'

Game Boy: Pocket full of profits

The screen looks like something out of the Atari days, or at best, ColecoVision; the buttons are a bit too small for adult fingers; and the sound is a far cry from today's video games.

Despite that, Nintendo's Game Boy Colour is the best portable gaming device yet, and it's flying off U.S. shelves to the tune of 2 million units in the first five months alone. "It's not this little stepchild anymore," said Beth Llewelyn, spokeswoman for Nintendo of America Inc., during an interview at last week's Electronic Entertainment Expo. in Los Angeles. Indeed, it's not.

At the annual computer game confab, Game Boy groupies gathered around the smaller-than-paperback-sized devices at the booths of software developers, checking out the new games. Almost all the major console developers -- and a few from the PC side -- are supporting, or are planning to support, the devices.

Mattel Media plans to release three titles, among them Barbie Ocean Discovery. Capcom has five in the works, including a pint-sized rendition of Resident Evil and Street Fighter Alpha. GT Interactive will port Duke Nukem and Oddworld Abe over to the platform. And Disney Interactive plans to release a Tarzan game in time for the movie's release on June 18. "Everyone has finally realised just how big the Game Boy market is," said Dan Harnett, spokesman for GT Interactive. In total, Nintendo is expecting more than 75 Game Boy Colour titles to hit the shelves this year.

It's not hard to understand the support, said one graphics designer for Capcom who asked that her name not be used. "It is really easy to put the game into the Gameboy," she said. "Conversion takes weeks, not months." And the potential rewards are astounding.

When the Game Boy Colour debuted last November at $79.95 (£48.75), sales skyrocketed, jumping from year-on-year growth of 17 percent to 228 percent for the first full quarter following the device's release. The new handheld rode the tidal wave of near-hysteria that followed the release of Pokemon in the U.S. in September 1998. Sales of the Pokemon Blue and Red cartridges topped 2.6 million in the first six months and put the two titles in the No. 1 and No. 2 slots on the game software charts for all platforms at the end of 1998. "Pokemon -- and the launch of the Game Boy Colour -- have really made the market take off," said Matt Gravett, video game hardware analyst for U.S. market watcher PC Data.

Over the next year, Nintendo intends to ship another 6 million of the new colour Game Boys, adding their numbers to the more than 70 million sold since the handheld game device launched in 1989. Not bad for an 8-bit processor connected to a 160-by-144-pixel 56-color screen.

Still, despite its relatively lightweight technical specs, the Game Boy has spawned few competitors -- Nintendo boasts that it owns 99 percent of the market.

Furby-creator Tiger Electronics Ltd. is not daunted. Looking to spiff up its year-old Game.com handheld, the company plans to add cases in five new colours. Still, the new Game.com Pocket Pro will only have a gray-scale screen. Adding colour would raise the price of the Game.com from its low-cost leading $29.95 to around $80 or $90, said Christou. "We are not expecting to be another Game Boy," said spokesman Paul Christou. "We are an alternative to Game Boy -- to let parents know there is another system out there that their kids can use." So far, Tiger has done a good job of gaining key titles like Madden Football 99, Resident Evil 2 and Monopoly.

Yet, while Tiger has hunted down some key developers, Nintendo still has all the attention. "Game Boy is very hot for us," said Beckie Holmes, director of product marketing for Disney Interactive. "Our support for the platform will only deepen."