So what do you do if you are in complete and total control of an entire section of the games industry? If everyone of your competitors have given you their best shot and failed against a vastly inferior black & white console let alone it’s colour successor released less than 2 years ago? Well if you are Nintendo and it’s the turn of a new millennium you release another handheld that cements this domination, kills off any potential hope of another company challenging you and you do it with a console that although powerful has a massive fundamental flaw attached to it.
RetroGameGeeks proudly presents to you the story of a console that ruled the world without any real right to do so considering it’s fist model was flawed to the point of being broken the Gameboy Advance (GBA).
Prior to it’s release the press was buzzing with the knowledge that this 32-Bit handheld console was to be the real successor to the original Gameboy range, whilst the Gameboy Color was performing well and rightly deserves all the praise it receives from the retro community things were moving onward and something with a little more impact was needed.
Nintendo had obviously been impressed with the technical specifications of it’s closest rivals even as far back as the Sega Gamegear however for them everything came down to battery life, this after all had along with several key software titles won the handheld war for them and it was important the next sequel continued this ethos. Sega, Atari and several others had all gone for power and full colour gaming over simple things like cost of running the devices but gamers absolutely wanted a more realistic experience and whilst the GBC had nailed it Nintendo knew they could do more.
If they could make the next generation of portable gaming look better and allow for bigger, faster games then they would have it all and so behind closed doors their engineers set about producing something that would do this and so much more.
Rumour circulates to this day that the GBA had been in concept and design mode since 1995 and that the GBC was essentially their first real perfect mix of colour graphics with long battery life, essentially the GBC was a NES in your hand except more powerful but in the big picture released far too late to make a real stand alone legacy which is why to this day it’s sales figures are always tied into the original Gameboy range, something we here at RetroGameGeeks disagree strongly with.
After several years in the making those magicians at Nintendo had further tweaked, prodded and poked and finally at some point during all this came to the logical realisation that if the Gameboy was essentially a Game & Watch and the GBC was as mentioned a handheld NES then why not make the whole concept of the Gameboy Advance centred around another popular console, make a handheld SNES…… Cue moment of utter genius!!!
When the gaming press first saw early demos of what this console could do they were blown away, this writer still has the magazines that show said screenshots with paragraphs and paragraphs of journalists going mental over it all, a handheld SNES, this was going to be utterly epic.
And so everyone on planet earth waited with baited breath for Nintendo to not just release a new handheld but a portable console that would not only absolutely have it’s own software but obviously have all those classics from the glory days re-released, the anticipation was astounding.
In 2001 Nintendo released what we all knew was coming and (in my mind at least) people were dancing and singing in the streets the world over, a handheld SNES, a bloody handheld SNES. Mario world, Zelda 3, Super Metroid oh man happy days….. Small problem number 1. The launch games minus about 3 or so were very poor, Pinobee and Pitfall, I rest my case.
Now launch games being average or worse are a normal thing about console launches and so to be fair this wasn’t the massive problem, everyone knows that Nintendo always take a while to get going with software releases and to begin with everyone had an F-Zero game, an amazing Castlevania title and a really good conversion of Super Mario World so the lack of decent third party support was glossed over.
Initial price of the Gameboy advance was quite high but again this was not a massive problem for either Nintendo, retailers or the general public as the hype surrounding this console was large and with so many potential classics to get released on it an initial outlay of about $150.00 / £149.99 was a pill most people were prepared to swallow. So what was the problem here then I hear you ask? Well the biggest problem was in how it got to market keeping the battery life high, Nintendo had decided to make the screen itself have no back light, absolutely none at all, talk about shoot yourself in the foot people!
Every single hardware review of the time said the exact same thing, why on earth would you make stunning graphics on a lovely screen display then make everything so damn dark? Nobody could work out why they had decided to do this, everything else was perfect so why mess this number 1 vital aspect up?
Considering that as mentioned the screen itself was lovely, the unit was as light as a feather, the D-Pad a joy to use and all 4 face and shoulder buttons were perfect meant that the dark screen stood out a mile, some of the launch games were nearly unplayable because of it, Pitfall was a total joke.
