Growing Up in Color

Growing up everyone had their favorite color. As a child it almost defined your life. It was somehow yours and yours alone. Your favorite color was one of the first things you innocently answered when someone asked you to describe yourself. As ridiculous as it sounds, even as adults some define themselves in their social media profiles by saying, “My favorite color is pink.” Color not only defines our lives but the games we play and are essential to the experience.

Looking back some games and systems instantly come to mind above others when I think of how the concept of color is exemplified in games. I can trace them from my childhood throughout the highs and lows of their individual existence.

The arcades of the ’80s and ’90s were places full of color and lively noises. Each cabinet machine had its own unique design and color scheme. The buttons were full of color, a mash of reds, blues, yellows, and whites. The cabinet defined a lot of the game. In a room filled with countless machines, the cabinet needed to stand out to attract players. Mortal Kombat was known not only for its violent gameplay but also for its cabinet design. It had a giant yellow dragon on the side of the machine and and a bright green snake of some sorts surrounding the buttons. The cabinet colors individualized a game and gave the player an experience before they even inserted a quarter.

Arcades were filled with not only the fantastic cabinets, but colorful people as well. Arcades were the go-to spot for the best games and to mingle with like-minded people. Sadly in the United States arcades are essentially dead. Arcades have closed down at an alarming rate over the past decade. The paint on the cabinets has faded away, the motherboards are fried, and the high scores have disappeared into the virtual abyss. An entire world has been lost to a colorless existence.

Similar to the arcade, pinball machines were known for its flashy designs, lights and sounds. They were so incredible. There was nothing like playing a pinball game. Most of the experience was with the fantastic board designs that drew you in with a wide variety of colors and amazing artwork. If a pinball machine had a lame design or lacked a colorful world, you skipped it and moved on to a better machine. Playing a game was like having fireworks at your command. It was exhilarating trying to keep the silver ball alive as it whizzed wildly among twists and turns.

Similar to the arcades, pinball is another gaming artifact that appears to be lost to history. Besides the broken down machine at the local bar or laundromat, pinball machines have been forgotten and abandoned. The pinball experience has been artificially recreated on home consoles with games like Pinball Hall of Fame:The Williams Collection and various releases on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. However it’s just not the same as the real thing. Stern Pinball is one of the last remaining companies in the world producing new pinball machines. Playing Stern’s The Rolling Stones game at Sega Gameworks a few days ago reminded me how amazing pinball machines could be. A new release from this year, the Stones game has dozens of colorful interactions on the board. The bright lights and connectivity to the machine made an old art form feel fresh and new. The classic Stones music blaring out the machine was the icing on the cake. I couldn’t force myself away from the game. Even after playing others around the Gameworks I would slyly return to the Stones game and swipe my card for more action. As the iconic song goes, “If you start me up I’ll never stop.”

On the opposite spectrum of the colors and excitement found with arcade and pinball games is the Virtual Boy.

Released in August 1995, the Virtual Boy is an infamous gaming system for all the wrong reasons. I was, and still am, a fan of the system for its attempt at something different and the childhood nostalgia it brings. The Virtual Boy pretty much only had two colors; red and black. At least from a Western world viewpoint, red is known for passions like anger. Black is tied to sadness and misery. Those are fitting colors for the Virtual Boy because after playing its various games those are the exact emotions you feel.

Entering that world was a sharp contrast to the physical world around the player. Once you removed your eyes from the system, it took time adjusting back to the normalcy. In the ’90s Best Buy used to have major demo kiosks set up in the video games section, which were so much better than anything in retail stores today. The kiosks closely replicated the same feelings and emotions you got from stepping into an arcade, with various machines all structured closely together, creating a bond between you and the game. Some Best Buy locations even had a massive TV set above the kiosks that allowed you to watch someone play Super Mario 64 from anywhere in the store. Virtual Boy Wario Land was seemingly the only good game on the Virtual Boy. It was one of the games in heavy rotation at Best Buy. While it was a game worthy of anyone’s time, it lacked essential aspects like excitement and connectivity to the gameplay. As a result almost all of Wario’s personality was stifled and silenced. You couldn’t see Wario’s bright yellow and purple outfit or his large pink nose. What made Wario stand apart from others at the time was stripped away.

