Nintendo’s GBA Emulation For The Switch Is Stunning

Nintendo’s GBA Emulation For The Switch Is Stunning

In last week’s surprise-packed Nintendo Direct, alongside the leg-sweeping announcement that Metroid Prime was finally remastered for Switch, came the fantastic news that the previously paltry Nintendo Switch Online offerings were now boosted by the inclusion of Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket and Game Boy Colour games. Meanwhile, for those paying for the pricier Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack version, Game Boy Advance games would start to appear. And hot-damn, that’s exciting news, because this includes some of the greatest handheld games of all time.

The GBA, according to leading scientists, was the best handheld gaming device ever made, and a huge part of why was the eye-watering standard of so many of its first-party games. And rather than launching it with the its typical “Huh, why that?”-inducing titles, Nintendo has knocked it out of the park with six games you actually want to be playing right now, along with five other classics coming soon.

OK — and look, let’s all whisper for a moment so no one hears us — what about…emulation? How does this compare? Haven’t people who really care about the 22-year-old GBA era already found one of the seventy-billion ways to play those games on crystal-clear handheld screens, or even enlarged and improved on PC? Sure, every single one of them is an Evil Pirate™ and the electric chair’s too good for ‘em, but it’d be silly to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Heck, there’s even the much more legitimate options of things like the Analogue Pocket, that plays the original GBA cartridges. But, as it happens, Nintendo maybe even has the edge here, with Switch emulation that is proving more faithful to the original device’s presentation, along with offering multiplayer connectivity that can be far more of a fiddle on…less official machines.

Nintendo has also enhanced every game with options to create de-facto saves in any game with “Suspend Points,” along with the ability to rewind your play to undo unfortunate errors. (Bring on Metroids Fusion and Zero Mission, for maximum cheeky cheesing.) They’ve even included both US and EU versions of the games, if you want things localised appropriately.

Oh, and there’s one more feature in there that’s a smidge odd. You can toggle on “Classic Feel,” which, well, adds those cruddy lines to the image to make it look as though it’s running on the original GBA hardware. I kind of get why people want CRT lines when playing old console titles, so perhaps there’s a strong contingent who want this effect too? But remember, those lines wouldn’t have been there if they could have helped it at the time!

So let’s take a look at each of the six games available on launch, and see if this might be enough to tempt you to fork out the extra $US30 ($42) on top of Switch Online’s standard $US20 ($28) annual fee. I rather suspect it might.

The Legend Of Zelda: The Minish Cap

Screenshot: Nintendo
Screenshot: Nintendo

The GBA was only home to one truly original Zelda game (if you don’t count multiplayer-only Four Swords, that was released alongside an updated port of A Link to the Past), and that was the mighty Capcom-developed Minish Cap.

Poor old The Minish Cap, destined to spend its existence ranked exactly in the middle of all Zelda games. This Honey I Shrank The Link is a superb game, and it’s great to see it getting a bunch of attention by being in this first batch of GBA titles.

There’s always such a pleasure in seeing a game you’ve only ever played before on a tiny, dim screen (perhaps lit by a ridiculous third-party clip-on light), suddenly huge and bright on the Switch’s display. And damn, this iteration is crisp and sharp, compared to the default squishy blurriness that appears by default on regular emulators. The wonderful top-down art almost looks 3D at the Switch’s resolution.

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga

Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

Well kudos on including the silly turn-based RPG Superstar Saga in the launch batch, this being one of my favourite games of all time. Also, one of the funniest games of all time. Co-created by Shigeru Miyamoto, but developed by then-relative newbies, AlphaDream, this RPG is hilarious from its opening moments, lampooning the Mario franchise in some of the most imaginative ways.

Uniquely for what would go on to be a series of games, here you control Mario and Luigi simultaneously, swapping over which is in the lead in order to perform all manner of combo abilities and attacks. Battles are turn-based, but as in the Paper Mario games, often require reflexes to time both attacking and defending between the pair of heroes. At least, if you want to hit enemies harder.

But as I say, more than anything else, this is a comedy. It’s astonishingly meta, with jokes based on bad translations of Japanese to English in games (“I HAVE FURY!”), and even stumbling behind-the-scenes to discover how Mario games’ blocks are constantly innovated upon. Oh, and there are constant digs at Luigi for not being as famous as his brother.

