I’ve said previously on this show that my favorite video game console of all time is the Game Boy. I guess it holds a special place in my heart. It was the first video game system I could call my own. And I got it during my formative years.
I absolutely loved being able to play games wherever I wanted. But that came with limitations. The screen wasn’t backlit and there were no colors. Just four shades of grey under a green tint. It wasn’t the prettiest screen to look at and at night I had to find a light source to keep playing. But that was probably my only complaint about the Game Boy.
But in 1994, my prayers were answered when Nintendo released the Super Game Boy. It was a device that plugged into your Super Nintendo and let you play your Game Boy games on your TV. In color! It took away the portability factor, but seeing some of my favorite Game Boy games blown up in color on TV was mind-blowing.
But the Super Game Boy was so much more than that. It had a lot of cool options and several games were designed to take advantage of them. So today on Gaming Historian, we’re gonna talk all about the Super Game Boy and its many features.
Let’s take a look. The idea of playing Game Boy games on a home console wasn’t a new idea, but it was new to the general public. During the NES era, Intelligent Systems, a developer partnered with Nintendo, designed a device known as the Wide Boy, which allowed you to play Game Boy games on the Famicom.
Essentially, it was a Game Boy on a PCB attached to the Famicom Disk System RAM adapter. The controller was hard-wired to the PCB and it used the console for power. It had some basic functions, like changing the color scheme, but the Wide Boy was primarily used for development and media purposes, and was not sold in stores. There was also Nintendo’s Demo Vision, a big box that was able to output up to two Game Boys to composite video. It also added a Game Boy- themed border around the video.
Looks familiar, doesn’t it? But, like the Wide Boy, it was primarily used for development purposes, as well as trade shows. If you’ve ever seen a Game Boy kiosk, they most likely contain a Demo Vision inside.
In June of 1991, Camerica, the same company that initially distributed the Game Genie, teased a new device that they were working on that allowed you to play Game Boy games on the NES. But Camerica never released it, possibly due to the threat of litigation from Nintendo. Finally, in June of 1994, Nintendo teamed up with video game hardware company Hori and released the Super Game Boy. It sold at a retail price of $59.99.
By purchasing the accessory, Super Nintendo owners could get access to more than 350 Game Boy games. Nintendo also promised some new Game Boy games would be specifically designed for the Super Game Boy. It was a nice accessory for Nintendo.
The Super Nintendo lacked backwards compatibility, and the Super Game Boy was a great way to bridge the gap between handheld gamers and console gamers. Initial thoughts were mixed. GamePro was particularly harsh, saying: But for fans of the Game Boy, it was a way to finally play their favorite Game Boy games in color. The first release of the Super Game Boy came with only the device, but later releases, like the one shown here, came with a 72-page guide book. It teaches you everything you need to know about the Super Game Boy, as well as provides basic walkthroughs of some of the more popular titles. It even included custom color palette codes.
More on those in a minute. Let’s open this thing up. Inside the Super Game Boy is well… a Game Boy, minus the display and buttons, of course. Using the device is pretty self-explanatory. You plug in a Game Boy game, insert the Super Game Boy into the Super Nintendo, and power it on.
Pressing L and R on the controller at the same time opens the options menu. Most people assume the Super Game Boy simply plays Game Boy games on your Super Nintendo. And, yes, it does do that. But it actually has quite a few more options as well.
The first option is color palettes. While the box promises you can play your games in color, it should come with a disclaimer that it’s only four colors. The original Game Boy displayed games using four shades of gray. The Super Game Boy simply adds color to each of those four shades. With older games, you can cycle through 32 preset palettes to find which one works best for you. The Super Game Boy also has a few predetermined palettes built in for a handful of older titles.
Take Tennis, for example. Instead of defaulting to the first palette like most games, the Super Game Boy has chosen to use Palette G on page 3, which is better suited for the game. There are some games specifically designed for the Super Game Boy that can display more colors, as well as change color palettes mid-game. But we’ll get to that later. The next option is for borders. The Super Game Boy comes with nine decorative borders to put around your game, since the Game Boy has a smaller resolution than the Super Nintendo.
The default border resembles a Game Boy, but you can choose everything from an assortment of kitty cats, a movie theater, or a quaint little cabin in the woods. Some of these borders have screen savers as well. If you go idle long enough, or put in a cheat code, an animation will play, depending on the border you have selected. Then there’s the controller options, which just lets you customize what the B button does on your controller. Speaking of controllers, did you know the Super Game Boy is also compatible with the Super Nintendo mouse?
It can make things quite a bit easier when designing your own borders. In Japan, Hori released an official Super Game Boy controller, known as the SGB Commander. It featured a Game Boy design and had some shortcuts built in. You could change the speed of your game, mute the sound, and access the menu easily.
