By the end of the twentieth century, technology had started to evolve at a tremendous rate. Within the space of just a few years, a single high technology product like a video game console could be released, meet with fantastic success, decline in popularity and become obsolete. As microprocessors continue to get faster, screens get clearer and memory gets cheaper, most companies release new consoles roughly once every five years.
There is another option: instead of releasing a brand new system driven by radically different hardware, the state of the art can be used to refine and improve the existing system. This is what Nintendo's Game Boy Pocket was: an update, not a replacement.
The Game Boy
Nintendo released the original Game Boy in 1989. While its custom Z80 based processor wasn't at the cutting edge of technology, it was small and efficient enough to use in a handheld system. Similarly, the screen was sometimes awkward to look at, requiring the player to view it at just the right angle, but as it was only greyscale and didn't have a light behind it, it didn't drain batteries as quickly as competitors' portable consoles did. With a low resolution, four shades of grey, four joypad buttons plus a direction pad, and minimal sound capabilities, the Game Boy provided everything needed to play games, and absolutely nothing more.
The Game Boy managed to maintain its popularity despite rivals that had backlit colour screens, mainly due to its long battery life and extensive catalogue of games. As technology moved on, however, it began to look outdated. Faced with diminishing sales, many companies would probably have stopped producing their product altogether, and designed a revolutionary replacement. Nintendo, however, chose to evolve their Game Boy into something slightly better.
The Game Boy Pocket
In 1996, seven years after the release of the original Game Boy, Nintendo launched the Game Boy Pocket. It had several significant improvements over its predecessor.
The most obvious of these improvements was the screen, which had gone from a blurry yellow-green mess to a much sharper grey-green version. It was a lot easier to see what you were doing, which was especially important in fast-paced action games.
The innards had been overhauled too, which was evident from the much smaller case they were housed in. This also made the system lighter than the original. While a slimmer, less bulky machine was nicer to hold and use, there were other benefits to using newer technology inside: power consumption.
The Game Boy used design choices such as a slightly dated microprocessor and greyscale screen in order to use the smallest amount of power possible. By the time the Game Boy Pocket was released, what was once done out of necessity no longer needed to be the case, but Nintendo chose to stick with it anyway. By choosing to update rather than replace such components, these design choices meant that the system had become amazingly simple by nineties standards, and therefore used only minimal power.
For example, the eight-bit Z80 could have been replaced by a sixteen-bit chip that also ran much faster, but then the console would have been incompatible with all the old games. A new Z80 chip, on the other hand, would use up even less electricity than the old one did, and also let people continue to play their favourite games.
The original Game Boy used four AA batteries. While it was less power hungry than its rivals, those batteries still contributed a lot to the machine's overall weight, and it was a lot of batteries to have to recharge. By contrast, the Game Boy Pocket used just two AAA batteries, which were smaller and lighter. This made it even more convenient to carry the machine around. Allowing people to play computer games away from home was, after all, its intended purpose.
While the newer Game Boys - the Game Boy Color and the Game Boy Advance, for instance - have replaced parts of the original system, there's something to be said for the simplicity of the original design. Two-bit graphics that give a total of four shades of grey, an eight-bit CPU, and just a few kilobytes of RAM are all you need for addictive games. Alleyway, Tetris and Qix are just as good today as they were when they were launched in 1989.
The original Game Boy was also released at just the right time to really take off. Consequently, a plethora of games were released on the system. In particular, the Game Boy excelled at simple puzzle games, such as Dr. Mario, Boxxle and Mario & Yoshi.
In short, the Game Boy Pocket inherited all the simplicity of the original machine, along with its library of great games, while improving the screen, size, weight and power consumption. Granted, it's not in the same league as the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP - they make it look like a quaint museum piece by comparison - but if you're after a tiny system to play the occasional puzzle game on, look no further.