Game Boy Advance Review

The Game Boy Advance was released in Japan on March 21, 2001, and came to the United States in June of the same year. I was 15 at the time, and I saved up my money for months to buy one. My best friend and I went to Walmart and plopped down $99 each sometime late in the summer. He got the black edition, and since we had to differentiate, I was stuck with the purple model. I didn’t even care that I was getting a purple system, the mere fact that I was able to get this thing was amazing to me!

The first game I bought was GT Advance Championship Racing, and I loved it. The visuals were astoundingly good, in my opinion, and I played that game for hours on end. In retrospective, it wasn’t that great of a game, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I also got Castlevania: Circle of the Moon a few months later, and that game absolutely blew my mind. The music! The exploration! The whip! I loved that game so much, and that was only the beginning. My GBA library of games would grow over the years and I found countless great games to play on my beautiful purple Game Boy.

Since the summer of 2001, I have owned every other Nintendo handheld (not the New 3DS…yet), but none of them have brought me as much joy as my Game Boy Advance. This review in 2015 isn’t what you would call “relevant”, but I find it important to occasionally go back to your roots and remind yourself of how things used to be.

This isn’t going to be a retrospective on the Game Boy Advance, but a full on review. The Game Boy Advance is a very affordable portable gaming system, so I want to determine if it’s worth your time and money in 2015. Let’s find out!


Tech Specs

By modern standards, Nintendo’s GBA is not a powerhouse by any means. Even at the time, critics commented on the lack of power in the portable device. The big concern in 2001 was that it didn’t do 3D very well. Nintendo pushed the device as a souped up SNES and not a direct comparison to the original PlayStation.

The GBA was rocking a 32-bit 16.8 MHz ARM7TDMI processor with 256 KB of onboard RAM. It had the capacity to display 32,768 colors on its 2.9 inch TFT LCD screen. The display itself had a non-retina resolution[1] of 240×160, and honestly is an eyesore compared to the screens we tend to look at these days. The plastic casing is relatively light, weighing in at just 140 grams (or less than 1/3 pound). It also had an 8 MHz 8-bit Z80 coprocessor, which was basically the guts of a Game Boy Color, bundled in to play your old games. Yes, there was no emulation, it was just a mini-Game Boy inside your new Game Boy.

For fun, let’s compare these specs to one of the leading portable gaming platforms of today: the iPhone 6.

  • iPhone is 72% thinner than a GBA
  • Weights are almost the same, but iPhone weighs 11g less
  • iPhone has a 167x more powerful CPU[2]
  • iPhone has 4,000x more RAM (I had to double check my math on that one, but it’s right)
  • iPhone has 26x as many pixels on its screen. For comparison, here are both screens if their pixels were the same size:

It would be completely fair to say that the GBA is totally outmatched by every other piece of technology out there today. Hell, your dishwasher probably has an order of magnitude more power than this relic. However, as Nintendo has proven over and over again, specs aren’t what make good games. Even 14 years later, the GBA has aged surprisingly gracefully.

Visuals and Audio

Games on the Game Boy Advance don’t look that bad, all things considered. Yes, some games have aged better than others, but overall, my time with these old games has not been deteriorated by their visuals. Zelda looks like Zelda, Mario looks as good as always, and Wario Ware never fails to bounce around from game to game fluidly.

Maybe it’s because we’re going through a renaissance of “retro gaming” now, but I found the 2D graphics to be charming. The GBA was good at rendering sprites and performing silky smooth animations. Games that leveraged these strengths looked pretty good. The biggest hinderance to the visuals was the screen they were displayed on, but that will get its own section a little later.

Aside from the visuals, using my GBA reminded me how awesome cartridges were for load times. Load times simply don’t exist in any of the games I have been playing. Simple games like Super Mario Bros. are stupid fast. I timed how long it took to go from switching on the Game Boy to being on the title screen, and it was 4 seconds. And 3 seconds of that was the Game Boy boot animation! Even larger games like The Legend of Zelda: The Four Swords loaded basically instantaneously.

