After an incredible year that saw the successful launch of its latest console, the Switch, and the release of two great, transformative games in its most most beloved series, The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, it’s only reasonable that everyone was foaming at the mouth to hear what Nintendo had in store for 2018. What nobody expected was its first major reveal to be Labo, a new line of DIY cardboard toys that turn a Switch into a makeshift piano or robot or fishing rod or whatever Nintendo’s mad geniuses can think up. For a lot of people who were dying for more info on Metroid Prime 4 or the next unannounced Switch hit, it was a confounding, disappointing moment. But Labo is pure Nintendo, a strange idea that combines low tech with high tech and, more importantly, high imagination. That’s the formula this company has been running with for decades. It doesn’t always produce a commercial hit or lasting innovation, but you know it’s at least going to be interesting.
Twenty years ago today, two decades before this ethos birthed Labo, it gave us one of the company’s strangest ever creations, the Game Boy Camera. It’s exactly what it says in the name: a tiny eyeball-shaped lens attached to a game cartridge that turned your chunky handheld into a rudimentary digital camera. Even by 1998 standards, the camera itself was a piece of junk. And the Game Boy—which had to bear the burden of being this device’s technological base—was nearly nine years old, sported a dim black-and-white (or black-and-green) screen, and had no way of connecting to a computer to actually do anything with your pictures. It was the polar opposite of a technological marvel.
The genius of this thing was in combining these two lackluster gadgets together, creating something new and, in hindsight, shockingly prescient. Years before everyone started carrying versatile little cameras in their pockets, before selfie culture and Snapchat, Nintendo pretty much predicted it all. Officially dubbed the world’s smallest digital camera at the time of its release, the Game Boy Camera approached the portability and convenience of a camera phone two years before any cellphone would include one. Even better, the eyeball lens could be turned 180 degrees, letting you use the Game Boy screen as a crude display whether you were aiming at something in front of you or at yourself. Yes, the Game Boy Camera was one of the first products designed with easily taken selfies in mind, released before the term had reached the popular consciousness and five years before any cellphone would include a front-facing lens. Even when that feature did emerge, it was envisioned as a tool for video conferencing, not for taking goofy pictures of your grinning mug. But of course Nintendo, with its toymaker imagination and history of lateral thinking, would be the one to realize that’s all any of us want.
Portability was one thing, but joining that ease of use with a pocket-sized computer, as old and underpowered as it was, is the real stroke of genius here. Nintendo is a video game company, after all, and so it built a playful, deeply strange software suite around its crummy camera. Photos can be taken through “trick lenses,” letting you rotate them, squash and stretch your subjects, or create time-lapse animations. You can make simple panoramas and photo collages. You can draw on your photos, slap cute stamps on them, or fill them with “hot spots,” invisible buttons that trigger effects—like sounds and transitions to other photos—when a cursor moves over them in the software’s view mode. You can even stitch multiple photos, including ones you’ve drawn on, together into flipbook-style animations.
The only thing missing from this embryonic Snapchat machine was, of course, the internet and the ability to easily share photos. But that didn’t stop Nintendo from trying to make the Game Boy Camera into a “social” device. There were two ways to get pictures off the thing: by transferring to a friend’s Game Boy Camera cartridge via a wired hookup or using the Game Boy Printer to turn them into tiny stamps, a more direct throwback to one of the camera’s more obvious inspirations—instant Polaroids. On a more philosophical and Nintendo-esque level, though, the comedic uses of photos of real people throughout the software and your ability to plug pictures into its included mini-games are a constant reminder that the act of photography itself should be social and enjoyed with friends and family.
Back in 1998, anyone looking to share their images with a wider audience had to use a scanner to digitize the photos (from either the printouts or the Game Boy’s screen) or a device that could read and write data from Game Boy cartridges to extract them. Such devices are way easier to buy these days, but you can find evidence of people uploading their Game Boy photography from as far back as 1999. The most fascinating example is the now defunct Tapir.org, where a photographer uploaded some of the most mesmerizing Game Boy shots you’re likely to see and provided insightful analysis of how best to understand and shoot with this unconventional camera.
In the years since its initial release, the unmistakable aesthetic of the Game Boy Camera’s lo-fi photos has been enough to keep it alive as a nostalgia piece and novelty. Tons of phone and webcam apps have filters trying to emulate its look, but hardly any have truly nailed it. (Christine Love, developer of games like Digital: A Love Story, designed a great one that sadly seems to no longer be available.) And every once in a while, we see Nintendo’s lens bust back into the news with some strange photographic project, like David Friedman’s fascinating low-tech method for getting the device to shoot in color (he also has a wonderful gallery of photos taken around New York City) or an astronomy student’s two-bit photos of heavenly bodies. There’s even an active 582-member group on Flickr that has been pooling their Game Boy photos since 2005.
Fueled by general nostalgia for retro-tech kitsch and all things Nintendo, it’s not much of a surprise that this prophetic gadget lives on through tinkerers and niche communities. Looking back now, the strangest thing about it is actually the software side of it—the look, sound, and feel of the menus. The project was spearheaded by Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, a composer and sound engineer who was important in the development of video game music in the NES era, and he injected it with the punky, psychedelic edge he helped bring to soundtracks like EarthBound. Something feels off from the very start. Turn it on and you’re greeted with a glitched-out song that references the Mario theme and a primitive animation of a man in a Mario suit dancing.
It only gets stranger from there. The software is loaded with references to forgotten Nintendo history, games like Space Fever (the company’s ill-fated Space Invaders knockoff), Sheriff, and Game & Watch. The menus are illustrated with strange doodles, are unintuitively named and poorly arranged, with some of the most interesting functionality hidden away completely. The most extreme and famous example of the camera’s weirdness is in the “Shoot” menu, where you go to actually take a photo. It’s arranged to look like the interface of an old-school Japanese role-playing game or visual novel, and tucked in the bottom-right corner is a mysterious option labeled “Run.” Picking it does absolutely nothing, other than scaring the shit out of you with the sudden appearance of a person’s face, heavily edited for maximum discomfort and juxtaposed with jarring sound and the words “Who are you running from?” These faces (there’s a total of five: two are exclusive to the original Japanese version, two to the North American version, and one is shared) are the kind of creepy, fleeting image that gets seared onto kids’ brains and whispered about on internet forums for years. If we can credit the Game Boy Camera as being a prescient vision of selfie culture, surely these faces represent a look ahead to the jump-scare trolling of internet screamers.
Our uneasy gut reaction to these freaky faces and even the dancing Mario guy might have a deeper implication for what the Game Boy Camera represented. They were strong, unspoken reminders that this wasn’t just another Game Boy game with pixelated visuals and a digital world; this was a new way of making reality and video games collide. It was the gimmicky augmented reality of Pokémon Go and the 3DS before companies were proclaiming it the future of digital entertainment. It was the playful joy of snapping a photo of yourself and instantly stamping googly eyes on it before Snapchat filters were turning people into rainbow-puking unicorns. And it was the natural desire to quickly share the things we create—both the dumb and the beautiful—with the world before we had the technology to actually make that happen. Is it any wonder the credits end with a photo of someone’s half-eaten dinner?