By flipping the switch in the middle, you could even use it as a standard Super Nintendo or Super Famicom controller. Although the L and R buttons are awkwardly placed. The next option is custom colors. In here, you can actually make your own color palettes and save them via a password system. This is a pretty impressive feature and allows for a ton of different color combinations.
The Super Game Boy guide provides a few fun suggestions. The final option is called Graffiti, which lets you create your own border. Nintendo thought you could use this to take notes on a game or even draw on the screen to give yourself a new challenge. It’s fun to mess around with, but, unfortunately, you can’t save your creations.
The Super Game Boy plays all the Game Boy games, but it can’t play Game Boy Color exclusive games, like the Zelda Oracle series. It’s also region-free, just like the Game Boy, so you can play Japanese and European releases. But then there were games specifically designed with enhancements for the device. On the label of those games, you’d see a “Super Game Boy Game Pak” logo. So what does this mean, exactly? When you play a standard Game Boy game, you’ll get a default color palette, and… that’s it.
You can switch the colors around, but you have to do it manually. The game wasn’t designed with the Super Game Boy in mind, so it can’t take advantage. But with the Super Game Boy Game Paks, developers had a chance to take advantage. The best example of this is Donkey Kong, and for good reason. It was launched alongside the Super Game Boy to help promote sales and show off its capabilities. The first thing you’ll notice is the colorful title screen and a detailed custom border that resembles an arcade machine.
Now you’re probably wondering, if the Game Boy can only show four colors, how is this title screen possible? Thanks to some clever programming, it’s possible to assign different color palettes to specific areas on the screen, as little as 8×8 pixels. But there were limitations due to the Game Boy’s power, so it was only possible on static areas of the screen.
That means games had to be deliberately designed with this in mind, and you’ll see it with Donkey Kong. World map stages also pop with color. The game also changes color palettes through stages automatically, something a normal Game Boy game can’t do. There’s even audio enhancements, such as when Pauline screams for help.
PAULINE: Help! Help! Donkey Kong is the crowning achievement of Super Game Boy design. Most Super Game Boy Game Paks had simple additions, like a custom border.
It wasn’t worth the time and effort for developers to add these extra features. But there were a few notable exceptions. Pokémon Red and Blue also took advantage of color on static screens, bringing color to all 151 Pokémon during battles.
Game & Watch Gallery contained several custom borders, based on which game you selected. Wario Blast let you play with two players without the use of a link cable. You could even plug in a multitap for four player games.
Space Invaders went a step further. If you played it on a Super Game Boy, it unlocked the Super Nintendo version of the game. A quirk that you may not really notice is the actual speed of the games.
The Super Game Boy plays games 2.4% faster than the Game Boy. This is due to the clock speed of the Super Nintendo being slightly higher than the Game Boy. Again, it’s not really noticeable, unless you pay close attention. One downside is that there’s no link cable support. Nintendo claimed adding two-player support would, quote, “interfere with the RF signal from the TV.” It never became a big deal until the Pokémon craze in the late ’90s, when everyone wanted to trade their Pokémon with each other.
In response, Nintendo released the Super Game Boy 2 in 1998. …in Japan only. It had a nice redesign with a sleek, transparent blue shell, however, there were minimal improvements. Nintendo added link cable support, so you could finally trade Pokémon or battle with a friend in Tetris.
Heck, you could even hook up a Game Boy Printer, if you want. There’s now two LED lights on the device: one for power and one for when the link cable mode is activated. They also added some new borders to use while playing.
Nintendo also fixed the clock speed issue, so games play at their regular speed. Other than that, it’s exactly like the original model. The Super Game Boy 2 was released to little fanfare. That same year, gamers were more excited for Nintendo’s newest handheld, the Game Boy Color. Overall, the Super Game Boy was moderately successful.
It’s one of my favorite accessories from the 16-bit era, and they’re pretty easy to find these days, going for around $10-15. Between both models, the Super Game Boy 2 is the superior version. It’s a bit pricier, but that’s because you’ll have to import it. It does work on a North American console, but you’ll need to tear the tabs out of your Super Nintendo cartridge slot to ensure it will fit. But if you thought playing Game Boy games on your TV ended here, well, think again. After the Super Nintendo era, there were a bunch of devices from both Nintendo and other companies that wanted to bring the Game Boy to your TV.
Some of them were pretty bad, like the GB Hunter. Others, like the Game Boy Player on GameCube, made it even better. But we’ll talk about those another time. That’s all for this episode of Gaming Historian.
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[Game Boy music plays] [Fade out]