While I’m on the subject, there is also something very pure about having zero user interface to deal with. Turning the GBA on takes you straight into whatever game is plugged into it. If there is no game plugged in, it boots up and just sits there. People often say that smart phones and tablets are great because they are taken over by and become entirely one thing at a time. This is especially true of the GBA. It literally does nothing besides the game you have plugged in. I’m not saying I want my PS4 to behave like this, but it’s a fun change of pace from all of our modern luxuries.

The GBA was designed as a portable SNES, which meant that it was made to run 2D games very well. But in 2001, 3D gaming was in full swing, and the idea of 2D games just felt a little old fashioned. This was right in the middle of the graphics wars that were raging intensely. If you think people today get bent out of shape over whether the PS4 or Xbox One are more powerful, you should see some of the forum threads from the early 2000s. I have never seen more anger thrown back and forth online than I did in those GameFAQs boards around this time. Whoa!

Even though Nintendo told us that the GBA was a 2D-first machine, people still had to ask whether it could handle polygons. This is from MIT’s The Tech review of the handheld in 2001:

“But what about 3D?” Well, the Game Boy Advance does have a 32-bit processor, and it can handle a few hundred polygons without slowing down, but the system was designed to be 2D. Some people are trying to make first person shooters and other 3D games for the machine, but they are creating pseudo 3D effects (remember Doom)? Never mind the fact that the cartridges probably wouldn’t be able to take it due to lack of memory.

Yup, people were trying to make 3D happen, but the GBA was not made for it. The system could push about 100 polygons before stuttering to a halt. This lead to most games selecting a single element to be 3D and have that navigate a 2D world. There were tricks to make things look 3D even though they were simply 2D sprites, but that only worked so well. Here’s some screenshots of games that tried to make 3D work in the GBA. Results are…mixed, to say the least.

On the audio front, I think the GBA is decent. Again, it pales in comparison to what we’re used to nowadays, but it gets the job done for the type of games that were coming out at the time. MIDI music was still the norm, but some games pushed the envelope a bit more and sounded fantastic. Two games that stand out as having particularly good sound are Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 and Perfect Dark. Tony Hawk had great music and Perfect Dark had digitized voice samples that are honestly pretty good.

Reviewers at the time agreed that the GBA packed quite the audio punch. This is from IGN’s review:

The system does have better sound capabilities, too[…]. We’ve got tunes from Tony Hawk, for example, that truly rock with jammin’ guitars and thrummin’ base.

And from CNET’s review:

The sound, while obviously not CD quality, is a far cry from the blips and bleeps of years past.

That Display

Before we get too far off of visuals, we have to talk about the display the Game Boy Advance used. Nothing makes the GBA feel older than this terrible screen. If the screen were better, I could actually make the case that this is still a great gaming system I could throw in my bag and use today.

Let’s see what the critics thought in 2001:

IGN

The unit is still not backlit – this was a decision by Nintendo in order to keep battery light high, and I agree with them 90%. But there are instances where I would love to flick on a switch to turn on a light that’ll illuminate the screen like a laptop. Maybe Nintendo will produce a specific lit version for folks who care more about the image on the screen than the life in their batteries…

CNET

While it has a reflective TFT display, the GBA lacks any backlighting. Under normal or fluorescent lighting conditions in most rooms, it is nearly impossible to use.

Yes, that’s right, the GBA is nearly impossible to use in regular indoor conditions. Kindles are sometimes given a hard time for their lack of backlighting, but at least you can read those pretty much anywhere.

I thought my GBA was broken when I first turned it on. It hasn’t been used in a good 5–10 years, after all. Maybe the screen is less powerful than it once was. But apparently that’s not the case, my GBA is behaving totally normally. I must be remembering my time with this device with rose colored glasses, because I have no memory if this being so hard to see. Maybe I’m just accustomed to viewing well-lit smart phone screens that this is just a shock to my system.

