In the summer of 2001, Nintendo released the 32-bit successor to the Game Boy: The Game Boy Advance (GBA). It lived for only a brief period, a little over 3 years, but they were very successful years, and they defined an important era of my life. Allow me to indulge in my memories of the GBA in honor of its 20th Anniversary.
I was 11 years old when the GBA was released. I first saw it in the electronics section of department stores like Wal-Mart and Sears. These stores had demo kiosks where you could try the hardware for yourself before buying it. As this was a time when I didn’t have access to the internet, the only way I could learn about video games was either through TV commercials, word of mouth, or these demo kiosks. The first game I tried out in this way was Super Mario Advance.
At the time, I’d never played Super Mario Bros. 2, so when I discovered Super Mario Advance in these department stories, it looked like an entirely new 2D Mario game to me. I was confused at the different mechanics but very impressed at the visuals. The Super Nintendo wasn’t too far back in my memory, and the GBA appeared just like a portable Super Nintendo, if not even better. Jumping from the primitive display of the Game Boy Color, the graphics were a massive leap in my mind. The GBA would go on to produce some of the most beautiful 2D spritework I have ever seen — even today it takes a talented pixel artist to create spritework that rivals what I saw on this handheld.
Christmas of 2001 came and went and I didn’t get a GBA. Instead, I gazed longingly at the store shelves, deciding which games I’d want to check out once I finally got one in my hands. Advance Wars stood out to me with its bright red tank on the boxart. I also made mental notes for Mario Kart: Super Circuit and Metroid Fusion. This was also an era when I couldn’t look up YouTube reviews or Let’s Plays or Twitch streams — you only had the boxart and kiosk demos to get a first impression. I’m sure I stayed at these electronic sections for longer than I was supposed to.
In the Spring of 2003 my friend, let’s call him E, got a Game Boy Advance and a copy of Pokemon Ruby. It’s thanks to this friend that I enjoyed the handheld as much as I did — he often exposed me to GBA games that I didn’t see on the shelves. He brought Pokemon Ruby on a few campouts and let me play. I was amazed. When I got home I fervently asked my parents if there was any way we could make a deal. They decided that if I did extra chores, above and beyond my normal routine, then I could earn one. And that’s exactly what I did — I worked every weekend until my parents finally got me a Crystal Blue GBA with a copy of Pokemon Sapphire in June 2003.
This was the summer after 6th Grade and before 7th Grade, and with all of that extra time on my hands, I quickly burned through the campaign of Pokemon Sapphire. It helped that I was a returning veteran from Gen 1 and Gen 2 on the Game Boy Color, so the gym challenge wasn’t much of a “challenge” to me anymore. I remember my cousin flew all the way from Virginia to visit us in Arizona, and on the car trip to see the Grand Canyon with him, I was already returning to the Elite Four for the 3rd and 4th time. Initially I was disappointed that not all of the previous Pokemon were in the game (that’s right, Ruby and Sapphire was the first Dexit). But the new Pokemon grew on me, and the game was full of secrets and optional places to explore. Pokemon Sapphire was my jam during the Summer of 2003.
Now that I owned a GBA, E would often suggest games to me, and even allowed me to borrow some of his own. He was an amazing friend. Thanks to him, the GBA soon became a platform where I began to branch out from my normal wheelhouse of games.
First I tried out Advance Wars, a game I had long kept on my list, and I quickly fell in love. It was an approachable yet satisfying turn-based strategy game. I loved the upbeat soundtrack, the cartoony art style, and the gameplay feedback loop — the way captured cities increased your production capabilities was very satisfying. I enjoyed the sequel even more. I showed the games to my older brother, who also became a quick fan of the series.
E then let me play Metroid Fusion. This was my first 2D Metroid game. I was interested to see if it was like Metroid Prime… but I quickly gave the game back to him. I liked the visuals and the gameplay, and the game looked so mysterious. But Metroid Fusion was just way too difficult for me at the time. It wasn’t until much later, when I had a bit more skill, that I began to appreciate the game on my own.
Then E lent me his copy of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Without any other point of reference, I felt like this game was the unlikely marriage of Pokemon Sapphire and Advance Wars. I dived deep into Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. I had no idea it had a predecessor on the PlayStation 1; it looked like a brand new series in a brand new genre. I liked that the story was essentially about escapism. At this time I was definitely going to video games for escapism, so I found it relatable. I frequently experimented with the job system and tried to beat every side quest.
