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Game Boy Advance SP

Game Boy Advance SP

Manufacturer:  Nintendo

Release Date (NA):  March 23rd, 2003

GBA SPGames (WW):  1,075 

Nerd Rating: 9 out of 10

Anyone familiar with my gaming proclivities has probably read me harping on about the Game Boy Advance’s library, and more specifically the superiority of the Game Boy Advance SP as a handheld gaming device.  Much of the time I enjoy GBA games via the GameCube thanks to the Game Boy Player add-on.  However, after spending some time away from my usual arsenal of consoles (on vacation), I’ve gotten acquainted with the device quite well.

Library

First things first.  Much of what makes all iterations of the Game Boy Advance commendable is the strong library.  Although no games are specific to only the SP model, I still think it’s fair to kick off this review talking a little about the amazing selection of games.  We’ll get to what makes the SP so special later.

Pokemon - GBA

Pokemon on the GBA!

I don’t want to launch into a tiresome list of GBA games, but let’s point out the highlights:  Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire (the GBA’s top sellers), Pokémon Emeraldsome solid Mario remakes/updates in the form of the Super Mario Advance series, the beginning of the Mario & Luigi RPG series, one of the strongest post-SotN Castlevania games, acclaimed installments of Kirby, the overlooked series of MegaMan Battle Network games, and countless other gems.  There is an incredible amount of quality material available for the GBA, and while some titles might be creeping up in price, most of them are pretty easy to find right now.  What’s perhaps most impressive is the growing trend during the GBA’s reign of really giving handhelds their own identity rather than churning out underwhelming versions of console games.

The GBA also had a respectable number of peripherals.  The e-Reader reads dot codes from cards that could either enhance existing games or allow the player to play old NES classics.  The GBA-GameCube link cable allowed for several interesting possibilities when interacting with the console.  And there’s the issue of backwards compatibility; older items like the Game Boy Camera will still work, not to mention previous Game Genies and GameSharks.  With (naturally) Game Boy and Game Boy Color games backwards compatible with the GBA, any GBA can (as far as I’ve found, anyway) 100% supplant the prior handhelds in the family.  Even in the most thoughtful instances of backwards compatibility there’s usually a hiccup here and there, except here!

SMA4-e

One of the most valuable pieces of gaming “equipment” that I own: the e-Reader cards for Super Mario Advance 4. It’s a small pic, but these are my actual cards. You can see that originally they were about $6 per pack (circa 2003-04). I bought these a little under a year ago for just under $200, and incredibly enough, that was a pretty good deal. I hate to do it, but I do plan on opening these some day. Ideally I’d like to have 2 sets of each, one to keep sealed and the other to use, but damn, erring conservatively, these cards are like $5 a piece, which wouldn’t be so bad except that it’d be damn near impossible to put together a complete set by buying up singles. (Believe me, I entertained every possible option before dropping that kind of cash on something like this. Truth be told I’m more interested in the gameplay functionality than having them sit around and “be valuable.”)

Design

Old GBA

OLD. And the screen isn’t even that bright and shiny. I wouldn’t be so into GBA games if this was all I had to play them on, seriously.

Ok, so here’s where the SP in particular starts shining.  The original model was portable enough, with rounded edges and a relatively ergonomic shape, but there was still the danger of scratching up the screen.  The GBA SP sports a clamshell design.  When folded up, it’s only slightly thicker than the older model, and now it’s compacted into a neat little square.  It isn’t much larger than older cell phones and, truthfully, can fit fairly well into the average pocket.  The ability to reasonably carry a portable with me is extremely important to me; for example, although the PSP and PSV are “portable,” I really end up having to keep them in their carrying cases, which means I can’t just quickly shove it into my pocket.  The SP is always ready to go and while it can be a little small in one’s hands, I enjoy the simple and compact design.

The SP includes a rechargeable battery unlike previous handhelds, finally eliminating the need for constant battery replacement and the added weight and bulk to accommodate them.  I’d be happier with a longer charge, but it can still last for a couple of hours at full blast.

Graphics and Sound

Super Mario Advance

Beautiful scene from Super Mario Advance, a sort of update to Super Mario Bros. 2.

The most obvious and most important upgrade is the nice bright backlit screen.  For me, the screen is what pushes the SP into the “modern” era of handheld gaming.  (Yes, I realize that the Game Gear was backlit (so is the Lynx), but seriously, its selection of games is abysmal.)  The backlight ensures that the GBA SP can be played in almost any lighting conditions, especially low light.  Previous handhelds had to be played in a well lit room or held under a lamp, which again, really undermines the whole “portability” concept.  What good is portability if I have to hunt for an adequate light source?

Besides the light, the colors are also vibrant, much more so than the murky stuff that passed for “colors” on the Game Boy Color.  Different games utilize the system in different ways, but the device is capable of excellent graphics, all things considered.  For some reason not every developer took the graphics as far as they could, and for this reason we have large numbers of games with less-than-inspired visuals.  However, most games of note are a  pleasure to look at with a surprising degree of detail for such a small screen.

Final Fantasy IV

More great graphics from Final Fantasy IV Advance, a re-release of Final Fantasy IV for the SNES.

Astro Boy: Omega Factor

From Astro Boy: Omega Factor.

Sound quality is another important consideration, though from what I can tell, the sound of an SP is pretty much the same as the original GBA.  Either way, the flat, tinny sounds of past handhelds are gone.  The speaker gives us clear and crisp sound, with a very respectable loudness that doesn’t distort even when turned all the way up.  This is truly the chance to really get into the music and sound effects in a handheld; before the GBA, most games could be played and enjoyed without the sound turned on at all.

