Today’s mainstream portable consoles, particularly the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita, have surpassed their handheld predecessors in the realm of leaps and bounds in terms of technology, however that in no way retroactively stops older great handheld games from being…well, great. Between its release in Japan on 21 March 2001 and the release of its successor in North America on 21 November 2004, the Game Boy Advance (and its subsequent iterations) reigned supreme over all competitors. There are many reasons why you might want to own one today, though first and foremost in a list of descending priority should be it’s absolutely huge library of games. This, coupled with the fact that three of the four iterations of the handheld (bar the Game Boy Micro), are backwards compatible with original Game Boy and Game Boy Color cartridges, means that anyone with an interest in the history of Nintendo should own one, it’s pretty much as simple as that. Also, if you wanted icing on this cake the Game Boy Advance, unlike Nintendo’s current offering in the 3DS, is region-free, so you can also play Japanese titles which never made it to North America and Europe, like Mother 3.
These days there are other methods for playing Game Boy Advance titles which preclude the need to own the original hardware including Nintendo’s own Virtual Console, which is accessible only via a Wii U and allows the purchase of a very limited selection of titles. The other alternative is of course to use an unofficial emulator on pretty much the hardware of your choice. This route may give rise to questions of legality depending on your country/region, but common sense would appear to suggest that if you own the game, or the game is otherwise unavailable to purchase/play except via emulation, you should be able to access it on the system most convenient to you. Everything from soft-modded consoles to smartphones, PC’s, etc. can be used to load an unofficial emulator, with close to perfect emulation of many titles released for older systems. That said, whilst these methods do offer advantages that the original hardware doesn’t, for instance in the form of upscaling, save states etc., to many (myself included) the one thing that cannot be emulated is the tangible aspect of owning and operating the original console. Whether this feeling can be attributed solely to nostalgia is something I am unable able to answer.
If you are therefore in such a position and are looking to acquire a Game Boy Advance, there are a few things you should know. Firstly, there is the matter of which iteration of the handheld is right for you. The first iteration of the Game Boy Advance was one of the more uniquely designed consoles from Nintendo, bucking the trend of the earlier Game Boy systems’ portrait design, it instead featured a more ergonomic landscape orientation, with controls on either side of the screen. Whilst this is arguably the most comfortable iteration of the system to hold it had one glaring flaw, one which a generation of children today will never know the pain; the screen was not lit. This meant that playing games entailed finding a window or a lamp, angling the screen so as not to have to stare at a reflection of the light source and squinting as best you could. If this is the version of the console that you are absolutely set on getting there are a few workarounds which will fix this issue. Arguably the best way is to get a pre-modded GBA, in which the original screen has been replaced with a backlit screen from a later Game Boy Advance SP model. This will however be expensive, with modded consoles fetching around £100 on eBay, and the process of implementing the mod yourself is difficult and finicky, requiring modification of the outer plastic shell, as well as soldering to the main board. Before the release of the SP variant there were other means of front-lighting the handhelds screen, such as the ‘Afterburner’ LED kit, as well as numerous unwieldy third party solutions which just shone a light onto the screen, like the ‘worm light’. None of those should even be considered today, as they were various degrees of terrible.
The Game Boy Advance SP was introduced in 2003 and overhauled the design of the original handheld, moving to a small clamshell form factor. The SP brought with it various improvements, including offering protection to the screen when the device was closed, a user replaceable rechargeable battery and of course a lit screen. Before delving further into the SP it’s worth commenting on the last and most recent iteration of the Game Boy Advance; the Game Boy Micro. Released in late 2005 the Micro was a very small device with a landscape orientation. It had the backlit screen of the newer SP variant but featured drawbacks as a result of its size including awkward controls and most importantly, it removed backwards compatibility with original Game Boy and Game Boy Color cartridges. I personally feel that these sacrifices alone remove it from the running for recommendation. The pick for most therefore will be the Game Boy Advance SP, though it is important to note that there were two variants of the SP released, the AGS-001 and the newer AGS-101, with certain significant differences between them.
Game Boy Advance SP AGS-001 (Front-lit) or AGS-101 (Backlit)
The initial release of the SP (AGS-001) features a front-lit screen which was itself a huge upgrade to the original console. The SP added a small button below the screen which on the AGS-001 variant switches the front light off and on (if for whatever reason you’d like to turn the light off and relive painful memories of having to squint at the screen), and on the newer model (AGS-101) cycles between two brightness modes; bright and very bright. Otherwise, the SP also features a rechargeable battery which saves you from having to keep a spare pair of AA batteries handy. The battery life itself is pretty good on both variants (though significantly better on the front-lit models), offering approximately 10 hours between charges for the AGS-001 (with the light on) and five hours for the AGS-101. The newer AGS-101 variant of the SP features a significantly brighter backlit screen. This screen also benefits from wider viewing angles and more saturated colours, whereby the older AGS-001 model can by comparison appear rather washed out. The only ways to tell between the models with the device switched off, apart from certain colour variants exclusive to a particular version, would be from the model number on the back label of the unit, as well as the fact that the newer model’s screen is noticeably darker when off. Based on the spec sheet, conventional wisdom points to the newer AGS-101 model as the preferably device due to the aforementioned backlight, but personally I feel the answer is more complicated.
Firstly, in terms of the visual experience whilst the newer model is usually superior, providing a brighter, sharper and more saturated display, it also introduces the problem of ghosting. For those who are unaware, ‘ghosting’ refers to when the screen’s refresh rate is too slow to keep up with the action on the screen, creating an undesirable ‘shadow’ effect during moments of fast movement. Luckily this is imperceptible and a non-issue in most games, however it does become noticeable in certain side-scrollers, like Super Mario World. Whether this will be an issue for you is something that I cannot answer, though I will say that its presence is not egregious enough to be an issue for me, whereas it was on the original Playstation Portable. It should be noted that ghosting is not an issue with the front-lit screen of the AGS-001 variant.
Secondly, there are the related factors of availability and price. There are simply fewer AGS-101 models out there than the older AGS-001 models, and as a result they will command a higher price. The AGS-001 models can usually be found on eBay for about £25 (sometimes packaged with games) whereas the AGS-101 models are usually found for upwards of £70. It will be up to you therefore to decide whether the extra cost for the backlit version is worth it to you.
In closing, this piece of writing is intended to be as much a tribute to recent video game history as it is a guide to purchasing a Game Boy Advance, and to that end I hope it is found to be useful.