Monday, February 8, 2021

Classic Arcade Ports for the Nintendo Game Boy

Game Boy: Classic Arcade Ports

Despite being outgunned by the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear in terms of color palette, lighting, screen size, and sheer processing power, the original Game Boy trounced the competition in the category that mattered most to Nintendo: unit sales. The success was driven by good marketing, a relatively long battery life, and the console’s killer app, Tetris, as well as such ubiquitous titles as Super Mario Land, Dr. Mario, Kirby’s Dream Land, and the various Pokémon games.

The Game Boy also benefitted from an assortment of classic arcade ports. Since I grew up in the arcades of the late ’70s and early ’80s, I thought it would be fun to check out some Game Boy versions of early coin-op classics. One game I left off the list is BurgerTime Deluxe, since it adds a word to the title (it’s a great game, by the way). Some of these games were also ported to the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance in varying forms, but I’m focusing strictly on the original Game Boy.

Arcade Classic No. 1: Asteroids/Missile Command

This combo cart includes two solid ports that fans of the respective games will find little fault with. Asteroids offers three levels of difficulty and the ability to play using classic or updated graphics, the latter of which feature spinning, textured rocks similar to those found in Blasteroids. Missile Command has two missile silos instead of three, but it offers something new: a variety of recognizable cities to protect, including New York and Cairo, Egypt. In terms of audio, the games do a relatively good job of evoking the original titles, especially the warning signal that begins each level in Missile Command and the deep explosions found in Asteroids. Music, which was absent in the original games, and coin-op-style borders, which appear when the games are played on the Super Game Boy, have been added to enhance the overall experience. Missile Command was also released separately, but without Super Game Boy enhancements.

Arcade Classic No. 2: Centipede/Millipede

You know the drill: maneuver your firing implement along the bottom ¼ or so of the screen, firing upward at insects, including a centipede or millipede that twists and turns its way down a mushroom field. Of course, the Game Boy lacks a trackball for precise, arcade-style action, but controls work pretty well using the d-pad. Unfortunately, the games are much slower than their coin-op counterparts. The cartridge is compatible with the Super Game Boy, which lets you add framed backgrounds designed to resemble the original arcade cabinets. There was also a version of Centipede sold by itself that was compatible with the Link Cable for two-player simultaneous action.

Arcade Classic No. 3: Galaga/Galaxian

More shooting action on your Game Boy, this time of the “slide-and-shoot” (an old term used by Electronic Games magazine) variety. With both of these fixed screen shooters, you guide your ship along the bottom of the playfield, firing away at formations of enemies up above. Unlike Space Invaders, the enemies tend to break apart from the pack and dive-bomb your ship. As with Centipede/Millipede, these two games are similar to one another. Galaga is one of the most popular arcade games of all time, and it’s ported very well here (yes, you can double up your ships for added firepower). Galaxian is more of a forgotten classic, but it’s also fun, if less versatile than Galaga. Play on the Super Game Boy for added color and a more arcade-like experience.

Arcade Classic No. 4: Defender/Joust

Once again, two classic arcade games are featured on a single cartridge. Both are decent ports that offer several Game Boy-specific features, including rapid fire in Defender and the thumb-saving (though less-than-graceful) rapid flap in Joust. Also, both games have music (which can be turned off, thankfully), but the noisy, grating firing sounds in Defender mask the tunes much of the time. Only Joust offers an updated mode, which is augmented by scrolling screens and detailed (relatively speaking) backgrounds. When played using the Super Game Boy, the games are semi-colorful and are framed by arcade-like borders.

Dig Dug

While I don’t like it quite as much as Mr. Do!, Dig Dug is one of my favorite games of all time. The version ported to the Game Boy has a slightly scrolling playfield due to the small screen, but it’s serviceable for the platform and certainly playable. What’s interesting about the cartridge is that it includes a second game called New Dig Dug. Once again, you tunnel underground, blowing up enemies with a pump while creating your own maze pathways, but this “adventure” mode, which features an unlimited number of enemies, has you collecting keys in order to exit the level. It also has bombs, which is always a good thing.

Donkey Kong

The first four screens in Donkey Kong are similar to those of the original arcade game, and the game even features animated musical intermissions. However, beginning with screen five, puzzle elements come into play as gamers must gather disappearing keys to unlock doors of hidden rooms and pick up and move sections of road and ladder for use in accessing vital sections of the playfield. At the end of each of the game's ten stages of play (each stage containing ten puzzles), players must throw barrels and trash cans at Donkey Kong and other enemies, while finding clever ways to beat the bosses. Adding to the greatness of the game is that Mario acquires new skills as he progresses, including high jumps, handstands, and rope spins. The first cartridge to be specially designed for the Super Game Boy, Donkey Kong is a graphically sound, brilliantly challenging game that requires careful planning and strategy as well as dexterity for the player to succeed. Kudos to Nintendo for not taking the easy route by simply cranking out a remake of the original.

