Dot Matrix Memories: A Look Back at the Game Boy

The Analogue Pocket, a fancy FPGA-powered Game Boy, shipped this past December for anyone able to squeeze through a pre-order window that opened for a moment in August 2020. While emulators simulate a game with software, an FPGA (field-programmable gate array) mimics the original console’s internal components at a hardware level. FPGA technology allows the Analogue Pocket to transform into a Game Boy Advance or a Game Gear too — with additional systems added via firmware updates. I got mine a few days before Christmas and it conjured memories of a cold morning in 1990 when I unwrapped my first Game Boy, sitting by the tree in the glow of bubble lights with Nintendo’s chubby little handheld. 

We had an NES. It had always been there, next to an old TV in my sister’s bedroom. I loved it, but it was a communal thing. A shared appliance. My sister let me play, but I always felt like I was intruding somehow. The Game Boy was different. It wasn’t ours — it was mine.

Suddenly video games could happen anywhere, no longer shackled to the wood-panel TV with the loose UHF dial. Standing at the bus stop with Mario. Passing Tetris back-and-forth with Dad in the Friendly’s parking lot. Waiting at the eye doctor with Castlevania, annoyed that the pea-green screen seemed even smaller through eye-dilating drops. 

The Game Boy changed my relationship with video games. It changed Nintendo too, from tentative first steps with Game & Watch all the way to the Switch — a vanishing point where console and handheld finally meet. And now even the Analogue Pocket has a dock. 

In celebration of my new toy and the old one I carried with me everywhere, I revisited the games that defined my first year with Game Boy — many of which are rarely found on anyone’s retrospective “best of” lists.

Hyper Lode Runner
The guy that did the box-art for Zombie Nation drew this.

Hyper Lode Runner

I got this game at Lionel Kiddie City for my birthday. I preferred the monolithic wall of game-tickets at Toys R Us — rows of box-art in plastic flaps that flipped up like a detective’s notebook to reveal a description on the reverse. Paper tickets, hung below each flap, were brought to the cashier to exchange for the game. At Kiddie City I had to ask the teenager behind the counter to see each game one-by-one. That process made me anxious, so instead I pointed to the game with the sickest box-art.

Laser-blasted robot skeletons. A twisted ghoul looming in the distance. A labyrinth of doom.

“I want Hyper Lode Runner.”

“Trust me, you won’t like it,” the teen said — but his insistence only made me want it more. Later at home, when I pop the cart in, I’m dead in seconds. All three lives gone inside of a minute. Oh no.

The Lode Runner has a drill (not a gun) for digging holes in the floor to his immediate left or right. They fill up after a few seconds and kill anything inside. He has to collect all the gold while being chased by robots. You can “Cask of Amontillado” their asses but they respawn instantly. When you get trapped SELECT resets the stage without costing you a life. The game calls them MEN.

There’s zero room for error. You need to destroy the bricks in precise order to reach the gold without getting stuck. The “Hyper” in the title means this game is for experts. As a kid with no prior exposure to Lode Runner, I couldn’t even clear the first stage.

Hyper Lode Runner
This part is kind of fun.

A level editor, the feature that made the original a hit in 1983 on the Apple II, is included. But on Game Boy, you can’t save your creations. The manual suggests that you use it as a training ground to practice. I used it to draw Mario.

Hyper Lode Runner is my Red Rider BB Gun in that I was told to avoid it, and getting it was like being shot in the face. Even now, I can only get through a few stages. If you’re a Lode Runner expert, give it a shot. If not, there’s like 40 other versions of the game and they treat you kindly. Play those first.

Catrap
Is that blood in his teeth?

Catrap

I got Catrap for Christmas the year after the Game Boy. My boy’s first birthday! That’s the true reason for the season.

I couldn’t figure out if it was supposed to be Cat Rap or Cat Trap. Maybe it’s Ca-trap? Either way, I was desperate to know everything about the ghost wearing sunglasses.

Catrap
You’d have to type like 40 characters to load this “stage.”