E told me that there was actually another game that used the chess-like strategy that I’d recently fallen in love with. He showed me a strange fantasy adventure called Fire Emblem. It reminded me a lot of The Lord of the Rings with its kingdoms and dragons and sword-wielding maidens. I played it at his house, but I didn’t take it home. It was way too difficult and I accidentally got some characters killed. It stressed me out. Like with Metroid Fusion, it wasn’t until much later that I finally got into this series. So instead E lent me another game: Golden Sun.
Now if you know me, you’ll realize what kind of impact Golden Sun (and its sequel) left on me.
I was completely spirited away. Golden Sun was an epic adventure on a scale that I hadn’t felt since first playing Pokemon Blue. The soundtrack was catchy yet moody, the story had genuine stakes and surprises, the overworld had clever Zelda-like puzzles, and the combat with the Djinn system was highly strategic. Beforehand I never knew what genre you called games like Pokemon and Final Fantasy, but Golden Sun made the term “RPG” stick out in my mind. Outside of the first Generation of Pokemon, Golden Sun was the one game that cemented my love for turn-based JRPGs.
2003 and 2004 came and went in this fashion. I survived Jr. High and played the GBA to my heart’s content. By the end of 2004, people started talking about the Nintendo DS, and I started seeing it in stores. I felt… a little offended, I guess? It felt like I had just bought the GBA, and now Nintendo was already moving on? To be fair, I had no clue that Sony was about to release the PSP, nor did I know that the GameCube sold so poorly, leading Nintendo to develop a device with more mainstream appeal.
I tentatively tried out the DS in 2005 in stores, but I left feeling confused and disappointed. I was excited to see a handheld Metroid Prime game, but the controls were too awkward for me at the time. I couldn’t get my head around moving with the D-Pad while aiming with the stylus. I didn’t like the DS. So I stuck with my Game Boy Advance instead.
At around the same time, E got a DS, and generously gifted me his Game Boy Advance SP. This was a model revision that took the GBA into a clamshell form factor, gave it a backlit screen, and a rechargeable battery. It was one of the most generous gifts I had ever received. On this new model of GBA I played through Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls. Well, I played through Final Fantasy I at least. I started Final Fantasy II multiple times, but I struggled with the leveling system.
I went back to the Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Zero Mission, and enjoyed them much more. It was also around this time that I got Mario Kart: Super Circuit. I know that nowadays many people dislike this game, but I was one of those weird people that liked playing Mario Kart alone? It was also before the days of Mario Kart DS, and a portable Mario Kart had a big appeal to me. It was the perfect game for more casual pick-up-and-play sessions.
In 2006 our family moved from Arizona to Florida, and then in 2007 we moved again to Michigan. I still didn’t buy a DS. Not even the Gen 4 Pokemon games could convince me otherwise. During that time we got a GBA player for the GameCube and my brother and I each got copies of the Gen 1 Pokemon remakes. He got Pokemon FireRed and I got Pokemon LeafGreen. After that, I picked up The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, perhaps the most underrated 2D Zelda game. This was one of the last games I played on my GBA before my big hiatus with gaming. During those teenage years I felt like I was growing up fast, and that perhaps it was time to leave these “childhood” things behind. Before I headed out to college, I bequeathed both of my GBAs and my games to my brother. Of course, now I’m always second-guessing that decision, as these games go for quite a hefty price. Years after I got back into gaming, I still only partially rebuilt my old GBA collection. In fact, I don’t think I can ever justify buying all of the cartridges I had when I was younger, much less the games I was interested in but never got in the first place.
During the mid- to late-2000s, there wasn’t this big online community for retro gaming that you see nowadays. Old video games were just considered old, and I mistakenly bought into that mindset. It’s only now with my perspective of modern gaming that I realize their historical value. You know, back as early as 2005, I saw my friends emulate GBA games on their laptops. It seemed fairly easy to do. It’s mind-boggling how Nintendo hasn’t made GBA games available for current-gen systems outside of the Wii U. I mean, they managed to gift them for the 3DS Ambassadors (aka the people who bought the 3DS near its launch, back when it had a high price point), but somehow Nintendo never tried to make these available for everyone later on?
The Game Boy Advance is quickly becoming a lost generation. Nowadays, you need to be an old person like me to remember it. For the younger crowd it’s become yet another relic of the past, and many have never even heard of the games that were once very popular on it. Nintendo is bonkers for letting such a wonderful handheld get buried in the binary digits of time.