ghosted them too. At the time, Nintendo was mostly known in Japan as a toymaker, far from the gaming behemoth that they would become. One company, however, showed a lot of interest: Citizen. The calculator and watch maker company, immediately sent a representative to Nintendo; to demonstrate their advances. And R&D 1 was stunned.
They offered 2 Dot Matrix Screens using Twisted Nematic technology, that could be made as cheap as 1300 yen per unit for monochromatic, and 3900 for color. The decision was not difficult. The color screen was 3 times as expensive, and used many times more energy. If they wanted a cheap handheld with usable battery life, it had to be a monochromatic screen. Considering the Yokoi famous philosophy of preferring cheaper, reliable technology, that provided a better experience; the decision was not questioned.
SHARP, which had worked with Nintendo for over 10 years could not match that. And after further negotiation, Citizen would be able to drop their price even further. After a visit of the general director of Citizen to the offices of Nintendo, it was all set. All that was missing was simply signing the contract. And, that was it, the rest is history. Or was it? As the delegation from Citizen leaves, into the offices, walks a surprise delegation from Sharp. They had an emergency meeting with president Yamauchi, and they were out for blood. No one that still lives, or is willing to talk, knows what happened at that meeting.
What we know is that, Yamauchi ordered Yokoi to cancel all arrangements with Citizen, and that the Game Boy screen would be made by Sharp. Was SHARP desperate not to lose its relationship with Nintendo? Did they promise a technology, or prices that they yet could not achieve? The world might never know. However, there is a super interesting ending to this part of the story. Cancelling arrangements with a business partner so late into the game... in corporate culture, this is considered a dick move. Now elevate that to the infamous Japanese business culture.
And Yokoi could not find a way to tell Citizen the bad news. So, he just got someone else from his team: Yoshihiro Taki, one of the technical brains of the Game Boy project, to do it. Desperate, Taki came up with a plan. He twisted the truth a bit, made up a story where sure, SHARP would be the ones doing the screen for the Game Boy, but that a few months later they would start working on another handheld, this time using Citizen's expensive color LCD.
Taki even went as far as creating a detailed document, with the technical specifications and architecture of this color version of their handheld. Taki knew this project was not viable, due to the high price and power usage of the screen, but he needed a way out. He delivered the document to Citizen, with his apologies; and told them to expect to hear back from Nintendo to get started on that project later on.
And then he ghosted them, and hoped they would take the hint. Hahaha. This is like a high school level breakup. Jesus Christ. A little over a year after the release of the Game Boy; Sega releases the Game Gear, using a Citizen color screen. Taki of course buys one to disassemble it, and imagine his surprise, when the device suspiciously matches a lot of the fake designs he had given Citizen. His contacts at Citizen, of course, denied ever using any of that; and simply claimed they have taken their product to Nintendo's Japanese rival after they were ghosted so... Was Taki's knowingly flawed fake design actually one of the things that led to the Game Gear? Hmm. Nintendo betraying a technology partner, who bitterly decided to continue the project
to compete with them out of pure spite. Where have I heard this before? The source of this story was Yoshihiro Taki himself, who told them to Florent, during a lengthy set of interviews in Japan. And as Florent quite aptly puts it, Taki was not the type of person to make things up. And I had the chance to meet Mr. Taki. The first hour of our interviews, I was very surprised because, he showed me a few notebooks, and he told me: you see that? Its my professional diary. And I have written every day of my Nintendo works, every day of my career, I wrote down what I did on the day, what we decided etc. Of course, it was Mr. Taki's
point of view. It was his work, but there was so many incredible information from that time: he cannot lie about this. So, this incredible Citizen and Sharp story is written down. And there is all the names of the people involved in this story, inside. Of course,
I could not reveal everything because there was some, stories we can't share. Either way, let's get back on track. With the screen now being SHARP's problem to solve, R&D 1 got busy coming up with the rest of the Game Boy's technology, which should have been a pretty smooth sailing. And of course, it wasn't.
Back then, and for God knows how long, the different departments of Nintendo were competing pretty dramatically for the attention of the president. R&D 1 managed the Game and Watch, and now the Gameboy. And the newer R&D 2 had hit gold with the Famicom, and were currently working on the Super Famicom. And the bad blood between both departments ran deep.
Mr. Yamauchi, Hiroshi Yamauchi, he was the kind of businessman who liked to make all his teams like rivals. Because if you become rival, you want to do better than your rival. And so, everybody is yes, fighting at each other.
Yokoi did not approve of all the attention the Famicom was getting. He did not like that the younger leader of the department, Masayuki Uemura, had joined the company a lot after him. He created so many toys, which helped Nintendo to survive, when they faced a lot of big crisis. So Mr. Yokoi was the star of Nintendo at that time. But after the success of Mr. Uemura the Famicom became so big that Mr. Yokoi's R&D became just down to Uemura R&D department.
