ideas & ramblings

Sensors in Game Boy cartridges

By the late 90s, most home video game consoles had moved from cartridges to optical discs. With few exceptions, however, most portable consoles never moved to optical discs; instead, they stuck with cartridges and gradually migrated to downloadable content1. Cartridges were relatively small, just rugged enough for the task, and they didn’t need to delicately focus a laser on a tiny spinning disc in a device that was constantly shifting around. As time went on, advances in miniaturization meant that ever-more-advanced hardware capabilities could be packed into tiny cartridges, a trend that eventually led to cartridges including bespoke sensors to augment their capabilities.

Today, we’ll take a look at three releases for three different generations of the Nintendo Game Boy platform, each of which included extra hardware for some clever enhancements. These inauspicious cartridges give us a glimpse into where Nintendo thought mainstream technology would eventually lead them, and therefore offered a glimpse into the future. Let’s get started.

This is part three of a four part series on the wonders of video game cartridges. Start at the beginning by reading about lock-on cartridges.

Game Boy Camera

Photo of Game Boy Camera Released for the original Game Boy in 1998, the Game Boy Camera was an unusually shaped cartridge which included a fully functional digital camera and enough memory to store thirty photos. Despite producing photos that were microscopically tiny and grainy by modern standards, the Game Boy Camera was a big deal around the turn of the millennium, and it was even certified as the world’s smallest digital camera in the 1999 edition of The Guiness Book of Records2.

The Game Boy Camera software was made by a company called Game Freak, a name that might ring a bell for any Pokémon fans out there—Game Freak is the primary developer of the Pokémon series, having made everything from Pokémon Red and Blue (1996) to the upcoming Sword and Shield (due in 2019). Creating the software for the Game Boy Camera is an odd entry in the history books3 of a company whose output has otherwise been dominated by a single overwhelmingly popular franchise.

Game Boy Camera title screenAppropriately given the playful platform it was created for, Game Boy Camera included a fun, quirky user interface that evoked the aesthetics of Nintendo’s WarioWare series. Off-kilter characters decorate every screen, and nearly everything jiggles and moves while it’s being used The cartridge not only let users take photos, it also allowed them to apply stickers or doodles to the photos, with the stickers looking just as kooky as everything else.

Although digital photography was hardly unknown by the time the Game Boy Camera came out, it would still be several years before camera phones4 became commonplace and blew the doors off pervasive amateur photography. Before then, Game Boy Camera offered a relatively inexpensive medium for creative exploration and, given the time frame it was released in, an interesting glimpse into the early days of a movement that would eventually have a huge impact on society.

Game Boy Camera photo of Rockefeller PlazaA few years ago, blogger David Friedman shared a treasure trove of Game Boy Camera photos of New York City, taken in 20005. It’s a wonderful, clunky, pixelated time capsule, and there are plenty of other examples of Game Boy Camera photos on Flickr6.

Given the lack of a sequel of any sort, it’s probably safe to assume that the Game Boy Camera wasn’t a tremendous hit for Nintendo. That being said, the company obviously still had a soft spot for the idea of photography: the Nintendo Wii shipped in 2006 with a digital photo gallery app, and the DSi (2009), 3DS (2011), and Wii U (2012) all featured built-in cameras. And although most people don’t have much use for a clunky, low-resolution black-and-white digital camera in 2019, the Game Boy Camera continues to see a lot of aftermarket attention. Clever folks have built a variety of methods for getting the images off the camera and onto computers7, although your humble author has always been perfectly happy just taking a photograph of the Game Boy screen with his smartphone.

Kirby Tilt ’n‘ Tumble

Kirby Tilt ’n‘ Tumble cartridgeKirby Tilt ’n‘ Tumble was the first instance of a new form of gameplay input being built into a Game Boy cartridge8. Released for the Game Boy Color in 2000, this bright pink cartridge had an accelerometer inside, making it possible—mandatory, actually—for players to control the titular character by tilting their Game Boy.

The gameplay is roughly on par with numerous tilt-controlled mobile games from the late 2000s—Kirby, rolled into a ball, must be guided to an exit by tilting the Game Boy, and he collects items on his way. Requiring the gross manipulation of a real-world object rather than having a player just push buttons lent the game a novel sort of intensity, and it was generally well-received. Despite the positive reception, no additional games with accelerometers were ever released for the Game Boy Color (although there were two for the Game Boy Advance9.

Screenshot of Kirby Tilt ’n‘ Tumble calibration screen
Players had to manually calibrate the accelerometer.

Tumble was created by a company called HAL Laboratory, a second-party developer10 that has enjoyed a close relationship with Nintendo for many years. HAL Laboratory’s president, Satoru Iwata, took a job at Nintendo roughly around when this game was released, going on to become president of Nintendo itself two years later. Given the timing, one has to wonder if Mr. Iwata brought an interest in motion controls with him to the larger company. After all, the Wii, released in 2006, was all-in on motion controls, not to mention powered by accelerometers not unlike the ones inside of Tumble. Of course, we don’t have to swallow this conspiratorial bent wholesale—the first iPhone, released in 2007, also made heavy use of accelerometers, ultimately leading to a deluge of motion-controlled mobile games over the first few years of its life. It’s possible that accelerometer-powered motion control was just an idea whose time had come.

