Many years ago, before AirDrop and Bluetooth, before widespread Wi-Fi and even remotely fast home internet access, there was the Game Boy Link Cable. It was how you got all three starters on your copy of Pokémon Red, and it was, at least in my mind, the only way to bring any sort of peer-to-peer connectivity to Nintendo’s handheld. I remember dutifully trading pokémon with friends after school, ensuring we could fill one another’s Pokédex entries before trading back our precious virtual creatures using Nintendo’s cable accessory, a device Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri credits as inspiration for virtual worlds that insect-like creatures could crawl between, like tunnels.
But the link cable was just the beginning of the Game Boy’s wild, bizarre experimentation with the future. In the late ‘90s, Japanese game company Hudson Soft eventually came up with a more radical idea to bring wireless connectivity to the handheld. It would use infrared — built directly into game cartridges. That way, you could transfer data between two games, or even download data from the internet, directly onto the game. And for some inexplicable reason lost to time, I convinced my parents to buy the one and only Game Boy Color game sold in North America to feature this technology.
The system itself was called GB Kiss, named after the awkward physical dance two players would have to perform to bring the cartridges close enough to one another to initiate the infrared data transfer. For Hudson Soft, it was a remarkably ambitions idea, a leftover from its attempt nearly a decade prior to crack the home console market through its partnership with NEC Home Electronics on the TurboGrafX-16, a device that failed to gain traction but nonetheless spawned a dizzying number of wild accessories and mods.
The goal this time was to create a whole ecosystem of games that relied both on the infrared game-to-game transfer and a bundled modem that would hook your Game Boy up to the internet, where Hudson Soft made mini-games available for download. Yes, there was DLC… for the Game Boy, in 1998. Even more remarkable was that the system was compatible with older hardware, meaning you could link the original Game Boy, released nine years prior in 1989, up to the internet. There was even a rudimentary form of text messaging in GB Kiss for managing an inbox and sending short-form virtual letters.
I never owned the modem, but I did own the only GB Kiss game to make its way to the US. It was called Robopon, and it was an outright Pokémon ripoff featuring not cute animals, but cute animal versions of robots. The cartridge, a rare jet black, was elongated to fit both the infrared sensor on the top and the CR2025 coin cell watch battery that powered it — a component that, unlike in pretty much every other Game Boy cartridge, was actually user-replaceable on Robopon. In an interesting twist, that allows Robopon games to outlast old Pokémon cartridges from the same time period.
Robopon has earned something resembling cult status over the years, having been published in North America at the time by venerated role-playing game maker Atlus, which is now best known for making the Persona series and the broader Shin Megami Tensei universe to which it belongs. In Japan, the “Sun” version of Robopon, the only one to make it to North America, was joined by both “Moon” and “Star” versions, a curious foretelling of where the Pokémon naming scheme would end up nearly 20 years later.
But make no mistake: the game was as close to a Pokémon clone as you could get, with some inspiration from classic SNES RPG Robotrek thrown in as well. Your character, an Ash Ketchum look-alike canonically named Cody, even starts out in his childhood bedroom, and the sprite and menu designs were almost identical to Nintendo’s monster-catching series. After the brief intro, you meet your grandfather, a Professor Oak-type character who not only gifts Cody his first ever robopon, a rabbit-like fighter named Sunny, but also gives him an entire company to manage.
As the game progresses, you run into even more borrowed concepts, including catching robots in the wild, evolutions, and an eventual analog to the Elite Four called, no joke, the Elite Eight. You fought by installing software on your robots to give them special attacks, and you powered them up by giving them new mechanical equipment. There was a sequel eventually developed for the Game Boy Advance that deviated further from the Pokémon formula, but the initial game was very much riding on the coattails of Pokémon developer Game Freak and Tajiri, who became its CEO.
All of this makes a lot more sense when you remember that Hudson Soft was concurrently developing its own Pokémon title for the Game Boy that was released in Japan the same year as Robopon, in 1998. (Both arrived in North America in 2000.) That title was a video game version of the franchise’s card game aptly called Pokémon Trading Card Game and modeled almost identically off titles from the core series.
That Robopon was an unabashed Pokémon clone didn’t matter much to me. I was fascinated by the fact that Robopon let me trade without link cables. I somehow convinced a friend of mine to also buy the game, so we could trade at school using the GB Kiss system. I remember being astonished that the infrared actually worked, although it took many minutes of tinkering and careful placement of the infrared panels to pull it off. Not only did the GB Kiss feature allow for infrared trading, but you could even point your television remote control at the cartridge to unlock special chests in the game and to boost your robopons’ stats.
Unfortunately, the GB Kiss system was short-lived — apparently, selling video game fans a rudimentary modem for a handheld game console did not translate to blockbuster sales. Putting a nail in the coffin of Hudson Soft’s infrared experiment was the incorporation of a built-in IR sensor on the Game Boy Color, which came out in October 1998, roughly seven months after Hudson Soft debuted GB Kiss and two months before the Japanese release of Robopon on that very same system.
Of course, infrared came and went on the Game Boy line as well, having only been supported by a handful of titles and disappearing as a hardware feature with the release of the Game Boy Advance. Infrared would appear again in Nintendo’s handheld line only years later as an accessory port on the Nintendo 3DS, which by then relied on Wi-Fi for almost all forms of data transfer.
But to this day, Robopon and its infrared sensor are tied to fond memories of my childhood. It was a time when every year in gaming felt like a huge, exponential leap in what was possible, both in the graphics and gameplay of the software and in the ambitions of the hardware, so much of which was so experimental and outlandish that it looks like it could have been a piece of concept art from a science fiction film. GB Kiss may have never taken off, but it’s fascinating to know that more than 20 years ago, game developers were seeing around the corner and trying to deliver a future the broader tech industry was barely capable of delivering.