When Mr. Okada got the idea of making, the new Game & Watch but not a Game & Watch, but a handheld Famicom, Mr. Yokoi did not agree with that. He didn't want to hear one word about Famicom. He did not like the direction Nintendo was taking, away from the fun and innovative simple toys he loved to design, of which the Game and Watch was probably the most complex; towards Famicom styled game consoles, that required more complicated technology, and bigger game development efforts. Mr. Yokoi was very disappointed. Because Mr. Yokoi was absolutely not a specialist in electronic,
but he was very strong in mechanics, and during 10 years, 15 years, Nintendo and Yokoi created a lot of mechanical toys. But after the success of the Famicom, it became high tech technological inventions. His visions for the Game Boy were closer to a direct successor to the Game and Watch. A simpler device, that could switch between different simple game cartridges. He even considered the idea of shipping games with cutouts to place on screen, similar to what the Magnavox consoles had done during their time. It was a toy meant to last for a couple of seasons at best. However, this vision for the project was not exactly popular with everyone. And soon,
a rift would form on the Gameboy team. Saturu Okada was the second in command for R&D 1, an engineer that had been brought in, to assist with Yokoi's lack of computer electronic knowledge. He viewed the project as an opportunity to do essentially a pocket Famicom. A device: able to deliver games as complex and deep as Nintendo's star console, but in a portable format. For Yokoi, trying to make his projects closer to the Famicom was an admission of defeat.
And for months, he fought to impose his vision of the project He did not want to make a portable Famicom. Because it means that if they create a handheld Famicom, it means that the Famicom is better. Okada's pure stubbornness prevailed. After a lot of shouting during a meeting, Yokoi gave up; and allowed Okada to take the lead of the project. It is very difficult to imagine how different the Game Boy would have been, if this had gone differently. Both men did agree on Yokoi's view regarding screen technology tough. For the device to succeed,
it had to be monochromatic, cheap and use little power for usable battery life. Those who sided with Yokoi continued to work on the Game Boy's screen, while those who sided with Okada continued to work on the CPU and general architecture of the device. The R&D 2 Famicom by had been such a success, that Nintendo was caught off guard when other companies wanted to create games for it. So this time they would make a platform easier for third parties to develop on. So, it would make sense to also make it as similar to the Famicom as possible. It would have been the logical move, and would have allowed to streamline the development of games using the Famicom tools.
And the NES came with the 6502, Super NES came with a 65816, which is the 16-bit version of that same CPU. So obviously, the Game Boy comes with a Sharp LR35902. However, the internal rivalry struck again! Uemura, the chief of R&D 2, blocked Okada from being able to contact Ricoh, the company that made the Famicom CPU. Ricoh was currently busy working on the powerful 16-bit Super Famicom, and he would not risk them getting distracted over wasting resources on an outdated monochromatic handheld. So once again, they went to SHARP. And asked them if they could do the CPU as well.
The result is the SHARP LR35902. The Famicom CPU was based on a MOS Technology 6502, the legendary chip that powered computers like the Apple II and the Commodore 64, and Ricoh had at the moment the exclusive license for that chip in Japan. However, SHARP had been copying versions of the Zilog z80, the chip that powered popular computers like the ZX Spectrum; to use on their pocket computers for years at that point. And so, the Game Boy's CPU was based on it, with some extensions aimed at adding functionalities specifically required by games, or that would adapt better to the Game Boy's architecture. If you are interested in the small details of how the CPU is different from a full Zilog z80, I recommend this talk; which I will leave in the description down below.
At this point, the project was pretty much set and moving ahead, but it was not long before disaster struck once again. To say that the Game Boy project was unpopular among Nintendo staff outside of R&D1, was a huge understatement. The insistence on a cheap, monochromatic screen was a tremendously controversial decision. Japan's LCD industry was quickly advancing towards color screens, and the idea of releasing a device that looked so outdated, was seen by many as a mistake.
The project, which was known internally as Dot Matrix Game, quickly gained other names. Dame Gamu, or terrible game in Japanese. Or the English word DaMaGes, a reference to the damage many believed the device would do to Nintendo. It all boiled down to an eventful meeting around 1988, when the official prototype was presented to Yamauchi. The result was catastrophic, apparently due to a single reason: viewing angles. Let's go back to Twisted Nematic screens for a second. A Dot Matrix screen is made up by hundreds of crystal arrangements, like this, in a pixel matrix. For these cheap screens,
the technology was not quite there for addressing each pixel individually, but rather; they would be connected to what is known as a passive matrix, where applying voltage to a pixel meant applying it to the pin of the corresponding row and column. The problem with this method is that there is a limit to how voltage each pixel will see, determined by this formula. For a 100 pixels the voltage difference between on and off was barely over 10%. Meaning that when the pixel is supposed to be off it will see, for example, 1.9 Volts and then when it s on it will see 2.1 Volts at best.
How is this a problem? The more voltage you apply to a Twisted Nematic liquid crystal, the less light it lets through and therefore the sharper the contrast. The sharper the contrast, the better the viewing angles. This is a graph representing how much a twisted liquid crystal rotates, based on voltage. Where this is how much the crystal twist, as an angle; and this is voltage.
