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How Nintendo introduced the Game Boy, Tetris, and Pokémon to the West

We look back ahead of the console’s 30th anniversary

Nintendo couldn’t do much wrong, come 1989. Four years in on the company’s first console, the NES, it had racked up around 28 million system sales worldwide and almost single-handedly revived the failing American video game market. And the previous year Nintendo had expanded its business with a hit magazine, Nintendo Power. But the NES was getting old, and Nintendo wasn’t ready to introduce its successor.

To preserve momentum, Nintendo needed another thing — a new device that would expand the market and strengthen its grip on the youth of the world. The Game Boy would be that thing: a successor to the aging Game & Watch product line and a handheld sibling to the NES, with interchangeable cartridges, a stripped-back color palette, and a comparable button layout.

In Japan, the Game Boy would be an easy sell. It was as perfect a device for children and the common salaryman, a system to play on the go in a fast-paced society. Outside Japan ... well, that was Nintendo of America’s problem — a challenge NoA would prove more than capable of solving, with a little help along the way from Tetris and Pokémon.

This is the story of how the Game Boy made its way into North America, and of the debuts of the two games that defined the long-lived system’s identity.

original Nintendo Game Boy (1989)

“It sounds kind of Japanese”

It was Don Coyner’s job, as marketing manager at Nintendo of America, to figure out how to introduce the Game Boy outside Japan. He remembers first seeing the handheld around March or April in 1989, shortly before its Japanese launch. “I was sitting in my office and [Nintendo of America president Minoru] Arakawa walked in with a Game Boy in his hand and gave it to me and said, ‘We’re launching this at Christmas,’” says Coyner.

“I looked at it and my first reaction was, ‘That’s a really bad name.’ You know: ‘Game Boy.’ He’s like, ‘What do you mean? Why is it a bad name?’ I said, ‘Well, it feels really young. It seems a little bit sexist and it just sounds kind of Japanese.’ He was a very quiet guy, thoughtful guy. He kind of said, ‘Hmm, yeah, we’re not going to change the name.’”

Coyner’s first task was to identify what made the Game Boy special. He thought about the positives — a planned price of $89.95, a comfortable size and “good enough” graphics. What stood out, though, was the experience of playing it. “That’s what people want, right? That sustained gameplay that you can go back to it and go back to and go back to,” he says. “How many times can you play Tetris? Like forever.”

Three of the five North American launch games — Tetris, Tennis, and Baseball — also supported one of the Game Boy’s most unusual features: the link cable that enabled head-to-head multiplayer between devices. “Head-to-head play was this really aspirational thing,” says Coyner. “Not that many people did it, but everyone imagined doing it. And when they did do it, it was really fun. So it was one of those hooks that we sort of grabbed onto as a thing to do.”

With the key selling points of the system decided — portability, head-to-head play, and great games — Coyner next needed to work up a marketing plan for the Game Boy’s August debut and its first Christmas season.

close-up of buttons on original Game Boy (1989)

Launch plans

“We talked about how much money should we spend,” Coyner says, “’cause Arakawa would say, ‘I want to spend $20 million,’ or whatever. I was like, ‘Wow, you don’t really need to spend that much.’ And he said, ‘No, we should. I really want to turn up the heat.’”

This was unusual for Nintendo, which was notoriously frugal. But Arakawa wanted Nintendo’s advertising to generate demand for the Game Boy’s first Christmas season that exceeded its supply. To create an environment of scarcity. Though not too much. “If somebody has to go to a couple of stores and they can’t find it, but then they find it in the third store, that was sort of perfect,” says Coyner. “Because it created just enough excitement and demand for games and for systems.”

Despite the high marketing budget, NoA’s Game Boy advertising stuck to a few core principles. “Pretty much everything we did was targeted to 9- to 14-year-old boys,” says Coyner. “But we would try to do marketing that appealed to the sort of 15- to 16-year-old, because you want to be aspirational, again, and not direct it to a 9-year-old.” Kids are sensitive about having their little brothers’ things, marketers reasoned. “They wanted their older brother’s thing,” Coyner says.

Adults and girls were part of the Game Boy market, too, and they’d sometimes appear in ads for the system, but for the launch, at least, they were considered a secondary market. The focus was making it seem cool to boys through TV advertising.

“It was always hard to shoot TV commercials,” says Coyner, “because without the backlit screen, you know, we had to light it. So if you’re shooting someone using it, you really had to be really careful that you could actually see what they were doing — because it didn’t work very well.”

