Growing up in the ’90s, all of my gaming was relentlessly loud and competitive. My three older brothers and I spent hours in Super Smash Bros., Mario Party, and Mario Kart. We set up LAN matches in StarCraft and Warcraft 2. My mom saw games as a group activity, something to eat up our time and presumably give her a break.
It wasn’t until I scored a Game Boy that I discovered gaming didn’t have to be a social activity; it could be enjoyed blissfully solo.
Our family Game Boy was one of the original models — bulky, with a plastic overhanging light attachment and too much tape residue over the battery pack. When I was six, my parents took me to Best Buy and bought me Pokémon. Standing front of a rack of games, choosing between Red and Blue, a story just for me, was a milestone.
By the time I had started playing in the car, I was hooked.
Having a portal to escape to, all by myself, became an increasing draw. My brother had leukemia as we grew up, and so I have memories of going back and forth in the family van and in subways, sitting in the sterile play area of a doctor’s office. The Game Boy became a tiny sanctuary throughout all of the traveling and uncertainty. I advanced through Pokémon at the snail’s pace of a child who isn’t very good, but is desperate to explore every corner of their own little world.
Back at home, I continued to play our Nintendo 64. My brothers and I would scrimmage in Mario Party, grinding our palms into the joysticks until they blistered. We played Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64 together, with me handing off the controllers for boss fights and my brothers letting me explore and collect keys and skulltulas. I became very good at rushing Reavers in StarCraft on the family Mac, piling them into dropships, and dropping them on resource lines.
It was fun, and it was the best way for us to bond across the difficult gaps of illness and age differences. But I wasn’t very good, and often felt self-conscious. I found the 3D worlds of the Nintendo 64 daunting at that age, and the problem with couch co-op play is that, well, there’s always someone there to point out that you slipped up on that boss fight, or accidentally got lost in the Water Temple. Again.
I don’t think I ever beat Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 or Kirby’s Dream Land, but they were challenges that I could tackle on my own time, without an audience. The couch was messy, bustling, and critical. My Game Boy was a sanctum, a place of quiet.
I didn’t talk to my brothers or my parents about my Pokémon progress, and I paced with excitement in a quiet room when I finally reached the Final Four. Pokémon Blue wasn’t the first game I technically beat, but it was the first game I beat entirely on my own. I carried it on car rides, during hospital visits, and played it throughout turmoil and arguments at home.
I continued to play that grey brick of a handheld device, tape and all, up until I was a teen. When my own health took a turn, and I was admitted to the hospital for a three-week stay, my older brother entrusted me with a purple Game Boy Advance and a plastic sleeve full of games. Both handhelds have been made obsolete by cell phones and tablets and the always accessible games they provide, along with Nintendo’s own hybrid portable console, the Switch.
Thirty years later, I still remember my Game Boy, which survived up and until we packed house and moved. When I was a child, it was an oasis, and its simple controls and graphics belied the power of a device that quiet, handheld, and just for me.