With such a small voltage difference, the rotation between on and off was very small. And the more pixels you had in the screen, the worse the contrast got. And the contrast, gets worse at an angle so the worst the contrast, the worst the viewing angle Yamauchi was so unimpressed at how difficult it was to find the correct angle for the screen to be visible, that he called for the cancellation of the Game Boy project. Immediately. These were dark times in the history of Nintendo R&D 1. According to Gunpei Yokoi's biography, the prospect of disappointing yet another business partner over another cancellation, drew him to consider suicide. But according to interviews with Taki conducted by Florent,
what drew him to this steep depression was the sense of betrayal. President Yamauchi's decisions was way too sudden to purely be based on that demonstration. In Taki's view, certain unnamed people at Nintendo were using the Game Boy's internal unpopularity to sabotage the project; and undermine Yokoi, as he was once a likely candidate for taking over the company once Yamauchi retired. Either way, the Game Boy project was officially cancelled over this viewing angle issue, and most people in R&D 1 were re-assigned to other projects. Some employees including Yokoi and Taki, continued to work in secret, trying to find a way to save the Game Boy.
The most accepted meaning of the word Nintendo is something along the lines of "leave luck to heaven", as in: work hard and leave luck to the gods. And a few weeks later, the heavens seemed ready for another miracle. Back in 1982, an improvement to the Twisted Nematic displays were invented, which has a fantastic name: SUPER TWISTED NEMATICS Thanks to the improvements in the material, it was now possible to fabricate a similar system. Where at rest, the crystals are twisted several times over. What does this change? Rather than slowly untwisting as more voltage is added, like in regular twisted Nematics, super twisted crystals retain their shape for much higher voltages; until a certain threshold is reached, and then they all suddenly untwist.
This means that even with a passive matrix, where the difference of voltage between the on and off is very small, the difference in contrast between the on and off pixel was much higher. And much better contrast means much better viewing angles. By the late 80s, a contact at SHARP, lets Taki know in secret about the fact that they were preparing to start setting up a production line for Super Twisted Nematic screens. And Taki immediately called Yokoi, to tell him that the heavens had once again delivered.
With the surprisingly discrete help of SHARP, and a few favors of the factory engineers, a new prototype was made and presented to Yamauchi. Barely 3 months after the project cancellation. The timing was really good, R&D 2 was struggling to develop the Super Famicom, and Nintendo had to delay the release of their next-generation console. Which did not bode well for sales. Having another product that was nearly ready to start manufacturing was just what Nintendo needed.
Rather than being upset that the project he had cancelled had continued in secret, Yamauchi was satisfied with the progress, and approved its revival. The Game Boy was back on. It would still take work to get the product ready to the market. Such as extensive testing by the quality control department at the Uji factory, that refined the design until it became so resilient to damage; that it has become a bit of an internet legend. But the details of the technology where set. At release, the green monochromatic screen raised a few eyebrows among the press, especially in a country that was slowly getting accustomed to products using color LCD screens.
But Yokoi's stubbornness on keeping the screen monochromatic for battery life delivered in spades. The Gameboy was cheaper and used fewer doble A batteries than competitors. Also, its battery life was so -SO- dramatically better, that it was difficult to compare. Okada's insistence on making the system a true fully-fledged pocket console, and his foresight on making it easy for third parties to develop on, also delivered. Simple cartridges, holding ROM chips, bank controls, and battery backup for saves; were enough for most games. And developers quickly figured out ways of working around the limitations of the system.
To the point that for a few months after release, Nintendo had to reverse engineer how some of the third parties were pulling some of the visual tricks on the console they had to developed. By 1989, a lot of the best-received games were made outside of Nintendo. Of course, Nintendo quickly caught up, and ended up making some of the best games they ever made, including the best handheld Zelda game ever... maybe until Breath of The Wild. All in all, the Game Boy and the Game Boy color combined, sold over 100 million units.
Making them one of the best-selling products in Nintendo's history. Sadly, Nintendo does not separate sales by system, so it is difficult to know how many of those can be attributed to the original big block design. And the technology of the Game Boy Color is... a story for another day. But this undeniable success,
in the face of unfavorable odds is a story that, I feel, is important to understand; as we examine new portable gaming technologies. Every technological decision on a product is the result of an infinite matrix of small decisions. From the priorities of the project, to what technology the engineers have access to in their country, at that specific time. We tend to always think of gaming as one of the things that pushes computer technology forward, each generation better and faster than the last. But sometimes, it is important to consider the experience beyond graphical power. Battery life, cost and experience matters; even if sometimes, it feels like you are fighting everyone around you for it.
One thing I did not have much of a chance to talk about, is the Game Boy's sound system. Co-designed by Hirosaku Tanaka, and Sharp; which has evolved into its own recognizable music aesthetic. While the original Game Boy speaker is acceptable, you might want to connect some headphones, and maybe connect it to a Bluetooth adapter. Hold on a moment! Bluetooth adapter? Why in the world did I needed a Bluetooth adapter for? *gameboy sounds* Oh, ooooh. Raycon is disrupting the electronic industry by designing premium wireless audio for half the price, without compromise.
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