Nintendo never got the Game Boy Advance hardware quite right
The Game Boy Micro
The Game Boy Micro

Nintendo never got the Game Boy Advance hardware quite right

This week, Gameological contributor Anthony John Agnello drops by to help kickstart our weekend thread. Anthony will be spending this weekend breaking in a special custom Game Boy Advance built by the folks at Rose Colored Gaming. He’s certain it’s the best possible way to be playing all the great games in the GBA library. We talked about his new toy and how it improves on the various odd Game Boy Advance permutations Nintendo released throughout the years. Which version of the Game Boy Advance was your favorite? And of course, what are you playing this weekend? Tell us in the comments.

Matt Gerardi: What are you playing this weekend?

Anthony John Agnello: I am playing many, many things. For starters, I’m playing Tomodachi Life for Gameological. I’m looking forward to that. I’m always interested in what people make when they go in asking, “What’s a simulation of life?” Not something like The Sims, but old-school PC games like Life and Little Computer People. It’s always some bizarre collection of non sequiturs. But when I’m not playing Tomodachi Life, I’m going to be diving deep into ye olde Game Boy and Game Boy Advance libraries.

MG: Any particular reason for revisiting those?

AJA: I recently acquired a modified Game Boy Advance made by these people called Rose Colored Gaming. They are the right kind of obsessive freaks. It’s a Game Boy Advance from 2001, the first kind that was sort of oblong and football shaped, but with a fancy modern LCD screen. So you get the best visual quality while still getting to enjoy the Game Boy Advance in its best physical form.

MG: So have you fired this thing up yet?

AJA: I have, and it’s a little slice of glory. Game Boy Advance has always been one of my favorite machines, but the boxes Nintendo released were never quite perfect. The original was crippled by its screen. It had no backlight, which meant the only good way to play was with a direct overhead artificial light, which is more or less impossible to pair with a comfortable seat outside of a bathroom. Even with good light, though, the brilliant color of all these 2D games was just lost.

The Game Boy Advance SP had a dimly lit screen but no headphone jack, and using its shoulder buttons meant serious claw-hand syndrome because the thing was so small. Then there was the Game Boy Micro, which is an impressive little machine with great buttons, a headphone jack, and a brilliant screen, but the screen’s so damn tiny that anyone with eyes older than 20 years is going to run into some fatigue.

This custom system has a backlit screen and the body of the original. It’s even better for playing GBA games than a GameCube (with the Game Boy player), a DS Lite, or a PC emulator thanks to the layout of the buttons. So many of the best Game Boy Advance games have these bizarre button layouts that rely on pairing the shoulder buttons with the two face buttons, like Metroid Fusion. They work best on the original GBA design, and by replacing its crappy screen, this thing really strikes gold.

The Game Boy Advance SP

MG: It’s funny. I have incredibly fond memories of the GBA SP. I’ve got my special NES-styled one right here at my desk. At the time, it seemed like the perfect incarnation of this device. But when I try to play it now with my fully grown adult hands, it’s a nightmare.

AJA: Yup! Adult hands were not meant for the GBA SP. Though it’s perfectly wonderful for regular old Game Boy games.

MG: Let’s talk about the Game Boy Micro. It certainly is an oddity. Did you get one when it came out or were you more a part of this wave of people who have sort of globbed onto it after the fact?

AJA: I was slow to get there. It came out in 2005, after the first Nintendo DS. No one had any goddamn idea what Nintendo was thinking, putting out this two-screened monstrosity alongside a Game Boy Advance the size of a damn lucky rabbit’s foot. Then the DS went on to become the bestselling game machine of all time, and GBA games kept coming out until 2007. Who knew?

That’s when I got my Micro—in 2007. I loved my DS Lite but really didn’t care for playing GBA games on it. They jutted out of the bottom, and they could get jostled, resetting the game. No good. So when Final Fantasy VI Advance happened I got a Micro to go with it. It’s almost unusably small. Playing twitchy action games, of which there were many great ones on the GBA, is just impossible. For years, though, I kept WarioWare Inc. in my Micro at all times. That machine and that game were perfectly suited to one another.

The Game Boy Micro

MG: That’s a freaking fantastic idea. Just leave it in your bag. You know, WarioWare anytime you need it, which is all the time.

AJA: Precisely! It served me well.

MG: Getting back to this fancy custom Game Boy, the same company also makes a custom Super Nintendo, but that’s the only console listed. I can see why someone might want that, but this whole thing makes way more sense for portables. It’s a bold fashion statement, you know?

AJA: Big time. I also love that they refurbish and remodel all of the odd portables that were contemporaries of the GBA. The WonderSwan—which was the very last creation of the Game Boy’s daddy, Gunpei Yokoi—and the Neo Geo Pocket. Both were really cool, odd devices with worthwhile libraries of stuff that never came out anywhere else.

All of those machines came at a powerfully fertile moment for portable game making. The original Game Boy had been around for over a decade at that point, and everyone making portable games had had years and years to refine the craft. Having these markedly more powerful machines just let them hit the ground running. And it really only lasted for a hot second in the scheme of things, because the DS came out so soon thereafter and realigned the idea of portable games around the touch screen. Plus, with the DS, the restrictions of portable games started to fade away. They didn’t really have to be dramatically different from a console game anymore. The quick-hit stuff that has proven so strong on phones and the longer-form stuff could live side by side, whereas the medium-sized games, which the GBA excelled at, just fell out of vogue, I think.

MG: And even if its lifespan wasn’t terribly long, it built a pretty incredible library. It’s definitely one of my favorites. I’ve got one last question for you. We agree that this fancy Game Boy is very much a fashion statement. What do you think it says about you? What do you want people to think when they see you staring at your custom GBA on the subway?

AJA: I want people to see that thing and think, “Hmmmm. I bet that guy is playing Pokémon.” Then I want them to lean over and see me playing some weird crap like Treasure’s Astro Boy: Omega Factor.

Not two months ago, I walked into a bar called the Pacific Standard—frequented occasionally by the New York-based Gameological crew—and spotted a guy sitting there playing Zelda: The Minish Cap on a scratched-up GBA SP. I immediately started talking to him. At this point, if you see someone out in the wild with any portable gaming machine that predates the DS, you know they’re going to speak a pretty specific language. If nothing else, I like to think that someone will see this Game Boy and want to speak that language with me.

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