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Game Boy Advance anniversary retrospective

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The Game Boy Advance released in Japan on March 21 and in North America on June 11. On the 15th anniversary of its original release, EW looks back on the last handhelds to bear the Game Boy name.

The Game Boy name wasn’t meant to die the way it did. Once upon a time, long ago in the early 2000s, Nintendo dreamt of a future of three pillars — its home console business humming along, with the new Nintendo DS standing alongside the then-dominant Game Boy Advance.

And with the DS originally being seen as a novel oddity — what could two screens possibly be needed for — with some better graphics, the Game Boy looked to be safe.

That is, until the DS became a massive hit, going on to reign as the second best selling game system ever made, cutting short the Game Boy Advance’s life, and, in the process, burying a name brand that had become synonymous with the company.

Yet even as the Game Boy saw its longevity cut unexpectedly short, that didn’t stop Nintendo and other developers from ensuring the name went off with pride. The Game Boy Advance, even in the face of its successor, did not go quietly into the night, raging on with an impressive library that kept the history of Nintendo alive while furthering it all the same.

The Game Boy Advance, and its further iterations (the Game Boy Advance SP and the Game Boy Micro), saw the first substantive upgrade to the Game Boy family under the hood that didn’t have to do with the screen or system’s colors. More complex games could be built on the system, and almost immediately the power under the hood was utilized by developers. The first-ever handheld Mario Kart debuted. Golden Sun proved a surprisingly fun new franchise. Casltevania saw a renaissance on the system that kicked off with Castlvenaia: Circle of the Moon. And Vicarious Visions even found a way to make a Tony Hawk game a thrill to play on the go.

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The GBA definitely found its footing in the following years, but even in its nascent days, Nintendo and other developers gave fans plenty of reason to upgrade to the system. The tremendously popular system also helped to build the foundation of what is now a core part of Nintendo’s game releases — nostalgia.

Of course, Nintendo, almost more so than any other game company, has a deep well of beloved franchises to continually dip into and create new entries. But the Game Boy Advance saw one of the first concerted efforts by the House of Mario to exploit its back catalogue and re-release beloved classics, games that are the building blocks of the entire industry. Longtime fans could revisit and new fans could enjoy fun history lessons with the Super Mario Advance series, which re-introduced Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and more to the system.

Now, old Nintendo games being available is a staple of the Wii and DS families thanks to the Virtual Console, and remasters of old games have become the de facto calendar filler on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. (Though well-implemented cross buy opportunities across all of Nintendo’s systems would be a godsend, as there are only so many times someone can buy Super Mario World before feeling they’re being cheated.) But at the time, the GBA helped keep alive some of the most important games ever made for an entirely new generation, extending beyond the Mario games to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (which was accompanied by the impressive, original multiplayer Zelda entry Four Swords) and Donkey Kong Country. A whole generation’s first exposure to these iconic and still enjoyable games came from the Game Boy Advance.

The GBA sustained an impressive library for years, made all the better by the actual platform on which players accessed these games. The Game Boy Advance saw two redesigns or variations introduced after the initial wide model was introduced — the Game Boy Advance SP and the Game Boy Micro.

The GBA SP is still, to this day, one of the best designed pieces of hardware Nintendo has ever introduced. The clam shell design, with a hinge collapsing the system into an easily transportable square, in retrospect feels like Nintendo testing out the designs that would become the Nintendo DS. But the introduction of a built-in backlight to ensure games could be played with ease into the wee hours of the morning and the foldable form made the system as easy to carry around as any iPhone today.

 

The Game Boy Micro functions almost as a sad postscript on the Game Boy Advance’s life, an attempt to keep what should have been the second pillar of Nintendo’s stable from crumbling. The smaller size and lack of ability to play older Game Boy games made the system more of an aesthetic upgrade than a functional one. And with the DS already making waves for about a year before the Micro was released, the Game Boy Advance’s final attempts at relevancy failed to take hold.

But even as the family of systems fell out of style, and the DS began its march to industry dominance, the Game Boy Advance saw its life extended. The original DS, and its sleeker redesign the DS Lite, included a port through which to play Game Boy Advance games. Even as Nintendo saw its prominent brand fall, it sustained the life of the GBA just long enough to ensure its stellar library was not immediately lost to time and tech’s ever spinning wheel of progress.

The Game Boy name has all but become another relic of Nintendo’s past. But 15 years after the launch of the Game Boy Advance, the system and its library remain a high point in the company’s continually great handheld offerings. The Game Boy may have died with the Game Boy Advance — though in a current entertainment climate that prizes nostalgia and revivals over almost anything else, a Game Boy rebirth is probably not out of the question — but it’s tough to imagine a better send-off for the name that birthed generations of players and made sure their memories of gaming’s past stayed alive.

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