Like Lode Runner, Catrap (Pitman in Japan) was a product of the hobbyist programming scene of the 80’s. The first “release” was published in a magazine and readers had to re-type the code to compile their own copy at home. The stick figure character, blue stage tiles, and pyramidal piles of gold from that first release suggest that creator Yutaka Isokawa was a Lode Runner fan. Pitman had a level editor too. On Game Boy, the editor spits out strings of passwords you can share with your friends. Pretend it’s 1985 and you’re programming your own copy of Pitman as you punch ’em in.

Aside from the core mechanics, the Game Boy release is a complete overhaul. The Pitman is replaced by Catboy or Catgirl. The piles of gold are exchanged for monsters and the player needs to defeat them all to progress. You have to carefully consider each move to avoid getting your cat trapped by falling boulders.

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Hyper Lode Runner demands perfection, but Catrap takes care of you. The early stages introduce concepts slowly, but soon you’ll be switching between both characters to successfully navigate complex puzzles. If you make a mistake, you can rewind time at any point with no penalty. Years later when seeing Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, I’d pantomime a mock-yawn. Oh, this old thing?

Simple puzzle platformers dominated the early Game Boy library, but Catrap‘s thoughtful design makes it a joy to play. I loved this game as a kid, I had a blast going through it on the 3DS Virtual Console in 2011, and it’s still great today on the Analogue Pocket.

Boomer's Adventure
OK, Boomer (I’m sorry)

Boomer’s Adventure in Asmik World

Asmik’s Catrap had been great. So when I saw the dinosaur from their logo in his own game, I had to have it. If I could reverse time like Catboy and Catgirl, I’d go back and drop a boulder on my head.

Boomer’s Adventure takes inspiration from Heiankyo Alien, a 1979 arcade title that predates Pac-Man and laid the groundwork for the maze-chase and trap-em-up genres. Like Heiankyo Alien and Lode Runner, Boomer’s Adventure is a game about strategically digging holes.

You guide Boomer through a maze-like tower, avoiding enemies and searching for a buried key to unlock the next floor. The default digging speed is unbearable. It’s about four seconds to dig a hole and another four to close it. And you can dig off-grid. If you’re not exactly on the item, you can’t retrieve it. Close the hole, move a little, try again. Boomer can fall into these and flail around too. If you’re not quick enough, enemies can grab the key and bury it somewhere else. Sometimes I’d run out the stage clock digging aimlessly. It’s a nightmare.

There’s a mess of items, but you can only hold one at a time. The compass and metal detector help you find the key — super important. Bones, bombs, and boomerangs (the three B’s) help you dispatch enemies. Roller skates and shovels help speed up your movement or digging. The boots slow you down. Here’s a handy rhyme: If you pick up a boot, it’s harder to scoot. Never forget that.

If you make it to floor 33 and defeat Dark Lord Zoonzoon, here’s your reward: Turn your ass around and walk out the way you came, through the same 32 stages you just completed. Don’t worry, they locked the doors for your return trip.

I felt sorry for Boomer so I’d keep coming back even though I wasn’t having fun. Playing it as an adult isn’t any better. Go play Heiankyo Alien on Game Boy instead.

There’s a Japan-only sequel, Asmik-Kun World 2. It’s like Pipe Dream but with battle sequences and kidnapping. I can’t figure it out.

Lock N' Chase
Master Thief Collection

Lock N’ Chase

Lock N’ Chase was a birthday gift from my cousin Greg. He couldn’t remember if it was him or his mom that picked it, but thought the box art was cool regardless.

Here’s another maze-chase trap-em-up where a legally distinct Pac-Man-adjacent thief named Lupin is trying to rob a series of bank vaults. Diamonds replace power-pellets and you’re chased by cops — not ghosts. Lock N’ Chase was Data East’s answer to Pac-Man in 1981. And hey, if you’re already stealing game design, why not go with a cops and robbers theme?

The game avoids a cease and desist from Namco by adding a trap mechanic. After passing certain nodes in the maze, Lupin can activate a laser wall to block the cop that’s chasing him. If you manage to lock one between two walls you’ll get some points.

