Meet the developers making OG Game Boy games in 2021
Here’s an unavoidable fact: the original Nintendo Game Boy is reaching middle age. The world may have moved on to sleeker, less bulky technology since Nintendo’s first portable landed in shopping malls and mom-and-pop electronics stores back in 1989. But a number of developers are returning to the green hue of Nintendo’s flagship handheld to explore new ideas for the platform, using the classics as a template.
“Pokémon and Zelda are obvious, really surface level,” Izma, creator of new Game Boy game Deadeus, says of his inspirations. “But then there’s some that I would say are a little deeper. Lisa: The Painful, the vibe and tone of that game heavily influenced [Deadeus]. Things like Tower of Heaven, a flash Game Boy-style game—the narrative’s not the emphasis of the game, but there are certain beats that I tried to match here.”
Currently a full-time UI artist at Coatsink games, Izma began making Deadeus during a game jam with some friends from Magic Leap Studios. They used GB Studio, a free engine for building games to the specifications of a standard Game Boy. Izma had been toying with the Game Boy’s art style in GameMaker and found using GB Studio to be compelling enough to flesh out a fuller version of what he’d started.
Centered around a young boy trying to avoid a catastrophic event over the course of three days, Deadeus is a tad higher concept than your average Game Boy thriller. It may borrow the trappings of Pokémon Red and Blue, but this strange adventure is more Donnie Darko than Link’s Awakening, featuring multiple paths to its 11 different endings.
Izma believes some of that childlike, Game Boy lightheartedness still slipped in, though. “I spent a lot of time looking at the back catalogue of the Game Boy games when I was making it,” he said. “A lot of it [is what] I’ve called in the past ‘Halloween horror’—like horror-themed rather than meant to scare. Which is 100 percent understandable with it being a handheld game and the target audience, but I think a little bit of that’s in there as well.”
Freely available on Itch.io, a limited physical run of Deadeus was also sold through Spacebot Interactive, a one-man publisher founded by Chris Reach. Spacebot got its start when Reach decided to sell his own Game Boy fantasy RPG, Dragonborne. Slowly expanding to include more creators, he wants to build a library that expands what people expect from Nintendo’s oldest handheld.
“I spent a lot of time looking at the back catalogue of the Game Boy games… a lot of it [is] ‘Halloween horror,’ like horror-themed rather than meant to scare.”Deadeus developer Izma
“I find it so cool to see games being developed for the Game Boy that we would have never had back in its day,” Reach said via email. “I actually have another game that’s very different to anything else I’ve played, which is lined up for release.”
A labor of love
Spacebot is one of several publishers that’s distributing Game Boy games as if we were still in the mid-’90s, using era-appropriate boxes, instruction manuals, and cartridges to complete the physical package. The disparate parts are ordered wholesale, then put together by hand by what is often just one person.
It’s all a labor of love, fueled by a mix of youthful longing and ease-of-access by people for whom the physical Game Boy holds a certain magic. These are emphatic collectors creating their own version of vinyl; instead of 12-inch LPs in wild colors, they’re making small gray squares that usually have less than one megabyte of storage.
Sentimentality is key to Spacebot. The first hurdle for developers that want to be part of the publisher’s growing line of Game Boy titles is piquing Reach’s interest. That means presenting something that gives him “that excitement and spark of nostalgia,” as well as a clear vision for the project and who it’ll appeal to. Once an agreement is reached, a rigorous bug-testing process starts, before moving on to designing the art and inlays, running a preorder, and then meeting demand.
This splits the workload from development through to getting carts in people’s hands, and some operate without the middle-man. John Roo has been his own publisher since he started selling his game, Quest Arrest, on bona fide Game Boy hardware. A spiritual successor to Sierra‘s Police Quest games, Quest Arrest is an investigative RPG with seven different endings, unlocked based on how competent you are as a player. Like Deadeus, it was made using GB Studio, though Roo had to make some custom alterations to the engine to suit his needs.
“I was forced to get creative. Now, you can build menus and all these kinds of things, but that wasn’t available to me when I was building Quest Arrest,” Roo tells me. “These simple functions that are available in the engine now were nonexistent then. It was things that they ended up adding into the engine later and making them normal functions, that I was adding in myself.”
A souped-up engine
GB Studio continues to be updated by creator Chris Maltby–version 2.0.0 just entered beta–and its simple functionality has been a central force in the gradual rise in Game Boy and retro-styled development. The tool itself is based on software that’s been on the web since the late ’90s, when developers finding each other online was a very different experience.
“The Game Boy community back in 1999 was mainly set around the IIRC channel, GBDev,” Super JetPak DX co-developer Quang Nguyen said, “We used to hang out in there a lot, and there [were] a bunch of Game Boy development websites linked together by webrings.”
At that point, the Game Boy Color was only a year old, and the system was thriving. Like-minded homebrew creators shared knowledge on coding and such through message boards and chat rooms, spurred on by Michael Hope and Pascal Felbar’s GBDK, an open source Game Boy development kit.
“People told me a lot when I started to get into [game development] that you can learn any code that you want to, but if you don’t understand how the logic of a game works, it’s going to be difficult to do anything.”Deadeus developer Izma
Using that software, Nguyen remade 1983’s Jetpac, a ZX Spectrum game, as Super Jetpak and released it online. Two decades later, after the 2020 lockdowns caused Nguyen to become unemployed, he and his brother became full-time developers under Asobi.tech and released Super Jetpak DX, an improved Game Boy Color version of that initial remake.
Hope and Felbar have long abandoned work on GBDK, but a number of fans have since resurrected it as GBDK 2020. At least some of GB Studio is based on that update, meaning developers now are drawing on the past ingenuity of those GBDev members, whether they know it or not. Nguyen still uses GBDK and has shared all his old source code and design documents since beginning Super Jetpak DX.
The latest iteration of GB Studio features more variety than ever, including the power to implement point-and-click mechanics through the Game Boy interface. Further boundary-pushing is coming out of devs who brave the waters of manually coding Game Boy games in C and assembly, a practice practically every developer I talked to mentioned as difficult at best. Tools like GB Studio and GBDK 2020 make it easier to turn your idea into something playable, even if your options are narrower.
Forever your Boy
“People told me a lot when I started to get into [game development] that you can learn any code that you want to, but if you don’t understand how the logic of a game works, it’s going to be difficult to do anything,” Izma explains. “With GB Studio, [by] entering the code in a much more entry-level way, it scoops the difficult bit out, and you can experiment and learn that way.”
Roo’s next game is well underway. Using the online moniker The Retro Room Roo, he plans to publish and produce more ’90s-inspired art and media. Izma is toying with something else Game Boy-related, while Asobi.tech is working to get the second print run of Super JetPak DX, from Pocket Pixel Design, out the door after a number of delays.
Regardless of what anyone does, as long as Roo, Izma, and Maltby pass on their knowledge as Nguyen and those ’90s homebrewers did before, Game Boy game development is set to continue for many years to come.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Nguyen said. “Stuff I learned was from stuff people did before, and the stuff that people do now is stuff that I did before. A lot of people are still using the old tools. We have a GBDK 2020 Discord, and since it’s open source, it’s great to see a younger generation taking this old source code and developing it further, fixing the bugs.”