Video game cartridges have a long and interesting history. It’s hard to say how long that history will ultimately be, given that Nintendo will likely make cartridges for the Switch over the next several years.
Today, I would like to examine one of my favorite aspects of video game cartridges: specially-colored ones.
Of all the companies that have manufactured game cartridges, Nintendo is historically the most prominent and prevalent in this respect. They released special cartridges for the NES, SNES, N64, and every iteration of the Game Boy.
However, I discovered that this particular design trend is older than I previously thought.
Origins in the Eighties – Atari Systems and the NES
As I researched this article, I ended up stumbling onto a forum on Atari Age. There, a collector had opened up a thread by asking what the strangest pieces of everyone’s collections were. The thread received a dozen or so responses.
One person shared that he had a copy of Threshold on the Atari 2600, which was on an orange cartridge. He also said that his copy of Miner 2049er on the Atari 5200 was red.
Since that person posted no pictures, I went looking for images on Google. Sure enough, Threshold is as orange as well…an orange and Miner 2049er is a striking red.
Miner 2049er was made by Big Five Software, which only made one other game, Bounty Bob Strikes Back. Both titles were packaged in red cartridges. Miner 2049er would later be licensed and released by Tigervision on the Atari 2600. Tigervision’s cart would be white, oddly enough. They could have done it in red, as they had done with another one of their titles, Jawbreaker. As a funny twist, Tigervision also distributed Threshold.
None of this was unusual. At the time there was a litany of companies making game carts for Atari systems. Different colors and label-styles were pretty common.
Later, Tengen, a subsidiary of Atari Games, made unlicensed cartridges for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Unlike standard NES cartridges, Tengen’s carts were black and somewhat smaller. The story of how and why Tengen made these unlicensed carts is fascinating, but not quite on-topic. I recommend The Gaming Historian’s documentary on the subject.
Meanwhile, two specially-colored games were released on the NES—The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. In North America, cartridges for these two titles were initially a shiny, eye-catching gold.
In Japan, the original Legend of Zelda came out on a green Famicom cartridge. This was not all that special. Famicom cartridges came in a rainbow of different colors. For brevity’s sake, this article will focus mainly on North American releases.
Beyond those two gold cartridges and the third-party oddballs, NES cart designs rarely deviated from the norm.
Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis
Cartridge designs in gaming’s Fourth Generation didn’t branch out much either. The Super Nintendo, for example, has only three games with special colors. In 1995, there was Killer Instinct, which came in black, and Doom, which came in red.
Another SNES game also came in red plastic the year before—Spider-Man & Venom: Maximum Carnage.
In an interesting and unique case, Maximum Carnage also had a red cartridge for its Sega Genesis release. Furthermore, it seems to be the only official deviant in the Genesis library. Of course, this is not counting the odd, yellow-tabbed cartridges that Electronic Arts made.
For several years, the original Game Boy did not have any game carts with special colors—sticking instead with standard grey. Then, in 1995, Donkey Kong Land released. Cartridges for that game and its two sequels came in “banana yellow”—a perfect complement to a series that stars banana-hoarding primates.
I would bet that when people think of a yellow cartridge on the Game Boy, they think of Pokémon Yellow.
For that game, the yellow cartridges were meant to match up with the fur color of the series’ de facto mascot: Pikachu. This design choice was consistent with Yellow’s predecessors—Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue, which were released in red and blue cartridges respectively.
Interestingly, in Japan, none of the original Pokémon games came in special colors, releasing instead in the standard, grey cartridges.
But what about black Game Boy cartridges?
Game Boy Color (with A Brief Note on Black Game Boy Cartridges)
If you’ve ever looked around a store that sells old video games, you’ve likely noticed that a lot of Game Boy cartridges are black instead of grey. However, the reason I have overlooked them as a “special cartridge color” is not because they are so common but because black Game Boy cartridges are in fact a special type of Game Boy Color cartridge.
The black cartridges were designed to utilize features of the GBC but were also compatible with the original Game Boy. If you play one of these games on the Game Boy Color or Game Boy Advance, the game will display colors based on the capabilities of those handhelds, but if you play them on the original Game Boy, they will revert to monochrome. Nintendo calls them “Dual Mode” cartridges.
This distinction is admittedly a little confusing if you’ve seen these games in person, because the cartridges still say “Nintendo GAME BOY” above their labels while they come in boxes that say “GAME BOY Color.”
Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver, are part of this cartridge family. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just say their cartridges were colored gold and silver. Additionally, Pokémon Pinball–with its bulky, built-in rumble pak–is part of the black cartridge line-up as well.
