The failed timing of the Game Boy Micro

The Game Boy Advance was the 32-bit leap for Nintendo’s flourishing handheld business, bringing the graphics of the Super Nintendo to gamers on the go. While the Game Boy Colour had a substantial library of games that weren’t painted in green and black tones, it was the Advance’s palette that truly brought vibrant worlds to a portable system. It was also a departure from the previous blocky handheld design, with a curvaceous and wide look that screamed “this is the future!”. Indeed it was, as the Advance made a memorable impact on the gaming world, shifting over 80 million consoles during its seven year lifetime. The handheld market proved that it could continue to thrive without a blockbuster game like Tetris helping to sell the units, and so long as they weren’t battling with sun glare, people were loving it.

Nintendo were aware of the visibility issues with the original Game Boy Advance’s screen in sunny and dark environments, so to address this they created a new iteration of the console, something that would become a common trend for many more companies in the future. Their answer was the Game Boy Advance SP: the same console you’ve come to love, but this time with a clamshell design and a built-in light. This new-look model would eventually contribute to over half of all purchased consoles in the Advance line, and this dominating success had Nintendo thinking about further improvements. What would improve the consumers’ experience even further, even with the Nintendo DS soon to enter the market? Their answer to this question was made public at E3 in 2005.

The reveal was delivered by Reggie Fils-Aime who, as the Executive Vice President for Sales and Marketing at Nintendo, produced a Game Boy Micro from within his jacket pocket to the surprise of the audience. He announced that it was “just a hair bigger and about two-thirds the weight of an iPod Mini,” important features in a tech world that constantly battles for size reductions in electronics. The previous two iterations of the Game Boy Advance were not considered particularly pocket-friendly, and with a design that was more compact than a mobile phone, Nintendo was finally releasing a truly portable system; A smart-looking, sleek device that can be slipped into your pocket with the rest of your valuables. However, Nintendo’s third offering was not meant to be, as the Game Boy Micro would become their biggest failure since the Virtual Boy.

The Quiet Western Launch

You would have had a hard time convincing those following the launch that the Micro would eventually flop, as many stores were left reporting shortages after a very successful first day on the market. With thousands clamouring onto trains for the commute to work every day, the new console was a great solution for gaming on the go. The Game Boy Micro was a small and inoffensive product; the perfect machine for commuters who wanted to wind down whilst travelling to and from work. The North American release came less than a week later, bringing with it a few signs of the impending trouble. The official launch was September 19, 2005, yet many stores chose not to stock it at all. Even at the rare places that did decide to sell the device, some didn’t put them on shelves until over a week later, due to the general disinterest in another incarnation of the Game Boy Advance. When it eventually came to Europe two months later, there was a similar reaction. The public at large simply wasn’t interested.

But why was this? Why was it that a new console with so many improvements over its two predecessors would fail so unexpectedly? Many gamers snubbed the handheld purely because of the smaller screen, a move that some found baffling that would be advertised in the name of the unit itself. Even though it sported Nintendo’s highest quality LCD screen at the time, boasting crisp visuals due to the improved backlight, multiple brightness settings and an improved dot pitch, gamers simply were not informed about the positives.  This, combined with a hefty retail price and a marketing effort that competed against their own Nintendo DS, spelled disaster for the newcomer handheld. Instead of reassuring gamers about the positive changes, Nintendo opted to focus on how stylish and compact the handheld was, treating it as a mere fashion accessory. At £69.99, it was a fashion that wouldn’t catch on.

There was also the overestimate in how important portability is to Western consumers. Sure, we already know that traversing the Japanese train system as a salaryman is an excellent justification for a slimline console, but what of the rest of the world? In Western markets, it’s the car that dominates commute travel, not the train, meaning that there just wasn’t an audience for portable gaming amongst adults. Kids who played games during long car journeys likely already had a Game Boy Advance at this point, and they would be asking for the superior Nintendo DS which had launched months prior to the Micro. It was an excellent entry point for the tiny market that had managed to hold out for so long, but the sales simply weren’t there. Selling a mere two million units worldwide, it didn’t meet Nintendo’s expectations. It is now remembered by gamers alongside the Virtual Boy as another failed experiment.

The Present Day Perception

While the opinion of the console has warmed with time, it’s still far from achieving the cult classic status that systems like the Dreamcast have since earned after slipping out of the mainstream. Many gamers are still incredibly sceptical about how it could possibly be considered an improvement over the Game Boy Advance SP, which has the larger screen and compatibility with original Game Boy and Game Boy Colour games. That said, it has become increasingly popular in recent years for gamers looking for a nostalgic trip into an older catalogue of games, as the price has found itself around the £40 mark on the second-hand market. The alluring premise of fondly loved games and a new way to experience them nine years down the line is enough for many of us, especially at a time where mobile gaming is perhaps at its peak.

The Game Boy Micro may indeed have been doomed from the outset, with the existence of the Game Boy Advance SP and the Nintendo DS vaporising any potential demand for the device. Indeed, even with a well-constructed marketing campaign, their asking price for last-generation hardware was simply too much. When the public perception of the Micro was that of a downgrade, consumers knew they’d be better hedging their bets on the Nintendo DS, which launched for a mere £30 more than the Micro. That’s £30 for access to another library of games; a next-generation library with untold potential.

The Day of the Micro

But could it have been successful, and if so, what needed to change? One of the biggest reasons it failed to win over the already established consumer base is that it never felt like a successor, like the SP was to the original Game Boy Advance. Instead, the Micro ended up in the position of a direct competitor, which turned out to be utterly disastrous. Nintendo didn’t want gamers picking between the two handhelds, they wanted them to upgrade from the SP to the Micro. But what if the Micro had been the first iteration, the successor to the original Game Boy Advance? The backlit screen alone would have become the driving force behind the marketing efforts, with the portability sweetening the deal. With a successful Micro, the SP could even have been released at a later date as a large-screen variant, much like how the 2DS is sold nowadays as an alternative to the 3DS. Did Nintendo shoot themselves in the foot by releasing the Micro instead of the SP as the third iteration of the Game Boy Advance?

We’re now in a world where small-screen handheld gaming is acceptable and commonplace, with mobile phones now the home of a massive selection of intriguing time wasters. That’s not to say that there will be a resurgence of gamers checking out the ill-fated system, but the appeal of the Micro is clearer today when put up against the bulkier SP. In a time where baseball caps and skinny trousers dominate teen wardrobes, perhaps the Micro will at last win the fight with the SP for curious gamers looking for the ultimate accessory in geek fashion.

 

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