In the early ‘90s, Nintendo surveyed the massive success of the Game Boy and thought, what if you could also work on this thing? Enter the WorkBoy, an accessory that converted Nintendo’s handheld system into a sort of early PDA. But despite a lot of evidence of the WorkBoy’s existence, it vanished before ever making it into the hands of productivity-minded gamers. Now, a prototype has been unearthed, giving us a glimpse at all the address books that could’ve been.
Over the weekend, Liam Robertson, a video game historian, posted a video recounting his dive into the history of the WorkBoy and his search for the lost prototype. He found that despite persistent rumours in the vintage gaming community claiming the WorkBoy was sold in limited quantities, it never made it to market.
First trademarked in January of 1992, the WorkBoy’s compact keyboard peripheral connected to a standard green-screened Game Boy. Users could access 12 apps that included a daybook, currency converter, and a calendar.
According to Robertson, a prototype was featured at the CES electronics showcase in May of 1992. Following the tradeshow, the device received some press coverage with GameZone writing, “Nintendo’s success was visible by its showing at the CES — it virtually had a whole hanger to itself, filled with its own products and those of developers. But there was little on offer that was radically different — little that is, except the WorkBoy.” The Chicago Tribune was less kind and called the idiosyncratic accessory “ridiculous.”
In the course of his research, Robertson got in touch with Eddie Gill, the founder of Source Research and Development, the company that created the WorkBoy for Nintendo. Gill was able to address some of the issues that prevented the WorkBoy from making it to market and said it was intended to retail for somewhere between $US79 ($104) and $US89 ($118). Gill didn’t have a unit in his possession, but he pointed Robertson to Frank Ballouz, founder of the device’s producer, Fabtek, and possessor of what is believed to be the only WorkBoy that’s not locked in the vaults of Nintendo.
When Robertson finally got his hands on the device, it didn’t work because it needed the accompanying cartridge to access the software. As luck would have it, there was a huge dump of obscure Nintendo files this summer that was dubbed the Gigaleak, and Robertson was miraculously able to find the WorkBoy software tucked away in the leak.
While the productivity peripheral might have been impressive for its time, limited memory and no internet connectivity means its utility is pretty limited. I have to say, I do love the phone book that’s designed to allow a user to hold up the Game Boy’s speaker to a landline phone’s receiver in order to auto-dial the intended number.
Robertson’s been on this WorkBoy quest since 2019, and he’s done a spectacular job recovering the story of this lost device. Check out the full video below.