For many years, the Game Boy brand was as synonymous with Nintendo as Mario and, perhaps, it still is. Have you ever been playing on your DS or 3DS and had someone who’s not particularly games savvy refer to it as a Game Boy? After all, the Game Boy was a worldwide brand phenomenon, penetrating the public consciousness and bringing handheld gaming to the masses. The combined sales of the Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket and Game Boy Color exceeded 118 million units across the globe, which is a big achievement when you take into consideration that, at the time, Nintendo's closest competitor in the handheld market was Sega, who managed to sell only 11 million Game Gears.
Nintendo pretty much dominated the handheld console scene for around 12 years before they launched the Game Boy Advance in 2001, and the GBA was destined to become their next success story from the very moment that many people first laid eyes on it. What made it so endearing at first glance was surely how much of a technical leap it was from the Game Boy Color. Its technical specifications might have paled in comparison to the home consoles of the day - handhelds have always lagged behind their bigger brothers - but the GBA had some seriously unprecedented horsepower under the hood. This was beneficial to adopters of Nintendo's newest portable in two ways. Firstly, GBA games looked substantially prettier than any of us would have dreamt possible before. In the grand scheme of things, it's not like we were carrying N64s in our pockets all of a sudden, but more clearly defined characters and vividly colourful in-game environments on par with the SNES were easily obtainable by developers willing to put the effort in.
The second benefit from the GBA's added grunt was that developers could not only churn out prettier games, but they also began to get more daring in regards to what IPs they would bring to the table and, more importantly, how they would go about developing them for a handheld. We still had 2D platformers and puzzle games in spades, of course - it wouldn't be a Nintendo handheld if it were any other way - but those traditional staples of handheld gaming were accompanied by, of all things, first person shooters. Having the ability to quickly take that Super Mario Advance cartridge out of your GBA and insert Doom anywhere you wanted was something that was unheard of for a Nintendo handheld. Fans of the FPS genre were adequately catered for: Doom, Doom II, Wolfenstein 3D, Ecks vs Sever and Duke Nukem Advance might have lacked the precision aiming possible with, say, the DS touch-screen, but they all played superbly well considering they were running on a handheld with limited control inputs. Even more miraculous though, was that the GBA was host to the first Sonic game to appear on a non-Sega console; something that none of us would have dreamt possible.
"The legacy of the GBA's bountiful and versatile library of software is something that is still fresh in the minds of many Nintendo fans"
The legacy of the GBA's bountiful and versatile library of software is something that is still fresh in the minds of many Nintendo fans, to the point that, when Nintendo announced that the 3DS would have its own version of the Wii's Virtual Console with a line-up comprised of GB and GBC games, the first question on the minds and lips of many a gamer was, "will we be seeing GBA games?" This isn't surprising, and as is the case with all Nintendo hardware, it's the first party software in particular that gives the machine that special something and makes it worth owning. Fair enough, Mario was maybe not represented as well as he could have been, with Nintendo being perfectly content to make each Super Mario Advance title a remake of the plumber's previous adventures, but franchises like The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Kirby, Wario Land and Pokémon all saw numerous top quality releases that equalled their console counterparts in sheer playability.
The GBA also saw franchises like Mario Kart and F-Zero make their debut appearances on a handheld in the form of Super Circuit and Maximum Velocity respectively, both are arguably every bit as entertaining as Mario Kart 64 and F-Zero X. This was thanks to Nintendo upping the ante in handheld multiplayer games by allowing up to 4 players to play simultaneously; each player with their own completely private screen, which in many ways resulted in these already unpredictable and largely multiplayer focused titles being even more fun and competitive. Nintendo rounded off these already highly revered first party franchises with a slew of new ones: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Golden Sun, WarioWare, Inc.: Minigame Mania and Mario vs. Donkey Kong all kick-started what would become popular franchises, in which each and every subsequent entry was classically reliable Nintendo fare. Fun, endearing and oozing charm. Oh, and in true Nintendo style, the GBA was fully backwards compatible, so all those GB and GBC games you'd bought over the years worked perfectly well on your sleek, swanky new handheld.
Of course, it wasn't all plain sailing for Nintendo; a sometimes headache-inducing screen that wasn't back-lit was a complaint for many gamers who purchased the original GBA model back in 2001. The fantastic redesign in the form of the GBA SP in 2003 - which added a brighter screen, rechargeable lithium battery and a folding case design that effectively halved the handheld's size and protected the screen from damage - went a long way to rectifying issues anyone might have had with the original model. The less said about 2005's GBA Micro, however, the better. A tiny screen, buttons so small they were cause for plenty of hyper-obese Homer Simpson-style palm mashes, along with a lack of compatibility with link cables, wireless adapters, GB/GBC software and a plethora of other GBA accessories, proved that Nintendo re-designs don’t always satisfy the gamer.
But there's a reason why Sega, Sony, Atari, Bandai, SNK and so many other companies have failed to make any sizeable dent in Nintendo's share in the handheld market since Nintendo debuted the original Game Boy. Nintendo knows handheld gaming better than any other company, and the Game Boy Advance was no exception to that rule. New entries in existing franchises, handheld debuts, brand new games, improved multiplayer, backwards compatibility; all of these attributes and more contributed to the GBA success story. It may have succumbed to the might of Nintendo's own DS, but no one reading this should forget about the GBA; the last of its breed but certainly a worthy swansong for the Game Boy brand. If you're lucky enough to be part of the 3DS Ambassador program, then you're guaranteed access to 10 classic GBA games already. If, however, this is not the case, then as a Nintendo fan you owe it to yourself to track down some of the games that made the GBA's life cycle a golden era in handheld gaming history.