If all NoA needed was pure gameplay footage, that was easy. It had a machine to get what it needed. “But if we were trying to actually show someone actually using it, that was really almost impossible,” says Coyner. As a result, NoA adopted a rapid-cutting style — tiny snippets of games mixed with a barrage of edgy voice-over, side and rear-angled shots of Game Boys in use, and over-the-top dramatization.

That led to quirky ads like the one where you see a futuristic robot playing the “outrageous new game” Tetris head-to-head with a teenage boy, with barely a second of actual game footage, and another talking up the Game Boy as the cure for the pains of constantly moving through the “adult world.”

These ads formed one of Nintendo’s key marketing pillars. “They were big believers in television advertising,” says Coyner. “That was where 95 percent of the [marketing] money was spent.” The rest was mainly distributed between initiatives connected to Nintendo Power and point of sale displays — in-store demo kiosks where people could try the system out for themselves. “That was always a big, big focus as well for Nintendo,” says Coyner.

All of Nintendo’s marketing typically centered around one focal point, one standout game for each system. “Usually it was the game that came with it,” Coyner adds. For the Game Boy, that meant Tetris.

The Game Boy had come out in Japan without any pack-in games, but for North America Nintendo initially planned on including Super Mario Land with every sale of the system. Bullet-Proof Software founder Henk Rogers had a better idea.

photo of original Game Boy with Tetris game cartridge

Falling blocks

Rogers had released a version of Tetris for the Famicom and eight other personal computers in Japan around Christmas the previous year, and had been chasing handheld publishing rights for the game. He hoped to put Tetris on the Sharp Wizard, which was one of the first PDAs (personal digital assistants). Then he heard about the Game Boy.

“I knew it was the perfect game for Game Boy,” he says. Its blocks would remain clearly visible on the tiny screen, unlike bullets and other small objects in most action games, and better yet, it fit well with the portable nature of the handheld. “It’s a perfect little game that you want to play just for a couple of minutes between subway stops,” Rogers says.

Recognizing a great opportunity, he turned his attention to putting Tetris on the Game Boy. “I hired Robert Stein to help me get the Game Boy rights and I paid him $25,000 as an upfront,” Rogers says.

The copyright for Tetris was held by Elorg, a Russian government agency responsible for all hardware and software exports, so all negotiations to publish the game commercially had to go through it — a task made more arduous by the strict travel restrictions Russia imposed on foreigners at the time. But Stein had dealt with the bureaucracy before: He had brokered a deal for personal computer rights, and also had been selling the arcade and console rights to Western companies.

Come January, Rogers heard from Nintendo that somebody else was trying to sell them the Game Boy rights. He convinced them to give him more time.

animation of an L-shaped Tetris block rotating

“In February, Stein told me he was going to some show in Germany,” says Rogers, “and he’ll be there for a week. Then he’s going to go to Moscow and he’s going to be there for a week, and then I should show up. There was no explanation. It was just weird — you know, he wants me to show up a week after he shows up, and then there was somebody else trying to get the Game Boy rights.”

“I thought he was double-dipping,” Rogers continues. “And so I got on a plane and went to Moscow. So I was there the same week that he was there. And it turns out that he had already sold rights that he didn’t have [for console and arcade versions of Tetris], and he had to clean up the mess that he had made.”

Rogers was terrified that he was about to lose not only the Game Boy rights that he’d spent months going after, but also the 200,000 cartridges of Famicom Tetris he’d had manufactured with his in-laws’ property as collateral. Luckily for him, Nintendo was on his side. Arakawa flew in with his right-hand man Howard Lincoln to help secure a deal, and Elorg granted them exclusive rights to publish Tetris on handheld systems and consoles. (As a result, Sega and Tengen had to destroy the remaining copies of their respective console versions.) Stein left with the home computer and arcade rights.

Not content to just release a Game Boy Tetris, Rogers tried to sell Nintendo of America on the idea that Tetris — not Super Mario Land — should be the Game Boy’s pack-in title. “I remember this conversation very clearly,” he says. “‘Mr. Arakawa, I think you should include Tetris with the Game Boy.’ And he said to me, ‘Why should I include Tetris? I have Mario.’ I said, ‘Well, if you want little boys to buy your Game Boy, then include Mario. But if you want everyone to buy your Game Boy, then include Tetris. You can still sell Mario afterwards.’”

This was more than just the blustering of a businessman. Rogers had previously succeeded with the home computer and Famicom RPG The Black Onyx, and Famicom Tetris was fast becoming a hit — both internally at Nintendo, where even the secretaries and accountants would play the game during their lunch hour, and externally at retail — where it went on to sell 2 million copies in Japan.