Lock N' Chase
Lock N’ Chase is behind the bowl of pretzels labeled “CHIPS”

The Game Boy version of Lock N’ Chase expands on the original with larger mazes and unique stage gimmicks in each world. One world has you warping between doors. Another has you avoiding alarm clocks that send sleeping cops into a frenzy. The final world combines all the prior gimmicks and completing it rewards you with a second quest. Unlike Boomer’s Adventure, these are new stages.

I played this one a lot as a kid and it still holds up. Data East overcompensated for the arcade cash-grab by doing Pac-Man better than Pac-Man and it pays off. Give this one a shot. Actual carts are cheap and it’s on the 3DS Virtual Console too.

Mercenary Force
Wasn’t ALF from Meldac?

Mercenary Force

Hoping to repay the kindness of Lock N’ Chase, I picked out Mercenary Force for Cousin Greg’s birthday later that same year. I thought it looked like a serious game for older kids.

Mercenary Force is a horizontal shooter set in feudal Japan, and the theme cleverly informs the design. You hire a team of four warriors from the five available, each with their own cost and shot-type. The manual gives you even more information though — Tora the ninja is an 18 year-old Libra with blood-type A and his favorite food is bananas. Okay, thank you.

Mercenary Force
Wait at the title screen to see this dope art.

The B button switches between four different team formations and SELECT rotates which character is in the lead spot. You cover varied terrain, so swapping formations to avoid attacks or to squeeze through tight spaces is critical. Each merc has a last ditch suicide move you can activate by pressing A and B together.

There’s a level of strategy and resource management here that you don’t often see in a shooter. When I was younger, that complexity was lost on me, but Mercenary Force served as an introduction to much of the Japanese imagery and themes I’d see represented in other games. There’s even a secret tanuki character that can join your team, but he’s terrible in battle. Pair him with Sakura the 19 year-old Capricorn mystic and it’s like you’re playing sideways Pocky & Rocky. Sakura prefers French cuisine, if you’re wondering.

Penguin Wars
The dude behind the “P” is not in this game

Penguin Wars

During my first year with Game Boy, I had a dream about a game called Penguin Wars. It was a horizontal shooter featuring a flying penguin. (I didn’t know about Parodius yet.) I became obsessed with it until I actually saw it in Kay Bee Toys. Had I willed it into existence? When it showed up under the tree that Christmas, it wasn’t the game I had imagined at all. It was better.

Penguin Wars first appeared in Japanese arcades in 1985 and was subsequently ported to a number of platforms. The Game Boy version was the only one to make it to the west until 2019, when City Connection released a modern sequel for Switch and PS4.

Five different animal friends take part in the most dangerous game: Not quite dodgeball — It’s dojiball! Each player starts with 5 balls on opposite ends of a table. If you can get all 10 to the other side — that’s a perfect round. Otherwise, the player with the most balls on their side after 60 seconds loses. The A button picks up a ball and throws it. Holding A with a ball in hand will start a charge shot. Charge for too long and fall on your ass. Stage hazards appear in the last 20 seconds to spice things up. That’s it. The B button doesn’t even do anything!

The animals have different stats. The titular penguin is the Mario of the crew — an all-rounder. The rabbit has high strength. The cow is a tank with the best recovery. The rat has the slowest throwing speed — the strategist. The bat has weak recovery and charge, but surprising strength for his size. He’s the wild-card.

If you played this alone — I’m sorry. This is a multiplayer game and it’s easy to overlook if you can’t recreate the link-cable experience. Penguin Wars lets you create a pass-and-play tournament with up to 10 players. And we should. We should all be doing this.

Penguin Wars
This was an intentional game over. I never lose.

Penguin Wars is eerily similar to a game Cousin Greg and I invented on the pool table in our grandfather’s basement. We had to stop after a pool ball bounced off the table and hit Greg in the forehead. Growing up, I didn’t know anybody else with this game. I was cursed to practice my dojiball skills alone.

This was the true motive for this article. Please reach out to me so we can set up a Penguin Wars tournament. I’m a bat main.