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 SP's design.

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 slot.

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 IDEA 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 minimalistic design 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, exposed 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 toggle 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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