RIP, Game Boy Advance
Game Boy Advance, we hardly knew ya...
[NOTE: We've already eulogized the GBA once, but with this piece we've focused on the hardware itself]
Back in 2004 when Nintendo unveiled a certain popular dual screened handheld, you might recall that something was uttered along the lines of "Hey! This isn't a replacement for the Game Boy Advance, it's supplemental to it!" We nodded, but we all knew it was the start of the Game Boy Advance's long march to the gallows.
The Game Boy Advance is now busy getting itself comfortable in its coffin. A look at the forthcoming release schedule isn't a pretty sight. There are a couple of movie tie-ins and a quiz show, with very little on the horizon. There have been some excellent releases in the last year in Japan, with Mother 3 and Rhythm Tengoku being notably awesome. It's a shame we'll never see them over here but we've only ourselves to blame for taking up the DS so voraciously.
So with the Game Boy Advance flatlining, it's time to take a peep at the history of the little guy. Having a six year lifespan is definitely something that can't be grumbled about, with those six years seeing some of the best in original handheld titles ever, especially in the RPG genre. The machine in essence, was serving as a continuation of the SNES and its excellent library.
So where does our journey begin? Cast your minds back to the mid 90's ( if that's an option ) and there's a slim chance you'll remember Project Atlantis, the mysterious codename given to the project to create a replacement for the aging Original Game Boy. It was originally rumored to have very high specifications and that it would be a portable equivalent in graphical power to the Playstation or N64, the console kings of the time.
Thing is, that's just not Nintendo's style. They take affordable technologies and craft them into tidy, easy to mass-produce game machines, with particular attention to battery consumption. The power hunger of the Original Game Boy's old rivals, the Lynx and Game Gear, pretty much tethered them to mains power for most of the time, with batteries barely giving more than a few hours play. Nintendo's machines have a history of going for weeks of play without changing or charging the batteries. Thus, any thoughts Nintendo might have had about cramming a super powered processor into a successor to the Game Boy was convincingly thwarted by power consumption.
So, what to do? As we well know, the Game Boy Color spurted out from between Nintendo's loins -- a strangely colorized "Son of Game Boy", with essentially the same graphical grunt, only in a distinctly 8-bit color style. The Game Boy Color did see some excellent games but many weren't really that different from older Game Boy games, they just happened to be in color.
Launching in 1998, the Game Boy Color has the shortest lifespan of any of the "Boys", unless you happen to count the novel yet commercially DAMNED Virtual Boy (Look it up kids, it's a red screened Game Boy that doesn't fit in your pockets, but does fit... to your FACE!), it seems pretty clear that the Game Boy Color was designed as a stopgap machine, to quell any potential competition that was brewing over at SNK and Bandai at the time.
After slaying the enemy beasts (Neo Geo Pocket & Wonderswan), it was safe for Nintendo to bide their time until the chips they desired were cheap enough to create a viable replacement for the aging 8-bit technology.
After a few years of color fun, along comes 2001 and out pops the Game Boy Advance, which has power equivalent to a Super FX chip equipped Super Nintendo. It's a first for Nintendo in that it has a wider body, with the dpad and buttons either side of the screen. It launched with a sweet selection of titles including Super Mario Advance, F-Zero:Maximum Velocity, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, and the decent Mario Kart substitute Konami Krazy Racers. Plenty more greats like Advance Wars, Golden Sun, and Sonic Advance followed within a year of launch.
It wasn't all smooth sailing though. As you may well know, the original Game Boy Advance did have a teensy bit of an issue with its screen -- an issue of the "oh my God it needs DIRECT sunlight or you need a lamp on your FACE" variety. Many of us simply couldn't believe how dull and difficult to see the Game Boy Advance's screen was, but we bravely put up with it. Memories of playing Advance Wars in bed at 2 am with a desk lamp next to the face came flooding back. The screen was much harder to see in average light than the original monochrome Game Boy, playing games in the car or on the train became a game in itself. A game of hunt the sunlight.
There was one solution for die-hard Game Boy Advance owners in the form of the Afterburner modification, released mid 2002. It was a neat homebrew lighting solution that, while not as bright as the Game Boy Advance SP, certainly made a massive difference compared to playing on the unaltered system. The only problem was the price and difficulty of fitting it, not that it was expensive, but paying someone to fit it for you could be quite pricey.
The clouds parted over the Game Boy Advance after two years of darkness in the form of the Game Boy Advance SP, released early 2003. In releasing the SP, Nintendo was pretty much acknowledging that the Game Boy Advance was far from perfect. The clamshell protected the screen, the backlight meant you could SEE the games now, and the built-in battery gave a great amount of play on a single charge. It's what the Game Boy Advance should have been in the first place and it deservedly trounced its older brother in sales. In an interview, the designer of the Game Boy Advance SP acknowledged the existence of the Afterburner modification as one of the inspirations of the design of the SP. So a big thanks to the mod scene for making the Game Boy Advance be the best it could be.
The DS came along at the end of '04 and packed in the ability to play your Advance games on its better screen, also meaning any prospective upgraders would have access to their existing library of games while they waited for the DS games to appear. Then, abruptly, at the Nintendo E3 press conference in May 2005, Nintendo's big man Reggie Fils-Aime, then vice president of sales and marketing, slipped out of his pocket the Game Boy Micro, a Game Boy for the iPod generation, a truly carry-everywhere gaming machine. The Game Boy Micro impressed pretty much everyone who saw it. The only problem was that for most people, their Game Boy Advance SP was compact enough thankyouverymuch! Nintendo themselves have admitted that sales of the Micro have been disappointing and that they failed to promote it to its target market well enough. Maybe if it were launched earlier the poor lil guy might have stood a chance. Instead, it finds itself languishing, unwanted on the shelves. It was too little, at too great a price. The Happy Mario 20th anniversary edition is remarkably nice though, it has to be said!
The appearance of the DS Lite is just the latest in Nintendo's neverending line of improvements to its machines. Still retaining its Game Boy Advance heritage, and with the absolutely excellent screen it has, it's the best way to enjoy all your old Advance games. Nice!
Alas, it does look like it's all over for the Game Boy Advance. Overthrown by its twin screened brethren, it leaves us with many classics, way too many to mention here. Hopefully in the future we'll remember the games with as fond a memory as we do with Super NES titles these days. It's sad that it faded away in the way that it did, but it had reached its apex and the time was right to introduce new blood. Maybe we will see the Game Boy name again in a future machine, some kind of Game Boy Ultra Advance Triple Screen mega machine. For now though, we're quite happy with the fruits that mister DS has stuffed in his basket. Tasty fruits they are indeed!