It's Not Just A Game Boy

Millions make the most of the hand-held game platforms by dressing them up in funky and functional accessories

April 16, 2001|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Thirteen-year-old Zachary Lasko has it all - the skeleton light, the magnifying screen, the purple neon battery pack and a cool-looking quadraphonic speaker system.

And they're all attached to a tiny, hand-held Nintendo Gameboy.

"Every now and then somebody looks at it and says, `Where's the portable in that?'" says Zachary, an eighth-grader from Rockville. "I guess it's not really a Gameboy. It's more like a Gametank."

Zachary and tens of millions of other youngsters around the world are dressing up their Gameboy consoles with so many gadgets that it takes a small briefcase to carry them around. To be cool these days, a Gameboy has to have at least a wormlight, a hip-clip and a rainbow-colored link cable.

The demand from young Gameboy addicts has spawned an entire industry built around the ubiquitous little game player. "It's the new version of hotting up your bicycle. It's very much the same mindset," says Darren Richardson, president of Mad Catz Inc., a San Diego company that sold truckloads of joypads, carry bags, speakers and lights for the Gameboy and other players last year. "One of the great things about Gameboy is that there's a lot of things you can hook on to it, and they're all pretty affordable."

The accessory craze mirrors the popularity of the Gameboy itself, which has long been dismissed as a kid's stuff by the gaming elite but is nonetheless the most popular game system ever. More than 110 million have been sold since its debut in 1989, and it has become a fixture in American homes. Accessories transform the plain, game pads into multi-tentacled, neon-lit plastic monsters with ergonomic grip handles.

The fad is not likely to disappear anytime soon. In June, Nintendo's Gameboy Advance, the next generation of the player, will hit stores in the United States, and dozens of companies are mass producing add-on gadgets that range from art-deco lights to modems that enable e-mail through the game screen.

Interestingly, many of the devices mirror adult fads. For example, the Mad Catz' "roll bar cage," created for the Gameboy Advance is designed to look like the roll bars on popular sport utility vehicles. Several companies are planning power docking stations for the Gameboy Advance with designs intended to resemble cell phone chargers. "The accessories have spawned an industry all its own," says Frank O'Connor, executive producer of Daily Radar, a popular online video game and entertainment Web site. "It comes down to a certain degree of individuality. Every kid wants to design their own look for the Gameboy, kind of like the way kids used to customize their backpacks with stickers and buttons." Overall, video game accessory sales totaled $600 million last year, according to industry analysts. The Gameboy accessory craze had its roots in necessity. Most users agree that the gadget's most notorious drawback is its lack of backlighting - a decision Nintendo made to keep costs down. So the first and still most popular add-ons are lights that make the screen easier to see.

It didn't take long for companies to see that with some colorful designs, you could do a lot with the look of the Gameboy," O'Connor observed.

Lights for the Gameboy often take on a surreal look. There are wormlights and bloblights featuring plastic amorphous shapes that curl around the machine, plus large magnifying glass lights that not only light up the Pokemon characters but make them look about five times their original size.

One of the biggest manufacturers of video game gadgetry is InterAct Accessories Inc., a Hunt Valley company whose staff is built around a group of young, hardcore game fanatics. From offices crammed with TVs, game systems and computers, the InterAct crew labors on one of the most popular Gameboy add-ons, the GameShark.

GameShark, which InterAct also designs for Sony's PlayStation and other consoles, snaps into the device and enables players to skip ahead to parts of the game they might not be able to reach by skill alone. As a result, many players call the GameShark a "cheat device," although managers at InterAct say (with a grin) that they prefer the term "enhancement device."

At $40, the Gameboy GameShark is one of the most expensive add-ons, about half the retail price of the Gameboy itself. Many of the light fixtures, for example, go for $10 or so. But InterAct has sold more than a million GameSharks over three years.

The device has also created its own subculture, with programmers hand-picked by John Hays, InterAct's product development director for GameShark. He estimates that he hires about one in every 300 applicants for the highly sought after jobs - which, after all, involve playing games all day. GameShark programmers first have to beat a game, then devise codes that can be tapped into the Gameboy's controls that allow the less skilled to leap ahead.

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