In 1998, Nintendo released the Game Boy camera. It was essentially a special Game Boy cartridge with a lens attached which let you take pictures and then print them later using a separate dedicated printer. As something of a Game Boy enthusiast, I’m pretty taken with this historical oddity and have been faffing about with it on and off for years. With just a tiny 128 x 128 pixel sensor, it is pretty much a relic of a bygone era at this point… but that’s partly what makes it interesting.
The Game Boy camera was obviously never designed to be used for sharing online, and didn’t exactly have the largest memory capacity in the world (something like 30 pictures). As a result, for a long time, the only way to get your images onto a computer was to print them out and scan them in, which meant that you’d be tempted to keep your favourites. It’s possibly partly for this reason that if you come across a Game Boy camera nowadays, it will probably still have images of their former owners locked away inside of them, like a time capsule. Here’s some of the shots I found on one of mine, some of which look like they are lifted straight out of a 90s teen movie:
It’s pretty wild to think about what age the people in those pictures are might be now, and where they’ve ended up. Especially that last one, who seems to have had a future as a serial killer lined up. To be honest though, I am probably just bitter since their pictures seem to be way better than what I’ve taken with the blasted thing. If anybody happens to recognise themselves in these pictures please do leave a comment below, as I have a pile more!
Over time, methods developed to transfer the images from the Game Boy camera into more usable formats, but they weren’t exactly straightforward, to say the least. They often involved convoluted steps with special hardware that meant that it wasn’t exactly a very practical affair. However, in recent years there’s been another option available for the serious Game Boy photographer: the ‘BitBoy’ (not to be confused with the ‘retro’ handheld emulator).
The BitBoy is a small box which connects up to the Game Boy via a link cable. From there, you ‘print’ the images to an SD card. This means that you can shoot till you run out space, transfer the pictures to the BitBoy, then delete all of them from the Game Boy and carry on pretty much forever (thanks to the file sizes involved, a 4gb SD card can apparently handle 166,000 images). Finally, the physical size of the BitBoy means that it is extremely portable, and so is a pretty handy for carting about.
It’s not all smiles and rainbows though. I’ve had some trouble getting the BitBoy to work with my Game Boy ‘classic’ (the big grey brick kind)… though it could well be a cable issue. I’ve had much better luck with a Game Boy Color. Also, rather annoyingly, whilst the BitBoy charges up over USB, you can’t use it as an SD card reader… so you need to remove the SD to get the images off. To complain about such a niche product for such a specific use case seems kind of ridiculous though.
You can find more details on the BitBoy and order one from their Big Cartel page here.
While the BitBoy is great, it is on the expensive side. Since it initially came out, the WiFi Printer has been developed. Coming in at a cost of about £23 (and made in the UK!), this teeny device essentially does the same thing as the BitBoy, except you access the images over a built-in WiFi connection rather than an SD card. The other cool thing is that you can edit the pictures via the webserver’s GUI, which is pretty handy. Note that it doesn’t actually act as a ‘printer’ in the traditional sense… Either way, this gadget isn’t something I’ve personally used yet, but it seems like a great solution for a reasonable price. Check that out here.
There are other options out there… but they all tend to be much more involved, utilise hardware that is tough to get a hold of, or require more technical expertise – so I’m not going to delve into them here. If you are that way inclined, you can find the resources elsewhere!
When you pull the images from the Game Boy camera via the BitBoy, they come out as 160 x 144 pixel .bmp files. This obviously isn’t especially useful, but since the images are made up of clearly defined blocks, you can size them up without any loss of err, ‘quality’. Just be sure to select ‘Nearest Neighbor’ in Photoshop when resampling, to preserve the hard edges of the squares.
The Game Boy camera is an odd device. The pictures it takes are, in many ways, dreadful. But… there is something charming and interesting about them. The tremendously bad image quality forces you to look at the world differently, and think a bit more creatively about how to get the most out of its limitations.
- Strong shapes with lots of contrast are good. (You can produce some interesting abstract shots fairly easy).
- Not good for detail.
- Close up is good.
- Lots of light on the subject – preferable if the background is darker. Very evenly lit, busy scenes do not translate well.
- Following on from the above, the Game Boy camera is not great for low light shots.
When you first export the images from the Game Boy camera, they have the Nintendo border.
There are a bunch of different borders available…
Of course, while a border might be cool for some things, you obviously don’t need to keep them, and can just crop down to the actual image.
With a bit of creativity, you can add in different colours and hues using Photoshop or whatever other imaging software you fancy. Given the low resolution of the pictures, I think this can really help bring out the subject a lot better. I’ve had the best results when adding a colour layer over the top of the image, and changing the blend mode.
Stickers and other stuff
Going back to the Game Boy camera software itself, you aren’t just limited to changing the borders… but you can do all sorts of cool things with the built in ‘stickers’, including that awful Snapchat dog face that teenage girls seem obsessed with. Who knew that Nintendo were really the originators of that?
Taken all together, create some pretty cool abstract bits of art:
or just rely on the simplicity of the results with minimal modifications:
The beautiful thing about the Game Boy camera is its ability to take everyday things and make them interesting.
If you like this kind of thing, you could give me a follow on my Instagram dedicated to Game Boy pictures, where I post very infrequently.