Late in 2002 (2001 in Japan), Nintendo would release an interesting add-on for the Game Boy Advance (GBA) known as the e-Reader. At first glance, the term “e-Reader” may evoke thoughts of Kindles, Nooks, and other such electronic reading devices, but back then the “reader” part of the name referred to the device’s ability to read codes printed on cards. Inside of the e-Reader is a small red laser, similar to the scanners of UPC labels. It reads what are called “dot codes,” which are printed on the edges of cards. The cards are swiped through the e-Reader like a credit card, and actual data is generated from the dot codes rather than the codes simply unlocking data already present in the add-on. As novel as this device was (and still is), it would be discontinued after a short year and change in North America though its popularity persisted in Japan. The e-Reader was so unpopular with Western audiences that a European release never materialized, though a few European versions were manufactured.
The cards themselves resembled trading cards and were sold in packs, differing in number based on intended functionality. Each card usually had some description of the item or level being added, or included some general information about the game in the case of ported NES titles. The dot codes were arranged in various ways depending on the type of card. For example, for NES titles, there were usually 5 cards with dot codes on 2 of the edges. This translated into all 10 codes needing to be scanned by the e-Reader before the game was playable.
The e-Reader had several functions once inserted into the game slot of a GBA. Nintendo primarily intended for it to be a vehicle for old NES games as well as a way of introducing new items and levels into existing GBA games. Although North American support was quite limited due to its short commercial life, Japan saw extensive releases for the add-on.
NES games were straightforward ports requiring only the e-Reader and the appropriate cards. Once all the cards were scanned, the e-Reader was able to store this data until different cards were scanned. When one wished to scan new cards, the old data would be deleted. No save data was stored in the e-Reader, so any high scores or other accomplishments were not saved once the unit was powered off. Thirteen NES games were released in all: Balloon Fight, Baseball, Clu Clu Land, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Donkey Kong 3, Excitebike, Golf, Ice Climber, Pinball, Mario Bros., Tennis, and Urban Champion, all marked with the extension “-e” to denote its status as an e-Reader game.
In the case of adding in items and levels to an existing game, the e-Reader requires a slightly more complex set up. Two GBA’s are needed with a linking cable to connect them. The e-Reader is inserted into one GBA and the game into the other. At appropriate points in the game, new items and level cards can be scanned to appear in-game. This feature was used sparingly in North America, with support limited to Ruby and Sapphire Pokemon titles, Animal Crossing, and most notably, Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3. Another interesting use of the e-Reader is the ability to play exclusive mini-games from the unique Mario Party-e. Also planned was the release of several Game and Watch titles, but Manhole-e was the only one to ever materialize.
The Game Boy Advance has had a colorful history of its own, leading to a variety of compatibility issues with the Nintendo e-Reader. The one and only North American version of the e-Reader is fitted with plug that goes directly into the link cable output of the original GBA. This bypass extends through the top of the add-on so that a link cable can be used. On the GBA SP, the link cable port and cartridge slot are positioned a little differently, however the unit is slim enough when opened that the e-Reader can fit into the game slot without the link cable protrusion interfering. The GBA SP will not fully close due to this, but gameplay and functionality is unaffected. Since the link cable port on the SP is still accessible, it can still be used to its full potential. Although the e-Reader is electronically compatible with the Game Boy Micro, it will not fit due to the Micro’s non-standard linking port.
The final iteration of the GBA comes in the form of the Game Boy Player, an add-on for Nintendo’s GameCube. The link cable port on the Game Boy Player and e-Reader match up exactly. The e-Reader can be connected to the GameCube without any further attachments to play the NES titles and Mario Party-e mini-games just as any other cartridge inserted into the Game Boy Player. In games such as Super Mario Advance 4 which require 2 GBA’s, the GameCube plus Game Boy Player (with either the game or e-Reader in the game slot) can act as one GBA, and a link cable can be connected to another GBA with the game or e-Reader inserted as applicable. This same application can be used to link up an additional GameCube also outfitted with a Game Boy Player, functioning as the second GBA. Finally, the GameCube/GBA link cables can be used in cases where a GBA link is not needed, such as playing the e-Reader NES ports.
The e-Reader is also compatible with the Nintendo DS Lite and electronically compatible with the original DS, as both of these units contained slots for Game Boy Advance cartridges. However, to connect it to the original DS the e-Reader must be modified because the extension for the link cable port sticks out too far to fully fit into the DS. The DS Lite is slim enough when opened to avoid such a modification. Future models of the DS excluded the GBA port. Unfortunately, for games requiring the use of link cables and 2 GBA’s, the earlier model DS’s are useless as they possess no integration of the GBA’s link cable port and thus there is no way to link 2 units.
I realize that so far this has been more of a description rather than a review, but a device as unique and obscure as the e-Reader deserves some explanation. I only became aware of this fine piece of video gaming equipment recently, and received it about a week prior to writing this. So fascinating has the e-Reader been that I’ve spent all of my self-allotted video gaming hours playing and experimenting with it. Everything plays as smoothly as any GBA game with the same quality graphics and sound, and devoid of any glitching one might expect. The unit is a bit bulky whether on top of the GBA or connected to the bottom of the GBA SP, but I’m sure Nintendo made the device as small as possible. Fortunately, it is very lightweight. The scanner inside is as responsive as one could ask for. At first I feared my e-Reader was broken, but I figured out that I was swiping the cards too fast. A steady, leisurely slide is needed rather than the swift swipe many of us are used to doing with credit cards. The interface is easy to work with and understand, and anyone lucky enough to possess the Nintendo e-Reader along with a handful of cards (and of course a GBA) will be playing in no time.
While the Nintendo e-Reader may not be the most essential piece of equipment that Nintendo has ever made, there were reams of potential available. It would be interesting to see how fully the add-on was exploited in Japan where it enjoyed a lengthy and diverse presence, but alas, it never quite clicked with North American audiences. It may exist now as merely a novelty, but it truly could have turned into a way to add increased replay value to games (similar to how a lot of DLC functions now), and extend the commercial viability of aging consoles. At the time the cards were a relatively cheap investment; what better way to add new elements to successful but otherwise finite games? Of all the odd accessories and add-ons to hit the shelves over the years, this is one piece in particular that I wish Nintendo would’ve expanded upon. With the advent of Wi-Fi, DLC (downloadable content), and all other sorts of wireless and media-less innovations, I doubt the world will see any resurgence of card-scanning units, but hey, it sure was a cool idea.
Reviewed by The Cubist
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