Arakawa agreed: Tetris would come with every Game Boy.

In keeping with Coyner’s marketing wisdom to focus on just one game, that also meant Tetris would become the centerpiece in Nintendo of America’s launch plans for the Game Boy. This was easier said than done. Tetris was a hard sell to anyone who hadn’t played it.

Nintendo Power founding editor-in-chief Gail Tilden recalls that the Game Boy was a challenge to cover at the best of times. “You could call it black and white, but it was really almost gray, green, and black,” she says, “and it’s not very interesting to look at. So one of the big challenges was that it just didn’t look very fun or colorful or entertaining, the way that NES did — and then very shortly after, Super NES.”

With Tetris it was worse, because it’s an abstract game. “It’s blocks, not characters,” Tilden continues, “and so it was hard to make it feel entertaining. But Mr. Arakawa really wanted to feature Tetris heavily.” He asked Nintendo Power to do a couple of big feature articles on Tetris. “We thought it was going to be the most boring thing,” Tilden says. Both stories ended up leaning heavily on Nintendo Power mascots Howard and Nester. “And they, kind of in their snarky way, are talking you through various strategies,” Tilden says.

animation of a J-shaped Tetris block rotating

Tetris and the Game Boy more generally may have been hard to advertise effectively, but it didn’t seem to matter. Excitement about both the system and its best game grew quickly — especially with Nintendo’s carefully-crafted environment of scarcity.

A Wall Street Journal report from October 1989 pointed to the Game Boy as the likely “star of the Christmas season,” with quotes from Toys R Us chief financial officer Michael Goldstein and Kay-Bee Toys vice president Duke DeMyer talking up the system as their biggest product while bemoaning its limited production. The same article noted that supplies of Game Boy systems were expected to fall short of holiday-season demand by more than 2 million units.

“The general sentiment was everyone wanted as many as they could get,” says Coyner. “It was $89, with a game, and the battery life was good. “It’s the perfect price point for your 14-year-old or 10-year-old kid. And it was kind of magical, and of course Nintendo was on such a roll right around then. Man, everything was coming up roses and they couldn’t get enough.”

You might say they didn’t. Nintendo produced a million Game Boys for the U.S. in 1989 and sold all of them. After three years, American sales stood at 9 million units. By the time the Game Boy Color came out in late 1998, the original Game Boy had surpassed 64 million sales worldwide. And through much of that time, Game Boy was synonymous with Tetris.

“It was two things that were able to come together at the same time,” says Tilden. “Having that portability of gaming was very new in terms of something that had cartridges. And Tetris was the killer app. And when you have those two things together and everybody wants to play and gets addicted to playing, and a new form factor, I think that they just worked perfectly together.”

But the Game Boy’s longevity — discontinued, finally, in 2003 — would owe as much to a game about catching and training pocket monsters as to a game about falling blocks. Pokémon Red and Blue would reinvigorate the Game Boy around the globe, along the way kicking off another multibillion-dollar franchise.

photo of the top of the original Game Boy, with system lying on its back

Gotta catch ’em all

Pokémon’s success outside Japan was anything but assured. The two flavors, each with 139 of the main 150 Pokémon (plus one hidden one) available to catch and trade, were released in Japan in 1996 to instant acclaim. But at first Nintendo of America wasn’t sure what to do about the game. A year in and with the game still getting bigger and bigger every month, team members wondered if it could ever work stateside.

“An RPG on Game Boy just seemed deadly. And it was very Japanese, culturally speaking, from our point of view,” Tilden says. “Like, the reason kids like it in Japan is they like RPGs a lot more, it’s on Game Boy, it’s in black and white, very complicated. And it was supported in Japan by a manga — a comic — that was reinforcing the story, [which was] also very Japanese. Kids were reading that comic book and getting more of the story.”

Nintendo of America’s marketing team worried American kids might not have the attention span for a franchise so labyrinthine. “I think also that the marketing team felt a lot of competitive pressure about things being hip and cool and appealing older,” Tilden says. Sega and Sony had all the cool cred, in other words, and Nintendo didn’t like it. But Pokémon was too popular in Japan to not at least try to adapt it for the American market.

“And so quite a bit of time was spent where groups of people — and I would be included in some of that — would look at the game,” says Tilden, “and think about what could we do with it here? The ad agency came up with a few concepts like, ‘Well, maybe it could be a baseball metaphor. Maybe we should change the look and feel of the characters and go with something very graffiti-like and gritty. And the characters themselves will be much edgier.’”

