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Did the Game Boy Color have color?

The Game Boy Color was a handheld gaming console released by Nintendo in 1998. As the name suggests, it was an upgrade to the original monochrome Game Boy that added color graphics. But there has been some debate around whether the Game Boy Color actually had real color or not. In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the technology behind the Game Boy Color and analyze if it really qualified as a color system.

The Technology Behind the Game Boy Color

The original Game Boy, released in 1989, used a monochrome green dot matrix screen technology that was unable to display color. The Game Boy Color improved upon this with technology that provided a limited color palette. But it did not use an RGB color model like more advanced systems. Instead, it used a proprietary technology developed by Sharp called “Color Enhancement Technology.”

This new screen had a color palette of 32,768 colors available. But it could only display a maximum of 56 colors on screen at once from this palette. And the screen resolution remained the same as the original Game Boy, at 160 x 144 pixels. So while thousands of colors were available, any given screen section could only show a handful of unique colors at a time.

To decide which colors to display, the Game Boy Color would internally map the shades in a scene to the nearest equivalent from its available palette. For example, if a pixel was supposed to be light pink, it would display the closest available pink color from the 56 on screen choices. This resulted in some color inaccuracies and approximations.

Compatibility Issues

Another factor that influenced the Game Boy Color’s color capabilities was compatibility with the enormous library of original Game Boy games. Nintendo chose to make the Game Boy Color fully compatible with the thousands of existing Game Boy game cartridges. This provided an instant large game catalog for the new system.

However, it also required color games to be designed with original Game Boy hardware limitations in mind. Since original Game Boy games displayed only in black, white, and shades of green, color Game Boy Color games had to use color carefully to also be playable on the older system. As a result, color palettes were built around shades of green, and often avoided brightly contrasting colors like reds and blues.

Color Capabilities in Practice

The Game Boy Color’s technical color capabilities clearly had some limitations. But how did this translate into real world gameplay color? Here is an overview of the effective color abilities:

  • Limited on-screen color palette – While thousands of colors were available in the system’s memory, only 56 could be displayed at once. This meant color variety was restricted in any given scene.
  • Color approximation – The internal color mapping resulted in shades not displaying exactly as they were designed due to technical limitations.
  • Backward compatibility constraints – Games had to avoid certain color combinations to be playable on original Game Boy hardware.

As a result, Game Boy Color games were not quite the vibrant color experiences suggested by the system’s name. The available colors tended to be muted and limited. There were also some issues with colors accurately representing the developers’ intentions.

Game Examples

To help illustrate the real-world color capabilities of the Game Boy Color, let’s look at some example screenshots across a variety of games:

Game Screenshot
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX Zelda Game Boy Color screenshot
Pokemon Gold/Silver Pokemon Game Boy Color screenshot
Super Mario Bros. Deluxe Mario Game Boy Color screenshot
Wendy: Every Witch Way Wendy Game Boy Color screenshot

While the screenshots show some colors beyond monochrome green, the palettes are fairly limited. Most games relied heavily on shades of green, yellow, brown, and other subdued tones. Bright primary colors are rarely seen due to the compatibility constraints. Overall, the visuals showcase the technical color restrictions of the system rather than impressive colorful graphics.

Contrast with Game Boy Advance

The Game Boy Advance, released in 2001, helps provide some useful contrast to illustrate the color limitations of the Game Boy Color. The Game Boy Advance featured full 32-bit color with a wider color spectrum. It had no backward compatibility requirements limiting its color palette. As a result, Game Boy Advance games displayed vibrant and varied colors across the whole spectrum. Here are some examples:

Game Screenshot
Super Mario World Mario Game Boy Advance screenshot
Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire Pokemon Game Boy Advance screenshot
Metroid Fusion Metroid Game Boy Advance screenshot

The Game Boy Advance was able to showcase a wider spectrum of bold, vibrant colors not possible on the Game Boy Color. This really highlights the technical color limitations of the Game Boy Color system.


So did the Game Boy Color live up to its name and really provide color graphics? It depends on perspective. Compared to the original monochrome Game Boy, the Game Boy Color was a big step forward by displaying colors beyond black, white, and green. But the technology had some clear technical limitations resulting in a more muted color experience than the name suggested.

The on-screen color palette was restricted to only 56 colors at once. Color approximations and backward compatibility requirements also limited the Game Boy Color’s color capabilities compared to later handhelds. While games certainly looked better than the original Game Boy, the Game Boy Color’s graphics were not nearly as colorful as its successor, the Game Boy Advance.

Overall, calling the Game Boy Color a truly color system is a bit of a stretch. But it represented an incremental step forward for Nintendo handheld gaming into more advanced color graphics.