On March 21, 2001, Nintendo finally released the Game Boy Advance in Japan. A 32-bit successor to the Game Boy and Game Boy Color, the handheld device was capable of technical prowess beyond that of a Super Nintendo. By the time the GBA made its way over to North America in June of that year, it was already poised to share the same market success as its predecessor. Yet three and a half years later, Nintendo DS appeared and largely took Nintendo’s first-party support with it.
Making the leap to 32-bit
Until the GBA’s release, portable gaming was still pretty limited. More powerful handhelds than Game Boy existed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, like the Atari Lynx and the Sega Game Gear, but they were severely restricted. Their battery lives were incredibly short, they were really bulky, and they frequently needed to be plugged in to an outlet to work at full capacity. The exception to this was the Game Boy, Nintendo’s handheld console and one that sacrificed technical prowess for longevity. Yet even though the handheld eventually received a color update in 1998, it still was incredibly restricted.
By the time the GBA released in 2001, it seemed like a dream come true for many gamers: finally, a Nintendo handheld with a solid resolution! And it can play SNES-quality games! And it’s affordable and can play all the other Game Boy games! And as a finishing touch, it had connectivity with GameCube for certain games, which worked out terrifically for some games like The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures. The fact that it was now possible to have portable gaming that didn’t have such ugly-quality visuals was a big deal, and the handheld’s lifetime sales were evidence of that. To date, the GBA line (including Game Boy Advance SP, which offered the huge improvement of backlighting and a rechargeable battery) has sold over 80 million units.
The Game Boy Advance library was stellar
Whether it was first-party or third-party, the GBA library saw a steady stream of high-quality releases, including a slew of revamped SNES ports that tickled the nostalgic funny bone. I think I must’ve gotten more enjoyment out of playing the Super Mario Advance quadrilogy on my GBA than I did on the SNES.
In just a few years, Game Boy Advance introduced North America to the likes of Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, and Golden Sun and esteemed new entries in franchises like Castlevania and Mega Man. Unfortunately, while the GBA was indeed an excellent successor to the Game Boy, its lifespan was tragically cut short.
Following underwhelming GameCube sales and a need to rebrand themselves as a company, Nintendo debuted the Nintendo DS on Nov. 21, 2004. The handheld was distinct for its touchscreen capabilities, two screens, and ability to connect wirelessly with other DS handhelds and the internet. But while it was initially marketed as a “third pillar” separate from the GBA, it made the notable decision to include a GBA slot at the bottom. The message was pretty clear: Despite what Nintendo had said, the GBA was officially obsolete.
Granted, a more compact version of the GBA, the Game Boy Micro, was released in 2005, but it lacked backward compatibility and e-Reader support. The DS quickly became the handheld of focus for Nintendo and gradually for third-party developers too. This saddens me, given Game Boy and Game Boy Color collectively stuck around over a decade, making Game Boy Advance feel like a blip in the company’s history by comparison.
In effect, the Game Boy Advance was a last hurrah for traditional 2D pixel games as the main attraction as opposed to a sideshow. A shift to 3D was inevitable and you can’t fault Nintendo at all for it, but it would have been nice if that last hurrah… had lasted a little longer.
Reclaiming the legacy of the Game Boy Advance
I think that the GBA got the raw end of the deal compared to other Nintendo handhelds. Nintendo, if you’re reading this, please remember the GBA’s importance in gaming history. I’m not asking you to relaunch the entire console from scratch, though a GBA Mini wouldn’t be such a bad idea. But simply making the GBA’s library more readily available on Switch and future Nintendo consoles would be nice. Giving the GBA its second life that way would help people remember, or learn for the first time, why the handheld was so great to begin with.
What about you? Did you have a Game Boy Advance growing up, and do you think it deserved better? Let us know in the comments.