Today, June 22, marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the Game Boy Advance in Australia and New Zealand. Please put on your hats and inflate your balloons.
The Game Boy Advance was the first time I’d ever pre-ordered a gaming device. I can’t even remember what it was in 2001 that inspired me to buy my first ever Nintendo console, having only ever borrowed a friend’s Game Boy many years previously, but somehow I just knew that I needed to own one of these. I chose a red one.
Yes, I know, GBA aficionados, there wasn’t a red one. There was purple, white, glacier blue, black and…fuchsia. It didn’t look like that in the picture. I ordered the translucent pink one. I have no issue with pink devices. Frankly, I get pretty pissed off when people rant that pink versions are somehow evil. But when you’re expecting red, a borderline fluorescent pink is something of a shock. But it was one I very quickly grew to love.
The GBA was, and I say this with all the authority of someone who makes sweeping statements without sufficient evidence or reason, the best handheld ever made. Sure, the Nintendo DS was also the best handheld ever made, and yes, it was better than the GBA in almost every way (even to the point of being able to play GBA cartridges), but — crucially — I wasn’t 23 when the DS came out.
And 23 is the perfect age for a moment in gaming history. Being 23 means you’re an adult, but you’re also still a teenager if we’re being honest. But you’re also unlikely to be plagued by children and partners and other irritants. Now you might (wrongly) argue that being a child is a better time for a new gaming device. It certainly feels like it was the right age when getting all nostalgic. But no, it’s not, because you have no income, no ability to buy games for yourself, and you’re rubbish at the games anyway. But at 23, if you’re fortunate, many of those issues have passed. 23 is perfect.
The first game I got for it was Rayman, which I’ll admit was an odd choice in a universe that simultaneously contained Super Mario Advance, F-Zero: Maximum Velocity, and ChuChu Rocket!. But I played the hell out of it and absolutely loved it. I remember sitting outside on the grass in the sunshine, and it felt perfect. There was something utterly magical about playing on that colourful screen in that remarkably light device, in the brief window between 2:30 and 2:35 p.m. when the glare from the sky allowed you to see the screen.
I soon picked up Advance Wars and discovered the first (and let’s be honest, last) strategy game I was not only vaguely capable of playing but more importantly utterly loved playing. I spent an absolutely ludicrous amount of time playing Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2, to the point where it’s my favourite entry in that series on any platform. (When I returned to the game in the recently remastered versions of the PS2 editions, I kept thinking, “But no, this is all wrong!”) Then there was Mario Kart: Super Circuit and the utter magic that was playing multiplayer with a single cartridge. And this was all the launch year, 2001.
The GBA went on to be the device that brought me lifelong favourites like Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Metroid Fusion, WarioWare, Inc., and even the bonkers sun-powered Boktai: The Sun Is in Your Hand. But most of all, against all my expectations, one of my favourite games that I’ve ever played on any format: Mario Golf: Advance Tour. (I will now fight every instinct in my body to turn this into a retrospective of Advance Tour, one of the best and silliest RPGs ever made. Only three years to wait for the 20th anniversary of that one.)
Now I’m old and withered and thus drawn to retro gaming alongside the latest and shiniest. I find that it’s always the GBA I return to on any emulation device. Sure, there are folders and folders of games for so many machines, but each time I pick up my Anbernic RG 351M, it’s the GBA section I flick through to. I fill in all the gaps, the crucial games I missed twenty years back, the Minish Cups and the Fire Emblems. I recently tried to get my poor old DS Lite working again so I could play some of my original GBA cartridges. (I failed.)
I can’t prove to you with graphs and logic that the Game Boy Advance was the best handheld ever made. Mostly because I know it was the DS, and I would accidentally end up proving that. But shhhh, forget that, today is the GBA’s day. I adored my see-through pink monstrosity, and then I adored my ridiculous clamshell GBA SP. (I somehow stopped myself from buying the Micro.)
Happy birthday, Game Boy Advance. You were wonderful. Your games were wonderful. Thank you for releasing when I was old enough to truly appreciate you.