How Nintendo Introduced the Game Boy, Tetris, and Pokémon to the West


The beginning of an era…

Nintendo was killing it in the 80s. The NES had garnered over 28 million system sales worldwide and almost single-handedly revived the failing American video game market. 

But Nintendo games  needed something else. They needed something new that could really expand the market, that could strengthen their arsenal and get a new foothold in the gaming industry. They needed a portable, compact gaming device. 

The Game Boy

In Japan, the Game Boy was an easy sell. It was the perfect product for children and the average worker, a system to play on the go in a fast-paced society. Outside Japan things were a little different. 

Tetris and Pokémon were the two games that helped it pave the way. This is that story.

Don Coyner, marketing manager at Nintendo of America, had to figure out how to introduce the Game Boy outside of Japan, so he needed to figure out what made the Game Boy special. There were plenty of positives. The price was only $89.95, it had a comfortable size and good graphics. 

The sustained gameplay was what made it stand out, though. Three of the five North American launch games — Tetris, Tennis, and Baseball — also had a unique feature, a link cable for head-to-head multiplayer. Game Boy’s most unusual features: the link cable that enabled head-to-head multiplayer between devices. 

Nintendo had a really high budget for the marketing, but their advertising really just kept it close to a few core principles. They mostly targeted 9- to 14-year-old boys, especially appealing to older kids, because the older kids would get more sales. Adults and girls were part of the Game Boy market, but advertising to boys was the main focus.

Nintendo needed gameplay footage, but that was easy. They really needed to actually show someone actually using the product, which was hard. So they made blended ads, like one where you see a futuristic robot playing Tetris, head-to-head with a teenage boy. 

All of Nintendo’s marketing typically centered around one focal point, which was a major game for each system. For the Game Boy, that game was Tetris.

Tetris was simply the perfect Game Boy game. The blocks would remain clearly visible on the tiny screen, unlike bullets and other small objects in common action games. Even more importantly, it fit well with the portable nature of the handheld. It was the perfect game to play for a couple minutes, real fast. 

In keeping with Coyner’s marketing wisdom to focus on just one game, Tetris would also need to become the centerpiece in Nintendo of America’s launch plans for the Game Boy. This was easier said than done. Tetris was a hard sell if anyone hadn’t played it

The Game Boy was a challenge to cover at the best of times. It simply wasn’t very interesting to look at. It didn’t look very fun or colorful or entertaining, the way that NES did.

Tetris made it even harder, because it was so abstract, with blocks instead of characters. Still, the Game Boy blew up. People wanted as many as they could get. It was only $89 with a game, and the battery life was good.

Nintendo produced a million Game Boys for the U.S. in 1989 and sold all of them. After three years, American sales stood at 9 million units. By the time the Game Boy Color came out in late 1998, the original Game Boy had surpassed 64 million sales worldwide. And through much of that time, Game Boy was synonymous with Tetris.

Game Boy’s longevity, however, really owed itself to Pokemon. Pokémon Red and Blue reinvigorated the Game Boy around the globe, along the way starting a multibillion-dollar franchise.

But at first Nintendo of America wasn’t sure what to do about the game. A year in and with the game still getting bigger and bigger every month, team members wondered if it could ever work stateside.

Nintendo of America’s marketing team worried American kids might not have the attention span for the Pokemon franchise. They also wanted to appear hip and cool to AMerican kids, but Pokemon had so much success in Japan, they had to try it in America. 

Pokémon became a cultural phenomenon in Japan. Comics. Movies. TV shows. Everything. It was too late to change the game. The American Nintendo tema had to localize it, coming up with English names for the Pokémon, and creating a massive brand management effort to bring all the TV shows, comics, movies, toys, trading cards, all of it, into America.

That team made a deal with 4Kids Entertainment to help manage and arrange licensing and merchandise, then the two companies together came up with a plan to bring Pokémon to the West. The approach was simple: collectability. 

Gotta catch ’em all.

The team planned to introduce the TV show first  to hook kids on the narrative and theme, but they still had two major problems. TV networks weren’t interested. They all turned the show down. Luckily, they bartered ad budget to get airtime. But they still needed to show the American kids why Pokémon was great. All this work to localize Pokémon for the American market wouldn’t mean a thing if they couldn’t get people excited enough to play the game.

So they sent all of the subscribers on their mailing lists a videotape that explained the franchise, what the whole concept was. This also showed that there were the Game Boy games, and that there would be toys and there would be a card game.

Pokémon got fast-food tie-ins and school book cover promotions, too. All told, Nintendo spent around $15-20 million marketing their franchise, hoping to bring it to the American market with the same satisfaction with which it had blown up the Japanese market.

It worked. 

Within a month, the game had sold 400,000 copies in the U.S. In 10 months, it sold 4 million units, with lifetime sales of 10 million in the U.S. and 31 million worldwide! 

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. picked up the TV show in February 1999 for national broadcast, and it clocked #1 in the Saturday morning ratings for 14 weeks in a row! That November, Pokémon: The First Movie opened at the top of the box office. 

By the end of  the year, Pokemon had made over $7 billion in global revenue. Far from sinking in the American market, Pokémon had single-handedly revitalized the Game Boy. 

Over the span of the next few years, this revenue lifted across the whole Game Boy market to astronomical heights. Combined sales from all the Game Boy iterations rose each year, and were 18.86 million by 2001. Game sales also rose 200 million units, and soon there was a lifetime number of 501 million worldwide! 

A legend was born.