Published on September 18th, 2015 | by Retroprincess0
Nintendo’s Age Of ‘Advance’ment
In part three of my Game Boy retrospective, I will be looking at the Game Boy Advance, Advance SP, and Micro. You will remember from my previous articles that Nintendo really had a strong hold on the handheld market. This time you will find out how Nintendo fared in the early part of the new millennium when they changed their system’s look and feel – in some cases quite dramatically – and just how they ranked at the end of the “Game Boy” era before leading in to the age of the DS.
The Game Boy Advance was released between March and June of 2001, and there was no doubt about the fact that the unit had advanced a great deal – certainly enough to justify the namesake. It faced some competition (although, let’s face it, the term competition is rather generous) in the handheld market from Nokia’s N-Gage and the Tapwave Zodiac. In a market that was flooded with new and exciting capabilities in hardware, games were becoming more complex as well. In this respect, the Game Boy Advance was a most welcome update to the Nintendo line, a company that hadn’t released any new hardware since 1997/8.
A Unit Redesigned – The Advance
The Game Boy Advance unit had been totally redesigned in every way possible. It was no longer a ‘brick’ shape but something far more ergonomic, taking in to account the shape of the hand and the position of a player’s fingers. Nintendo had clearly poached some design features from competitor models (see my previous article for pictures of these) and set the screen centrally with the buttons arranged around it.
The unit measured 14.45 x 2.45 x 8.2 cm which was very loosely the size of the original Game Boy turned on its side. It weighed 140g which was broadly in line with the weight of the Color unit. Oh… and unlike the quite ridiculous other battery hungry handhelds on the market, the Advance had up to 15 hours play on 2 AA batteries. Inside, there was a substantial upgrade to the processor and also to the VRAM which meant the ability to run more complex games and displays. There was also a co-processor allowing backwards compatibility with older cartridges from the Color and Original models. The sound had been enhanced as well as the available colours. The screen had been changed to a Colour TFT LCD which looked crisp; the screen was also larger (2.9 inch) owing to its relocation. It had a link port at the top (however it was, yet again, a new type) and some new-fangled L and R buttons at the top of the unit. These could be used to toggle between standard and stretched widescreen when playing the old cartridges and were incorperated in to the game play of newer games.
But woe and why, why, why was there still no backlight? Sources cite everything from the unit’s cost to the battery life for this decision, but it really was a Nintendo faux pas. The Advance unit was sold as having comparable gaming power to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Nintendo itself said that it “gives you console-quality gaming in your pocket“. The improvements in the technical specification allowed the improvement in sprite animation. If you don’t want to look that up, it’s basically any controllable/moving character that can react to something else. So when Sonic the Hedgehog, for example hits some spikes, he is programmed to react by jumping up in horror while rings are launched in every direction. This meant that there were more complex capabilities in the design of games for a handheld console.
The unit also had some interesting features that appealed to Nintendo’s core user base. For instance by using a special cable, you could connect the Advance to the Nintendo GameCube (released a few months later), allowing special features or levels to be unlocked, or essentially formed part of the home gaming console by becoming a controller in itself (this functionality was entirely game specific and really was down to developers to provide). Gamers were increasing their expectations and the market was extremely volatile and unpredictable. Sony had released the PlayStation 2 the previous year to huge acclaim and Microsoft’s Xbox was going to do well, but Sega had just had the plug pulled on their Dreamcast in the States and every other handheld console on the market was facing meltdown. Then of course there was the rise of that little thing called the Internet, which was much more affordable for people in their own homes along with cheap home PC’s that ran increasingly sophisticated games with 3D rendering and intelligent programming (think The Sims, Age of Empires, Theme Park etc.). However the Advance had a warm reception to the market upon its release. There was therefore an influx of ported games – those which have been released on a different type of console (say Super Mario Bros. 2 on NES to Super Mario All-Stars on SNES and then to the Game Boy Advance as part of Super Mario Advance) which preserved the old styles of gaming but with much better graphics. If you still wanted the old school graphics, you simply used the old cartridge or console. This gave gamers confidence in the franchises whilst knowing that there would be slight differences in the build and playability of the games. In fact the Pokémon and Mario franchises make up all but one of the top ten selling games for the Advance system.
