My heart will always have the softest spot for the original DS and the DS Lite. But with today being the 20th anniversary of the Game Boy Advance in Australia and New Zealand, we’d be remiss if we didn’t stop to appreciate some of its killer franchises — and just how successful the GBA was.
While nothing is a guaranteed success in games — see the Wii U — it can be easy to downplay just how successful the Game Boy Advance was. The Nintendo DS series were some of the most successful consoles ever made; as was the Game Boy and Game Boy Colour. Both console “families” enjoyed long lives: the DS had multiple revisions over a decade, while production of the original Game Boy ran from 1989 right through to 2003, after the release of the Game Boy Advance.
So it’s easy to forget that the Advance, even by today’s standards, was a massive deal.
Consider this. Released in March 2001 in Japan and June 2001 for other major territories, the Game Boy Advance would only have a couple of years to itself before the release of the Game Boy Advance SP. Still, it allowed for new functionalities, advancements in handheld graphics and a wider screen, although older games could be played at their original resolution and aspect ratio. The Advance was also the last unit to have removable batteries, offering around 15 hours of gameplay from 2 AA batteries.
A huge factor in the Advance’s success was its compatibility with older Game Boy titles. Users could insert Game Boy or Game Boy Color cartridges into the console, although the design meant the cartridges stuck out from the chassis a little. And even though the original Game Boy Advance didn’t have a backlight — something Nintendo would rectify with every handheld since — the console was hugely successful, well beyond Nintendo’s wildest dreams.
The company originally planned to sell 1.1 million units by the end of March. And with titles like F-Zero Maximum Velocity, Rayman, Fortress, Fire Pro Wrestling, Super Mario Advance, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, Tony Hawk Pro Skater, Army Man Advance and existing games running on the Advance’s wider, brighter screen, the console was a massive hit. Over half a million GBA consoles sold in the US in its first week of launch, taking everyone by surprise. In the UK, Eurogamer reported the Advance having slaughtered previous records when it sold 81,000 units in a single weekend, more than four times the sales achieved by the PlayStation 2.
Nintendo’s software was enormously popular in Australia, too. Super Mario Advance broke into the top 10 for Australian games sold — beating out the platinum re-releases of Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot 3 — but four of the top 5 games were all Game Boy titles, all improved by the Advance’s newer hardware: Pokemon Crystal, Pokemon Gold, Pokemon Silver and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
By the close of 2010, the Game Boy Advance and Advance SP would sell over 81.51 million units. Sales were split roughly down the middle — the Advance SP selling roughly 43.57 million consoles to the original Advance’s 37.94 million.
That’s astonishing even by today’s standards. The PlayStation Portable launched in 2004 and was a huge success in its own right, selling over 80 million units, and even the superior hardware of the PSP didn’t dent the Game Boy’s success. (If anything, both handhelds expanded the overall gaming market, much the way the original Game Boy and the Wii did.)
Hell, even the original Game Boy sold over 64 million consoles over its lifetime. And that was with a production run that went for more than a decade. The Advance was barely around for half a decade, and yet the Nintendo Switch — a console selling in a vastly expanded worldwide market for video games, with the benefits of almost instantaneous, frictionless distribution — will only surpass the Game Boy Advance this year.
Given the Switch has a few more years left in it, easily, while the Advance was quickly surpassed by the Nintendo DS and the threat of the PSP, that’s remarkable.
48 games eventually got ported over from the SNES era, and the improvements were stark. Seeing DOOM running on the GBA was incredible. It wasn’t just that it ran, but it was a completely competent, playable version of an absolute classic.
And many other absolute bangers got solid improvements for the GBA too. I’m not a fan of the way all games were ported over, and I think under the right conditions there are plenty of scenarios where the original SNES presentation, despite being potentially a decade older, is still much nicer.
But, goddamnit, these games were running on a handheld. Having that motion and range in a unit that weighed only 140 grams and was 144mm x 82mm x 24.5mm large (not to mention the same experience in the much smaller Game Boy Advance SP) was truly mind blowing. Games like Jet Set Radio and Tony Hawk were completely different to their original console iterations, to be sure. Still, the developers absolutely took the console’s tiny hardware and found clever ways to get around its many storage and memory limitations. (For those who didn’t grow up with these systems: If you’ve played Doom Eternal or the recent DOOM reboots on the Switch and thought, how the hell are these games even remotely playable, then you’ll have an idea of what it was like.)
And it’s not like the GBA was lacking for killer titles of its own. Advance Wars, anyone? Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2? Mario Kart Super Circuit? Golden Sun? Advance Wars 2? Fire Emblem? Final Fantasy Tactics Advance? F-Zero Maximum Velocity? Mario Golf: Advance Tour? Mega Man Zero? Pokemon Fire Red and Leaf Green, updates to the Pokemon classics? Donkey Kong Country 2? Metal Slug Advance? A Link to the Past? Wario Land 4? Pokemon Mystery Dungeon? Namco Museum? Metroid Fusion? Pokemon Emerald? Sonic Advance? Or Flight of the Falcon, which was basically a low-poly Advance version of Rogue Squadron that had no business playing as good as it did?
GBA games slapped. And thanks to Nintendo’s approach to compatibility, those games carried on with you to the DS era, too.
It was a wild era of gaming where technical ingenuity was paired with some truly creative, ingenious revisionism. Gaming will probably never see something like that again, given how far hardware has come. Smaller devices, tablets and modern graphical engines mean it’s more possible to downscale games via things like dynamic resolution, reducing the need for developers to completely redesign games from scratch. And the dominance of current platform holders means you’re just not liable to see the same competition in the hardware segment: if anything, it’ll be people making portable PCs, rather than making new portable hardware.
So 20 years on, let’s appreciate the Game Boy Advance for what it was: pure, unadulterated lightning in a bottle.