In typical fashion though third party peripheral companies at this point had come prepared, from day 1 you could purchase little lights that connected into the expansion slot on top of the console and then illuminated the screen so for now disaster was averted, it was however at a cost to the battery life of the unit and so even though it solved the number one issue it created another, this was gong to be expensive running this little bad boy.
For nearly two years the GBA sales although good were decidedly predictable, when a new game was released that got great scores hardware sales picked up and the buzz returned, when things were quiet software wise though nobody seemed to care and both retail and Nintendo themselves seemed to be very concerned, shops in the UK that had given valuable front of store display space to Nintendo’s handheld had now moved it right to the back.
The first casualty of all of this however had been Nintendo killing off their own console, the GBC had almost overnight been stabbed in the back by Nintendo themselves and completely abandoned by other publishers just as fast. It vanished from shops as quick as it had arrived, silly Nintendo.
Obviously the general apathy surrounding it’s new handheld had quite rightly filtered back to the powers that be in Japan because in 2003 Nintendo finally got everything completely and utterly right and the second generation GBA was released, dubbed the GBA SP, it was also in several territories tied into a window that included a killer second wave of in house games. Nintendo had absolutely proved that you do indeed get a second chance to make a good first impression.
So what did the GBA SP do right then? Well what didn’t it do right is easier to answer, this new design is most probably the single best looking and functioning console ever made, whoever was in charge of this version deserves cities and hospitals to be named after him/her. The screen was improved, the buttons somehow made nicer, the shoulder buttons made softer and the already superb D-Pad was now ergonomically re-engineered to allow for longer more comfortable play sessions, like I said everything was better.
The real moment of genius here was two-fold however, the screen was now protected by the console folding in half to save it from scratches which in itself was something that had plagued Nintendo since the original Gameboy console’s launch in the late 1980’s and best of all and a total game changer was that now it had a back light, and a great one at that.
The last master stroke however was how they in one simple moment of real genius sidestepped the problem of battery life, this version would have a rechargeable battery built in that would use a mains charger (supplied) for both home play and super fast charge times for when you wanted to take it out and about, not only that but the charge time could easily last 25 hours if you didn’t have the sound at full. So Nintendo now had a stunningly sexy, light weight, back-lit handheld SNES that was a joy to hold and use, guess what happened next……….. Yup that’s right sales explosion!!!!
Across all territories this new model with an all round vastly superior look and feel and best of all cheaper price point with a new wave of must have games (Link to the past anyone?) flew off the shelves, the original Gameboy mania that had swept the world had returned in full force, every single publisher it seemed fell over themselves to release games for it, it appealed to veteran gamers because of the obvious SNES overtones and re-releases and both boys and girls of all ages had one on every single Christmas or Birthday wish list
There was of course another reason to own this little system of joy, Mario Kart, Mario World, F-Zero’s, Castlevania and as mentioned above the all conquering Zelda - Link to the Past were one thing but it was a certain 2 versions sequel named after precious gem’s that were about to make the world go mental! Pokemon was back!!!!
In early to mid 2003 The west was treated to the translated masterpiece that was Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire a game that had already sold like free cakes to fat people in Japan at the end of the previous year 2002. The cartoon was still as popular as ever, the card game was still in every playground up and down the country and so a full colour sequel with a whole new pokedex of mind boggling creatures was snapped up by the millions, to this day it is still the number 1 selling game on the system with over 13 million unit estimated sales….WOW!
Between 2003 and 2005 the Gameboy Advance was everywhere, this is backed up by the enormous catalogue of games released for the console which taking into account all regions is most probably over 1,500 games, certainly more than 1,000, only it’s sequel the Nintendo DS would have more games for a dedicated handheld gaming system.
Now I may be showing my clear and obvious bias and love for this exceptional console but if you ask me this was Nintendo’s biggest disaster turned biggest success, considering that their home consoles such as the N64 and the Gamecube were both sales let downs their dominance of the handheld market was the thing that kept them going, its estimated that over 80 million GBA units have been sold which of course probably doubles once you take into account 2nd hand re-sales.
