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The original AGB-001 model
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The AGS-001/AGS-101 Game Boy Advance SP.
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The OXY-001 Game Boy Micro.

"Life Advanced."
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Just a few years after the Game Boy Color made the NES portable, the parts to make a portable SNES with the Game Boy's design paradigm (size, durability, cost and battery life) became viable. So rather than waiting, Nintendo went ahead with the Game Boy Advance.

It was Nintendo's last dedicated 2D system, and man, did it go out with a bang. It was the second bestselling system of the 6th generation, which likely led Sony to try to get in on the handheld market with the PlayStation Portable.

As mentioned to earlier, the Advance was effectively a portable SNES, though its 32-bit hardware was capable of things like 3D rendering without the use of extra chips and its increased color palette allowed for more detailed sprite art. Nintendo and other companies would take advantage of this to directly port SNES games to the system. Donkey Kong Country, Final Fantasy VI, Super Mario World — name a popular SNES title and there's a very good chance that it had a GBA version. A couple games previously exclusive to the Super Famicom in Japan also saw international releases on the GBA, such as Tales of Phantasia and Mega Man & Bass. These ports even came with extra content more often than not to help justify purchasing them.

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The Game Boy Advance has a screen resolution size of 240x160, which is noticeably bigger when compared to the Game Boy and Game Boy Color's 160x144 resolution. The bigger screen size was a double-edged sword early on in the Game Boy Advance's life; while a bigger screen meant that developers could add more to the screen for the player to see, one problem that popped up was porting Super NES titles to the Game Boy Advance because of the resolution size difference between the two platforms. The Super NES had most games displayed in a 256x224 resolution, which meant that Super NES ports on the Game Boy Advance needed several things changed in order to fit on a smaller screen, such as changing the interface to display less information on screen, readjusting the camera focus so it could adjust to the new screen accordingly, and altering sprites to fit on a smaller screen. An example of the comparisons can be viewed here.

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Early in the Game Boy Advance's life, one of the common criticisms was the handheld's audio. While the Game Boy Advance was similar to the Super NES in its visual and overall processing specs, the Advance's sound hardware didn't match since the Super NES's sound chip was produced by Sony, who, of course, had become Nintendo's competitor in the console market. Nintendo could not use the same chip or a similar one without paying royalties to Sony, so Nintendo had to produce one of their own... and what they finally settled on was more like a hybrid of the NES FM sound chip and a more modern waveform processor than any kind of real replica of the SNES SPC chip. When Nintendo ported several of their Super NES titles to the Game Boy Advance and Square Enix ported a few of their Final Fantasy titles from the Super NES, there was extensive criticism over the sound effects and music being markedly inferior to the original versions of the games. However, these criticisms faded over time when more titles were made with the Game Boy Advance's sound chip in mind.

The multiplayer aspect of the handheld was pushed more than the past Game Boy systems; as people only ever seemed to use the link cables on the old systems for trading Pokémon, the GBA link cable added an extra port in the middle that, when combined with 2 other link cables, allowed 4-player play (which, while not new, was only supported by a few games and required a whole separate accessory for the link cables) and introduced the idea of single-card play, games with a multi-player mode that only required one player to have a copy, allowing others to load the game into RAM and play, eliminating one of the bigger boundaries to handheld multi-player.

Along with this ability to load data into RAM, Nintendo also touted the Game Boy Advance to GameCube link cable, which allowed players to hook up their GBA to the GameCube and use it as if it were a controller with a screen; a similar idea had been used before by Sega, with the VMU controllers for the Sega Dreamcast, and Sega took heed of the resemblances with the GameCube ports of Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 substituting the VMU functionalities for link cable ones. Several games used this feature to allow multi-player while keeping important data on the GBA screen and thus private from the other players (selecting a football play, for example). Though this was an innovative idea, games that required this mechanic (Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles being the prime example), while fun, had the added drawback of the price of four of these cables making the whole setup really expensive. (Although one would hope everyone would at least bring their own GBA.) It seems to be this backlash that has prevented Nintendo from jumping right into doing a similar setup with the DS and Wii, despite the fact that cables are no longer an issue in that situation.note 

Although the system was a huge hit, 32-bit level graphics proved too much to effectively show on screen without some kind of light. Thus Nintendo quickly went ahead with the SP revision, which added a front light to the system. It didn't look as good as a backlight, but it did work. The system sold even faster after that. It also dropped the AA batteries in favor of a rechargeable one. Before the backlight was implemented, most games made for the first version of the Game Boy Advance had their colors brightened and/or more saturated to compensate for the dark screen. This caused the games to appear washed out when played on the Game Boy Advance SP and its later revisions. The washed out colors were especially noticeable with the SNES ports, which are obviously brighter than the originals. After the SP settled in the market, all games were then made with the SP in mind so the colors would look more natural.

