I love the GameBoy. Rather, I loved the GameBoy Color. I didn’t have an original GameBoy for very long, instead opting for the vastly superior Game Gear & a plethora of Sonic the Hedgehog games. After the Color, I got a GameBoy Advance. Then a DS. Then a PSP. Then a 3DS. Then a Vita. Needless to say, I love my handhelds. However, if I were to be honest with myself (sometimes it’s easier than others), I’d have to say that a lot of early handheld games, particularly console ports, have by and large, sucked. For every Link’s Awakening or Metal Gear Solid there were dozens of Earthworm Jims & Mortal Kombats.
Back when our game consoles were measured in quantifiable bits, whether they were 8, 16, 32 or 64, the handhelds always lagged behind. Sometimes one generation, sometimes two. Sometimes they felt like they inhabited this weird limbo where they were more powerful than the previous home consoles yet weren’t quite up to speed with the current iterations. The early GameBoys, particularly the Color, were prime examples of this.
Enough about the hardware, this is about the games. Even if the handhelds were more on par with a previous console generation than the current one, why would the games suck? Clearly the previous console had lots of great games, enough to fund its successor. Here’s the problem: Handheld games often tried to take the games or mechanics developed for the current home consoles and shove it into essentially half the horse-power. And it sucked.
Let’s take a look at the classic Super Mario Land for the original GameBoy. Tiny Mario sprite on a tiny monochromatic screen, enemies were either even smaller than Mario or the same size, object and platforms were also minute and the gameplay physics were extremely slippery and inaccurate compared to the NES. Was it a technical marvel for the time? Yes. Did it play well? Frell no. Going back, Super Mario Bros on the NES still plays perfectly fine, but Super Mario Land is a blurry, slippery mess of a “precision” platformer.
How about another? MegaMan Xtreme for the GameBoy Color. Essentially a disguised handheld port of the original Mega Man X for the Snes, this game also featured muddy, flickering sprites and poor collision detection. It was a noble effort, trying to cram a highly regarded 16-bit action platformer onto an 8-bit handheld, but too many sacrifices had to be made, not only in the visuals but the gameplay and controls as well.
I could go on and on about vastly inferior handheld ports or “sequels” or “spin-offs” of home console games; Mortal Kombat, Sonic, Mega Man, Donkey Kong Land, Super Mario, pretty much every movie-licensed game and every racing game. Almost all of them fall into the trap of either trying to recreate the home console experience lock, stock and barrel or trying to create something totally different that’s barely even recognizable to the game it’s clearly trying to mimic. The latter has sometimes found success, especially if the developers were fully aware of the handheld’s limitations and carefully designed around them. This is still true even today, when our handhelds can render fully explorable, 3D open worlds in great detail. If developers aren’t careful when designing their games and set their sights on a “home console” experience, it can be far too easy to crash and burn cause you jumped too close to the Angry Sun.