There has never been a device with the number of accessories that the Game Boy had. As the first mainstream portable game console, the Game Boy had the kind of user base to support a vast hardware ecosystem, and it came into being at just the right time to need those kinds of accessories to offer a complete experience. It was a perfect storm of hardware that resulted in some of the most varied add-ons ever made for a console. Looking back, there have been roughly two categories that Game Boy accessories fit into: the practical and the weird.
The practical side is less interesting in hindsight. After all, things like attachable lights, link cables, rechargeable battery packs, AC adapters, and screen magnifiers all make a certain amount of sense for a device that lacked these modern conveniences.
While it’s easy to look back now and deride the Game Boy (and its various successors) for their reliance on extra devices, back then, it made sense. Nintendo was already pushing the technological envelope to the limit with the Game Boy, and there simply wasn’t room for these other features. Throw a backlight on the Game Boy, and it becomes a battery-sucking hog like the Game Gear. The technology at the time wasn’t exactly mature, either: light accessories for the Game Boy were basically glorified book lights that shone down on the screen, and a rechargeable battery pack I once owned ended up being so awful that it was almost worth just using batteries instead.
A lot of these weird gadgets aren’t around anymore simply because the technology has evolved beyond it. We don’t need lights when our screens have backlights, for example. Wi-Fi has replaced link cables (although not without a detour into an incredibly bizarre local wireless adapter for the Game Boy Advance), and the existence of a system-level OS with adjustable accessibility settings and larger screens has killed off screen magnifiers. Technology getting better over time is a good thing, and I wouldn’t trade Wi-Fi or a built-in backlight for the days of old.
But we do lose something when we shift away from these accessories. My Game Boy was unmistakably mine, with a squiggly purple light and mismatched battery cover for the rechargeable battery that protruded weirdly from the back. This sense of individuality and customization is largely lost in today’s world of homogenous devices. There was a kind of magic to Game Boy accessories that let them transform the device you were using in a physical way, like when fumbling in the dark for a light to keep playing after bedtime or in the backseat of a car on a long road trip or putting together an epic Mario Kart race at camp by stringing four Game Boy Advances together.
There’s still the other side of Game Boy accessories, though, like the infamously low-resolution Game Boy Camera and Printer, the Nintendo e-Reader, and the GameCube / Game Boy Advance Adapter. These projects didn’t seek to patch over the Game Boy’s flaws; they sought to expand the Game Boy experience in new and creative ways.
They weren’t always successful. (In hindsight, having to scan five separate fragile paper playing cards to play Excitebike was not the best user experience.) But they challenged the way we thought about our devices and gave them new uses and functions that the original hardware could only dream of. Why not turn your Game Boy into a camera, a controller for your home console, or whatever the e-Reader was supposed to be?
Much like how the legacy of the Game Boy and its dream of portable gaming has lived on with the Nintendo Switch, the legacy of out-there accessories that offer new levels of creativity and play still exists in current Nintendo products like the Labo’s cardboard creations or the Switch’s customizable Joy-Con colors. With a renewed focus on portable and modular hardware with the Switch, who knows where Nintendo will take things in the next 30 years?