Portable video games are pretty commonplace these days. But before the likes of Playstation Vita or Nintendo DS or even smart phones, there was a handheld console built like a brick with a greenish pixelated screen that became an icon to an entire generation of young gamers. Clunky though it seems now, the classic Gameboy was a turning point in handheld gaming. So when Reaction Games, a local store specializing in retro video games, approached us about designing a mall cart for them, we knew almost immediately what a central feature of our design would be.
Just as the Gameboy looms large in the history of gaming, the cart we designed features two monolithic consoles, roughly 8 times the size of the original and complete with a tv monitor for playing retro games, to make this a striking and distinctive cart. Of course, the cart would also feature some more typical slatwalls and cubbies for displaying merchandise. Another callback to oldschool gaming was a shelf unit with the contours of an arcade console. Not only that, but the actual shelves are decorated with the same girders and ladders upon which two of Nintendo’s most iconic characters – Mario and Donkey Kong – made their 8 bit debut in the 1981 Donkey Kong arcade game. But none of these elements were as fun to put together as the giant Gameboys.
The nostalgia thickened through each stage of the Gameboy’s development. Simple things like the shape of a directional pad cut out on the CNC conjured up deep muscle memory of the perfect timing to jump from one platform to the next or to evade an enemy’s attack, built up after determined repetition of a challenging level. Applying that smooth gray laminate coating brought back the familiar weight of that console, held at an angle to get just the right light or twisted and tilted in an involuntary effort to urge a character to go faster or a vehicle to turn sharper. And adhering the A and B buttons (unfortunately, not actually pressable), evoked the blisters of button mashing until those well used buttons either got loose or started to stick needing to be pushed just the right way that no one but that Gameboy’s owner could master perfectly. And seeing the installed monitors light up summoned that familiar thrill of anticipation right before launching into a new game.
With our own excitement working on this cart, we knew we were on the right track. After all, revisiting past gaming experiences is what Reaction Games is all about. Nostalgia can be very compelling, and it’s interesting to reflect on the experiences that have such a deep resonance. Even if it is just playing video games, those events can really shape a person. The Big Bits crew collectively has put in a substantial amount of time playing video games, and while that might not be a defining element in any of our lives, it’s certainly a part of us. Video games in general, and the Gameboy in a very pure and simple way, are a marriage of art and technology – two key facets of the work that we do on a regular basis. We can remember the magic of seeing an entire world materialize on a small green screen. That same sort of magic is part of what fuels us whenever we approach a new project, trying to turn a blank slate into something beautiful, memorable, and exciting.