Whatever the reason, I find the GBA almost impossible to play indoors. I have to put it directly under a light to see anything at all, and even that isn’t enough some times. The opening sequence of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past takes place at night and in the rain. I found this segment almost unplayable due to the fact that I simply couldn’t see anything. If I hadn’t played that sequence many times before, I never would have been able to get through it.

There is a potentiometer behind the back of the unit that you can access by poking a hole in the label and using a size 0 screwdriver to turn and adjust the contrast of the screen. I tried this and found that it did basically nothing to improve the visibility. A little bit of research seems to show that this can help if you have a custom backlight installed, but it didn’t do much for my stock model. Outdoors is another story. The GBA screen is viewable in direct sunlight, although it’s still easier to see my iPhone screen.

Let’s put it this way: if your living room is so bright that you have to wear sunglasses indoors, it’s bright enough to play your GBA. If you don’t have to wear shades indoors, then you probably won’t be able to see the GBA’s screen.

This is startling but true, and it’s easily the worst part of the GBA. It’s a shame too, because I really want to play this thing more. I’m seriously considering taking to eBay and buying a custom backlighting kit to install to make it usable. The GBA is so good in other ways, it’s just a shame that this fundamental problem holds it back.

Battery Life

Design is all about trade offs, and Nintendo traded the quality of the screen for great battery life. The GBA runs on a set of AA batteries, and has an advertised battery life of 15 hours. Reviews at the time seemed to agree with that claim. I have been testing (aka playing) this unit for about a week and I am still running on the first set of Duracell Quantum AA’s I threw in there. I don’t know exactly how many hours it’s been in use, but I definitely believe the claim.

Compared to modern portable gaming devices, 15 hours is legendary. The PlayStation Vita gets 3–5 hours of gameplay while the Nintendo 3DS gets 3.5–6.5 hours.

The biggest trouble you may find is actually getting some AA’s to put in your GBA. My GBA is the only thing I still use besides my TV remote that uses AA’s, so I had to make a quick run to the store to get some.

Design

The Game Boy Advance is well designed, and is very comfortable to hold for extended gaming sessions. This is not a universal opinion, apparently, as IGN didn’t love the location of the L + R buttons on the top of the device:

I’m convinced that the best placement for these buttons are on the back of the system, as most players wrap their hands comfortably around the back when holding it. Trying to rapidly tap the shoulder buttons and hold down the D-pad at the same time is like patting your head and rubbing your belly.

Maybe it’s because I built up muscle memory over the past 14 years, but I didn’t find the bumper placement uncomfortable at all. The fact that the DS, 3DS, 2DS, PSP, and PlayStation Vita have all had the same button positioning seems to indicate that most people are fine with this placement.

The size and shape of the GBA is well suited for gaming. I actually think it feels better and is more comfortable than the current 3DS models on the market. My adult-sized hands wrap comfortably around the device with all controls easily accessible. The limited number of buttons also makes it easy to hit whatever you need to in a moment’s notice. There is a D-pad, 2 face buttons, 2 triggers, and a Start and Select button. The buttons themselves are nice and clicky, even on this old model that’s been used for hundreds of hours over many years.

The GBA is not only comfortable to hold, it’s also reassuringly solid. The device is pretty light, and it’s made of plastic all around. Even the screen is a soft plastic that will not shatter if you drop this on a hard surface. Looking at my device, I see a few nicks around the body and a couple scratches on the screen, but it looks pretty good all things considered. This was used by 3 kids ranging from 6–15 years old and it took a good amount of punishment. The fact that it is in such good condition 14 years later is a testament to Nintendo’s focus on durability.

This does come at a bit of a cost, I suppose, as the GBA is not aesthetically pleasing by modern gadget standards. In a world where anodized aluminum and glass have become the standards for tech beauty, this purple plastic beast isn’t much of a head-turner. Different times, I suppose.