Lock 'N Chase

As with Donkey Kong, Lock 'N Chase for the Game Boy is even better than its coin-op counterpart. It has more textured graphics, cuter characters, an assortment of level designs, and deeper gameplay elements, including doors that warp you to other areas of the maze. The game is similar to Pac-Man, but instead of ghosts following you through the corridors and alleyways, cops are on your tail, and instead of eating dots, you gather up coins. Your ultimate goal is to steal the African Star Diamond, which you won't reach until the end of the sixth and final level. Another difference between this game and Pac-Man is your ability to place temporary locks in the mazes to block enemies. Instead of power pills, there are diamonds and magic bags which turn you invincible and freeze the cops (respectively). The screen scrolls, but I don’t mind in this case. At the end of each stage, you can play a bonus round slot machine. If you’ve only played the arcade game and/or the popular Intellivision port, check this out—it’s excellent.

Mr. Do!

As many of my readers and YouTube subscribers know, Mr. Do! is my favorite game of all time. I love the simple, yet strategy-filled and surprisingly deep gameplay of the tunnel digging, monster avoiding action. The playfield in the Game Boy version scrolls to account for the small screen, making the game more frustrating and less enjoyable than the original. Pausing the action lets players view the entire play area, but this disrupts the flow of the game. Other variances in the handheld rendition include moving diamonds, uglier monsters, different playfield layouts, and an original, less memorable musical score. Thankfully, you can still spell out EXTRA for bonus lives. Gameplay retains the basic cherry harvesting, monster bashing (with a ball you throw) charm that made the coin-op classic so endearing, so it is playable.

Ms. Pac-Man

Ms. Pac-Man is one of the most popular video games of all time. In fact, you can still find it in bars, restaurants, and of course retro arcades. The Game Boy port features arcade mode and hard mode, the latter of which has faster moving ghosts. The screen scrolls to show the entire maze, but you can switch to full screen mode to show the entire playfield at once. This makes it really small, so using the Super Game Boy or Game Boy Player is recommended for this mode. The ghosts all look the same since the graphics lack color, but they of course do behave differently. Intermissions are included, and you can compete simultaneously with a friend or alternate turns through the magic of the link cable, a cool peripheral that was underappreciated by many Game Boy owners. The game is slower than its coin-op counterpart, but certainly playable.


I discovered Pac-Man in the fall of 1980, shortly after it came out, at a convenience store near my junior high school. I would play before and after school and sometimes during (don’t tell my mom or my former teachers). The Game Boy port recreates the legendary coin-op game well enough to give me nostalgic feels, right down to the memorable music during the animated intermissions. As with Ms. Pac-Man, the ghosts look the same since the GB lacks color, but they move in different patterns. Also the same is the wide gray vertical bar on the side showing fruit level indicator and your score, taking up valuable screen space. Another similarity is that you can play with a scrolling screen or a tiny non-scrolling maze. When I play Pac-Man on a Nintendo console, I opt for the NES version using the NES Advantage joystick, but if you want to play Pac-Man on the go, this makes it doable.


As the title implies, this game puts you in the role of a paperboy, peddling your bike down the street, delivering newspapers. While on your route, you must dodge traffic, tornadoes, break dancers, overhanging trees, vicious dogs, and other obstacles. As you steer your bike along the road, your primary goal is to throw the newspapers in the paperboxes of the subscribers. Also, you can earn extra points by throwing the papers at enemies such as workmen and the Grim Reaper and by breaking out the windows of nonsubscribers. At the end of each delivery session, you enter a special bonus round called the Paperboy Training Course wherein you toss your papers at targets while avoiding obstacles. As with Atari’s original coin-op classic, the playfield is isometric (like Zaxxon). The game is similar to the NES port, but the playfield has simply been cropped (as opposed to redesigned) to fit the small Game Boy screen, making it difficult and unenjoyable to play.


I enjoyed Q*bert in the arcades, but I especially liked Q*bert on the PlayStation and Q*bert 3 for the Super Nintendo. I loved how they took the basic formula, where you guide the title character as he hops on blocks to change them to the target color, and added new cube formations instead of just a repeating pyramid. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the Game Boy port also deviates from the formula by providing Q*bert new playfields to conquer. Since the Game Boy screen lacks color, the developers compensated by giving the cubes such designs as checkboard, ice, cement, lidded box, and wood. There are even discs to jump on. Voice effects, music, and new enemies add to the fun.


With its small screen and limited audio/visual capabilities, the Game Boy is a good home for Qix, the ingeniously simplistic arcade game where you draw straight lines to form shapes in order to fill in screen space. In addition to a solid port of the original, this version of the game offers link-up capabilities in which players take turns within the same field, trying to claim the greatest percentage of area. One player is Mario while the other is Luigi, though your drawing implement remains a simple diamond shape. Turn-based Qix with Nintendo characters? Yeah, it’s a thing. Who knew? Now that you know, go play it!

Space Invaders

With the possible exceptions of Tetris and Qix, Space Invaders is the ideal title to adapt to the Game Boy. The simplicity of the gameplay and the short time it takes to play a full round are perfectly suited for on-the-go gaming and the limitations of the venerable handheld system. This port solidly reconstructs the 1978 coin-op classic on the tiny Game Boy screen and even lets players go at it head-to-head via cable linkup. However, the game doesn't truly shine until played via the Super Game Boy, which provides an incredibly faithful arcade experience in terms of graphics, coloring, gameplay, sound effects and borders.

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