Want to Build a Game Boy Game? Now’s Your Chance

If you’re a tech professional of a certain age, you no doubt remember Nintendo’s Game Boy, the handheld game system with the iconic design. Although the device seems unbelievably primitive by modern standards, it nonetheless plunged many people into a lifelong love affair with game design and coding.

If you’re interested in taking a programmer’s trip down memory lane—or if you just want to create a game that leans heavily on the Game Boy’s sizable nostalgia factor, right down to the monochromatic green screen—there’s a new platform, GB Studio, that will let you indulge that impulse.

Developer Chris Maltby created GB Studio by stitching together the tools and scripts he’d used to create a game for a “pixel art game jam.” After you spin up and name a new project, you’ll arrive at a Project Editor dashboard. For the moment, GB Studio limits you to creating a 2D “overhead” game (think “The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening,” and similar Game Boy titles); you can add “scenes” (i.e., screens in which the action takes place) and then script events within those scenes.

There are “hardware limitations” in play here, so the characters/actors in each scene only have 25 unique frames of animation. Programming the actions within each scene won’t take heavy-duty code work, but there is a good deal of logic—which, even if you’re relatively new to coding, should be familiar. (If you’re totally new to coding, consider taking the “Flappy” tutorial on Code.org, or something equally beginner-level, before plunging into GB Studio.)

Once your Game Boy game is complete, you can export it as a ROM file or an HTML5 web build. GB Studio is available for Windows (64-bit and 32-bit, because building a retro game shouldn’t necessarily require a thoroughly modern machine), MacOS, and Linux. Installation instructions are available on the project website, and there’s the inevitable Github repo.

For those who want to make a full-fledged career out of game development, it’s important to learn the industry’s core platforms, including Unity and Unreal. It’s also key to keep an eye on popular platforms such as the Switch, which attract development from firms big and small. But beware: Although there’s a lot of pride and accomplishment in helping a team create a great game, there’s a lot of controversy in the video-game industry right now over crunch time.

And if you don’t want to become a video-game developer, but just want to create a cool Game Boy throwback to the early 1990s? GB Studio is worth checking out. Build something weird!