In-Depth Stories

A Look Back at Mobile System GB, Pokémon Crystal’s Online Service

Equipped with the Mobile Adapter GB and a copy of Pokémon Crystal, Japanese owners were able to trade with people far away, long before the days of Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. Find out what it was like back then!

Why the mobile approach failed

Despite heavy marketing and the popularity of the Pokémon games at the time, the Mobile Adapter GB sold only 80,000 units within two months into its launch. Its launch timing could be a factor in how the service failed to gain use — while it was originally planned for a release in December, likely around the same time as Pokémon Crystal (which released on December 15, 2000), the Mobile Adapter GB’s release was delayed to January 27, 2001. As a result, one of the killer apps of Pokémon Crystal would not be available for an entire month-and-a-half after its release, long after day-one players would have the opportunity to experience everything else in the game.

Price may have also been a factor in its low sales and use — the Mobile Adapter GB was sold separately, at 5,800 yen, even costing more than the game itself. The Mobile Adapter’s low unit sales would have likely contributed to the price cut to a somewhat more reasonable 3,800 yen. Even then, the service came with multiple other costs, with the additional total cost of ownership for a cell phone. At the time it came out, the only game that actually used it was Pokémon Crystal, further limiting its utility.

Pokémon Crystal was also a game with a huge amount of marketing towards a young audience. While the games included plenty of content for everyone to enjoy, of its biggest audience — children — only ten percent of elementary- or middle-aged school students owned a cell phone at the time, according to government statistics. Of those, how many actually had a Game Boy Color, would want to purchase the game and adapter, and subscribe to the Mobile System GB? Furthermore, Pokémon Crystal was not the flagship game of this generation, so most players had already experienced Johto, seen the new Pokémon, and may not have been so compelled to go through it again. This showed in sales figures, too, with Gold and Silver selling at least three times as many copies as Crystal did in Japan.

When looking at a combination of low sales in Japan and that 21 percent of children around 8 to 12 owned a mobile phone in the U.S., it was possibly considered infeasible for Nintendo of America and Nintendo of Europe to roll out the Mobile Adapter GB outside of Japan. That’s to say nothing of the other considerations to be made, such as negotiations with carriers, the insane amount of proprietary data connectors in phones sold internationally (this was before micro USB and USB-C existed), legal issues, paperwork and COPPA. The Mobile System GB was very ambitious, but its execution would be hobbled by the technology and resources of its time.

As a result, the Mobile System GB never launched outside of Japan. Games seeing international releases that featured online functionality using the service would have those features disabled. With these features not being so essential to Crystal, a lot of its features were pared back, removing any dependence on the Mobile System.

Following low sales, limited patronage, and the costs of running the service, even with several Game Boy Advance games in Japan now supporting the adapter, it was announced on May 2002 that the service would be closing down on December 14 of that year. Services relying on the Mobile System GB would cease to function by that date. The failure of the adapter and the service would impact the third-generation Pokémon games as well, leaving the series without some method of online connectivity until the arrival of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection on the Nintendo DS in 2005.

Looking at reasons why Pokémon Crystal wasn’t on the eShop along with Gold and Silver, we previously suggested that Nintendo and Game Freak could possibly be working towards making Crystal’s features work on the 3DS’s Nintendo Network. Adding these features would enable Crystal to offer the same kind of communication features it had at its original launch — imagine going online and trading Pokémon in such a classic Pokémon title! As these features were never available outside Japan, however, implementing these features in all the games would necessitate additional development and debugging.

Unfortunately, Pokémon Crystal’s Japanese Virtual Console release on the Nintendo 3DS will ship without Mobile System GB functionality enabled, and while this seems like a missed opportunity, it’s perfectly understandable why. International versions of the game will be released without any online functionality whatsoever, much like their original releases. At the very least, local play will be possible — and without a physical cable, to boot!

Game Freak would try implementing online services once again with Diamond and Pearl, where many of Crystal’s online functions would be reimplemented and redone. Wi-Fi was on its way to becoming increasingly common at the time, so these features, some of which would continue to be implemented in newer Pokémon games, would have seen far more usage and success than they had with Crystal’s implementation.

The future

Let’s face it — the focus is on new games. There’s little reason to cling to the past when the money — and not being seen as a complacent franchise — is in new-release Pokémon games. With each generation, a lot of the online features first seen in Crystal have resurfaced in one form or another — online trading and battling, the Trade Corner, record mixing, the Battle Tower, and even access to mythical Pokémon. There’s little reason why any maintenance needs to be done to an old game like Crystal, just to bring it a little more up to speed.

That said, the lack of Mobile System GB functionality in Pokémon Crystal is not a sure sign it won’t ever happen, either. The incoming Nintendo Switch Online service promises to offer older games with online multiplayer additions on top, so it’s not the biggest stretch of the imagination for Nintendo to build support in for the Mobile Adapter — we’ve seen them build in support for the link cable, after all!

Even if Game Freak or Nintendo never do port the Mobile System GB, however, that’s not stopping the fans. Háčky, who we’ve mentioned several times, is one of a small group of contributors at Glitch City Laboratories, extensively documenting how the system worked and hoping to reconstruct and emulate the Mobile System GB and Crystal’s Mobile Center support. If you’re curious about how it all works or you’re hoping to contribute to emulating the system, be sure to drop a line in their thread at Glitch City!

Who knows — we may very well see an Arduino connected to a Game Boy Color that puts our copies of Crystal online again.

Further reading


Edited by BadSheep, Z25, bobandbill and Zach, with contributions by Unown Seer.
Pokémon Stadium 2 “Mobile Stadium” images are property of Nintendo. Image of Mobile Adapter GB box contents and registration form are used under a Creative Commons license from game boy band pepino (CC BY-NC2.0).