Another awesome feature of the GameBoy Advance is that it is supposed to tie into the Nintendo GameCube for private in-game information, ala the VMU on a Dreamcast. It would also make the Pokemon franchise happier, as being able to connect to the unit directly for Pokemon stadium battles and other pocket to main deck games (Harvest Moon, Mario Golf, etc), would benefit games greatly. It's also rumored to be backwards compatable. Any system that hits the shelves with a massive library is bound to do extremely well.

I just got my Game Boy Advance yesterday, and I've been playing it pretty much ever since. Seeing as now is "rest-so-my-eyes-don't-fall-out" time, I'll do a quick writeup. The one thing that really sticks out is just how damn small the unit is; it's about as big as a Game Boy Color, and the cartridges are half the size of regular Game Boy carts. The screen is much larger and clearer, but it also suffers from being a bit dark. Getting sufficient light isn't extremely hard, but it's more of a chore than with the ordinay Game Boy (although the glare is cut considerably with the darker screen).

The only game that I really have to talk about is F-Zero: Maximum Velocity, as it shows off the GBA's abilities very well. Despite the quick movements on the screen, motion blur is virtually non-existant. The graphics are another big plus; they are at least on par with the Super Nintendo version of F-Zero, and I tend to believe they surpass it. If you have heard a regular Game Boy's screeching sound, the audio on the Game Boy Advance will blow you away. Although the system only has one speaker, it supports stereo with ear phones (I still can't figure out why they would have such incredible sound for a portable and limit it by including only one speaker!). The controls aren't as cumbersome as you would think, but things still get a little cramped if you have large hands. Also, the necessity to tap the A button while holding down the R button is a real pain, but seeing as that's the only major control issue with F-Zero, I won't complain too much.

All in all, I'm impressed. If Nintendo doesn't drop the ball and releases solid titles (a new Metroid, Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest, maybe a Final Fantasy), I'll remain a happy camper. If you're on the edge of a purchasing decision, all I can tell you is that yes, it is worth the money. With a myriad of action, adventure, RPG, and puzzle games on the way, you won't be disappointed.

Some more technical details on the Gameboy Advance:

CPU: ARM7TDMI running at 16.78MHz (an integrated Z80 is included for Gameboy compatibility, but it can't operate at the same time as the ARM)

RAM: 32KB internal and 256KB external RAM (differ in access speed only), 96KB VRAM, 1KB Palette RAM, 1KB Object Attribute RAM

ROM: 16KB system ROM (BIOS)

Gamepak (cartridge) size: up to 32MB ROM and up to 64KB SRAM

Display: 240x160 dots at a maximum of 32768 simultaneous colors, not backlit (requires a light source)

Image system: hardware support for scaling/rotating, alpha-blending, fading, and mosaic effect. Both tile-based and bitmap-based video modes. Up to 128 independent sprites.

Game controller: Directional Pad and 6 Buttons (A, B, L, R, START and SELECT)

Sound: 4 analog sound chip channels (Gameboy compatible) and 2 PCM channels (8bit), headphone plug

Communication: 1 serial communication port for multiplayer gaming

Power supply: 2 AA-type batteries required, no AC-adapter plug available.


If you're interested in Gameboy Advance Development, you might want to check out http://www.gbadev.org and http://www.devrs.com/gba/

Nintendo's Game Boy Advance (AGB-001) had actually been waiting in the wings for a number of years (since around 1997 at least) before it was released in 2001. Nintendo finally felt that they had gone as far as they could with the first generation Game Boy family (which debuted in 1989 and subsequently became the best-selling games console in history), and that they were able to produce and sell the devices cheaply enough to pass on the torch (the GBA actually cost rather less at launch than the original Game Boy had done).

The machine is powered by a 32-bit RISC processor (as detailed in writeups above), and is significantly more powerful than the SNES (the misconception that it's merely a portable SNES probably stems from the reliance on remakes of 16-bit titles in the first wave of software). It is also compatible with over 99% of Game Boy and Game Boy Color titles, although the carts protrude from the top of the machine somewhat.

