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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a part of a continuing series of posts covering Game Boy downports of popular console titles. You can find a detailed introduction here.
Max Payne for the GBA was released in 2003, a little over two years after the PC version. With a story essentially identical to the PC game, Max Payne tells the violent noir tragedy of the titular character, an undercover agent investigating the trade of Valkyr, a new illegal substance that has appeared on the streets of New York. While probing a bank robbery, Max is framed for the killing of his only contact on the right side of justice. Against his better judgment, Max then sets out on a bloody quest to gain vengeance against those who would destroy him, ultimately resulting in him confronting the root cause of the Valkyr trade.
For the handheld version, we see the popular noir third person action title converted into an isometric shooter. As one might imagine, this has many drawbacks. Max will often get attacked by unseen enemies just off screen which can get frustrating in some of the more wide open environments where it is difficult to pinpoint where those enemies are. Also, Max is only able to shoot in the direction he’s facing which can make evasion of enemy fire difficult, as you can only move in the direction you’re trying to fire in. In addition, there’s some light platforming which can be difficult since it’s hard to gauge relative positions in 3D space (if you’ve ever played Landstalker, you know this is a problem for isometric games). The problem with platforming is exacerbated since missing a jump results in instant death, and, unlike the PC version where you can quick save anywhere, the GBA version only allows four deaths before the entire level must be restarted again.
It may sound like a frustrating game, but many of these idiosyncrasies are alleviated somewhat by the game’s bullet time. Max Payne is well known as possibly the first game to deploy a Matrix-style “bullet time” feature which allows players to slow down time and line up shots. The bullet time is limited by a timer which can be replenished with each kill. It seems that they were very conscious with the problems of aiming controls, as the GBA version is very generous with its timer, and it’s something you will need to rely on heavily to make it through the game successfully. Because of the aforementioned issues with combat, you will probably spend most of your time in bullet time where it’s far easier to aim. Consequently, the game is often rather bereft of challenge.
Max Payne GBA tells essentially the same story as the much lauded PC version. Many of the set pieces remain, such as storming Club Ragnarock and the rooftop chase of Vinni Gognitti. While the combat can be sketchy in the handheld version, it does manage to nail the moodiness and gloom of the original. The game is fully voice acted, with many of the original’s lines intact. Cutscenes are also in the familiar comic book panel style. Some fans will be glad to hear that the dream sections of Max’s family are largely no longer playable sections, instead relegated to cutscenes.
It’s difficult for me to recommend this game, even to Max Payne fans. While it completely manages to capture the atmosphere of the original game in spite of the lo-fi GBA graphics, the core game play is only okay at best. I won’t say it’s terrible, as it usually offers a means of working around its idiosyncrasies, but it’s really not exceptional either. And if you’ve already played the original version, you basically know the story (and if you haven’t, you should go play that version).