Life, Advanced: A Game Boy Advance Retrospective

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By Josh Nichols on March 22nd, 2021

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Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance technically had a few competitors but it was the only handheld system that mattered until the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable released a few years later. Nokia’s N-Gage was second place in terms of sales for the sixth generation of video game handhelds, but second place was worlds away from Nintendo. You might not even remember the N-Gage, which is entirely understandable; Nokia’s taco-shaped nightmare amalgamation of a cell phone technology and handheld gaming hit a pitiful three million units shipped against Nintendo’s eighty-one million units for the Game Boy Advance family. The tiny 32-bit system assembled an unstoppable combination: powerful technology and Nintendo power.

Who are You?

The Game Boy Advance released in 2001 and still commands powerful nostalgia for those that grew up with it. The system is fondly looked back on for its interesting technology, whimsical accessories, and stunning Nintendo published releases, which took full advantage of the hardware. It featured a larger 2.9-inch LCD widescreen display and increased resolution. The Game Boy Advance also had the capability to display 512 simultaneous colors on screen at once, as opposed to up to 56 simultaneous colors on the Game Boy Color’s screen. The GBA also featured stereo sound and approximately five more hours of battery life, which gave it a total of fifteen hours of playtime on two AA batteries. Gameplay possibilities were also significantly increased with the addition of two shoulder buttons, labeled ‘L’ and ‘R.’

The Game Boy Color was a competent system and Nintendo managed to create some unforgettable experiences with its limited power but the Game Boy Advance changed everything. The Game Boy Advance was more powerful, had two additional buttons, and just a much more sleek and ergonomic device. It even featured full backward compatibility support for both Game Boy and Game Boy Color game libraries. Nintendo left no reasons to own a Game Boy Color. Their new and advanced system was here and superior and more demanding games were consistently released during the Game Boy Advance’s lifespan.

Future iterations of the Game Boy Advance added features, without splitting the install base for games. Nintendo also created the Game Boy Advance SP (model AGS-001), which featured a clamshell design that helped protect the screen from damage and provided easier storage by reducing the size of the system when it wasn’t in use. This model also featured a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery and made it much easier to play with its front-lit LCD screen. I cannot stress the importance of the front-lit screen. It was really difficult to play games on the original GBA unless you were sitting just right under a light. The trick was to get enough light on the display without getting glare or reflection on the screen. Dealing with this while also trying to focus on games was occasionally impossible and often frustrating. The front-lit GBA SP changed all of this. Games all looked better on the GBA SP, despite there being no changes in processing power or CPU. It was the same system in terms of game capabilities but you could see everything. The colors were vibrant and you could see everything on-screen.

Bright Sprites

Nintendo later created what may be one of the best handheld systems ever made with the updated backlit Game Boy Advance SP (model AGS-101). This model featured a sleek backlit screen which did a lot to make already beautiful games look even better. The first GBA SP (AGS-001) allowed players to sit comfortably and see what was happening on-screen but the backlit AGS-101 model allowed the colors to pop off the screen. I distinctly remember quickly swapping games in and out to compare them to the memories I had of playing them on the earlier models when I first obtained a backlit GBA SP. The backlight was revolutionary and it could have really extended the Game Boy Advance lifespan if Nintendo didn’t have plans for additional hardware and another new system.

The backlit iteration came out very close to both the Game Boy Micro and the Nintendo DS. The former was yet another iteration of the Game Boy Advance and it was a less straightforward upgrade and even came with some concessions. The Game Boy Advance and both SP models were fully backward compatible with Game Boy and Game Boy Color games but the Game Boy Micro only played Game Boy Advance games. It’s smaller and less ergonomic but it still featured a rechargeable battery and a backlight. It also featured adjustable brightness, as opposed to the on/off or bright/brighter lights on the SP models. It also traded the clamshell design for a widescreen approach similar to the first GBA model.

The GBA Micro featured faceplates that went over the screen to protect it. This allowed people to put it in their pocket or toss it in a bag without having to worry about scratching the actual screen. The faceplates could still get scratched but the screen itself was safe. Some people purchased additional faceplates to personalize the appearance of the front of the system. I didn’t really mess with it in terms of customization but I did have a faceplate I put on whenever I left the house so the scuffs were all on one of the system’s covers.

The Micro was even less successful than the SP since it released after the Nintendo DS was already out and was only $50 less than Nintendo’s follow-up. The DS also played GBA games and the newer DS games. There was just little reason to own a Game Boy Micro. It was really cool but just had bad timing. Regardless, it’s not like the Game Boy Advance was hurting in terms of success, name recognition, or sales. It’s in the top ten best-selling game systems and, as of writing, has still sold more than the Nintendo Switch, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo 64, Xbox One, and the PlayStation Vita. Its legacy is strong but game availability is growing more scarce with Nintendo putting much more effort into taking down ROM-hosting websites than selling GBA games to those who would happily trade Nintendo stacks of cash for piles of digital GBA carts. As of writing, the only way to play GBA games outside of emulation is purchasing pre-owned physical carts or through the surprisingly robust offerings on the Wii U’s Virtual Console, but that will no doubt be de-listed in the years to come, like the Wii’s Virtual Console before it, which will someday include removing the ability to re-download purchased titles. I’m hoping that Nintendo does something to celebrate the Game Boy Advance for its 20th anniversary this year, even if it’s just adding GBA games to the Nintendo Switch. I’d love to see classic titles, like Astro Bot: Omega Factor, see new life on Nintendo Switch Online but I’d also happily buy them outright.

Put Wario on Switch

Some of Nintendo’s best games were developed for the Game Boy Advance, including from some of their biggest and longest-running franchises, including Pokemon Emerald, Wario Land 4, Metroid Fusion, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, and Mario Kart: Super Circuit. Nintendo also refreshed some classic entries in their back catalog with remakes and ports, including The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Four Swords, which was a port of the classic SNES Zelda release with the addition of a new multiplayer-focused portion where two to four players could work together to solve puzzles in a series of dungeons. The Game Boy Advance was also home to remakes of Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue, which were called Pokemon FireRed and Pokemon LeafGreen, which featured improved graphics and new areas. It also has one of the best Metroid games with Metroid Zero Mission, which is a full and expanded remake of the first entry in the series developed in the Metroid Fusion engine. The new graphics make it more accessible but also help bring new details to Samus’s origin story.

The Game Boy Advance was an important system that allowed Nintendo to experiment and innovate. Its high sales numbers also gave it strong third-party releases as well, which helped give it a lot of lesser-known hidden gems. It was almost too hard to stand out because of the sheer amount of games that were released on the system but the public and social nature of the handheld system gave games great advertising via word of mouth in a time where the Internet was still young. The Game Boy Advance also helped Nintendo stay successful in a time where they weren’t doing as well on the console side. The Nintendo GameCube certainly had some special games but it didn’t even outsell Microsoft’s debut Xbox console. In fact, one of the best things about the system was the ability to play Game Boy Advance games on it with the Game Boy Player peripheral. The Game Boy Advance was inescapable and was in houses and pockets all over the world, and remains in the hearts of millions of people decades after its initial release.

Josh really likes video games. Horror is their favorite but they also like other stuff.

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