You take the good, you take the bad
Pokémon and Game Boy Color may have given Nintendo some latitude to perfect its next-generation handheld, but it seems unlikely Project Atlantis would have launched in its original form in any case. The first round of hardware designs simply felt too contrary to Nintendo's core design philosophies, the ones that Game Boy so perfectly embodied. Game Boy won the 8-bit handheld wars several times over by undercutting the competition: It used a modest processor and a low-quality screen that allowed it to sell for half the price of other handhelds... and cut AA battery expenses by about 85%.
Project Atlantis' color screen and advanced processor likely would have made for an expensive and power-hungry console in 1996; by 2001, however, the underlying technologies behind the GBA had matured, becoming "withered" or "seasoned" (in the words of Game Boy co-producer Gunpei Yokoi). Just as the Game Boy ran on the Z80 chip, which was a decade old at the time of the system's debut, the basis for the ARM7 tech inside GBA made its debut eight years prior to GBA's launch. Manufacturer ARM Ltd. had used the intervening years to improve the ARM7's power efficiency and manufacturing cost. By using the most recent version of a decade-old platform, Nintendo could make the GBA both powerful and affordable.
Yokoi, unsurprisingly, had no involvement with the GBA; he had departed from the company shortly after overseeing the Virtual Boy debacle to develop new products; his final project, in fact, was Game Boy competitor WonderSwan. Nevertheless, the older console's spirit lived on in the new generation, as the GBA's producer was Yokoi's collaborator on the Game Boy's design, Satoru Okada.
The Game Boy's spirit carried through in many ways, most good, some frustrating. Particularly irritating to nearly all GBA early adopters, Nintendo chose not to offer a backlight for its screen, despite using a similar technology to the Game Boy Color's murky, hard-to-see screen. This kept the hardware's retail price low up-front, but owners ended up spending those savings after the fact on boutique lighting solutions such as snap-on screen overlays or the Worm Light, which plugged in to and drew power from the Link Cable port. The GBA's awful screen also gave rise to custom services like the Portable Monopoly (aka Afterburner) modification that squeezed a white LED into the hardware, as well as various video-out devices that allowed players to tap the system's screen wiring to send video to television screens. There was even in one extreme case a software reaction: Hideo Kojima and Shinta Nojiri's Boktai came with a solar sensor embedded in the cartridge, which affected play by powering up the player's weapons and weakening its vampiric enemies... and, not coincidentally, forced GBA owners outdoors to enjoy their console with the superior illumination of the sun.
The GBA hardware also included a second major compromise: It only included two face buttons rather than four. True, the inclusion of shoulder triggers brought the total of main buttons to four, but the lack of X and Y buttons resulted in a step down in potential complexity from the 16-bit Super NES of a decade prior. While this may not have been a problem in an of itself, most developers — Nintendo most of all — tended to treat GBA as the second coming of Super NES, forcing designers to adapt control schemes to fit within GBA's limitations.
GBA fell far short of Super NES in one other important respect: Its audio chip. Its internal synthesizer had more in common with the original Game Boy's sound chip than the Super NES's advanced processor, which was built entirely around sampling. GBA supported sampling, but not at the fundamental level that the Super NES did, and its music sounded comparatively scratchy and off-key — a deficiency particularly noticeable in Super NES ports like those of the Final Fantasy games. The audio downgrade probably had less to do with Nintendo cutting corners and more to do with the fact that Sony had provided the sound hardware for the older console and almost certainly didn't want to help enhance the capabilities of a portable system it would be taking on head-to-head within a few short years.
Despite these deficiencies, GBA represented a tremendous leap over dedicated handhelds that had come before, including Atari Lynx and SEGA Game Gear. In terms of power, it even outperformed SEGA's Nomad, which was simply a Genesis in portable form. While SNK's Neo Geo Pocket Color and the WonderSwan Color had represented a marked improvement over Nintendo's 8-bit handheld line, GBA blew them all away. The next generation of portable games had truly arrived.
The same, but different
Nintendo hit the ground running with the GBA's launch. Where both the original Game Boy and Game Boy Color had debuted with just a handful of titles on day one, GBA's Japanese debut brought with it no less than 29 pieces of software covering an enormous range of genres and styles. Included within this lineup were four games by Nintendo, several sequels to familiar franchises from Konami, Hudson, Koei, Namco, Kemco, and other third parties, and even a SEGA game. Many of these licensees had attempted to make a go of it with Neo Geo Pocket and WonderSwan at the expense of Game Boy Color support, and their day-one GBA releases seemed like a final acceptance of the fact that Nintendo's portables were simply impossible to topple.