Sound and graphics capabilities are greatly superior to the original Game Boy and its contemporaries. The GBA is capable of performing sprite scaling and rotation with consummate ease (as I write, the technical showcase is a version of DooM ported from the Jaguar- it is unclear as to how well the machine can 'do' true polygons, and it has a fairly restrictive pool of memory). Sound is full multi-channel stereo, sounding uncannily like a SNES, and best experienced through headphones. In layman's terms, the machine is vastly more powerful than the SNES, but less powerful than the PSX (except for sprite-based games, where it is a shitload better).

The hardware design does have some shortcomings. The battery life is a mere 20 hours from 2 AA batteries (half that of the NeoGeo Pocket Color). The d-pad is small and unresponsive, and the shoulder buttons spongy and presumably leaf-switched (and very easy to accidentally hit if your hands are large). The start and select buttons are also inconveniently placed and very small, but this has been the case since the NES, and it has always mystified me why Nintendo still use them. In fact, most of the machine's problems are just instances where they've ignored the improvements made by the NeoGeo Pocket Color, for reasons of cost (and honour perhaps?).

The infamous 240x160 colour screen is not as dark as the more hysterical games sites have made out, but it does prevent the machine being used in less-than-great lighting conditions (ironically, a machine that is supposed to be portable makes a lot of demands on its environment- I usually play mine plugged in near to an overhead lamp). In the end, it's a trade-off between resolution and visibility, and I think that they couldn't sacrifice the resolution any further without seriously hobbling the machine. Suggesting that there should be a backlight built into the machine is unrealistic. In good light, the colours are rich and there is little or no motion blur.

Anyone considering buying a GBA should not be put off by the horror stories about the screen. The main consideration should be the games library, and as this is still growing every day, I can't make a final judgement. The one thing I can say with certainty is that you will be spoilt for choice.

If your main incentive is to play old games from a surprisingly broad spectrum (from old Amiga games to coin-ops, there's even a homebrewn ZX Spectrum emulator out there), you should probably ask whether you think it's worth stumping up the price of a new game for an old (even abandonware) title, usually with minimal improvements, just for the added bonus of being able to play it on the move.

There are an increasing number of original games that use the machine's full capabilities, and in my opinion these should be investigated first by the potential purchaser. Depending on your moral standpoint, you can pick up a lot of games cheaply by purchasing a backup device (which you can also use to legally play homebrew titles and demoes, of which there is a burgeoning scene).

You can also use the GBA as an 'intelligent' Nintendo GameCube controller (with the appropriate cable), or link up four GBAs for multiplayer games. This is a great feature, which is a damn sight easier than setting up a LAN, but be aware that unless you have friends with the same taste in games (and therefore enough carts for everyone), you will have to put up with long loading pauses. (This is because multiplayer games played from a single cart have to transfer the game data- usually in cut-down form- to the other machines via the link cable. It will certainly try your patience, and is not offered as a feature by all multiplayer games.)

The GBA, through marketing muscle, competent hardware, strong third-party support, and a lack of almost any serious competition, is now the first choice in portable games systems. Although there is definitely room for improvement, at least you should be able to find games to suit nearly all tastes.

March 2003 sees the launch of the Game Boy Advance SP, a redesign of the hardware that addresses some of the problems with it. There is also a Game Boy Player peripheral for the Nintendo Gamecube which allows GBA games to be played on your TV.

Upgrading

Yesterday, I bought a Game Boy Advance (GBA) to replace my much-loved Game Boy Color (GBC). Other people that are considering upgrading might be interested in the differences (and similarities) that I found between the two consoles.

Games

If you're thinking of upgrading, it's because you want to play GBA games, so I needn't tell you how technically impressive they are by comparison to the old Game Boy games. Suffice to say you will have no doubt that you are playing with a vastly superior bit of kit.

Size

From the pictures I'd seen, I'd somehow assumed that the GBA was significantly bigger than the GBC. Not so; size-wise, there's almost nothing in it. They're both wonderfully cute little packages.

Controls

The GBA controls are essentially the same as the GBC's, with the addition of two faintly cheap-feeling shoulder buttons. The GBA d-pad is slightly lighter to the touch and less spongy.

Screen

At 61 mm by 41 mm, the GBA's screen is fractionally taller and significantly wider than the GBC's 43 mm by 39 mm. (However, this isn't a bonus for older games - see the 'Backwards Compatibility' section below).

