December in New England. A time of year when anything not dead and grey is miserable and frozen; and that includes many of the people. A time of year when saturation is a moot point and color balance matters not (colors, in fact, are only seen in memories and dreams). Today I decided to pick a camera that would most aptly capture the feeling and tone of this bleak hellscape. I present to you, the Nintendo Game Boy Camera.
The idea for this article about an ancient video game-based toy camera from 1998 sprung from the delivery to my home of a brand new product. I ordered the Analogue Pocket over two years ago and it’s finally arrived. Twenty-four hours after unpacking the new retro-modern handheld gaming device, it’s very clear that it was worth the wait.
Normally my two favorite hobbies, retro video games and retro cameras, would never intersect and the itch that I have to create content around retro gaming would never be scratched here on CP. (This itch is where my pet project GGDreamcast and its associated YouTube channel came from.) But since the Analogue Pocket is a modern reinterpretation of the original Game Boy, I’m able to plug and play and shoot with my ancient Game Boy Camera! (The Analogue Pocket can also play Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, SEGA GameGear, Neo Geo Pocket Color, and more!)
I don’t need a better excuse to write an article about a game-liker product for the pages of my website made for camera-likers. So, here we go. Let’s look at my Game Boy Camera.
What is the Game Boy Camera
The Nintendo Game Boy Camera (named the Pocket Camera in Japan) was released in 1998 and produced until 2002 as an accessory/game for the Nintendo Game Boy handheld video game system. The Game Boy Camera is a toy digital camera which could be used by Game Boy players to shoot, edit, share, and print simple grayscale photographs.
The camera (and its printer) was co-designed by Masato Kuwahara (who later became project leader for the Nintendo DSi) and Hirozaku “Chip” Tanaka, the pioneer of chip tune music and a veritable video gaming legend (the man’s soundtrack credits include Metroid, Kid Icarus, Super Mario Land, Mother, Dr. Mario and Earthbound).
The camera plugs into any Game Boy system just the same as any Game Boy game would (and as we can see, it can also plug into brand new handheld systems like the Analogue Pocket). A 128×128 pixel CMOS sensor records 128×112 grayscale images using the 4-color palette of the Game Boy system. The camera has the ability to swivel 180 degrees in order to offer either a front- or back-facing view (making it an ideal camera for selfies).
The camera is controlled through the controls of the Game Boy. Images can be manipulated and edited through use of the system’s buttons. Stamps of popular Nintendo characters can be layered onto photographs, as can numerous “stickers” which allow the user to further edit photos with cartoon facial features, graphics, icons, text, and free-hand drawing. Photos can be combined to create animations.
The camera also features a handful of shooting modes and special effect lenses. These include a self-timer, time-lapse shooting, mirror lenses, panorama stitching (the photos made in this mode can then be printed in long strips using the printer), and montage.
When the Game Boy Camera released to the public it was one of the earliest consumer digital cameras, and in 1999 it was featured in the Guinness World Records for being the world’s smallest digital camera (a record which has since been broken).
In addition to the camera functionality, the Game Boy Camera contains a handful of simple games based on early Nintendo games such as Space Fever II and Ball, the game originally found on the classic Nintendo Game & Watch handheld (which has seen resurgence in interest over the past year with the release of new Mario and Zelda Game & Watch collectible systems). The camera’s built-in games are played using the Game Boy controls as well, and some characters within the mini games can have photos of the user’s face superimposed on the character.
When it was released, the Game Boy Camera cost $49.95 and was an instant success. In Japan alone, Nintendo sold over 500,000 units within three weeks of the product’s release. Most buyers also purchased the $59.95 Game Boy Printer, which printed Game Boy Camera photos onto sticker-backed heat transfer paper.
Shooting the Game Boy Camera 24 Years Later
Shooting the Game Boy Camera is a real treat for people like me, who used one twenty-four years ago and who now have a propensity for nostalgia. I’m not sure if the experience would be as lovely for those lacking this particular itch. Those who don’t fondly remember this stupid little device likely won’t feel their hearts glow over the obvious-human-wearing-a-costume Mario that dances immediately after the title for the game populates the screen. But if you’re like me, well, that title screen hits pretty hard.
Using the Game Boy Camera is simple (it was, after all, designed and marketed toward actual children). Simply fire up the Game Boy, point the camera at something, and press the A button. You’ve made a picture.
For the artists among us, there’s a contrast slider and brightness control. These rudimentary controls do actually impact the final image, but exceeding the central zones of these sliders will likely lead to a totally useless image. The CMOS sensor is tiny and the photos this camera makes are naturally of extremely low resolution and quality. With just four total pixel variations (ranging from light to dark in a single color), there’s essentially no dynamic range.
Images from the Game Boy Camera are pretty ridiculous. And when we print them out on the Game Boy Printer, they’re pretty horrible. At least, mine were. And that’s (presumably) because the heat-transfer printer paper that I have is twenty years old, or that my printer itself just isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do anymore. Who knows.
Let’s be honest. These photos and the camera that makes them defy review. I will not even attempt to treat the Game Boy Camera as if it were a real camera.
But wait! I just learned that the Game Boy Camera was once used by a PhD student to successfully photograph Jupiter through a 10″ telescope. Maybe this is a real camera after all!
No, no. Let’s be real. This thing is a nostalgia machine. In 2021 and beyond it exists not to make good photos. It exists today to bring a smile to the face of an aging dad, to share the dad’s childhood with their young kid, and to cause the dad to hear himself say aloud (and with horror) the phrase “Back when I was your age…”
Damn, we’re getting old.
But that’s okay.
It’s better being older. We can buy the stuff we wanted when we were little, and we can afford to buy Game Boy Printer paper which our parents would never spring for! And though the passage of time gives us pangs of nostalgia so bad it hurts, it also gives us amazing new devices like the Analogue Pocket, which absolutely destroy the products of our youth in the spec department! (The Analogue Pocket’s 3.5 inch screen has a native resolution ten times that of the original Game Boy. TEN!)
What a time to be alive.
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