Game Boy Advance Turns 15

March 21 marked the 15th anniversary of the Game Boy Advance’s first release in Japan.  To me, it always felt like the first true successor to the long-running and super popular Game Boy handheld, a machine that was over a decade its senior, since Game Boy Color was kind of a half-step.  GBA was an amazing system for pixelated gaming that came out at a time when consoles simply weren’t doing these kinds of games at all.  It was in that time between 32-bit 2D games like Symphony of the Night and Mischief Makers and the indie games, like Braid and Super Meat Boy, that would later revive the scene on consoles.

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Considering the long lifespan of the GB, the GBA was surprisingly short-lived.  The Nintendo DS launched roughly 3 years after the GBA and would take off in an enormous way about a year later.  This means that the GBA only had, at best, four really good years of releases.  Nonetheless, I’ve always been amazed by the huge number of incredible titles that came out during its short life.  I think you can probably divide GBA’s best into two groups, original titles and SNES ports.  There were a lot of SNES ports for the GBA, but for me this worked out well, since I never owned a SNES and got to experience a lot of great games that I missed out on.  But I also don’t think you can understate GBA’s original games.  I’m going to outline some of my favorites here.

If you’ve read my blog before, you might remember that I’m a huge fan of Mario RPGs, and it all began with Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga.  That game was a ton of fun and felt like a breath of fresh air among the other RPGs that were coming out at the time.  Considering how serious and convoluted Japanese-style RPGs can be at times, the goofball sense of humor of Superstar Saga really made it endearing to me.  I think I liked it for the same reason I liked the old Pokemon games.  They’re both just fun adventures that don’t really try to be so heavy.  I also really enjoyed the turn-based battle system which incorporates minigames into the attacks and defensive moves.  Often in RPGs, I think the battles against the ordinary minions can get stale pretty quickly, but Mario and Luigi’s battle system managed to make them more engaging and stimulating.

Fire Emblem has been running in Japan since the Famicom days and, from my understanding, is the originator of the console-style strategy RPG.  But for those of us in the West, the GBA gave us our first taste with both Fire Emblem (which was actually a sequel) and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones.  My interest in the series began with Sacred Stones.  The notorious permadeath mechanics made for a strategy game that was more intense than anything else I had ever played.  If one of your characters dies in battle, that’s it.  They’re gone for the rest of the game, unless you restart the mission and succeed in keeping them alive.  And since the missions can be fairly lengthy, I think Sacred Stones was the GBA game I’ve sunk the most time into as a result of having to restart so many times.  I leave no man behind.  These Fire Emblem games also had some *excellent* sprite animations (see below).  Along with Advance Wars, Fire Emblem made the GBA a surprisingly good scene for strategy games.

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Fire Emblem Sprite Work

Symphony of the Night created a breakthrough combination of Castlevania, RPG elements, and a Metroid influenced map.  It was a great thing that they decided to continue the formula with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, especially considering that the Castlevania console games they were putting out at the time weren’t so hot.  It’s good that Symphony of the Night wasn’t just a blip in gaming history, and that the GBA (and later DS) was able to provide a home for these games.  Circle of the Moon was probably the best game available at the US GBA launch, although it’s infamous for its dark color scheme that really didn’t appear so well on the dim side lit screen of the first GBA model.  Ultimately, though, easily the best Castlevania on the machine was Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, which takes the interesting step of setting the game in the near future after the final defeat of Dracula.  It also has one of the most surprising (and difficult to discover) secret endings that I’ve ever seen, although it comes at the price of a rather boring and lackluster normal ending.

Metroid had a long absence after Super Metroid, but it seemed like out of nowhere there was a sudden resurgence of the series with the announcement of both Metroid Fusion for GBA and Metroid Prime for Gamecube.  I know Metroid Fusion isn’t as good as Super Metroid, but I think it deserves more credit than it gets.  Metroid Zero Mission, which is a remake of the first game, is also quite good.  Too bad there was never a DS or 3DS followup to these games (Prime Hunters doesn’t count).

And finally, as I admitted in my recent Twilight Princess post, I began the Zelda series with Wind Waker, so I never played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past when it came out on SNES.  But I was introduced to the game by the GBA version and was blown away.  The world of Hyrule is huge and the quest is absolutely epic for a 16-bit game.  Yet despite the grandiose scale, I find it still has a “pick up and play” quality, because the start of the game gets you almost straight into the action without being bogged down by a lot of exposition.  I still find myself starting this game up maybe once every other year or so, a thing I only do for a few other retro titles.

