With the launch of the Nintendo DSi -- the first Nintendo handheld in eight years that can't play Game Boy Advance games -- I'd like to share some stories about how the GBA platform shaped me as a gamer.
When a new system bumps an old one off, I like to reflect.
Sunday's launch of the Nintendo DSi was the first launch of a portable Nintendo platform that can't play Game Boy Advance games in eight years. I'd like to take some time to remember the GBA platform and what it meant to me as a gamer.
The First Portable I Cared About
When I was growing up, I had an Atari Lynx, a handheld system the size of the biggest burrito you've ever eaten. I liked it. I was glad my parents bought it for me. But it was no NES. Handheld gaming had yet to ensnare me.
I sent all that stuff back to Nintendo. None of it clicked with me.
I didn't own a Game Boy and am not sure I've ever used one.
When I worked for a summer at Newsweek in 1999, I teamed up with a then barely-dreadlocked N'Gai Croal for a story he was mostly writing about the gaming scene, tied, I think, to the launch of the Dreamcast. I volunteered to contribute by writing about what was going on in handheld gaming. Soon, I was opening a large box mailed to the magazine from Nintendo. It contained a Game Boy Color, a Game Boy Pocket, copies of a bunch of games, including a color-upgraded version of a "Zelda" game. The box also contained a Game Boy Camera and a Game Boy Printer. I didn't know what to make of this stuff, but I filed a page or so of material about it to N'Gai. He either used one paragraph that I wrote or none. I can't remember. I've blocked the memory.
I sent all that Game Boy stuff back to Nintendo. None of it clicked with me.
In 2001, I attended my first E3 and saw the Game Boy Advance. I hadn't realized it had such a bad screen, even as I looked at it. Nintendo's E3 GBA kiosks included little lamps that hovered right over the handhelds' screens, like record needles about to drop onto vinyl. That should have clued me in. But I was new to this game-reporting thing. Maybe I played the role-playing game "Golden Sun" on the system while at the show? No big deal. The GBA didn't mean much to me.
Game companies weren't sending me stuff in 2001. I had to buy my own systems. In the fall, during a brief moment when it was possible not to think of the terrorist attack on downtown Manhattan, I went to Rockefeller Center and bought a launch-day GameCube (I chose purple, which was branded as "indigo.") I did not buy a GBA.
Being a GameCube owner in early 2002 was like owning a TV in the 70s without rabbit ears. Staring at the unused appliance was only so much fun. I had finished "Pikmin" and reached my skill threshold in "Star Was: Rogue Leader." I was on the verge of buying a PS2. Then, I did. More importantly, I was beginning to date the woman who I would marry. I had other things than a bad GameCube drought to care about.
The GBA, for a time, was my favorite gaming system.
Then, some time in 2002, I was walking near my old high school on the upper east side of Manhattan with my wife-to-be. We hopped into a GameStop. I bought a white Game Boy Advance and "Advance Wars." (A 9.9 review on IGN could compel me to do such things.) I fell hard. "Advance Wars" -- a game that had been released on September 11, 2001, by the way -- was brilliant. And it didn't need to be on a console. It was a strategy game perfectly suited to its handheld platform.
I was hooked. And the GBA, for a time, was my favorite gaming system.
A System With Some Of My Favorite Games
In 2003, I bought a Game Boy Advance SP and experienced a sensation similar to waking up. The GBA was darkness. The SP's bright screen and compact clamshell design thrilled me. This is what I wanted.
By 2005 I considered some of my favorite games of all time to be portable games: "Advance Wars," "WarioWare," the two Capcom "Zelda" "Oracle" games from the Game Boy Color, the "Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap" on GBA, "Metroid: Zero Mission," and "Fire Emblem." All were greats. Those first two I mentioned were on my all-time top 10, though the GBA's "WarioWare Twisted" and the Japan-only first "Rhythm Heaven," both may have bumped them off. (The first "WarioWare" was the game that made me lose blind faith in professional game reviewers; it was the Game Informer review of that game that provided my first experience of not being able to reconcile the score and the words of the review with the game I had played.)
The GameCube was the system that introduced me into importing games, though "Doshin The Giant" wasn't worth it. I had imported in an act of desperation, before I buckled and bought that PS2. It was the GBA that made me realize importing games could be fun. I didn't just get "WarioWare Twisted" early and play it through in Japanese I barely understood. I did the same with "Rhythm Heaven." And then again, in 2006, I imported the magnificent, minimalist, artsy seven "Bit Generations" games. Some have been introduced to America through WiiWare as "Art Style" games. But my favorite, "Digidrive," remains a Japan-only gem. It was a traffic-directing game as rendered with Mondrian modern art minimalism. It's by Q-Games, a game of "PixelJunk quality before there was "PixelJunk."
I was a "Digidrive" man more than I was a "Super Mario 64 DS" man.
In 2004 I got a PSP and became obsessed with "Lumines." I was the first or second reporter at E3 2004 to put my hands on a Nintendo DS, on the Sunday before the show, during my first meeting with Shigeru Miyamoto. We played "Super Mario 64 DS" together with two Nintendo employees. Miyamoto kept using his character to punch other players', instead of collecting stars. The GBA seemed to be becoming old news.
In November 2005, my GBA games became my "extra" DS games. I always kept one in the GBA slot. In that same month, the Xbox 360 changed the way I related to gaming machines. Since I was rarely a PC gamer, I thought of my portables and consoles as one-game-at-a-time machines. But the allure of "Geometry Wars" on Xbox Live Arcade and the GBA games in my DS made me start gaming like I was eating a two-course meal. In one sitting, I'd taste a small game for an appetizer and then play the main 360 or DS game for the main course.
The innovation in Nintendo's GameCube era was on that GBA .
The Game Boy Micro briefly intrigued me. But its screen was too small and its switchable faceplates were irrelevant to my gaming life. I preferred to play GBA games on my DS. What kept the GBA on my mind was the quality of the games -- and there were so many of them. Most of the third-party offerings were forgettable. And, here's the odd thing, much of the first-party stuff was for people who knew games well. As Nintendo was going more casual and lightweight with its console games, it was offering a flow of progressive and deep handheld games. The innovation in Nintendo's GameCube era was on that GBA: the "WarioWare" brilliance, the "Advance Wars"/"Fire Emblem" strategy game nirvana. The GBA was the only system I played that ran a game that I could play without looking at it, as I did with the Japan-only "Sound Voyager" during a three-mile run through Brookyln's Prospect Park. Plus, the GBA was the last system for which the games themselves brought the hardware innovation. There was the game with the solar sensor, the one with the rotation sensor and the one with the rumble built in.
For a while, the Game Boy Advance games still gave me more fun than the new DS ones. I was a "Digidrive" man more than I was a "Super Mario 64 DS" man or even a "Nintendogs" man. When "Brain Age" was the rage, I just thought about "Rhythm Heaven." And I showed it to everyone.
"Rhythm Heaven" may be the last GBA game I got -- fittingly, an import that I paid for with my own money. Nintendo didn't send it.
The DS Lite cut into my GBA playing. The GBA games didn't fit flush into the system, and the DS line-up was getting better by then. "Ouendan," "Elite Beat Agents," "Viewtiful Joe" and "Hotel Dusk" were some relatively early DS delights that helped me forget the GBA. By last month, the likes of "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars," "Planet Puzzle League," "Henry Hatsworth," and "Lock's Quest" made it hard to even remember to go back to the GBA.
Today, I carry a DSi in my bag. It has no GBA slot. Today, I'm pretty much done with the Game Boy Advance.
Today, the GBA is history, host to some of the greatest in gaming of all time.