Dual Mode cartridges were developed throughout the Game Boy Color’s tenure on the market. Regular, fully-fledged GBC cartridges, meanwhile, were made of dark, translucent plastic and said, appropriately enough, “GAME BOY Color” above their labels.
After much research, the only two specially-colored Game Boy Color cartridges I could find were a pink one made for Kirby: Tilt n’ Tumble and a purple-ish one for Pokémon Crystal.
The Fifth Generation of game consoles was when the trend of colored cartridges peaked, and Nintendo was the one that continued to carry the torch.
Most of the Nintendo 64’s cartridges were grey. However, Nintendo gave game publishers a choice of using 13 different cartridge colors. Many went unused, like pink and beige (thankfully). Micro-64.com has a short but comprehensive page on the subject. N64 owners in North America were treated to 42 special-colored cartridges, 20 of which were black. The rest included red, blue, yellow, green, and gold. Given how many there are, I won’t go over every game here. Check out Micro-64’s page to get a full overview.
The colors chosen for the cartridges often referenced colors from previous entries in a given series. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend Zelda: Majora’s Mask both came in gold cartridges, just like the original two Zelda games on the NES. Likewise, Donkey Kong 64 came in a yellow cartridge just as the Donkey Kong Land games on Game Boy all had.
Neversoft’s Spider-Man was in a red cartridge, like Maximum Carnage had been on the SNES and Genesis, though I like to think this was done because Spider-Man’s suit is mainly red. It would not be a stretch to say that Spider-Man was a case of “color theming.”
Take for example two of the Army Men games—Sarge’s Heroes 2 and Air Combat—which came in green cartridges. This likely references the fact that the heroes of those games are green, plastic army men.
One unique case of likely “color theming” is Pokémon Stadium 2, which has a cartridge that is made of a gold half and a silver half. This naturally ties in to Pokémon Gold and Silver.
As for the rest of the color cartridges, the colors themselves seemed somewhat random. Sports and pro-wrestling titles loved choosing blue, red, or black. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1, 2, and 3 came in blue, yellow, and black cartridges respectively.
After this peak, the trend of colored game cartridges began to nosedive.
Game Boy Advance
The Game Boy Advance had about ten special cartridge colors in addition to the standard dark grey ones. Most of them were used exclusively by one game each. Let’s start with the non-exclusive colors.
The Game Boy Advance had two special lines of cartridges during its run.
First was the Game Boy Advance Video series. These cartridges contained movies or episodes from children’s TV shows. To distinguish them from proper GBA games, they were all released in light grey.
The second line was the Classic NES Series. These cartridges were re-releases of NES titles like Donkey Kong, Excitebike, and Metroid, among others. Cartridges in this series were a slightly-less-dark shade of grey in order to imitate the color of NES cartridges.
The Pokémon series had five games on the Game Boy Advance (Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald, FireRed, and LeafGreen). Every single one had its own unique color. Though depending on the lighting in a given room, I would forgive anyone for thinking that Emerald and LeafGreen are the same color.
The GBA was the end of the colored game cartridge trend. The few other games that got creative with their cart colors were ones that had additional mechanisms in them, so not only were they different colors but they were larger than standard GBA cartridges, too.
The two Boktai games came in clear plastic cartridges which housed solar sensors to facilitate Boktai’s sun-powered gameplay.
Warioware: Twisted! takes the crown for bulkiest GBA cartridge due to its internal gyro sensor. The cartridge itself was a dark, translucent plastic similar to standard Game Boy Color cartridges.
Lastly, we have Yoshi: Topsy-Turvy and Drill Dozer, which were green and brown respectively. They are similarly-shaped cartridges, but Topsy-Turvy houses a gyroscope while Drill Dozer simply has a small motor for rumbling.
That is essentially it.
Cartridges for the Nintendo DS and 3DS as well as Sony’s PlayStation Vita have all been so tiny that colorizing them would be kind of a waste. With the miniaturization of cartridge technology comes different design priorities. Now, a game’s label is far more important than its plastic housing.
To distinguish the DS and 3DS formats, Nintendo made the former black and the latter light grey. Even the once-colorful Pokémon games are forced into this regime. The only exceptions to this rule were the few titles made specifically for the Nintendo DSi. Those came in special white cartridges.
However, the official end to the trend has not stopped other parties from molding their own colored cases for various fan-games or romhacks. Sometimes these designs are officially sanctioned.
In 2017, for example, Capcom teamed up with iam8bit.com to produce limited-edition copies of Street Fighter II on red SNES cartridges. They even doubled down on this by releasing an even more limited edition of glow-in-the-dark cartridges. Why? Well, probably just to do something different and fun.
Thanks for reading.