I do wish the SP used the same sort of attenuation knob as the older units though.  The dial allowed for minute control of the volume, but the GBA SP’s slider is a little more difficult to fine tune.  The sliding area is short.  The slider itself is comparatively large.  What ends up happening is that only about 3, maybe 4 levels of volume are possible since there’s no way to make tiny incremental movements with the slider.  Even at the lightest touch it moves roughly 1/3 the length the sliding track. yielding loud, moderate, barely audible, and mute.

Multiplayer

Handhelds aren’t exactly a popular arena for multiplayer gaming; admittedly, I’ve rarely used the feature myself.  However, with a link cable, one can connect 2 GBAs using only a single cartridge (which is great considering that early attempts at handheld multiplayer required multiple copies of the same game).  Some games, such as those in the Bomberman series and Mario Kart: Super Circuitcan support up to 4 players, at the cost of 3 link cables (1 to connect each pair of GBAs and another to connect the 2 pairs to each other).  Execution might be a little cumbersome, but at least it actually works and Nintendo took the time to fully develop the concept.

Overall

Ever since I really started beefing up my collection and subsequent knowledge of handhelds, the GBA has quickly shot to the top of my list based on its strong games.  Beyond that, it doesn’t take much to understand how and why the SP is a superior piece of hardware when it comes to all the shapes and sizes that the various Game Boys have taken over the years.  It’s true that I make it a point to typically enjoy my GB/GBC/GBA games on my TV with the help of my Game Boy Player, but I’m not shy about picking up the GBA SP either.  The SP definitely spends its fair share of time in my pocket, and it’s probably my 2nd most played portable behind the 3DS.

I’d recommend a GBA to casual and serious gamers alike, specifically the improved and enhanced SP model.  It may feel a little dated by today’s standards, but it gets the job done.  As I mentioned earlier, the GBA’s library is positioned nicely in the marketplace.  Top-tier games will still be a little on the pricey side, but even boxed copies of the most valuable typically only run slightly north of $50.  Bags, accessories, and other official peripheral goodies (yeah, I’m a sucker for that stuff) are dirt cheap as well.  What more can I say?  It’s a great time to buy one if you don’t have one already, and I’ve given you plenty of reasons to dust off your old one if you haven’t thought about yours in a while.

Game Boy Player

The Game Boy Player – just slap it on the bottom of your GameCube! (Well, don’t forget to put the boot disc in too.)

Oh, and one last thing.  I know I spend a lot of time championing the Game Boy Player, and it’s for good reason.  As much as I love the GBA SP, it’s not necessarily the most ideal way to experience the wonderful selection of games.  It is, however, the best portable solution (and the only solution for certain extras and games like WarioWare: Twisted!).  But if you’re solely interested in the amazing body of games available, get the Game Boy Player and a a GameCube if you don’t already have one.  It’s actually pretty awesome how well the tiny GBA graphics translate to the big screen and makes you realize just how well done the visuals are in the first place.  I’m getting off-topic here, I just feel like this is a criminally overlooked add-on that opens up an incredible host of possibilities.  Don’t get me wrong though, if you’re looking for a portable toy with a bit of retro flavor and a handful of classics, you need to grab an SP.  It even made my Top 5 Favorite Consoles list!

In short, grab a crisp $100 bill (they came out with new ones, it’s a good time to use one) and head down to your favorite used video game spot.  You should be able to get a decent, scratch-free GBA SP with charger for under $50.  Anything less for anything more should be treated with caution.  With the other half of your C-note, pick up Pokémon Ruby, Sapphire, or Emerald.  Don’t worry if the battery is dead (I’ll show you how to replace ’em one of these days), the save function still works and the only thing affected is the night/day events (minor) based on the internal clock.  With any lucky, you’ll have $30 to $25 left.  Pick 2 of the following: any WarioWare title (Twisted! gets my vote), any Super Mario Advance game (preferably the fourth installment based on Super Mario Bros. 3), any Kirby release, Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town, any Legend of Zelda game, Fire Emblem (or the cheaper and arguably stronger Advance Wars), Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Mario Golf, any GBA installment of Castlevania (Aria of Sorrow tends to garner the popular vote, but I’m partial to Circle of the Moon myself), and, well, there are too damn many great games, but the above, even with their popularity and acclaim, are surprisingly cheap.  You might even have enough left for a pack of smokes.  Or you may want to pack an extra Jackson in your back pocket just in case.

Reviewed by The Cubist

Written by The Cubist

The Cubist


Co-founder, Head Author, & Site Technician

Find out what these ratings mean and how I rate video games.

I collect as much video gaming paraphernalia as I can get my hands on, especially when it comes to hardware. With over 40 systems including oldies like the ColecoVision and Intellivision, obscurities like the CD-i and 3DO, and the latest and greatest including the Wii U, PS4, Xbox One, 3DS, and PS Vita, I get easily overwhelmed. Most of the time you can find me firmly nestled sometime between 1985 and 1995 when it comes to my games of choice, but I’m also having a great time seeing what the 8th generation has to offer.

Currently in love with: Mortal Kombat

Email me anytime, about anything: thecubist@nerdbacon.com

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: GameShark SP - Nerd Bacon Reviews

  2. Definitely an incredibly well built handheld with a crazy good library. I’d like to start collecting different colored SPs like I have with 64s. There were lots of awesome limited edition SPs 😀

     

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