Design Analysis of the
2003 Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP
with reference to the
1989 Nintendo Game Boy,
2001 Nintendo Game Boy Advance,
2001 Apple Powerbook G4
In February of 2003, Nintendo released in Japan a redesigned version of its
Game Boy Advance handheld video game system, dubbed the Game Boy Advance SP.
The GBA SP bears a strong resemblance to previous Game Boy models, but also
breaks new ground in many ways for the product line. This paper examines the
relationship between the SP and its predecessors and makes the case that much
of the SP's new direction is directly influenced by the 2001 Titanium
Powerbook produced by Apple Computer. It concludes with a critique of the
Description of the Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP
The Game Boy Advance SP (GBA SP, or simply SP henceforth) is a handheld video
game system. As such, it is designed to fit easily in a pocket: When closed,
the unit measures about three inches square and one inch deep, with rounded
corners. Its casing is plastic, available at the time of launch in one of two
colors: "Platinum" or "Cobalt Blue". The SP has a clamshell design, with the
screen folding over the body of the system. All controls and ports are on the
lower half of the SP, which also contains its battery and software cartridge
Origins in the 1989 Nintendo Game Boy
Much of the GBA SP's design is directly attributable to the original 1989 Game
Boy. The 1989 system was a monolithic unit with a vertical orientation, its
screen placed above the game controls. All controls not directly involved in
playing a game were placed on the edges of the 1989 unit, as were a headphone
jack and connection cable port. Game software was available on cartridges,
which could be inserted into a slot at the top of the unit. This slot was
also open from the back of the system, so that the cartridge could be
retrieved by gripping it with the fingers and pulling. The system was powered
by off-the-shelf consumer batteries. Of note, the 1989 Game Boy was
originally available only in a gray casing with black and red buttons, a color
scheme which matched Nintendo's primary product at the time, the Nintendo
Entertainment System. Save for the availability of more colors and for
improvements allowed by technological advances (such as a color screen to
replace the "spinach-scale" of the 1989 unit and reduced weight and profile),
the Game Boy design remained essentially
unchanged for twelve years.
Departures and Influence of the 2001 Nintendo Game Boy Advance
The 2001 Game Boy Advance is the SP's immediate predecessor in the product
line, and made some significant changes that are worth examining in light of
their influence (or lack thereof) on the SP. The Game Boy Advance was so named
to tout the technical advancements it offered over previous systems in the
line, including its immediate predecessor, the 1998 Game Boy Color (GBC).
While by now the Game Boy line featured color screens already (in the GBC),
the GBA incorporated a new screen that was sharper and larger than the
original. According to Kenichi Sugino, a designer on the project, this
increased screen size necessitated a departure from the Game Boy's vertical
orientation. The monolithic casing was retained, but now the system was
arranged horizontally, with the display splitting the system's controls. The
GBA also reduced the height of the software cartridge by half and introduced
two additional "shoulder" buttons-- for game control-- at the top corners of
the casing. Other details of the GBA design basically mirrored those of
previous Game Boy systems. The SP, being essentially the same hardware as the
GBA, retains the larger screen. Shoulder buttons are still present on the
bottom half of the casing (the half which is held), and the half-height
cartridge slot is still present. For the first time in the Game Boy line, the
cartridge slot on the SP is on the system's bottom edge rather than its top.
Significantly, however, the GBA SP returns again to the vertical
screen-above-controls orientation typical of earlier Game Boy systems.
Influences of the 2001 Apple Powerbook G4
At about the same time that Nintendo was working on the Game Boy Advance,
Apple Computer was preparing to release its 2001 "Titanium" Powerbook G4.