Games

Nintendo’s portable systems have always thrived on their stellar games lineup, and the Game Boy Advance is a big winner in this regard. 1,074 games were released for the GBA, and when you count all the Game Boy games that it could play, you have a grand total of 2,276 games playable on the console.

And those games were good! Well, obviously many of them were complete garbage, but the good ones were really, really good. Just looking back at my collection, games like Golden Sun, Mario Golf, Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire, Metroid Fusion, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, Wario Ware, and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow stand out as some of my favorite games of all time. In writing this review, I had the opportunity to go back and play these games, and they definitely hold up. These games control great and are a lot of fun.

The most shocking thing about revisiting these old games is that they are better than pretty much any game I have on my iPhone. I do enjoy Alto’s Adventure and Mikey Hooks, but they can’t stand toe-to-toe with the games I just mentioned. There’s more depth, more challenge, and most importantly, more fun to be had in these 10+ year old games than anything I currently have on my iPhone. It’s a little sobering to see how far we have fallen in portable gaming in a decade. If Nintendo rereleased these games on iOS, I would pick them up in a heartbeat, and they would immediately be my favorite iOS games.

Other GBA Models

This has been a review of the original GBA that was released in June 2001. I purchased it sometime that summer and never owned any of the future iterations of the Advance. However, Nintendo did release a few revisions to the GBA that addressed some of the issues I had with this model.

Game Boy Advance SP – February/March 2003

Wikipedia

Wikipedia

This revision was the first Game Boy to have a rechargeable internal battery. It also adopted a new clamshell design very reminiscent of the current 3DS design. It was more compact when folded up, just over 3 inches long in either direction. I played with a friend’s model and found it to be less comfortable to play with than the original GBA. Nintendo also advertised that the screen was brighter, but it was hardly any better than the first GBA.

Game Boy Advance SP AGS–101 – September 2005

This revision was exactly like the first SP model, but had a true backlight. For the first time, you could play your Game Boy anywhere!

Game Boy Micro – September/November 2005

Wikipedia
Wikipedia

This was a super tiny version of the GBA. It had a tiny 2 inch screen and was basically just big enough to fit the game cartridges and that’s all. This was so small it was kind of hard to play. My buddy got this and put it on his keychain.

Wrap Up

I didn’t have high expectations when I popped batteries into my GBA last week. I just wanted to use it for a few minutes of nostalgia and then forget about it again. But here I am, 1 week and 3,500 words later, still playing the damn thing. I have a pile of old games I want to play again and I’m on eBay looking for a solution to my display woes.

The original GBA is not for everyone. Truthfully, even if you wanted to play Game Boy Advance games, this is not the best solution. A Nintendo DS is a better overall system and also allows you to play DS games as well. If you want the best version of the GBA, then get the GBA SP AGS–101 model (wow, that’s a mouthful); they’re going for $40–60 on eBay right now.

As for this model, I’m seriously looking into a backlight installation kit so I can use mine more easily. I’m reaching less for my iPhone when I want to play a quick game and am now going to this first. The best thing the Game Boy Advance has going for it is its game collection. If you want to play retro Nintendo games, the selection available on the GBA is excellent. It’s also a lot easier to get up and running than an NES or SNES, which will require some cable gymnastics to get running on your HDTV.

You definitely don’t need a Game Boy Advance in 2015, but if you’re a Nintendo fan, it’s an essential device to have in your collection.

The Good

  • Game selection that holds up today
  • Durable build quality
  • Comfortable form factor
  • Zero load times
  • 15 hour battery life

The Bad

  • Display is basically unusable
  • Purple is an interesting color choice

  1. Yes, I did the math: it’s 98 pixels per inch. That’s less than 1/5 of the density of the LG G3.  ↩
  2. It’s hard to compare these exactly, so I did some quick division. The exact result would be equally impressive.  ↩