Monday 19 February 2018

The Rule of 4 or 5: Game Boy Advance

Next in my continuing no-particular-order quest through the loft, I come across my Game Boy Advance. Released in 2001, the follow-up to one of the best-selling consoles of all time was underwhelming at first. It was borne of the same design goals as its predecessor – a durable, modestly specced, non-backlit handheld with decent battery life. The horizontal orientation was more comfortable in the hands, and the wider screen seemed like an upgrade even without a backlight, though anything less than perfect ambient light conditions resulted in a very squinty time. The performance was certainly a massive upgrade from Game Boy Color, providing visuals broadly on a par with Super Nintendo, although with caveats, primarily in audio and screen resolution. And although it gained shoulder buttons, it lacked the SNES’ four face buttons, which seemed a baffling omission. In 2001 – with PS2-fever gripping the world and retro-fetishism in its infancy – more was more. More buttons, more polys, more power! GBA was, frankly, a disappointment. Remember, Sega’s Nomad had given us a portable Mega Drive in 1995. Yes, it was overpriced and had terrible battery life (two factors that would consistently see Nintendo triumph in the handheld arena), but it was 2001 and you could barely see this new Game Boy’s screen!

However, being able to play the entire GB back catalogue was a massive boon, and the inevitable redesign – the clamshell SP – provided a backlight and also protected the screen in your pocket. I got an SP a couple of years back and it’s beautiful. The second and final revision, the Game Boy Micro, is still an object of desire today, although by all accounts it’s simply too small to play comfortably for any length of time. Maaan is it purdy, though.

But enough of this hardware nonsense – on to the games! Remember, these are the titles that make the system worth owning for me. I haven’t played everything and I don’t like everything.

WarioWare, Inc.: Minigame Mania (or Mega Microgame$ in the US) – Nintendo R&D1
I played this on the 3DS after it was gifted to me in the twenty-game Ambassador Program, Nintendo’s make-good to early adopters after a significant price drop early in the system’s life. What is there to say other than it’s possibly the best entry in this irreverent series. The ‘small-bursts’ microgames feel right at home on the portable.
Also available on: Wii U VC, 3DS (Ambassador Program)

Metroid: Zero Mission – Nintendo R&D1
Okay, so this is technically a remake of Metroid for NES, but one that transforms the original from a barebones progenitor of Super Metroid into something that applies all the lessons learned from that offspring and also the GBA’s own Metroid Fusion. This iteration looks, sounds and feels so much better, and it adds new post-game levels. Remakes are tricky to pull off, and so often details inherent to the experience are lost in translation. The original can be tough to return to thirty years on and, of course, it’s still there for the purists. But for everyone else, this is the way to experience Samus’ first trip to Zebes.
Also available on: Wii U VC

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – Intelligent Systems
Another game I played on 3DS, this one got me into the Fire Emblem series. GBA had some splendid tactics games, but this one... is the one I played. Being totally honest, the story details escape me now. There was some conflict, some people fought, I won. What I do remember is many hours of strategy and satisfaction after hard-resetting my way through every mistake until I had, as far as the game file was concerned, a perfect, unblemished record of zero dead party members. No-one dies on my watch. A fantastic SRPG on a system blessed with many.
Also available on: Wii U VC, 3DS (Ambassador Program)

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow – Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
In an effort to plug some gaps in my knowledge, I got this on a double cartridge with its predecessor, Harmony of Dissonance. Never managed to go back to that one because this game distils the best of Castlevania into a perfect, portable whole. Music, level design, characters, weapons, progression – they’re all up there with the series’ best, and the graphics work incredibly well, too. Playing on a TV via Virtual Console, the GameCube’s Game Boy Player or whatever trickery one cares to employ, the colour palette looks completely differently and you can see where the developers turned the saturation up to 11 in order to make the game readable on the GBA’s murky little screen. The consideration and execution on display here makes it the best Castlevania I’ve played. I’ll get to Symphony of the Night one of these days (Switch port, please) but it’s got its work cut out to beat this.
Also available on: Wii U VC

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap – Capcom, Flagship
Once again, the Ambassador Program gifted me a game that I had missed. Demonstrating that other developers were perfecting Nintendo’s formulas, Minish Cap delivers a beautiful, self-contained adventure that doesn’t outstay its welcome. While it doesn’t stray far from the established template, Ezlo (the eponymous Minish cap which allows Link to shrink) and the tiny Picori are memorable additions to Zelda’s roster of races and characters. It was also the first game outside The Wind Waker to use Toon Link (as he would later be christened in Smash Bros.)
Also available on: Wii U VC, 3DS (Ambassador Program)

Honourable mentions:

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 – This isometric handheld interpretation of the celebrated Playstation original defies all convention and expectation and is actually great.

Sonic Advance – it’s a Sonic game from the 2000s that isn’t shite. It’s good! Shocker.

All the ports – The GBA received some excellent versions of both NES and SNES games which, while somewhat compromised by the small screen, gave many players (myself included) access to these games for the first time (I never had a SNES). I haven’t included these on the main list because the definitive versions exist elsewhere, but the ports of Link to the Past (complete with multiplayer game Four Swords) and the confusingly labelled Super Mario series, including Super Mario Advance (actually a remake of Super Mario Bros. 2 or Super Mario Bros. USA in Japan), Super Mario Advance 2: Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3 and Super Mario Bros. 3: Super Mario Advance 4 are excellent portable renditions of those classics.

The One(s) That Got Away:

Mother 3 – After playing Earthbound on Wii U VC, I immediately started searching Etsy for repro cartridges containing the English fan-translation of this unlocalised sequel. Lucas has an amiibo for-crying-out-loud! Rumour has it that an official localisation exists. I’m really hoping it’ll appear on Switch at some point.

Advance Wars – I think I played this once but I certainly didn’t get far. Everyone says it’s tip-top and it’s made by the same team as Fire Emblem.

Metroid Fusion – I’ve got it on 3DS but never got round to going beyond the first 10 minutes. It’s on the list. Said to be linear but still a strong entry.

The Pokemons – I played the original Red & Blue, and that was it. By all accounts, the series is still pretty good but I could never summon enthusiasm beyond the first 151. I think I’d very much enjoy FireRed and/or LeafGreen, though.

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