The start of this introduction tells the story of a very different Nintendo that resembles the (cough) Nintendo we have today in 2013, back then when they got things wrong they always fought back harder and without a doubt smarter and the GBA is a wonderful example of all of this. The 2005 released GBA Micro however is something none of us like to talk about, what were they thinking there eh?
Much like the GBC the GBA was eventually killed off not because of changing markets or new competition but from Nintendo themselves who in 2005 released the next instalment in the handheld line, this console was going to essentially be a handheld N64 called the Nintendo DS, the Gameboy range had come to an end but what a glorious end, 3 superb consoles GB,GBC and the GBA Nintendo were now the undisputed king of portable gaming, they have been since 1989 and still are today.
From a gaming point of view and back on topic he he to list why you should immediately rush out and buy a GBA would be a waste of my time, for me it’s common sense to have either owned one or have at the very least played one but for those 12 people living under a rock or those new to the hobby and of course the younger crowd who were too young when it first showed up here’s why this portable console was in many ways Nintendo’s finest moment.
Mario World, F-Zero‘s, Metroid Fusion, Link to the Past, Advance wars 1&2, Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire, Warioware, Final Fight, Street Fighter 2, Castlevania’s, Golden Sun 1&2, Ninja Cop, Zelda - Minish Cap, Mario Kart Super Circuit, Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, Mario Tennis, Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga, Final Fantasy VI, Yoshi’s Island, Contra 3, Mario Golf All of these games and so many more are complete essentials for a retro loving maniac and need to be played immediately soldier!
So with over 80 million unit sales and a games catalogue so vast it’s legacy is crystal clear for all to see, Nintendo’s love letter to the SNES and an example of adapting and change regarding the second design it proudly sits in many a retro lovers collection and even after only having 4 buttons when it’s source material had 6 still was able to deliver wave after wave of gaming nirvana.
To finish all I will say is that this is the Nintendo I love, a company under huge pressure from several companies in it’s home division delivering another top quality slice of portable heaven, although a clone of a previous home console it defined it’s own way thanks to it’s clear appreciation of what had made them great in the past whilst having enough exclusive quality products to stand on it’s own as a proud member of a gaming dynasty
The last of the sprite based consoles, after this machine everything would change, the old rules no longer applied and once again 3D would return to sit upon it’s throne and whilst I personally loved 3D gaming such as the PS1, N64, Saturn etc to me sprites are as important as Oxygen.
To know the GBA is to also love both Nintendo and the SNES, the 2 missing face buttons aside this is essentially the same thing only portable however it's this portability that transforms even the original games that were re-released with a new lick of paint and a totally different feel. It's important to stress that the GBA was so much more than a SNES in your hand though as the sheer number of original games meant it was always it's own beast however playing Contra 3, F-Zero or even a NES classic Mario Brothers 3 on the move, even Olly023 knows life doesnt get better than this!
Speaking of Olly and his love for Sega the GBA was home to more Sega games than I can count, Shining Force, Sonic Advance 1,2 & 3, Sega ages collection, Sega Rally, Chu Chu Rocket, Virtua Tennis the list goes on and on and almost every single game from them was amazing. Not to be forgotten most of Sony's mascot's and franchises came across as well, yup thats right, Spyro, Crash Bandicoot and Tekken games were on Nintendo's little system such was the complete mass market dominance it had and huge sales potential for decent software and even Banjo Kazooie who at that time was still linked to Rare and therefore Microsoft managed to get a couple of games out.
Coupled with the ability to link this console upto a Gamecube to allow for cool things such as interactive map screens or other player involvement meant there would be yet more of that Nintendo innovation we had all come to know and love. In fact as well as managing to ensure existing GB and GBC games could be played on the GBA the whole concept went full circle as the GBA itself was able to be played through the greatest invention ever, the GBA adaptor for the Gamecube console, something that is now highly sought after by collectors.
I will always remember this console as the one that got me noticed on public transport when I would talk to it like it was a human being and any machine that allows me on said public transport to exit a house into the pouring rain to find a sword, rescue a princess and help free a kingdom is something really rather special now isn’t it?