Remembering the Games That Made Nintendo's Game Boy a Phenomenon

The grandfather of handheld video game system, the Nintendo Game Boy, was ushered into existence 25 years ago today. 

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The grandfather of handheld video game system, the Nintendo Game Boy, was ushered into existence 25 years ago today. Now a dinosaur by today's standards (maybe it's time to call it a "Game Man"?) the portable, two-tone brick practically invented the modern mobile gaming era when it hit the market in Japan on April 21, 1989. Most now are collector's items sitting unused in dusty drawers, but that doesn't mean the legacy it created — and the games it launched — are forgotten.

Long before you could flap or run or fruit slice your way through a boring flight or train ride, the Game Boy was the only way to digitally pass the time on the road. While very few people still use their old boxes today — it was later replaced by the flashier Nintendo DS and now, your phone — many of the games it spawned or perfected are still with us in some form. Here we mark the Game Boy's 25 years of history, by looking at the best-selling, most popular games in its history.

Super Mario Land – 1989

Today specifically marks the day the Game Boy was released in Japan, when it was paired with its first game, Super Mario Land. The game sold more than 18 million copies and was the driving force behind the early adoption of (and love for) the handheld system. All these years later, Mario still has to jump and Peach still needs saving, no matter what Nintendo system you call home.

Tetris – 1989

It's hard to imagine a simpler, yet more desperately addicting game than the one that seemed to captivate every person you knew; even your least nerdy family members. Nintendo bundled Tetris with the Game Boy when it went on sale in the U.S. in August 1989, and with about 35 million sales it stands as the best-selling game in the system's history. "Tetris was the game that made the Game Boy brand a true gaming giant," Nintendo Magazine wrote. Even today, Tetris remains one of the most popular games on mobile smartphones, passing 100 million downloads back in 2010. Tetris may not have needed Game Boy to take over the gaming world, but it might be more accurate to say that Tetris put the Game Boy on the map. Building-sized or pocket-sized, Tetris lives on.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening – 1993

The Zelda games took a while to arrive on Game Boy from the Super Nintendo, but once they did, the series exploded in popularity. It was one of the few Zelda games that didn't even have Princess Zelda in it, strangely. Over three million copies in sales is smaller, comparatively, but the game's success allowed Nintendo to keep innovating in the Zelda franchise, one of the key anchors of all their console launches.

Pokémon – 1997

(AP Photo/Fred Greaves)

Pokémon — those "pocket monsters" — quite literally took its name with the Game Boy in mind. And has the Pokémon Era really ever ended? The powerful little guys hit the scene in 1997 with the Blue and Red versions, followed by the Pikachu-focused Yellow soon after. It's been 17 years since those days, and the Pokémon games have effectively covered the color spectrum. Considering the recent enthusiasm for the thousands of people who played Pokémon online simultaneously with Twitch Plays Pokémon, we're still catching 'em all long after Pokémon left our pockets and ventured into other realms.

Ironically, the lasting success of the Game Boy might have hindered Nintendo's progress among the latest generation of gamers. While most of the world now gets this mobile fix with smartphone game, Nintendo has been wary of giving up on its console dreams to enter that market. But there is hope yet: Nintendo recently announced it would make a few smartphone games to turn sagging sales around. The Game Boy console may be gone, but its influence continues to be felt, even when your Angry Birds start chirping.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.