In 1998, Nintendo released the Game Boy Camera: a cartridge-based digital camera that allows players to take digital pictures, edit their saved files, and even print them using the Game Boy Printer accessory. While relatively lo-fi by today’s standards—with a 128×112 pixel screen beholden to the 4-colour palette of the Game Boy handheld—it was one of the earliest consumer digital cameras.
|Magazine advertisements for the Game Boy Camera|
In 2023, we brought the Residual Media Depot’s Game Boy Camera and Game Boy Printer to the NOSTALGIA/LOSTAGAIN Symposium at Concordia University. Our hope was to allow audiences to playfully interact with the now venerable camera while reflecting upon its limiting, yet enduring, aesthetic. During the workshop slot, we encouraged visitors to take pictures with the Game Boy Camera, print their photos using the Game Boy Printer, and pass along their email address so we could send them digital versions of their snapshots.
Pixels and Paper
The technical assemblage that allows us to exhibit the Game Boy Camera and its peripherals is more complex than it seems. While the Game Boy is a fairly self-contained videogame platform, prized for its portability and requiring no external screens or power sources (beyond batteries), this solitary nature can also work against it.
For example, how do you transfer captured images off of a Game Boy Camera? Nintendo primarily intended this to occur using a link cable, which allows users to send an image to the official Game Boy Printer or to another Game Boy Camera. This is essentially a closed system—users can’t save their photos to another type of device or print using a generic paper printer—which makes it difficult to export Game Boy photography to modern devices.
|Magazine advertisement for the Game Boy Printer|
Identifying this issue, tinkerer Alexander Bahr designed the BitBoy. The BitBoy is a SD-Card port for the Game Boy Camera that allows users to transfer captured images to a standard SD-Card. Printing a photograph to the BitBoy creates a bitmap file that can later be resized, recoloured, and shared using any graphic editing software, allowing modern-day Game Boy photographers to easily share their images.
At the Depot, we typically execute a batch transfer of photographs following an event, pixel-perfect resize them to 400% size (for greater visibility), and then add a faux Game Boy colour palette to them to mimic the screen of the original device. These exported PNG files toe a line between shareability and authenticity. Although higher resolution than the original bitmaps, they still maintain the Game Boy’s iconic 4-colour aesthetic, pixelated rendering, and high contrast.
|Game Boy Camera picture from the LOSTAGAIN/NOSTALGIA Symposium, scaled up and recoloured.|
Transforming Game Boy Camera photos to PNGs and transferring them to a modern computer opens the door to all sorts of printing options. However, one of the mandates of the Residual Media Depot is to showcase the functionality of original game hardware assemblages, so we decided to operate the original Game Boy Printer “live” in front of guests. In addition to showing off the printer’s functionality—its speed, size, and sound were all commented upon by visitors—we were able to offer thumb-sized portraits for folks to take home.
While our Game Boy Printer still works near-flawlessly, finding paper for it can be challenging. The device was designed to use custom-made 38mm thermal printer paper with an adhesive backing, allowing users to share their pictures as stickers after printing. Even if we could still find some of Nintendo’s original supply of printer rolls, however, we would still not be able to operate the device. Thermal printer paper has an estimated lifespan of 3-5 years from the date of manufacturing, after which images will not properly transfer onto it.
|The Residual Media Depot’s Game Boy, Game Boy Camera, and Game Boy Printer in action at the LOSTAGAIN/NOSTALGIA Symposium.|
Generic 38mm wide thermal paper is available for purchase—it is a common size for taxi receipt printers—but is usually only sold in bulk or on rolls that are too large to fit inside the Game Boy Printer feed. For the NOSTALGIA/LOSTAGAIN Symposium, we ended up sourcing our paper from an Etsy seller who cuts and rolls thermal printer paper to the Game Boy Printer’s specifications, allowing us to run the workshop affordably and without having to grapple with improperly sized components.
By combining residual technologies with contemporary improvisations,we were able to provide guests with both digital and print copies of their photographs.
As can be seen through pixel and paper adventures, the afterlife of the Game Boy Camera is vibrant. Tinkerers have developed ways to interface the device with modern computers, photographers have embraced its technical constraints, and cottage industries have risen to sell key components related to its operation. Not bad for an ostensibly obsolescent device!
The Game Boy Camera also lives on in a less direct manner, as an aesthetic that is mimicked through filters and software apps. Webgbcam, for example, is an intriguing skeuomorph that allows users to create photographs and animated gifs that convincingly mimic the style of a Game Boy Camera, facilitated with a webcam and a simple online interface. The results are uncanny and generally “close enough” to satisfy those interested in the style. We liked it enough to feature it as a backdrop for our workshop station, where attendees often posed and danced in front of it.
|An animated gif of the author’s cat, as captured by webgbcam|
In our discussions with photobooth participants, we also learned more about the Game Boy as a durable nostalgic device. So many people commented that they still had a functional Game Boy at home, ranging from clunky grey DMGs to vibrantly encased Game Boy Colours. The compact nature of the handheld, along with its toy-like qualities, seem to make it exceptionally difficult for people to part with. They may hibernate in desk drawers or serve as tchotchkes on shelves, but can easily re-emerge as ludic devices due to their self-contained nature (as long as folks have a few AA batteries lying around).
Showcasing and sharing the Game Boy Camera allows us to explore the emotions that many hold toward the device, elicited as they capture pixelated photographs that resonate with their early videogame experiences. Either taken uncritically, as a revived element of one’s past, or reflectively, as an avenue for deconstructing “retro” aesthetics, Game Boy Camera photographs are a potent tool in exploring both residuality and nostalgia.