Contrast the Virtual Boy to the time when I played it as a child. The ideal childhood is filled with first experiences, discovering new ideas and passions. The Virtual Boy was the exact opposite of this. It was devoid of any life whatsoever. The player was disconnected from the world being presented and was almost a bystander to the various creations the system presented. As a child playing the Virtual Boy, I felt no connection to what I was experiencing. The games were nothing more than cheap entertainment. With no colors to express the game world’s and characters, there was no desire to continue playing. In this red and black universe, the player’s actions were almost meaningless. The two dark colors drained the energy of the player and forced them to leave its world and find something else less straining. Instead of keeping players close, it pushed them away.

Many people see the world in only black and white, right and wrong. This viewpoint can be dangerous, tragic, and demoralizing. It doesn’t allow people to grow and evolve into something better than the day before. It stifles their imagination and builds barriers between themselves and others. Having only two colors elicits the same problems for games on the Virtual Boy. The colors put a barrier between the games and the player. There was no prospects or future for the system from the day it released. The Virtual Boy was an absolute commercial and critical failure. The system was discontinued less than a full year after its launch. Amidst the eye strain and nagging migraine headaches there was a message. Life can and should be full of color.

While the Virtual Boy denied color, the follow up to the Game Boy Pocket embraced it. The Game Boy Color seems like way too obvious a choice, but it needs to be made. Released in November 1998, the Game Boy Color became one of the most popular handhelds of all time. It was the first Nintendo portable game console to feature full color display. While it wasn’t the first handheld with color (in 1989 the revolutionary, way ahead of its time Atari Lynx earned that honor), the Game Boy color brought a lot to the table. Of course as a kid you don’t know all this history and believe the Game Boy Color is the greatest thing ever created. It was though.

The Game Boy Color boasted the possibility of more than 32,000 colors. More than 32,000! Who knew there were that many colors in the world? The system could show 56 colors on the screen at the same time. 56! The Game Boy Color even brought to life original Game Boy games, bring color to titles where it wasn’t possible before. Not only that, you could buy the system in a color that matched your personality. My choice was the Atomic Purple version, because the system was transparent. As a 9-year-old boy, nothing was cooler than a see-through system. Rather than the boring light grey PlayStation controller I had a transparent, dark blue colored controller. Early on I recognized the personification that color brought not only to games but the hardware and peripherals that supported them.

I still remember the excitement I felt when I brought the Game Boy Color up to the register at Best Buy. My mom couldn’t understand why I was so thrilled to have the system. This commercial shares some of my feelings at the time towards the Game Boy Color. The Game Boy Color resuscitated life in a dull world:

As the commercial shows, color has the power to transport you to a different world. The young man climbs out of the sewer and breaks on through to the other side of color, of energy and new beginnings. The overwhelming responsibilities of life, especially as a child and young adult, can suck all the color and joy out of life. Every game on the Game Boy Color felt like an entirely new experience. Even the crappy games had something to them. I remember seeing someone play a Bugs Bunny game and thinking to myself, Wow, that carrot is really orange! Younger gamers out there or those who picked up a controller in the past couple of years will think this simple sentiment is foolish. To those I say, you just don’t understand.

With the Nintendo DS, the upcoming high-definition handheld PlayStation Vita and even various Apple products, handheld gaming has developed and matured to an incredible form. Playing those devices and then going back to the decade old Game boy Color would make many new players question how that system had any relevance. Color was so important to the success of Nintendo’s handheld. Unlike the Virtual Boy, it allowed the player to be sucked into a universe filled with endless possibilities.