WarioWare: Twisted!

WarioWare: Twisted! cartridge The second entry in the long-running WarioWare series, 2004’s WarioWare: Twisted! for the Game Boy Advance not only featured a custom input, but a custom output as well: a gyroscope detected how the player was holding their Game Boy Advance, and a small vibrating motor offered a rumble feature for force-feedback. Although the rumble feature wasn’t novel, the gyroscope was11.

Like its predecessor, Twisted! was a compilation of so-called “microgames”, small challenges that had to be explained, understood, and completed in just a few seconds. Most of the microgames in this iteration relied on the gyroscope, requiring players to twist and rotate their Game Boy in a particular way under immense time pressure. Twisted! was a big hit for Nintendo and the first step in transforming the WarioWare concept from a one-hit wonder to a long-running series. In the fifteen years since it was released, six additional sequels have been released.

Screenshot of a WarioWare: Twisted! microgame
Twisting Wario's spine back into alignment in one of the microgames.

Just as with Kirby Tilt ’n‘ Tumble, if you squint hard enough, you can see Twisted! as a step on the road toward the Wii. A few years after the Wii was released, its accelerometer-based controllers were supplemented by a gyroscope-powered add-on called the MotionPlus. Accelerometers, as used in Kirby Tilt ’n‘ Tumble and the original Wii controller, measure acceleration. This is useful for measuring changes in orientation or sharp movements, but they can’t really detect how you’re actually holding something.Gyroscopes, Instead of measuring movement, measure orientation, which enables a much finer sort of motion control. When these two sensors are combined together, as they are in the MotionPlus, very precise motion control is possible.

Twisted! was the only WarioWare game to include custom hardware, but the experimentation with gameplay styles continued on: Touched! (2004) made use of the DS stylus, Smooth Moves (2006) relied on Wii’s motion controls, and Snapped! (2008) used the DSi camera. The WarioWare series is a sort of proving ground for quirky gameplay ideas, and its experimentation with novel forms of input got started here.

Conclusion

Each of these cartridges brought something new and interesting to their respective consoles, but building additional hardware into cartridges had its downsides. Most obviously, these cartridges were more expensive to make, meaning the additional hardware really had to be worth the extra effort. It’s not surprising that this practice was a relatively rare occurrence, but, sometimes, it could lead to novel—and even unique—experiences for players.

So, in keeping with the recurring theme from this series, it’s worth taking yet another moment to appreciate the amazing flexibility that cartridges offered gamers during their heyday. Next time, we’ll close this series out with a look at some cartridges that really thought outside of the box, offering gamers connectivity to the outside world. Stay tuned.

Many thanks to my patient and helpful wife, Nathalie, for copyediting this article.

Footnotes

  1. The Sony PlayStation Portable is the only portable game system I am aware of that used optical discs—Universal Media Discs—as their media format. ↩︎

  2. You can pick up a used copy of the 1999 edition of The Guiness Book of Records for about $4 on eBay, or you can take Petapixel’s word for it. ↩︎

  3. Of the 45 titles Gamefreak released from their founding in 1989 through to the end of 2018, two-thirds were Pokémon-related. ↩︎

  4. Options range from highly polished products like the BitBoy to do-it-yourself solutions like this Arduino-based solution. Vintage hardware enthusiasts can even pick up a MadCatz Camera Link, a product that was released back when the Game Boy Camera was still on the market. ↩︎

  5. Camera phones have a fascinating history. Although it took until the mid-2000s before they became ubiquitous, a pretty fully-realized camera phone was patented in 1997. ↩︎

  6. David Friedman wrote about the discovery on his blog in 2014, and was gracious enough to allow me to embed one of the photos in this post. Thank you, David. ↩︎

  7. Flickr arrived a few years after whatever hey-day the Game Boy Camera had, but there are still plenty of wonderful photos to look through in the GameBoy Camera photo pool. As far as I can tell, this photo of a Christmas tree from 2004 is the first Game Boy Camera photo on Flickr. ↩︎

  8. One could argue that this honour should go to the the Game Boy Pocket Sonar, a Japan-only fish locator, but since the sonar wasn’t actually used to control the minigames that were built into the cartridge, it doesn’t really count as an input device. ↩︎

  9. Koro Koro Puzzle Happy Panechu! (2002) and Yoshi’s Universal Gravitation (2004), both published by Nintendo. ↩︎

  10. A “second-party“ developer is a game studio that produces titles exclusively for a particular platform holder. ↩︎

  11. The Game Boy Color port of Vigilante 8, released in 1998, was the first game on any Game Boy console to include a rumble feature. ↩︎

Image sources