Last of the Line: Game Boy Advance Ended One Legacy as It Began Another

Last of the Line: Game Boy Advance Ended One Legacy as It Began Another

15 years after its debut, Nintendo's final single-screen handheld stands out as a herald of transition.

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A new challenger has appeared

It was, perhaps, too good to be true. GBA's uncontested reign was not to last long. At E3 2003, just two years after the system's launch, Sony announced its plans to enter the portable gaming arena as well with the PlayStation Portable. While the PSP wouldn't launch in Japan for another year and a half, the mere news of its existence put a dark cloud over the GBA.

Nintendo had faced down its share of handheld challengers since the Atari Lynx launched within weeks of the American Game Boy, but Sony represented an entirely new level of threat. Prior portable rivals — including SEGA — had to face Nintendo at the peak of its dominance in both handheld and console gaming. Sony, on the other hand, had supplanted Nintendo with the PlayStation, and the PlayStation 2 only further cemented its dominance. Sony had an intimidating legacy of portable gadgets, too, from the Walkman to the MiniDisc to the VAIO computer line.

Nintendo had managed to hold a firm grip over portable gaming for nearly a decade and a half through a combination of low-cost, low-power hardware and the loyalty — often begrudging — of third parties. Against the might of Sony, however, Nintendo could no longer rely on either of these factors. The PSP's physical design and hardware capabilities would leave the GBA looking pitifully toylike, and Sony had already swept up most third parties for the console market; it wasn't hard to imagine that, finally given a viable portable platform option outside Nintendo, most of them would follow suit in the handheld space as well.

The PSP represented potential disaster for Nintendo. The GameCube console struggled to compete with PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox right out of the gate in all regions, and the GBA offered a much-needed fallback position. No one cared about GameCube, but everyone owned a GBA. With PSP on the horizon, that would inevitably change. Nintendo hastily began preparing a counterattack to PSP, the unconventionally brilliant DS, and its rapid development would guarantee a much shorter lifespan for GBA than its predecessors had enjoyed.

GBA games shipped in boxes almost completely identical to those of the classic Game Boy and GB Color, despite being housed in cartridges about half the size of the 8-bit model's.

In the meantime, Nintendo continued to iterate on the GBA. Less than two years after the system's Japanese launch, a new model hit the market: The Game Boy Advance SP. Where the original GBA had been a wide, landscape-format system reminiscent of competitors such as the Game Gear and Neo Geo Pocket, the SP returned to the original Game Boy's vertical arrangement, with the screen placed above the D-pad and buttons rather than above. Unlike Game Boy, however, the SP featured a hinged design that allowed players to close the unit, reducing it to an incredibly compact 3x3" square — making it the smallest and most portable handheld ever seen. The folding design also helped to protect the screen, allowing kids to take it anywhere without fear of scuffing up the delicate LCD.

And it was ultimately the screen that made GBA SP so compelling: For the first time, Nintendo offered the world a handheld with built-in screen illumination. (The original Game Boy had seen a late-1998 variant called Game Boy Light, which featured an "indiglo" screen, but that was released in extremely small quantities and never made its way outside of Japan.) While the SP's side-lit format wasn't quite the proper backlighting solution fans demanded, the tiny system satisfied nearly all complaints about the console's dim, hard-to-see screen. And even that would be resolved in the SP's final revision, the AGB-101, which embedded proper backlighting into the system — and incredibly bright lighting at that. Finally, the SP included an integral rechargeable battery, finally doing away with the need for AAs and further slimming down the device's physical profile.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Nintendo system without some sort of irritating flaw, and the SP had its share. The system retained the original GBA's support for Game Boy and Game Boy Color carts, but its profile was designed around the GBA's own half-height carts. The larger 8-bit carts stuck out about an inch from the bottom, making the system awkward to transport. The placement of the cartridge slot along the bottom edge also created incompatibility for games with specialty carts, including Kirby Tilt ’N Tumble and the Game Boy Camera, which were now upside-down. But worst of all, Nintendo removed the headphone jack, putting the audio-out interface into the Link Cable port. That itself might not have been such a nuisance if they had included an adapter with the system rather than forcing players to buy it separately.