Around the time the Nintendo DS launched, Nintendo introduced the Game Boy Micro, another major hardware revision that made the Advance even smaller and gave it the ability to be customized with removable faceplates. Unfortunately, not only was the small size uncomfortable to many older gamers, the system also had its backwards compatibility with the Game Boy/Game Boy Color library removed, so it wasn't as fully featured as the SP. While this theoretically would have been viable if the system was marketed as a budget alternative to the DS and even SP, the Mirco actually sold for the same price as the more desirable SP and required new cables/accessories. Additionally, the SP was finally given a proper backlight at the same time thanks to its own minor hardware revision, so there was little reason to get the Micro. It did manage sell a few million units purely off the novelty but was quietly discontinued.

While the Advance only lasted 3-4 years before effectively being replaced by the Nintendo DS, Nintendo would continue to publish games for it until 2007, and other companies kept releasing games until 2008. The backwards compatibility of the DS can be credited with keeping the market for GBA games viable, and the release of the Nintendo DSi (which lacks the compatibility) in 2008 ensured the death of the then-declining system library.

Despite early statements by Nintendo higher-ups that the Advance was one of company's three main pillars, along with the DS and the GameCube, the release of the DSi and its lack of a GBA slot, and that there are apparently no plans on continuing the Advance line, contribute to the inevitable fact that this kind of gaming system is slowly dying out...

... until Nintendo's Author's Saving Throw for potentially disappointed customers who bought the Nintendo 3DS before a price cut came surprisingly early (hence the potential disappointment) revealed that the GBA will soon join the ranks of Nintendo's other portable systems in the Virtual Console... for those who purchased said 3DSs. Even later, they announced that the Wii U's Virtual Console will include GBA titles.

Because of the simplicity of the system, its carts and how little resource-intensive it is for even the most low-end computers to emulate its games, the GBA has also gained notability in being one of the most pirated systems ever; some even claim it beats out older systems like the SNES and the Sega Genesis on that front; much to Nintendo's chagrin. It also wasn't too difficult to get a GBA emulator to work on an iPod Touch or PlayStation Portable in the mid-to-late 2000s to keep the games portable. However, all is not bad, as this also allows for quite a number of GBA ROM Hacks and Fan Translations of games that never left Japan, as well as making sure games that never got released for the Virtual Console don't completely disappear forever.


Technical Specifications:

Processors

  • The Game Boy Advance is powered by a single SOC (System On A Chip) dubbed the AGB-CPU. Inside the SOC are several processors that drive the Game Boy Advance and would be recycled in the Nintendo DS and Nintendo 3DS for similar functions and backwards compatibility. Only one of the CPUs can be active at any time and cannot work together.
  • A ARM V4 ISA based ARM7TDMI running at 16.78MHz and based on the ARM710 architecture.
    • The ARM7TDMI comes equipped with a 3 stage pipeline and a 32Bit based ALU with several notable core extensions (Hence the TDMI name); Most notably a 16bit THUMB core that can execute smaller, faster instructions than ARM code but requires more instructions than ARM code to perform the same task. Developers can even mix both instruction types together using a "Interworking" setup to determine which type to be used in a given context. It also comes with embedded debug extensions to allow developers to debug code using a "JTAG" based setup. There is also an Enhanced-Multiplier extension to reduce the amount of cycles needed to complete an instruction and lastly a Embedded ICE Macrocell which allows breakpoints to be injected into the hardware and halt the system to aid in debugging.
  • A Custom Sharp SM83 running at either 8.4MHz or 4.2MHz depending if the CPU is set to CGB or DMG mode. This is the same CPU found within the Game Boy Color and used exclusively for backwards compatibility. A physical switch present in the cartridge slot coupled with a special software call tells the embedded operating system to use the CGB Bootstrap ROM to enable backwards compatibility.
    • Although developers cannot access the CPU part of the Sharp SM83 in AGB mode they can access the PSG sound generators embedded within the processor for audio.
    • The Game Boy Micro still retains this processor on the SOC for full game compatibility due to games that use the PSG generators in AGB mode. However, the physical switch is absent in the cartridge slot preventing it from running CGB & DMG games natively.
  • A Custom Picture Processing Unit or PPU for displaying graphics. With a similar set up to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and it's own dual PPU setup. Unlike the SNES though, it can perform tasks that originally required a math co-processor or a CPU such as the SuperFX chip.
  • Several extras including a DMA controller and PCM sound generator.

