Unless you grew up in a time after cameraphones arrived, there’s a very good chance your first digital camera was a weird Game Boy accessory. The Game Boy Camera was definitely my first digital snapper, and while its technical capabilities were extremely limited, it still managed to excel at other things, like making photography fun and accessible.
The digital camera traces its history as far back as 1975 when Kodak’s Steve Sasson and a team of researchers hacked together parts from a Super 8 camera, a cassette recorder, and an experimental CCD sensor to build what is widely considered the first functional, self-contained digital camera. It took 23 seconds to record a single image with 100 lines of resolution to a cassette tape and images could be later viewed on a black and white TV using a special tape player. It never left Kodak’s labs, but 16 years later the Logitech Fotoman—also known as the Dycam Model 1—was the first digital camera available to consumers shooting 8-bit black and white images with a resolution of just 376 x 240 pixels.
In 1994, the first digital SLR arrived with the Kodak/AP NC2000 that could shoot 1.3-megapixel images with a price tag of around $17,000, while in the same year Apple released its QuickTake digital camera (also made by Kodak) to consumers which could capture 0.3-megapixel images for a little under $1,000. As with any new technology digital cameras were very expensive when the technology debuted and either targeted at professionals with a healthy budget or enthusiasts willing to pay a premium for the latest and greatest, and that’s probably why when the Game Boy Camera debuted in 1998 with a price tag of just $90, it appealed to more than just kids—its target audience.
The Game Boy Camera’s development was led by Masato Kuwahara who, not surprisingly, also went on to help develop the Nintendo DSi: the company’s first handheld console to feature cameras built right in. Nintendo was already known for its occasional unorthodox hardware experiments—the infamous Virtual Boy had arrived just three years prior—but what made the company confident in the Game Boy Camera’s success was not the hardware but the accompanying software developed by Creatures Inc.
Calling the Game Boy Camera’s hardware basic, limited, even crude, would be a very generous description of its capabilities. Inside the bulbous sphere hovering over its Game Boy host was a 128 x 128-pixel CMOS sensor but images were actually cropped and stored at a resolution of 128x112 and limited to just four shades of gray (2-bit) thanks to the Game Boy’s low-contrast monochromatic screen. That equates to a resolution of 0.001434-megapixels—considerably tinier than what even the first camera-equipped cellphones could snap. It was bad, but the Game Boy Camera arrived well before most consumers had even seen a digital camera in person, so expectations on what to expect were non-existent.
Sharing photos from the Game Boy Camera was also severely limited. Today it takes just seconds to share a photo taken on a smartphone with millions of people through social networks, but unless you were content to physically pass your Game Boy to a friend, print off a hard copy and make tiny stickers using the Game Boy Printer accessory, or wire up the handheld to a PC using a transfer cable, your images were for your eyes only.
So why was the Game Boy Camera so popular and looked back on with such fondness? Most of the ideas we associate with modern software-assisted photography on a smartphone were introduced with the accessory. The lens that stuck out of the back of the Game Boy could be twisted 180-degrees, allowing selfies to be snapped long before the term “selfie” was a part of our vernacular. The Game Boy Camera’s software also allowed images to be edited in fun ways using trick lenses, stamps, or hand-drawn doodles; it included a crude intervalometer for making time-lapse clips, basic panoramic image functionality, and it even made it easy to shoot stop-motion videos. A year after the Game Boy Camera was released the first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, hit theaters and I can remember trying to recreate a pod race scene, frame by frame, using a couple of Lego models. It was painstaking and it gobbled up most of the camera’s available memory, but it was fun. I’m still not sure why ILM rejected my demo reel.
The Game Boy Camera was also extremely portable. Nine years after its release my Game Boy was still always close at hand when the Game Boy Camera arrived, and in 1999 the Guinness World Records actually certified the accessory as the world’s smallest digital camera. (A record that has long since been broken many times.) They say the best camera is the one you actually have with you, and for many years my life was documented in four shades of gray.
It’s not known why Nintendo didn’t update the Game Boy Camera over the years. The backlit full color screen of the later Game Boy Advance SP consoles (despite the location of their cartridge slots) seemed like they would have been the perfect partner for a higher resolution color version of the Game Boy Camera, but it never happened. Presumably an improved sensor would have resulted in a more expensive peripheral which would have limited its appeal to kids. Instead, Nintendo eventually integrated cameras into the clamshell DSi as well as a 3D camera on the 3DS, but by the time those consoles arrived cameras on phones were a standard feature and the quality they offered far outpaced what Nintendo was offering.
Unlike the Virtual Boy which is remembered fondly by only a few Nintendo fans with questionable taste in hardware, the Game Boy Camera still has a surprisingly active following amongst photographers, particularly those who like the challenge of shooting in an extremely lo-fi aesthetic. Some have found ways to do astrophotography with the accessory, capturing impressive images of the moon, while others have come up with clever hacks to make it shoot in color. The album art for Neil Young’s 2000 album Silver & Gold was even photographed by his daughter using the Game Boy Camera. What made the Game Boy Camera affordable and accessible was also what made it fun, which is something Nintendo has demonstrated time and time again with its consoles that rarely have as much processing power as the competition. The photography experience is more important than mega-pixels, and while the Game Boy Camera stopped being my main shooter almost two decades ago, I definitely credit it for sparking my own interest in photography.