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The GBA had a huge library, and of course these are only a few highlights for the system.  If anyone else has something they’d like to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.  Thanks for reading.

 

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Posted on March 23, 2016, in Essays and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. My second favorite system with Dreamcast being my fav.

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  2. The Game Boy Advance was a great handheld system. Circle of the Moon was the first Castlevania game I played. As a result, I thought all the games in the series had exploration and RPG elements until I played the original. A Link Between Worlds has that quality you say A Link to the Past has where it’s epic, but isn’t weighed down by exposition. I think that’s why I liked it. I find it interesting how the Metroid timeline hasn’t really advanced past Fusion. As you say, it’s not as good as Super Metroid, but it’s better than fans believe it to be (although Other M may have retroactively vindicated it in their eyes).

    Then there’s Blazing Sword – the Fire Emblem installment that got me interested in the series. Even though the series hasn’t been entirely localized, it was nonetheless really cool watching it evolve along with Nintendo’s other stellar franchises. I noticed you included a shot of Binding Blade as well.

    I remember enjoying Golden Sun and its sequel immensely as well. They were some of the earliest JRPGs I played.

    Now that I think about it, the Game Boy Color didn’t last very long either. There was only a two-and-a-half year gap between its release and the debut of the Game Boy Advance.

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    • I think like you, I got into Castlevania with Circle of the Moon, and it colored my understanding of the series. I had a friend who was a huge Symphony fan, and I kept asking for advice with the card system in Circle and he always acted like I was crazy. I had just assumed that system was in the other games too. I haven’t gotten around to playing Golden Sun yet, but it looks incredible. From a visual perspective, it completely defies my image of a 16 bit RPG. I have played the DS sequel, and it also looked incredible for a DS game, but it was polygonal.

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  3. Great handheld. I loved Advance Wars back in the day along with the Mega Man Zero series.

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  4. Ah yes, the GBA…some of my earliest and fondest gaming memories come from this system.

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  5. I never had the original Gameboy (or the Color), so this was my first Nintendo handheld. Like you, I enjoyed both original titles (my favorite was The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap) and ports I had missed out on the first time (like Yoshi’s Island which is one of my favorite 2D platformers now). Good system.

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  6. I never played the Game Boy Advance, so I was interesting to discover good games on this console. I agree the Game Boy Colour was more of an upgrade to the original Game Boy than a new console, even though it was interesting to see the games in colour. My first experience of Fire Emblem was Super Smash Brothers: Melee, so I was surprised to find out an earlier game had been released in the West (I always thought these games were only released in Japan. I have heard the Fire Emblem games used a permadeath and I would probably played it the same way as described, constantly restarting the game to keep all the characters alive. What about the Castlevania games? I always thought those games were mostly released earlier than the Game Boy Advance and were quite dark fantasy games. does the use of music lighten the game? I have played Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but not on the Game Boy Advance. The story did seem quite detailed for a game released at the time. I remember Metroid Fusion being advertised in the Metroid Prime instruction manual. Is it a new game? Or is it a remake of an earlier game?
    I remember some Gamecube games allowed a second player to participate in a story by plugging in a Game Boy Advance into the Gamecube console (such as Metroid Prime and Legend of Zelda: Wind Wakers). Was playing this way still enjoyable? Was the player playing on the Game Boy Advance able to contribute to the action?

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    • I’ve never hooked up the GBA up to a Gamecube, so I can’t really comment on how well that worked.

      Metroid Fusion came out around the same time as Prime. Fusion is actually a direct story sequel to Super Metroid, while Prime is of course a prequel. Metroid Zero Mission was the second Metroid game released on the GBA, and it was a remake of the first Metroid, but with graphics in the style of Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. Both of those games are really good, but I think hardcore Metroid fans really praise Zero Mission (and for good reason).

      The Castlevania series did really well on handhelds. There were 3 GBA games (Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, Aria of Sorrow) and 3 DS games (Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, Order of Ecclessia), and they are all generally at least good, with a few being really great. They are generally very well regarded by hardcore Castlevania games. They maintain the dark fantasy aspect, but the art style in a few of the games does look a little more like anime.

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  7. First GBA game I ever had was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets funnily enough. I don’t know exactly how much of this can be attributed to nostalgia, but I still think it’s not half bad.

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  8. Advance Wars (2: Black Hole Rising was the first game that i’d played on my shiny new & BACKLIT SP back whens~) and the Mega Man Zero series! 😀

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