I was taking black-and-white selfies before it was cool

gb camera logo

Game Boy Camera (1998)

Although my Instagram is by now world-famous (no less than 300 followers, and a Verified blue tick surely in the post), I’m no photographer. If I’m vomiting a picture of my collection all over ‘the Gram’, or worse still, if I’m plastering my mug up there, I don’t even take the time to take the perfect shot. Much better, I feel, to take a scattergun approach, clog up my phone with four thousand images of my gurning mug, put the heaviest, most flattering filter I can find over the best of that poor bunch of 4,000, and put together some witty caption. Hashtag it into oblivion, and there you go – another slice of fried gold.

None of those luxuries were to be afforded to me in 1998, when I received the Game Boy Camera for Christmas. A camera for my Game Boy Color! It was the dream I never knew I had. I did not realise how badly I needed to cut about my housing estate, taking bad quality monochrome photos of everything I could see, saving these shots to a huge library of 30 photos in memory. But now, I was like that bloke Helmut Newton when he’s got a Sunday free and the sun’s come out. I was a snapper.

Let’s run through the specs in more detail. For reference my mobile phone, which is by no means a technological behemoth, just a run-of-the-mill Samsung J5 or somesuch, allows me to take 13 megapixel photos. I don’t know what a megapixel is of course, but I do know that these are 4128×3096-size shots. I am almost always running out of space on the thing and I have an awful lot of clag to delete, but even now I can cram 289 more photos on there. This is full colour of course, with all manner of effects and modes, and I can do video as well.

The Game Boy Camera finds this a bit of a tough engine to race against if I’m honest. It’s a maximum of 30 shots as I had mentioned, which for somebody as vain as me is not nearly enough. As for pixel quality, I don’t think megapixels existed when this device came out but an image resolution of 128×112 is clearly a little bit lacking somewhat. It runs off the original Game Boy palette (that is, 4 colours) and you can forget about video. Still, at the time it featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the World’s Smallest Digital Camera. World’s Most Grackler Quality camera wasn’t a category in 1998, I suppose.

But still, what fun I’d had with it. I loaded mine up recently and there they still were, 30 shots from the turn of the century. You can’t buy nostalgia like that. Of course, given the crummy quality, the complete absence of colour and my lamentable skills as a 7-year-old photographer, you can’t exactly see much. Despite that, every image on there tells a story. Even the ones with crude cliparts added and badly done crop jobs.

The software that the Camera runs alongside is some of the strangest, most offbeat and cryptic stuff Nintendo has ever hit us with and that’s saying something. Press the wrong button and you’re suddenly face to face with a demon from Japanese hell. It’s just a young girl with a load of insane effects added to her face, but if the bastard lesbian lovechild of Grace Jones and Myra Hindley showed up on that screen I could hardly be more terrified.

But just when you perceive the Camera to be some terribly frightful piece of hardware that’s about to lay a curse on you, you access the Credits screen and there’s a man in shirt, tie and slacks, dancing to a jolly theme. And then the man keeps multiplying as his three frames of dancing animation repeats. Don’t worry, I have questions as well. What’s even more nuts is that, technically speaking, we got our very first look at Pokémon on Game Boy here – there’s some Pokémon Green sprites as part of the stamps and stickers used for photo editing purposes.

The Camera’s not all about taking shots – if you can navigate through the odd menus, and press the right buttons at the right times (and you’ll find something new almost every time you turn it on), you’ll find a few games and side-distractions.

Firstly, there’s DJ, where you can put together a kind of rudimentary chiptune. If the camera was primitive, then this DJ function is positively Cro-Magnon, but you might get a tiny bit of fun out of it, if you have Locked In Syndrome.

Probably the best bit of DJ, and the other games like Ball, is that it superimposes your face onto the character by using a photo you’ve previously taken, so you can watch a (badly-cropped) version of yourself go ham at max tempo in the DJ booth, arms flailing about the place.

There’s an odd vertical shooter where you control a spaceship, taking out enemies, bosses, and eventually, your own face. Curiously there’s a suicide button intentionally put into the game. That button is, ah, ‘B’. As in, one of two main face buttons on the Game Boy. Like most outlandish things on this hardware, we’ll probably never get an explanation.

But like you couldn’t have Kenan without Kel, Ren without Stimpy or Sister without Sister, so I have to mention the ultimate companion piece to the Camera – the Game Boy Printer. I’m not sure how much this beast cost at the time, possibly 80 clams, but where the real cost lay was batteries. Six of your finest AAs, if you don’t mind, and if you ran out of your first roll of thermal receipt paper, as I inevitably did, then that was it for you. I understand it’s not easy to find the official stuff in this day and age, even with eBay, and you’ll have to use substitute paper.

And what could you print anyway? Your dreadful, four-tone, pixelated, digital garbage representations of your family. And probably some fidelity and quality or whatever on earth was lost as your 2-byte photograph made the journey from Camera to Printer via… the Game Boy Link Cable. Do you understand now just how many doodads the Game Boy had to its name?

There was once a time when digital cameras were seen as space age, and had the prices to match. Now, a 13 megapixel jobby is barely even a selling point on a device small enough to fit in my pocket. You could hardly say that the Game Boy Camera was quickly rendered obsolete – it was pretty much Stone Age from day one, even if it did hold some Guinness Record as a technicality.

The visual limitations of the Game Boy itself may have meant that your Camera photos would only ever be depressing to look at it. But for that six-month pocket of time back in the day, as we headed into 1999, I was the happiest little photographer around.

I don’t normally like to look through old family photographs, especially if they’re of me being an embarrassing, pale little child. But the shots on the Game Boy Camera were different – they had to be the best 30 that I wanted to keep, due to memory issues. They’ve got edits, doodles and added stamps and stickers that I myself wanted to put on there. But most importantly, each of those photos was taken by me.

And now, 20 years later, I could hardly ask for a better trove of memories. Even if I do have to hold the screen under intense light and tilt it all around, until I can see which pixels are my brother and which pixels are the living room exploding into the staticky voids of hell behind him.

26 October 2018

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