It’s worth noting that these memories are from a bygone era. Retro games are often frowned upon as old and dusty.  Even though there’s been a massive influx of interest in retro titles with various rereleases in the past few years, many gamers nowadays only want the newest titles. The average gamer doesn’t want to go back and play the original, physical versions of the TurboGrafx-16, Sega Saturn or Nintendo 64 systems and games. Anything old reeks of death. Everything new is viewed as superior to the old. The games with the latest high-definition 1080p graphics are considered better than the 8 and 16-bit games which can’t produce lengthy voice acting or massive action sequences. Even some of the most hardcore gamers won’t go back and plug in their old systems to play the classics. It seems like they’ll only play them if it features revamped HD graphics, online-cop, 3D effects or achievements. To put it simply, the mindset is old games suck, new games don’t.

These old games and system shaped the industry into what it is today and shouldn’t be dismissed and devalued because of their age. It’s a shame that the younger generation will never get to experience those same feelings of excitement and even utter disappointment that haven’t translated to the modern gaming era. When they pop in a quarter into a arcade machine at a dingy bowling alley or play an old Game Boy Color game downloaded to their 3DS, they probably think, “Man this sucks. I want to play Call of Duty.” I wonder if they even notice the overwhelming energy produced by the colors of these earlier games.

Many complain that modern games like the Gears of War franchise and other popular titles are filled with boring level designs and very few colors. The shift away from the focus of vibrant colors in games has a lot to do with the death (or evolution, depending on how you see it) of the platformer genre. Games like Banjo-Kazooie, Gex: Enter the Gecko, Spyro, and the multitude of games with quirky mascots are no longer in style. Since they’re not in style, neither are the colorful worlds they saved from the terrible evils threatening it. With an industry now dominated by war simulators, zombies, “space marines” and post-apocalyptic worlds, the muddling of colors is obviously apparent. The video game medium is now “mature” and too grown up for colorful and playful worlds.

Colors haven’t completely disappeared though. They’ve just become more isolated and sophisticated. Franchises like Little Big Planet and the evolved Nintendo classics in Super Mario Galaxy show that wonderful colors still matter in games. Little Big Planet wouldn’t be nearly as successful if it only included the same three colors that Gears of War does. Mirror’s Edge is a modern game that perfectly exemplifies the power of color.

Released in November 2008, Mirror’s Edge features powerful red, blue, orange, yellow and green in contrast to mostly clean white backgrounds and environments. The graphics were so simple yet so fantastic and tied directly into the gameplay. The colors let the player know they could interact with a certain part of the environment. Red was chosen as the color of progress. A red platform or door signifies that your character Faith needs to advance to the next platform or area.

It’s interesting that red was chosen as the color for continuation. Something like a stop sign or first aid is instantly recognized for its red characterization. An ambulance or emergency signs aren’t as recognizable or powerful as say, with a blue finish. In Mirror’s Edge, red signifies urgency and advancement. Pausing or stopping would result in death. You have to keep moving and moving forward at a rapid pace. Distractions are not an option. To continue living, the player must embrace color.

Here’s an example of the typical gameplay scenario in Mirror’s Edge:

If you’re serious about your video games, you need to check out Mirror’s Edge. It’s not that the game is particularity amazing. It does have plenty of flaws. However it needs to be experienced for the handful of colors it uses and how that brings the entire game to life. The first-person fast paced action was a blur, but you remember the colors on the journey. The intense flow of the gameplay streamed nicely with the simple and powerful choices of colors.

Color connects us to the passions of life. The arcades, pinball machines, Game Boy Color and modern titles like Mirror’s Edge all draw us to the possibilities of our goals and dreams. The Virtual Boy exemplified the trap and failings of limiting and suffocating color. A colorful game can transport the player not only to a new and exciting world, but to the worlds of games that came before it.


N64 controller by Marlith / Wikimedia Commons

Arcade by Rob Boudon / Wikimedia Commons

Warioland by Evil Ryu / MobyGames

Game Boy Color by Evan-Amos / Wikimedia Commons

Little Big Planet 2 by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe