There has always been one dominant player in the handheld market who has very rarely put a foot wrong in the arena (let’s not talk about the Game Boy Micro please). Nintendo enjoyed monumental worldwide success with the original Game Boy and its killer apps such as Tetris and Pokemon. They continued the momentum with its evolution, the Game Boy Color, which brought handheld gaming to life like never before.
However, it was in Japan in 2001 that you could say that Nintendo quite literally turned the Game Boy on its head. That’s right, the Game Boy Advance (GBA) was released, and its most distinctive feature was the fact that its screen was landscape (something which would return years later with the Nintendo DS). This gave the feeling of a more immersive gaming experience, and having the buttons on each side of the screen made it much more comfortable to hold and play for longer periods of time.
The 32-bit handheld performed on a similar level to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), and featured some portable versions of games originally released on the home console, such as the excellent Super Mario Bros. series (repackaged as Super Mario Advance). As well as these enhanced re-releases, there were hundreds of original games released on the Game Boy Advance, and all Game Boy cartridges were backwards compatible from launch.
Just to remind you, we are talking about a time when Nintendo was predominantly geared towards family friendly gaming, but that didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of great games on the Game Boy Advance. Some personal favourites of mine, which I am still very fond of to this day, are: Pokemon FireRed, Wario Land 4, Advance Wars, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap and Sonic Advance. Granted, most of the truly great games came from Nintendo themselves, but there were plenty of them.
There was, however, one glaring omission from the design of the Game Boy Advance. There was still no screen backlight. This meant that in extreme sunlight or under the cover of darkness, it was pretty much impossible to play. As you can imagine, accessories of varying quality were rushed to market in order to try and remedy this issue, some doing a better job than others.
It was after a 24 hour coach trip to Austria on a high school skiing trip, desperately trying to use a combination of my reading light and streetlights (when my friend was trying to sleep) to see what I was playing, that I decided I needed a solution. This took the form of a spotlight with detachable arms which positioned itself over my Game Boy Screen (I’m sure you’re familiar with the type). It did a decent enough job after a lot of fiddling with the positioning, but the biggest problem was how it drained my Game Boy Advance’s AA batteries like they were going out of fashion.
Lighting issues aside, there were plenty of other accessories which Nintendo released alongside its handheld. The revolutionary link cable evolved into the “Wireless Adapter”, which allowed multiple players to connect without a cable for the first time. There was also the “Game Boy Advance Link Cable”, which connected with your GameCube to unlock new in-game content. Despite the exciting possibilities, in the end there weren’t many games which supported either of these, making them somewhat of a collector’s item these days. It was very much another chapter in Nintendo’s very hit and miss history with gaming accessories.
However, there was one accessory which topped them all. Technically it belongs to the GameCube, but it played Game Boy Advance (and Game Boy) games so I feel compelled to mention it (also it was awesome). Of course, I’m talking about the revolutionary “Game Boy Player”. This was essentially an attachable dock for the GameCube which allowed you to play your handheld games on the big screen. Seeing the original Pokemon Red and FireRed enlarged for the first time was a true videogame watershed moment for me. It remains, to this day, one of my most treasured gaming memories.
In what is now a staple of Nintendo’s approach to it’s handheld consoles, it wasn’t long before it was time for the Game Boy Advance itself to have a redesign. Firstly, this came in the form of the Game Boy SP, which sported another hallmark that would later be used by the mighty Nintendo DS, in that it folded down to a very compact size. It was also later released with a built in backlight (hurrah!). I have to say that the limited edition Legend of Zelda golden Game Boy SP is still one of the most beautiful handheld consoles I have ever clapped eyes on. I still want one! After this, the Game Boy SP changed once more into the handheld console which must not be named, just before the Nintendo DS arrived on the scene. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Game Boy Advance holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first handheld I can properly remember spending serious time with growing up; it provided countless amazing gaming experiences. It remains an incredibly important part of Nintendo’s history of making handheld consoles, and is nearly as recognisable as its grandfather. I still have the little indigo fella in the loft somewhere actually: I might have to go and dig it out now…