While they talked, however, Pokémon blossomed as a cultural phenomenon in Japan. “There were comics that were getting picked up to become TV series, and movies were in the works,” says Tilden, “and there were all these things happening. So that by the time we finished debating what we could do, the ball [had] just rolled past us.”

It was too late to change the game. They had to localize it, as-is, which meant coming up with English names for all 151 Pokémon that would match the intention of the Japanese version — like the fire Pokémon Charmander, which combines “char” for fire with “salamander” for its lizard characteristics.

“And at the same time,” Tilden says, “knowing that it wasn’t just the Game Boy game that was happening, and it was a full franchise with a very, very well-orchestrated rollout in Japan, our president, Mr. Arakawa, felt that in order to experience a similar success we had to have a similar approach.”

That meant creating a brand management effort to centrally manage all of these different parts of the franchise — the games, trading cards, TV show, comics, movies, and toys — out of Nintendo of America. Tilden was asked to lead the effort. “So I had to leave Nintendo Power and publications and start a new team,” she says.

That team made a deal with 4Kids Entertainment to help manage and arrange licensing and merchandise, then the two companies together devised a strategy for introducing Pokémon to the West. The approach centered on one simple hook: collectability. Gotta catch ’em all.

Unlike in Japan, the team planned to introduce the TV show first — to hook kids on the narrative and theme in the hopes that the brand would then overcome resistance to complex role-playing game mechanics. The Red and Blue games would follow a few weeks after the TV show, in late September 1998.

But still, Nintendo had two major problems. The first was that television networks weren’t interested: They all turned the show down. To get penetration across most of the country, 4Kids had to barter Nintendo’s advertising budget for airtime on local stations.

“I believe we managed to get to about 80 percent coverage through that method,” says Tilden. With that solved, they still needed to explain to the audience why Pokémon was great. All this work to localize Pokémon for the American market wouldn’t mean a thing if they couldn’t get people excited enough to give it a shot.

“We used a technique that we had used with Donkey Kong Country, which was to send all of the subscribers of Nintendo Power, as well as others on our mailing list, a videotape that explained the franchise,” says Tilden. The mailing label included details on when and how to watch the show.

“The video explained what Pokémon was,” Tilden says. “What the whole concept was. And it showed that there was the Game Boy games, and that there would be toys and there would be a card game. And there was this TV show, and of course clips of the TV show were in the video.”

Nintendo of America’s PR agency, Golin Harris, had a clever idea to drum up more interest in the lead-up to launch. “Their idea was to turn the brand-new Volkswagen beetle into Pikachu, and they would get 10 of them,” says Tilden. “They had 10 people in yellow flight suits parachute out of a plane in ToPikachu, Kansas — Topeka, Kansas, being renamed ToPikachu — run and get into these yellow Pikachu bugs, and drive [them] around the U.S.” Everywhere they went, they’d hand out promotional material and show the games in action.

Pokémon got fast-food tie-ins and school book cover promotions, too. All in, Nintendo spent $15-20 million on a saturation marketing campaign, hoping to manufacture a phenomenon globally in a matter of months that could match the one that had emerged organically over a few years in Japan.

It worked. The game took less than a month to hit 400,000 copies sold in the U.S. and a mere 10 months to reach 4 million units, on its way to lifetime combined sales of nearly 10 million in the U.S. and 31 million worldwide. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. picked up the TV show in February 1999 for national broadcast, whereupon it held the No. 1 spot in Saturday morning ratings for 14 straight weeks, and in November, Pokémon: The First Movie opened at the top of the domestic box office. By the end of 1999, barely more than a year after Pokémon’s U.S. debut and just a few years after its Japanese introduction, the Pokémon franchise cracked $7 billion in global lifetime revenues.

Far from sinking in the American market, Pokémon had single-handedly revitalized the Game Boy. Over the next few years, revenues lifted across the whole Game Boy market. Combined hardware sales across Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket, and its backward-compatible Color successor rose every year, from 10.37 million in 1998 to 18.86 million in 2001, nearly doubling the system’s lifetime sales during that period. Game sales on the handheld jumped up by more than 200 million units over the same four-year period — no doubt aided by the releases of Pokémon Yellow, Gold, Silver, and Crystal — on the way to a lifetime tally of 501 million worldwide.

Tilden thinks the key to this success — to Pokémon’s immense popularity and its impact on the Game Boy market everywhere — was the way its world and concept came together into something magical. Entertainment franchises that do this — like Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, Harry Potter, and Tetris — transcend cultural barriers, she suggests.

“And I think that the best thing to say is that it was our job not to screw it up.”

animation of a Poké Ball swaying between a J-shaped Tetris block and an S-shaped Tetris block