Today I got the chance to play some games on Game Boy Advance. It was quite fun going back to it after playing so many new handhelds, and finding that it still has its place.
The first thing I noticed was how comfortable the thing is to hold. The smooth curves fit my hand like a glove compared to the pointy edged rectangle design of every single handheld that has come after it. It feels like a game controller rather than a system. The second thing that blew me away was just how quickly the game booted up. I started off with Super Mario Bros. 2 and after a one second Game Boy logo I was already in the game. That was it, no menu, no options, no terms and conditions, no updates, just the game.
The size of the screen is perfect. It’s small enough to keep the machine portable, but just large enough to hold all of your attention. The buttons feel great too, I still have my same GBA from 10 years ago and the A and B buttons feel as satisfying and wholesome as the day I got it. L and R make very tiny clicks and the dpad does its job. The buttons are placed where your hands automatically go when you pick up the system. From the moment you pick up the system and flip the power on, the focus goes completely away from the system and into the game. It’s a naked experience.
Shortly after turning it on the gleeful reunion was over. Its big weakness is that the screen is just too hard to see. The light isn’t too dark, because there is no light. It’s amazing to think how new the concept of light is in handheld devices. Only TVs did that shit back then, you needed a power supply. A good light source is pretty much necessary to play this thing, and even then you need to hold the handheld at a certain angle. Once you’re in the “sweet spot” it’s all right, but if you move it around too much you won’t be able to see it and the screen will lose its 2D effect.
I remember playing endless hours of Advance Wars around the time I got my GBA, crouched up in front of my lamp. I was so close to it I could feel the heat, but not once did I even think to complain. “This is as good as it gets” I grinned to myself. Well, now that isn’t as good as it gets. We can sit or stand anywhere we want and play games with a perfect view. I turned on my DS Lite and was instantly relieved just to be able to see the screen so clearly, something I think many of us have taken for granted as we complain about the most trivial things in new hardware. Nobody with a GBA complained that the 3D wasn’t good enough, nobody asked for Wi-Fi or account-tied achievements. Imagine if you got to own a 3DS in 2001, I don’t care what kind of gamer you are, it would be amazing. Should we live by expectations or experience?
The graphics are impressive enough; Super Mario Bros. 2 looks just like it does on a console, and F-Zero looks and plays fantastic on the machine. Everything looks fluid and no sacrifices are made. Obviously there’s a limit as to what type of games can be on here, but I think as far as experiences go there’s a lot to play with (unless you need an Unreal 3 engine to make games).
Looking back I think the original Game Boy Advance is one of the best examples of design ever seen in gaming hardware, held back only by technology. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about it, and that’s why its so great. It’s simple, comfortable, and it only exists to play games. Not to mention it was affordable. In an age when Nintendo is trying to make games easier to play and reach out to people, this would have been one hell of an asset. I can’t help but think that maybe in a few generations time, we’ll be going back to simple things like this, and THIS will actually be the “casual” approach Nintendo (and shortly after, everyone else) will take to recapture a confused gaming audience.