Still, despite these minor issues, the GBA SP became an instant hit. The AGB-101 revision is arguably the ultimate way to experience the Game Boy family; it was Nintendo's final hardware model to support 8-bit mono and color cartridges, and its impressive backlight makes both Game Boy and GBA games look vivid and gorgeous.

Nintendo would abandon carts altogether with the GBA's successor, with compact chips based on flash media. The DS format offered superior manufacturing logistics and competitive pricing, but sacrificed the ability to carry on-board enhancement chips and gadgets.

The successor

In November 2004, just three and a half years after the GBA's arrival, Nintendo debuted the DS handheld in the U.S., followed by launches around the world.

The DS's launch didn't bring an immediate close to the GBA's life. The new system was a strange, iconoclastic device that ignored the rules of the games industry even more so than Nintendo's norm. It included two screens, one of which included a stylus-driven touch interface, and despite being positioned as the answer to Sony's PSP it offered power similar in nature to the original PlayStation — a far cry from PSP's incredible capabilities, which fell more in line with the PlayStation 2. Given the risk inherent in the gamble Nintendo was taking on the DS (a system that initially inspired sneering comparisons to the failed Virtual Boy), the company positioned it as a "third pillar." It would exist in parallel with the GBA, offering a different experience.

In hindsight, it's easy to see this marketing line as a naked lie. The DS was very much the follow-up to GBA, not a companion. In fact, the system was half-GBA by its very nature: It ran on two processors, one of which was the same ARM7 included in the GBA. On top of that, it featured a GBA cartridge slot and could be made to boot immediately to play GBA games. A popular modern-day "hack" even involves removing the upper panel of the DS and using the system as a makeshift GBA.

On top of that, the arrival of the DS saw Nintendo sunsetting its internal GBA game development processes. With only a handful of exceptions, post-DS first-party releases for GBA consisted of licensed titles or projects created by external studios like Game Freak and Artoon. Nintendo was hedging its bets aloud while committing its resources behind the scenes wholly to making the DS a revolution.

The DS would eventually become the best-selling handheld system ever, but it didn't gain complete traction for a full year. In the interim, Nintendo continued to support the GBA quite vigorously, releasing and licensing plenty of games as well as producing two different hardware updates for the platform. Besides the fully backlit AGB-101, Game Boy fans were also treated to the Game Boy Micro in 2005, right as the DS market finally hit critical mass.

Want to see the games in action? Check out the first of our two GBA anniversary live streams.

The Micro bizarrely saw Nintendo pointing the GBA platform directly at the same adult market that would make DS a hit. An absolutely minuscule system, it featured a beautiful screen whose small size gave it incredible pixel density, more akin to the "retina" screens that would begin appearing on smartphones five or six years later. The Micro's tiny size made it uncomfortable for action games, but perfect for slower-paced titles. The system's minute scale also meant that support for classic 8-bit Game Boy carts was out as well. So too were many peripherals created for the older GBA models, including the eReader and Pokémon wireless adapter.

Nintendo didn't support the Micro particularly well in the U.S. The system came with interchangeable face plates (a feature that would resurface nearly 10 years later on the New 3DS), but Nintendo never bothered to release any plates beyond the rather hideous handful that launched alongside the system. Japanese fans, on the other hand, enjoyed a handful of custom system designs for notable game releases, such as Final Fantasy IV and Mother 3, the belated sequel to EarthBound. Aside from an "anniversary" edition designed in the colors of the Famicom console, American gamers never saw these later variants, which now sell for collector's prices.

The GBA continued to sell well to younger gamers, though, and Nintendo kept the system on life support until 2008, when it finally closed down production of the hardware. By that point, the DS had already seen its own first hardware revision — the DS Lite, which offered an improvement over the base model ever bit as massive as the leap from Game Boy Advance to GBA SP — and was well on its way to eclipsing the Game Boy family's life-to-date sales.

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