Life is full of little rituals, and little rituals are also a huge part of the appeal of games. Build orders, sending loot off on your pet, typing out a cheery GG. But the best rituals go beyond any individual games. They exist, as platform holders might say, at the hardware level.
Here’s a favourite. I find a spot in the park. I check for the position of the sun. I arrange bag and book and Tesco Meal Deal, lie back and then fiddle with the screen of the tiny device I’m holding just so, until it catches the light and comes to life.
For a while this year, this was a ritual I performed while sitting in the park with a Playdate. But the ritual was slightly complicated, because it harkened back to the real deal, which for me was arranging the reflective screen of the Game Boy Advance when sat by the sash window in my old bedsit. A few weeks ago, I wanted to go past even that former ritual. I wanted to go to the source, to the land before the GBA. I dug out the silver Game Boy Pocket I bought on eBay a while back – boxed! – and then filed somewhere on a bookshelf. I found the 4 double-As I assumed I’d need and then found the two triple-As I actually needed, jammed in Tetris, and headed to the park.
You know what? It was different. It feels different. And I almost hate to say it, but here we are: the Game Boy feels more pure somehow. This was – not the Pocket necessarily but go with it – the first of these screens that needed to be angled to the light. And when you get the light just right, I swear the screen is actually better and sharper and more intoxicating than anything backlit. This is clearly not literally true, but still. The ritual makes it better, and the perseverance makes it better. And the knowledge that you’re using this screen to make your triple-As go a bit further doesn’t hurt either.
What I’ve found out these past few weeks, is that the Game Boy is still it. It’s where it’s at. It’s the business. It’s still the most pleasing of all handhelds, in its own way – more charismatic than the Switch, more focused than the Vita. It’s fun, but it’s also almost serious, because it’s serious about fun and nothing else. It doesn’t play music. It doesn’t allow for messaging services or apps or keeping track of what your friends are playing. When you remove a game from it, the game is forgotten. The Game Boy keeps no track of what it’s played, for how long, what day it is, who it’s owned by, any of that jazz. Basic, yes. Limited, certainly. But also pure.
Argh: I’m going to say it. If you love solitude, the Game Boy is happiness itself. It’s you and a screen and a game on the screen and no distractions, nobody else elbowing in. And the purity of the device seems shared by the games you can play on it.
Actually, this is purity itself on another level: I have four Game Boy games at the moment, all the others being up in the loft somewhere. And only three of them I’ve been playing. The fourth, I’ll tell you now, is the completely stellar James Bond game that borrows so much from Zelda, but we’re going to do something special on that in a few weeks so I haven’t fired it up yet. (I should mention also that I first heard about this game on the wonderful The Back Page Podcast.) This has been torture in a way, but even then a very pure torture. The three games I have played: Tetris, obv. Mole Mania. Duck Tales. That last one because, beyond being an absolute classic, it’s my wife’s favourite, and instantly plunges her into the chiptune and Capcom version of a Proustian involuntary memory. It flings her out somewhere along her personal version of Swann’s Way, a place she obviously likes to explore alone, because the Game Boy, and so much that’s good about it, is a deeply solitary thing.
Mole Mania has been great, and somewhat puzzling. I bought this a while back as an old Nintendo curio. It’s pretty much a lost classic – although these days little about Nintendo is very deeply lost. It’s a puzzle game with a narrative and bosses strung through it. You play a mole, and the initial gimmick is that when you reach an obstacle in the top-down world you’re exploring, you can dig down and maybe make progress in a second top-down world which represents the same space but underground.
Complications are added quickly, and it’s a neat, pacy thing. But Mole Mania feels ingenious rather than genuinely fun, I think. I hate to say it, but I play it and admire it rather than love it, and I reach for it because I feel I should play some more, rather than because I absolutely have to.
What it really feels like – and this is the part of it that I love – is a scrapbook of puzzle and mechanics ideas that might feed into other games. There’s a lot of Zelda DNA here, and a lot of Mario DNA in places. It feels like one of those start-up incubators that companies have in Silicon Valley. Not bad for a fiver on eBay.
Tetris, though? Oh god, is it unbearable of me to say that I’ve finally started to see what some people mean when they say this is the best version of Tetris ever? The Game Boy Tetris. It certainly has the best aesthetic, that aesthetic being the general aesthetic of the Game Boy, I guess, which is probably cheating. But I play it now and it feels like a spiritual twin of the device in my hands that it also helped to define. The Game Boy does nothing but play games. Tetris does nothing but play two versions of a very classic Tetris. It’s strict. No soft and hard drops. No holding a piece. No infinite spin. No spying two or three pieces into the future. It’s Tetris the A-Level paper, and you’re not allowed to take anything in with you. Except unlike an A-Level paper, it’s also brilliant fun.
Allow me to get cosmic. Perhaps it’s all that sitting in the park and being roasted by the sun, but when I play Game Boy Tetris, while enjoying the focus and restrictions, I also feel like I am plugged into something gigantic. I feel like I’m plugged into the history of this device and this game – the shared history of their pairings, and the separate histories of what they went on to do. One of them, the perfect video game, or close enough. The other, the perfect video game console – or close enough.
And how’s this for solitude. With Game Boy Tetris nothing is referencing anything. Not really. Sure, Elorg might get a sense of deja vu, but there’s no real call back to anything that came before in the pairing of handheld and puzzler because nothing came before. There is nothing to riff off, because this is the thing that everything that came afterwards would riff off.
Take that eternal question asked of all new handhelds: Yes, but what’s its Tetris? The question that launched Lumines into orbit and damned Polarium. With the Game Boy, its Tetris is Tetris. This is where it begins.
Weirdly, it’s where things still begin. I sit in the park with the Game Boy and I love games all over again – I love them afresh and see their potential afresh. Their potential even, perhaps especially, when they’re like this: forged on a chunky cartridge, capable of being shared and lost but never updated or properly borked, or added to with DLC or given a new UI or a new Battle Pass, or tethered to a server that might disappear one day. The battery might go, certainly. You might lose the cartridge down the lining of your coat or drop it off a ferry. But if it’s Tetris, it will be Tetris forever, even at the bottom of the ocean. If it’s Mole Mania, it will be Mole Mania forever. And there’s a singular purity to that. It still fills me with excitement.