The U.S. launch arrived just shy of three months later, on June 11. While Americans only saw 15 releases that day, that selection still represented the most expansive portable console launch lineup to date. Many of the Japanese launch's decidedly Japan-centric releases, such as Koei's Winning Post (a horse racing game) and Hudson's Momotarou Dentetsu (a long-running video board game series) naturally failed to make their way over, replaced by western licensees like Majesco (Pitfall, Iridion 3D) and Midway (Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2).
To anyone who had spent much time with the Game Boy, both the Japanese and U.S. GBA lineups had a familiar look to them. The system truly was the Super NES to the Game Boy's NES, bringing with it upgraded follow-ups to 8-bit Game Boy franchises. It offered several standout titles at launch or shortly thereafter, all of which precisely demonstrated both the capabilities of the system as well as Nintendo's ambitions for it.
Nintendo led with Super Mario Advance, an upgraded handheld conversion of the Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) port from Super Mario All-Stars. It's a testament to the quality of the underlying game that it could survive so many conversions and remain worthy of being a launch title: It went from an obscure Japanese Disk System title, to Super Mario Bros. 2 for NES, to Super Mario All-Stars for Super NES, to Super Mario Advance for GBA. The game's conversion was handled by the same team that had ported Super Mario Bros. Deluxe to Game Boy Color, and it featured many tweaks similar to that earlier adaptation: Extra collectibles to hunt, a save capability, voice samples (arguably too many), and surprising new items. While fundamentally a 14-year-old game at heart, Super Mario Advance did a great job of showing off some of the GBA's capabilities in a familiar context.
Perhaps even more impressive was F-Zero: Maximum Velocity, which perfectly replicated the speed and viewpoint of the original Super NES game — an extraordinary feat in a handheld system. It also managed to be quite entertaining, which is more than can be said for the other big "tech demo" game at the U.S. launch: Shin'en's Iridion 3D. A thoroughly mediocre shooter, Iridion 3D made use of some advanced visual tricks to create the illusion of polygonal graphics, making it a visual showcase for the system, if not precisely a master class in game design.
For many game enthusiasts, the GBA's true strength lay in its support for seemingly vanished or forgotten styles of play. The advent of 3D games with PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64 had all but wiped the legacy of 8- and 16-bit consoles from the face of the earth. GBA gave those formats an outlet, a friendly home. While Konami fumbled with failed attempts to bring Castlevania into the third dimension on consoles, GBA offered no less than three successors to Symphony of the Night. Even Mario took a console misstep with Super Mario Sunshine, but the four Mario Advance games comforted fans with increasingly ambitious remakes of his classic adventures. The GBA saw Square — soon to be Square Enix — repatriated with Nintendo after half a decade of estrangement, resulting in excellent new Final Fantasy games and remakes alike. And even the troubled Metroid series saw not one but two games in the beloved free-roaming 2D platformer style, with Zero Mission closing the book on the classic era of the series by brilliantly revisiting its origins.
By no means did the GBA simply represent a backward-facing journey through ’90s nostalgia, though. It also became home to considerable innovation, including the industry's final wave of invention through cartridge enhancements. The Wario Land series mutated into the madly inventive microgame collection WarioWare Inc., which in turn gave us the musical odyssey of Rhythm Heaven. Besides Boktai's solar sensor, GBA carts also included such enhancements as Drill Dozer's rumble pak, a gyroscope for WarioWare Twisted! and Yoshi Topsy-Turvy, and wireless transmitters for Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen. GBA saw interesting (albeit failed) experiments into media publishing, too, with several movies appearing on cartridges in the U.S. and a Japan-only multimedia device called the Play-Yan turning the GBA into a combination MP3 and video player.
For American fans, the GBA finally presented a proper home for old-school RPGs. The explosion of games like Pokémon and Final Fantasy VII a few years prior to GBA's launch made publishers less gunshy about localizing text-heavy role-playing and strategy games than they had been during the Super NES era. Franchises like Fire Emblem and Advance Wars made their way overseas for the first time on GBA, and mainstay Mega Man explored Pokémon-like RPG collection concepts through the Battle Network games while keeping long-time action fans content with the tough-as-hell Mega Man Zero tetralogy.
GBA represented a unique moment in gaming history, perched precariously between the old and new.