This newly designed laptop computer marked a sea change in portable
electronics design and garnered a number of design awards, including an
Gold award. The GBA SP, released two years later, incorporates many of the
design elements present in the Titanium Powerbook (TiBook), perhaps due to
Nintendo's desire to reach an adult demographic with the SP. The G4 Powerbook
is known as the Titanium Powerbook because its case is a
that highlights the material: When closed, the 2001 Powerbook is essentially
a slab of gray titanium. Though the GBA SP is encased in plastic, it is
colored with a semi-flat metallic sheen very like the TiBook's, rather than
the flat primary colors of its predecessors. Indeed, the "Platinum" color of
the SP is itself very close to that of titanium. Interestingly, the form of
the SP is also very similar to that of the TiBook. Both are hinged, clamshell
designs with screens that fold down over the system body. The raised,
hinge of the Powerbook is echoed in the SP. Again like the TiBook, when
closed the SP is a rectangular slab, with corners rounded at nearly the same
angle. Gone are the trim elements introduced by the 2001 GBA. Other than a
headphone jack and card slot on the left, all of the TiBook's ports are
arranged along the top edge, and its sole media slot is positioned on the
bottom edge. This arrangement is echoed in the GBA SP, which is the first
Game Boy to position all cable ports along its top edge and to move the
cartridge slot to the bottom. Clearly, the Titanium Powerbook has had a
strong influence on the design of the GBA SP.
Analysis of Form with Regard to Function
The Game Boy Advance SP draws from fourteen years of Game Boy lineage and one
of the most successful laptop computer designs ever seen, and this is
reflected in its functionality. The slab form and rounded corners allow the
unit to slip easily into and out of a pocket or bag without snagging. Unlike
previous Game Boys, the SP's clamshell casing protects the screen without the
need for an additional slipcover or padding. Its square shape also allows it
to fit the user's hands better than previous Game Boys, with the user's index
fingers on the shoulder buttons-- but not quite as well as the 2001 GBA, whose
horizontal orientation allowed for a more comfortable spacing between the
hands. The SP is also the first Game Boy with an adjustable screen angle,
which makes for a more relaxed wrist and arm position while allowing
visibility of the screen.
Analysis of Form with Regard to Expression of Purpose
In terms of product semantics, the GBA SP explains itself quite well. Its
exposed, top-oriented hinge and beveled edges (for an obvious seam) invite the
user to open the unit. A slight catch at about 135 degrees indicates the
optimum screen angle. All buttons on the unit are sunk slightly into wells
that guide the fingers to them, except for the shoulder buttons, which
protrude slightly to better indicate their function. The game
controls-- directional pad and A/B buttons-- are the same as those
used in all
major consumer video game systems since Nintendo's 1986 NES , and by now are
self-explanatory insofar as basic functionality is concerned. The shoulder
buttons have also been essentially standard for video games since Nintendo's
1989 Super NES, and are readily found by
the user's index fingers when holding
the system for play. All non-game controls-- sound volume, on/off switch, and
screen light switch-- are isolated from the game controls and from each other.
The volume switch is alone on the left edge of the unit, and is an analog
slider switch, indicating its range of settings. The power switch is a
slider, isolated on the right side of the unit; having only two settings, its
purpose is similarly clear. More interestingly, the SP is the first Game Boy
to necessitate a brightness switch for its lighted screen. This switch takes
the form of a small round button, centered just below the screen-- if its
purpose is not clear enough from its position and circular form (a "universal"
associated with light, as noted by the Weimar Bauhaus), it has also been
etched with a sun icon. Also of interest is the avoidance of unnecessary
complications of mechanism: The case does not latch closed, the cable ports
and cartridge slot are uncovered, and the cartridge slot has no catch
mechanism; all motion and interaction with other components is kept simple.
Similarly, ports are shaped and "keyed" such that only the correct cable will
fit into a given port, and it will only fit in the correct orientation. All
told, the GBA SP is extremely effective at communicating its use.
The Game Boy Advance SP, fifth in the Game Boy line and first major revision
of the Game Boy Advance, is very much a product of evolution from the 1989
Game Boy and 2001 Game Boy Advance, but it also makes significant departures
from prior Game Boy designs in the direction pointed by Apple's 2001 G4
Powerbook. The resulting design is highly functional, strongly
self-descriptive, and visually understated and appealing.
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