Nintendo also kept up the appeal with a release range of 5 unit colours (6 in Japan) in Arctic White, Black, Glacier (Clear Blue), Indigo, and Fuchsia. Japan’s additional model was Spice (Orange). As ever from 2002-2003 there were also a series of limited and special editions including another (yes another) Hello Kitty pink model and no less than 4 different Pokémon editions sold only in Japan’s Pokémon Centre store. Most of the special and limited versions were not sold outside of Japan.
Nintendo Accelerate Progress
From 2003 Nintendo entered a frenzied period of hardware release. Times were trying at Nintendo HQ: the N64 had been kicked in the butt by Sony’s PlayStation and the GameCube’s sales were poor to say the least when compared to the PlayStation 2. The GameCube had no online interactivity, and didn’t play audio CDs or DVDs which led to gamers preferring the PS2. The Nintendo company president of over 50 years’ service was retiring and the company was being taken over by someone from outside the family bloodline for the first time ever. The Advance had sold some 11.5 million units in the States in just over a year, but both shares and income were falling.
So 2003 saw the release of the Game Boy Advance SP – the SP standing for special, incidentally. This yet again was an entirely different type of unit structure in that it was essentially a folded up Game Boy. It was like a laptop hit with a shrink ray and by Jove it had a front-lit screen in glorious, joyous, late-night-secret-gaming-lit-up colour. There was a built-in, rechargeable battery that was fully juiced up in around 3 hours. It allowed 10 hours of lit or 18 hours of unlit gameplay. There was a, quite frankly, enormous range of different unit choices which ranged from standard colours to really cool franchise versions such as the red ‘Mario Hat’ version bundled with Mario vs. Donkey Kong or a NES Classic edition that simulated the classic look of the original home console. There were also, again, countless Pokémon editions and other retail editions specific to certain stores or companies.
The unit was not without a series of blights though. The casing scratched very easily, leaving the units looking very tatty after a short period of time. The headphone jack had been removed and specific headphones had to be purchased that plugged into the charger slot. This was a bit daft as you couldn’t listen and charge simultaneously.
Now at this point things get really confusing. In the space of a year, Nintendo decide to launch the DS handheld which releasing a backlit version of the GBA SP and alongside that released the Game Boy Micro. In this article I’m not going to start on the DS line as it’s a whole other, and bigger, fish to fry, but why release 3 handhelds at once? Probably for the necessity to have a plan A, B, and C in the mix. Nintendo didn’t know what the reaction to the DS was going to be and the sales of the GBA SP, although modest, had been keeping the company above water. The backlit screen was brighter and came out in a few new colours although there was nothing new to the system.
Plan C therefore was the Game Boy Micro. Ah, the Micro. It had a backlit screen, sharp resolution, a rechargeable battery, and some very cool changeable front plates. But it lasted just 5 hours on the best settings and wasn’t able to play Original or Color Game Packs as it was so small. Really small. 101 x 50 x 17.2 mm small. It could literally fit in the palm of your hand and the screen was a minuscule 2 inches – not good for those of us with poor distance vision. This didn’t endear it to consumers at all, especially not when they saw the capability of the Nintendo DS. Despite its low launch price and customisable features, it only sold 2.42 million units (less than the N-Gage even) in 2 years and was discontinued in 2008.
A New Age
With the ceasing of production for the Game Boy Micro in 2008, the story of the Game Boy had finished nearly 20 years after it began, and with that began the DS age. To have held the market for nearly 20 years is an incredible feat. So what could we understand the legacy of the Game Boy era to be? Sales to date of the hardware up to and including the Micro are, according to Nintendo, exceeding 200 million units sold. Software sales, meanwhile, are in excess of a billion cartridges. The closest anything else comes, even if you add in everything to the present day, is still under 86 million units. That is an insane amount of Nintendo’s hardware around the world that still bring joy to new generations of players (and the older ones too!). They are collectable. Retro collectors like myself love to come across them and reminisce. I recently played the original Pokémon Blue for 3 weeks straight and when I switched back to Omega Sapphire on the 3DS, I really did feel it was missing the familiarity and simplicity that I had enjoyed. What else worked for the range? The units were durable, well made, and reliable – original units are still running well over 25 years later. They were competitively priced and allowed for personal taste with the unit colour ranges produced. The game franchises built on consumer taste and demand and successfully ported titles from home consoles. Genre choice and appeal were unrivalled. Units had fairly practical power usage and some accessories were available to compliment them. Nintendo always chose efficiency over being the first to break ground and, to their credit, this meant that although they weren’t always the first to release new technology, they always tried, tested and produced efficient and lasting products that their fans loved and continue to love to this day.
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