When they want to, families have a surprisingly long memory. The strong response to a recent Family Gamer column made me realise that we all have a myriad of skeletons in the closet and claims to fame that are told and retold over the years. Christmases, summer camps, weddings and funerals offer opportunities for us to get together and tell those old stories again. They are what define us; they are a big part of our heritage.

Video gaming however often seems to be almost the opposite. Such is the clamour for new, bigger and better experiences that many defining gaming moments are lost in the past. Bringing my family and my handheld gaming together has made me rethink all this. As I introduce my kids to their first handheld and mobile games, I instinctively want to share the experiences I remember from my younger years.

So, rather than starting my kids (and other half) off on the PSP, DS or high end Nokia N series phones, I handed them a grey and maroon Gameboy from the early 90’s. The great thing about this was that with no frame of reference they happily played the games on their own merit, rather than worrying about the 4 grey-scale graphics or basic synth soundtracks.

gameboy advance sp

Weekends and evenings were spent trawling through my old Gameboy cartridges. They marvelled at each new discovery and I had my memory jogged as I reacquainted myself with my old games. I had forgotten how much enjoyment had been squeezed out of these 64 and 128k carts. No saving, no loading, no customisation, no multiplayer – just pure unadulterated fun. The jewel in the crown for me was laying my hands on Top Rank Tennis, a game I had all but forgotten. Just five minutes later I had again become addicted to this surprisingly flexible tennis game.

Top Rank Tennis from Nintendo doesn’t look like anything special. In fact it trots out that well worn forced isometric rendering of tennis court and players that has graced many handheld systems. I was soon reminded why I loved it so much.

Firstly, it accurately simulated the connection between player and ball. The trajectory of your shot depended on your shot selection combined with your relative position to the ball and button timing. These factors combined in miniature pixel precision to produce true nuanced ball control. I often found myself running round a back hand so I could drive a dipping forehand down the line, or backing up to smash away a dipping lob.

Secondly, it squeezed every last drop of control out of the old Gameboy. Not only did you have the standard top spin and flat shot on the A and B buttons, but it also used the Start and Select buttons in game to provide slices and lobs. (To pause the game you had to tap up twice before your serve). This flexibility combined with the believable physics to encourage real imaginative play. It sounds slightly absurd to say it, but I genuinely felt as in control of my game here as ever I did in Virtua Tennis on the 360.

Finally, although not impressive these days, back in the 90’s Top Rank Tennis wowed gamers with real voice synthesized umpire commentary. The score and break/match points were enunciated for all to hear. All this from such a small cartridge, and less memory than my washing machine, still impresses me today.

I’ve been in the element over the last few weeks as the family vied for position, seeing who could climb highest up the Top Rank Tennis ladder. Breakfast conversations often turned to the merits of serve/volley versus a back court game, or the success of using chip and charge against different computer opponents. Admittedly some of the younger members of the family still prefer the simpler Gameboy games, but there is also plenty for them to play there as well.

In the weeks to come it will be interesting to see what they make of the newer handheld machines, and whether improved graphics and controls really make the games better. Top Rank Tennis on the Gameboy has certainly set the bar high.


A keen video gamer and web developer I have been making games and designing websites for many years. Binary Joy is the combination of my two passions.

You can also see me on my personal website, Binary Moon, and try my games from my online game store, Binary Sun