This Switch port is of the original GBA build, and not 2017’s DS remake, it’s worth noting. The pixel art doesn’t scale quite as well as The Minish Cap, but it’s still damned fine, and this ridiculously colourful game is carefully not over-bright, as you’ll tend to find the game in most other emulation.

Kuru Kuru Kururin

Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

I swear it’s like Nintendo hand-picked this opening selection to win me in particular over, considering even the most obscure title on the list was one of my favourite GBA games back at the time. Kuru Kuru Kururin — a game that no one wants to abbreviate to its initials no matter how annoying it is to type out in full — is a unique action-puzzle game about trying to manoeuvre a spinning stick through courses that seem far too narrow for such things.

A launch title for the GBA in Japan, Australia and Europe, it was never the prettiest of games, and it’s fair to say it doesn’t benefit from being blown up to the size of a Switch OLED screen. Especially those intro screens that look like they were drawn in MS Paint. However, what matters here is the genius of the core idea, that survives the last 22 years intact.

Mysteriously, the game wasn’t released in the United States until 2016 when it appeared on the Wii U’s Virtual Console, meaning there’s a pretty good chance you missed out on this one, and that’s something you’d do well to put right. And perhaps if enough people get excited about moving that slowly turning stick down those tight corridors, we might get to see releases for both its sequels outside of Japan for the very first time.

Yeah, it looks like crap, but trust me, give it a go.

Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3

Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

The worst-named game of all time? This is certainly a contender. To untangle it all yet again, this was the fourth game in a series of re-releases of classic side-scrolling Mario games for the GBA. The first was, of course, Super Mario Bros. 2, the second Super Mario World, the third Yoshi’s Island, so naturally the fourth would be Super Mario Bros. 3. Someone was in charge of these naming decisions.

And of course this wasn’t the original NES Super Mario Bros. 3, but rather the remake that was released with Super Mario All-Stars on the SNES. Keeping up? Well, don’t forget that Super Mario Bros. 3 is of course included in the NES selection of games in Nintendo Switch Online, and Super Mario All-Stars is included in the SNES collection. So, er, why this version in the launch collection for the GBA? The answer to this, and everything else, is: Nintendo.

It’s worth noting that the port here is superbly lovely, with such deep, rich colours, which often appear washed out elsewhere. Mario and Luigi are positively rosy-cheeked. The GBA version fills more of the Switch’s screen, thanks to the wider frame of the GBA compared to the SNES’s 4:3 television square. It’s definitely a slightly prettier version of a game that’s already included at least twice in the free version of Nintendo Switch Online.

WarioWare Inc.

Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

With the WarioWare idea now thoroughly hammered into the ground, it’s hard to remember just what a maverick and special thing it was on its original GBA release. Officially called WarioWare Inc.: Mega Microgames!, this was a compilation of 213 games, each lasting a handful of seconds.

What’s so joyful about this is how batshit crazy it is. It’s Nintendo let off their leash, designers able to sketch a Post-it note of an idea, and then realise it as a three-second game. Then within this, it’s so surprisingly surreal, an onscreen instruction simply stating “DODGE” and then realising you’ve got to have Wario jump the oncoming potato on wheels.

This has been upscaled to the Switch’s large screen really nicely, keeping the original crisp and precise lines of the GBA original, with no blurry edges or smeared details. Sadly, what it hasn’t included is a way to skip past the incongruously slow cutscenes that move at a glacial pace between the flurries of three-second games. However, it remains a treat to return to this lunatic nonsense a couple of decades later.

Mario Kart: Super Circuit

Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

While every other game of these first six can be rightly celebrated for the care and attention given to their emulation and upscaling, sadly the same can’t be said of Mario Kart; Super Circuit. Although, it’s hard to be sure if anyone’s to blame, given the unfortunate decision to release the original GBA version in something that was supposed to be 3D.

It was a pretty blurry affair at the time, but at least on the teensy screen was coherent. Played today on a smaller emulation device, the same can be achieved but with a better lit screen. But launched in full on the Switch and it’s just garbled pixels.

Now, I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t a great game in 2001, and 2.1 million sales in the U.S. alone is hard to argue with. However, it really hasn’t aged well, and hindsight has already seen it regularly listed as one of the worst games in the franchise. Blow that up to a Switch-size screen and it just accentuates the problems, whether they’re the bizarre mess of 3D pixels, or the lack of any particularly innovative features in this edition.

You can launch this, or any other game here, at its original resolution, and that does improve matters here, but it sure looks silly playing a stamp-sized game in the middle of your mostly blank Switch screen.

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