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Why were gameboys not backlit?

The original Game Boy was released by Nintendo in 1989 and quickly became one of the most popular handheld gaming devices of all time. Its revolutionary portable design allowed gamers to play anywhere, but it lacked one key feature that we now take for granted on modern handhelds – a backlit screen. In this article, we’ll explore the history of the Game Boy and the technological limitations that prevented Nintendo from including screen lighting in its original iconic design.

The Origins of the Game Boy

In the late 1980s, Nintendo was dominating the home video game console market with its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Seeking to extend its success into the emerging handheld gaming space, Nintendo began developing a new portable device under the code name “Dot Matrix Game”. This new Game Boy was smaller and lighter than Nintendo’s previous handheld, the Game & Watch, while retaining cartridge-based games like the NES.

Key contributors to the Game Boy development included Gunpei Yokoi, designer of the Game & Watch, and Nintendo Research and Development 1, the team behind the successful NES console. The end goal was to create a versatile gaming handheld at an affordable price point that allowed for convenient on-the-go gameplay.

Limitations of Display Technology

The single biggest challenge in designing a handheld gaming device in the late 1980s was the display. LCD (liquid crystal display) technology had advanced considerably but was still limited in several ways compared to CRT televisions.

First, LCD screens were not self-luminous – they required an external light source to make the image visible. Backlit LCD displays were possible but drained battery life quickly in portable devices. Reflective LCDs enhanced visibility in ambient light but lacked clarity in darkness.

Second, color LCD displays were still expensive to produce and had slower response times that created ghosting or blurring effects during movement. This made simple monochrome LCD the logical choice for a responsive, affordable handheld display.

Display Type Advantages Disadvantages
Backlit LCD Good visibility without ambient light, high contrast ratio High power consumption, expensive for portable devices
Reflective LCD Lower power needs, enhanced visibility in bright light Limited visibility in darkness, low native contrast
Monochrome LCD Simple and inexpensive design, faster response times Limited color capabilities

Given these limitations, a reflective monochrome LCD was the only viable option for the first Game Boy in 1989. This provided acceptable playability in most ambient light conditions while minimizing cost and maximizing battery efficiency.

The Original Game Boy Design

The iconic design of the original Game Boy featured a dot matrix reflective LCD screen without backlighting. It measured 90mm x 148mm with a screen size of 66mm x 44mm and displayed 2.6″ diagonally. By comparison, the competing Atari Lynx color handheld had a 3.5″ backlit screen but much higher power consumption.

Below the Game Boy’s green-tinted LCD screen sat a simple directional pad and A/B action buttons, plus Start and Select buttons. Sound was provided by a basic 4-channel speaker.

Four AA batteries provided up to 35 hours of battery life thanks to the underpowered components and lack of a screen backlight. The Game Boy retailed for $89.99 at launch – an affordable price made possible by its no-frills design.

Game Boy Specs Details
Screen Unlit reflective LCD, 66 x 44mm, 2.6″ diagonal
Resolution 160 x 144 pixels
Color Palette 4 shades of gray (green tinted)
Controls Directional pad, A/B buttons, Start, Select
Sound 4 channel speaker
Battery Life Up to 35 hours on 4 AA batteries
Launch Price $89.99

While crude by today’s standards, the reflective LCD and lack of internal lighting were critical in allowing Nintendo to produce an affordable, battery-efficient handheld gaming device.

Game Boy Gains Popularity Despite Screen Limitations

When it launched in North America in 1989, the Game Boy was an instant hit. The reflective LCD posed some challenges – visibility became difficult under poor ambient lighting and the lack of color limited some titles. However, the sharp, responsive display and long battery life were more than enough to please gamers.

The Game Boy’s pack-in title Tetris took advantage of the system’s strengths while sidestepping its weaknesses. Simple, highly addictive puzzle gameplay was perfect for the monochrome display. Tetris became a system-seller, bundling it with Game Boy helped drive hardware adoption.

Improved technology in some rival handhelds like the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear did little to dampen Game Boy sales. Both featured color backlit LCD screens but struggled with portability, battery life and game library issues compared to the Game Boy.

Handheld System Total Sales
Game Boy 118.69 million
Game Gear 11 million
Atari Lynx 3 million

Nintendo’s handheld would go on to sell over 118 million units over its lifespan – by far the most of any system at the time. Developers learned to embrace the reflective LCD’s strengths and limitations, delivering memorable black-and-white experiences like Super Mario Land, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and Pokémon Red/Blue.

Later Game Boy Models Added Color and Lighting

While the original Game Boy continued selling well into the mid 90s, Nintendo worked on incremental updates to the hardware. In 1998, the Game Boy Color added a color reflective LCD screen while retaining Game Boy compatibility. Backlighting technology still wasn’t ready for a handheld system.

The Game Boy Advance in 2001 finally brought screen lighting to Nintendo handhelds. It featured a 240 x 160 pixel TFT LCD display with a user-controlled frontlight – similar to the backlighting on the later Game Boy Advance SP. This delivered improved visibility while keeping power consumption at reasonable levels.

Handheld Year Display Type Lighting
Game Boy 1989 Reflective LCD No
Game Boy Color 1998 Color reflective LCD No
Game Boy Advance 2001 TFT LCD Frontlight
Game Boy Advance SP 2003 TFT LCD Backlight

Screen technology had finally progressed to a point where efficient LCD backlighting was economically feasible for handheld gaming. Modern descendants of the Game Boy like the Nintendo 3DS and Switch now include bright, vivid LCDs that allow gaming anywhere without ambient light dependence.


In the end, the non-backlit reflective LCD screen was a necessary compromise that made the Game Boy’s revolutionary portable design and affordable pricing possible in 1989. While crude by modern standards, it did not significantly limit the fun of early Game Boy titles designed around its capabilities. As LCD prices fell and technology improved, later Game Boy models added color and lighting while retaining the original’s portability and simplicity.

The Game Boy’s reflective screen paved the way for over 30 years of advancing handheld displays. Today’s gamers have the original 1989 launch, devoid of lighting by necessity, to thank for beginning Nintendo’s successful portable gaming lineage leading to the current Switch OLED model.