Super Game Boy: Creativity in Constraints

In 1994, Nintendo released the Super Game Boy. Being lucky enough to own both an original black and white Game Boy and a SNES at the time, I remember not being particularly excited by the idea of playing my handheld games on a small square on the TV, so I never considered it worth my saved up pocket money. What did always puzzle me was how it managed to play black & white games – even really old ones – in colour.

Tetris title screen on Super Game Boy

I have since learned a bit more about this odd little device and have discovered that the Super Game Boy was in fact a lot more interesting than you would initially expect.

To start, the SNES was apparently not powerful enough to emulate the Game Boy, so in order to run the games, the Super Game Boy actually contained a good deal of the Game Boy’s hardware, including the CPU1. What’s even more fascinating is how it was able to play monochrome games in colour.

The original monochrome Game Boy was able to display 4 shades of greenish grey, so every single pixel on the screen used one of those four values. What the Super Game Boy did was simply assign different colours to each of those values by using a different palette. Upon launch, the SGB came with ton of hardcoded palettes for existing games that made those specific games look good. This worked better for some games than it did for others, because those games were never designed to be displayed in colour in the first place.

A lesser known fact is that the Super Game Boy actually allowed games to redefine their palette on the fly, even using separate palettes for different regions on the screen. This way, games could control how they were rendered in colour by the SGB. The fact that this functionality was layered on top what was essentially still a monochrome system meant that there were serious limitations. The palette was applied as a separate step in the SNES after the Game Boy hardware had finished rendering, so the process was too slow to follow moving images, but it’s amazing what game designers were able to do to a monochrome game with just four colours at a time.

Today I stumbled upon a series of five articles about the Super Game Boy and how games used its colour features and it’s well worth a read. Despite the limitations imposed by the Super Game Boy, some of the games that made use of its capabilities are actually better than their full-colour counterparts. It’s truly a testimony of how designers can shine in the face of constraints and, frankly, a bit of nostalgic history.


Source: Fuck the Super Game Boy.

1 There really is half a gameboy inside of the Super Game Boy. Incidentally, this has made them quite popular among Game Boy modders, who use them as organ donors to make their game boys start up faster.

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