Meet the System: Nintendo Game Boy

One of the main goals of this blog is to introduce people to each video game console and their sound capabilities.   Today, let’s talk about the Nintendo Game Boy.

A Brief Description

If you had to guess, what would you say was the best selling game console of all time?  It’s not the Game Boy, unfortunately.  It’s the PS2.  It’s not even Nintendo’s best selling console of all time (the Nintendo Wii shattered records for the company).  Still, the Nintendo Game Boy posted amazing numbers for a time when the video game industry was much smaller.   From when the first Game Boy rolled out in Japan on April 21st, 1989 to the official discontinuation of the product in 2003, Game Boy sold more than 118 million consoles (counting Game Boy Color as well).  Sporting a monochrome screen and a huge library of games, Nintendo managed to bury all other competitors on the hand held market.  Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx sported superior graphics and sound processors but still could not compete.  Why?  Some cite the cheaper price (Game Boy debuted at a nice $89.99.  Atari Lynx?  $189.99.)  Others point out the battery life.  The original Game Boy required 4 AA batteries and provided 8-10 hours of game play.  Lynx?  6 AA and only 4-5 hours.  Market recognition could have played a part in it too.  Atari Lynx had no “Mario” or even a “Sonic” to draw sales.  I bought a Game Boy just to play Super Mario Land.  So there’s that.

At any rate, let’s take a look at the sound hardware.

Sound Capability

Technical Stuff:

The main CPU controlling our sound processor is a Custom 8-bit Sharp LR35902.  This custom processor sported a BLAZING FAST 4.19 Mhz.  Essentially, from what I understand,  this custom chip was somewhere in the middle of the capabilities of the Intel 8080 and Zilog Z80 chips.  Interesting to note, as I said way back in this post, the Sega Master System uses a Z80 as a processor and the Sega Mega Drive uses it to control sounds alongside a Motorola 68000.  The Z80 should be pretty familiar to you in another way- it was the main processor of many early arcade machines including the PacMan series.  Also, uh, it’s the main processor in a Texas Instruments TI-83 calculator.

Anyhow, the Game Boy can produce a quadrangular wave pattern with sweep and envelope functions, a quadrangular wave pattern with envelope functions only, a voluntary wave pattern from the wave RAM, and white noise with an envelope function.  In basic terms, 2 square waves, a PCM sampler, and a noise machine.  The Game Boy also sports an “audio port” pin to connect cartridge based sound chips.  This appears to function the same as the Nintendo Famicom sound pin but I cannot seem to find ANY information as to how it was utilized or if any cartridges had things similar to Konami VRC6.  I should really look into that.

Note – NES/Famicom uses a DMC/DPCM which is a delta modulation channel/differential pulse-code modulation.  Game Boy uses a true PCM or pulse code modulation.  Just because DPCM has “PCM” in it does not mean it’s the same technology, not at all!  PCM is a MUCH more flexible as we’ll see below.  Basically, there’s certain kinds of waves we can’t making using a DMC/DPCM.  I’ll talk about it in a future post.

Another thing- the Game Boy was capable of output through one small speaker on the front of the system.  The sound was broadcast in mono.  If you plug headphones in, however, the sound is broadcast in stereo.  So… which is the real way to hear the output?  Did composers develop soundtracks knowing people would use the headphones?  Interesting questions.

The PCM makes Game Boy the favorite for chiptune composers.  The mighty gray box can do lots of cool things.  Check out explod2A03’s band here- they use the hell out of it:

Lastly, some of you may have had this guy:

Interesting to note- you weren’t playing your games at original fidelity.  Super Game Boy’s playback pitch is 2.4% higher!  Weird, right?


What’s nice about the PCM is the ability to create custom waves for greater variability.  You’ll hear how this is manipulated in many different games to create many different sounds to compliment the square waves.  This is a flexibility that the Nintendo Famicom/NES did not possess.  However, it wasn’t necessarily utilized right away…

(credit: NAMETYR)

Yeah, we all know this.  A couple things to note- the two square waves are in default mode and we have our PCM emulating a triangular wave here.  This essentially is a Famicom/NES set up.  We should unlock this a bit more, use some of the capabilities of the system, right?

(credit: NickAura)

The PCM is utilized to make different sounds as we go here.  The square maintains the bass notes.  Notice the change of the PCM around 0:45.  On the fly change of instruments!  That’s pretty awesome.  It gives the illusion that there’s more than 3 sounds here.  Pretty masterful use of the hardware.  Now, let’s take a look at how the sweep effects and be used with this track:

(credit: pokemonmusicmaster)

We can hear how the sound can sweep from low to high at rapid speeds.  These features are something unique to Game Boy.  While regular NES has the capabilities to do similar things, the Game Boy composers really embrace the speed of the custom 8800/Z80.  Another example:

(credit: BDarius213)

There’s a meandering banjo-like part.  Again, we get to the see PCM change in action.  Kinda neat as they can create the idea that there’s many different instruments and there’s still only 3.

Anyhow, here’s some choice tracks for your listening pleasure.  Notice how dense the textures can get with just 3 instruments.  It’s kind of awesome:

(credit: Blaziken257)

(credit:  RPGMusicDotOrg)

(credit:  explod2A03)

As always, if you like the music, check out the full soundtracks!  Enjoy!


About Classical Gaming

Steve Lakawicz holds an MM in Music Performance from Temple University as well as a BM in Tuba Performance from Rutgers University . His teachers include Paul Scott, Scott Mendoker, and Jay Krush. His love of video game music has lead him to form a blog, Classical Gaming, to promote discussion both casual and academic about the music of video games. He is the co-founder of the video game/nerd music chamber ensemble, Beta Test Music and regularly composes/performs chiptune music as Ap0c. He currently resides in Philadelphia where he teaches college statistics at Temple University. View all posts by Classical Gaming

2 responses to “Meet the System: Nintendo Game Boy

  • Another Gamer

    Good lord. I am glad I came across this blog. Here are my reactions: “Oh, cool, a blog on classic gaming.” Next came: “Oh, he’s looking at it from a purely musical perspective! I’m a musician!” Then, inevitably: “Wait, seriously? He’s a tuba player? I’m a tuba player!”

    Unreal. Also, I had no idea about the GBA’s sound limitations. It makes me really appreciate the subtleties of the music. But I have a couple questions: In the Zelda theme, I could have sworn the melody had vibrato… did they have LFO capabilities or is that just part of the envelope function? And the same goes for the Mario Land 2 theme. It seemed like there was reverb? Could be mistaken.

    But boy lordy, it just makes me think about how much of my childhood was spent listening to square waves… Jeez. Also, I never knew about the Super Game Boy. I feel betrayed… my music is over 2.4% faster.

    • classicalgaming

      Rocking! Thanks for stopping by!

      So one of the tricks of the trade for the older systems was an echo effect. There’s an interesting YouTube video by explod2a03 that shows how this was applied. Basically, they would use both square waves and have them play melodies at like, a 32nd off. Here’s his video, it’s kinda awesome: Even crazier, composers like Tim Follin were able to create echo using just ONE channel. Pretty crazy.

      Also! As a fellow tuba player, you may appreciate the group I’ve put together to play video game music! We use a lot of tuba… here’s a link to our YouTube channel: A couple mistakes by me but heck, it’s live so whatever! 😀

      I want to try to get Super Game Boy and match up the audio with it’s Game Boy counterpart on the original hardware for a comparison. I know people have done this via emulation but I’m just curious to see what it sounds like myself.

      Anyhow, there’s more to come so please enjoy!

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