As has been extensively documented elsewhere, the GBA's screen is noticably harder to see than the GBC's under poor lighting conditions. I must stress that in daylight, it looks beautiful. When the sun goes down, though, it can be really hard to find a comfortable angle that reflects enough light. I find myself using my Nyko Worm Light regardless of how many electric lights I switch on in the room.

Hopefully, the upcoming Afterburner kit will improve matters.

Backwards Compatibility

Being able to use your old games (and in some cases, accessories) is a huge plus point with the GBA. Here's what I've found putting this into practice.

Games

The old style cartridges (or Game Paks as Nintendo insists on calling them) are about twice as large as the new GBA cartridges. This means that when you put an old cartridge into the GBA, it protrudes by a full 3 cm out of the top. It looks a bit silly but the only real problem is that you'll have to take the game out before you stow the console away in its case.

As for actually playing the older games, they run perfectly (as well they should, given that the GBA essentially has an entire GBC built-in for this purpose).

However, because the games were designed for the lower-resolution older machine, they can't make full use of the GBA's larger screen. They appear with large black bars down the sides of the screen, and narrow black bars across the top and bottom. In fact, this 'virtual' screen measures 41 mm by 37 mm, making the display fractionally smaller than it would be playing the same game on the GBC.

While playing an old-style cartridge, the shoulder buttons can be used to toggle a mode that stretches the display horizontally to the width of the whole screen (although it does not stretch it vertically, meaning there are still narrow black bars at the top and bottom). I can't imagine wanting to use it in this mode though, since as well as being distorted, it looks just as blurry and ugly as any other LCD screen does in its non-native resolution.

Infrared port

The GBA does not have an infrared port like the GBC did. Since virtually no games used the infra-red port this isn't really a problem.

Accessories

The GBA has a different shaped extension port (the socket where you plug link cables and lamps and so on) to the GBC:

  _
 | |     ___
/   \   /   \
|   |   |   |
-----   -----
 GBA     GBC

However, it's actually backwards compatible. If you look at the shape of it, you can see that the idea is that anything with a GBC-style plug will fit either socket, but anything with a GBA-style plug will have a knobbly bit that stops it fitting into a GBC socket.

Link cable

You can use your old GBC link cable but only if you are playing old-style games. For example, for the original Tetris, a GBA linked to a GBC or another GBA is fine with the old cable. But if you want to play Mario Kart Advance multiplayer, you need to fork out for the new GBA link cable.

Lamp

Irritatingly, the vertical orientation of the GBA's extension port is opposite to the GBC's. This meant that when I plugged my GBC Nyko Worm Light into the GBA, the lamp was rather unhelpfully positioned behind the GBA, ready to illuminate the battery compartment rather than the screen.

Now, my response was to rather forcibly pull the lamp around to the front. Happily, it works perfectly well, but frankly, I was surprised that I managed this without damaging the lamp, so if you try it, on your own head be it. Obviously, any of the more elaborate GBC lamps that clip onto the plastic surround aren't going to be any good on the GBA.

Mains adaptor

The GBA has no socket to take DC power (because Nintendo are cheap bastards, I surmise). Absolutely zero chance of re-using your old GBC mains adaptor then.

Nevertheless, you can still buy GBA mains adaptors. They come with a pack that plugs into the battery compartment. This is a nuisance because it means you can't just unplug from the wall and walk away - you have to unplug the power pack, find the batteries and the battery compartment cover, and put them back in.

I would urge you to avoid the 'official' Nintendo mains adaptor as it appears to be vastly overpriced. (For the record, shopping at Game I got an adaptor that doubles as a rechargeable battery pack for £8, whereas the official Nintendo adaptor (that's just a mains adaptor) was priced at £25).

Case

The GBA is virtually the same size as the GBC, so if you have an old GBC case, it should fit in that just fine (unless it's a very snug fit to the GBC). I mention this because I very nearly blew a tenner on a new case when I was buying the GBA, which as it turns out would have been a total waste of money since my old case is ideal.

Summary

Overall I'm very happy with my new toy. I'd never have bought it if I couldn't play my old games on it, but it's also great that I can re-use my old lamp, link cable, and case. The only disappointment is the lack of a decent mains power solution.


Thanks to WWWWolf for information about link cables.

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