Memory

  • 256 KB of external WRAM. This is typically used for storing 16bit THUMB code that can be executed at full speed or 32bit ARM code that would only operate at close to half speed due to the bus width and the physical distance from the SOC meant running 32bit ARM code on here was six times slower than from IWRAM.
  • 96 KB of Video RAM for bitmaps, sprites and tiles. However, this is still mapped to the ARM7TDMI CPU memory map, allowing developers to use it for other purposes if IWRAM was insufficient for general use.
    • 1KB of 32Bit OAM (Object Attribute Memory) memory for storing up to 128 sprite entries. The data bus it uses is heavily optimized to render entries as quick as possible to the PPU.
    • 1KB of 16Bit PAL-RAM (Palette memory) capable of storing two color palettes, one for backgrounds and one for sprites. It can store 256 color entries of 15bit color with one reserved to denote transparency.
  • 32 KB of 32-bit internal WRAM is embedded into the SOC, which is needed to run 32-bit ARM code at full speed.
  • 16KB of Mask ROM to contain the AGB BIOS. Unlike its predecessor the operating system embedded within comes with a library of standard calls for various hardware and software functions to save developers the trouble of manually writing their own code to access them.
  • 2KB of Mask ROM to contain the CGB Bootstrap ROM. This bootstrap functions the exact same as it did in the original Game Boy Color.
  • Cartridge ROM memory ranged from 2MB to 32MB. As this is limited to a 16bit bus in AGB Mode with an incredibly slow access speed a pre-fetch buffer is included on the AGB SOC to cache data and prevent the cartridge from stalling. GBA Video Paks would typically use the full 32MB ROM memory. No bank switching was ever developed for the GBA unlike most cartridge based systems.
    • Cartridges can also display FMVs using specialized player software developed by Jaleco & 4Kids Entertainment (Yes, THAT 4Kids), although few games used them due to the high amount of ROM space, RAM and CPU resources they consume. It was mainly used by the Game Boy Advance Video Pak series for compilations of episodes of animated shows and several animated films by Dreamworks. The compression format is barely passable quality, but it still showed movie playback had advanced to fitting in affordable carts. A feat that would be instrumental for the Nintendo DS family several years later.
    • Cartridges could also come equipped with flash memory based RAM or battery powered S-RAM of varying size. As this was limited by an 8 bit bus this would be invisible to the CPU (From its perspective it would essentially see garbage data) unless developers used library functions embedded by Nintendo within the operating system to interact with it.

Display and Graphics

  • Screen size is 1.61×2.41 inches (40.8×61.2 mm) for the original model and the SP. The Micro screen is 2 inches (51 mm).
    • The GBA uses a non-standard RGB color space for its screen and a non-standardized refresh rate of 59.73Hz. For games made early in the system's life, developers would purposefully oversaturate color choices to compensate for the AGB-001's unlit screen. Because of this, colors can look washed out or overly bright (depending on the game) when these games are played on other devices like the DS. Later on in the system's life developers would start using less saturated colors due to the AGS-001/AGS-101 and OXY-001 screens providing a frontlight or backlight screen, negating the need to compensate color choices.
  • Resolution is 240×160 regardless of model. Game Boy and Game Boy Color games will display at their original 160×144 resolution, though they can stretched out to fill the whole screen by toggling the L or R buttons.
  • Much like the SNES, the GBA has several "Modes" that determine how many colors and layers can be used for backgrounds and objects. These are further split into a "Bitmap" and "Tile" mode on the PPU. Each mode exclusively using bitmap graphics or tiles of varying size. These modes in tandem with the ARM7 CPU allow the GBA to do many of the graphical effects the SNES required a co-processor for.
    • Tile modes Mode 0 provides 4 static background layers, Mode 1 allows 3 static layers with one layer allowing affine transformations for scaling and rotating per scanline and Mode 2 supplies 2 layers for affine transformations.
    • Bitmap Modes Mode 3 allows a single 8bpp full color frame, Mode 4 provides 2 frames but only at half 4bpp color. Lastly, Mode 5 allows 2 fully colored frames but at the cost of only being at half resolution (160x128). Mode 5 requires the use of page flipping to hide artifacting generated by the system as it draws the next frame to be rendered. This allows developers to create 3D textured polygons entirely in software at the cost of high CPU and VRAM use and susceptible to distortions and snapping much like the original PlayStation.
  • Tiles can be only be 8x8 bitmap pixels in size and in either 4bpp (16 colors) or 8bpp (256 colors) for color with 8bpp tiles taking up more VRAM. Tiles are arranged into sequence of character blocks with a maximum of 6 blocks total: 4 for backgrounds and 2 for sprites. With a 15bit color palette this allows for for a total of 32,768 colors and 512 on screen colors total split by the background layers and sprite layer for 256 each, depending on bpp. Setting bit 0 to denote transparency allows more onscreen colors with some creativity.
  • Sprites can be up to 64x64 in size. The PPU allows sprites to dynamically be modified using affine transformations. As sprites are 32bit in width this can allow features such as dynamic editing for positioning, size, shape, sprite type and tile location as well as scale and rotation.

Sound

  • The AGB SOC includes 2 PCM channels dubbed "Direct Sound" in addition to access to the original 4 PSG channels offered by the original Game Boy. PCM was typically used for music where as the PSG channels were used for sound effects.
    • PCM samples are always 8bit signed and play at a default rate of 32.7kHz. However, this can vary by game as different developers would allocate different amounts of CPU and DMA cycles for audio. So some games can have a clearer sound clarity or sound like two tin cans and a piece of string depending on set up. Due to the 8bit nature of the samples background white noise was commonplace in most GBA games.
    • Later GBA games would almost exclusively eschew the PSG channels entirely in favor of using the PCM channels and software mixing. Although some notable examples such as Mother 3 combine all 6 channels at once and can dynamically change which channel set is the lead.
  • The GBA BIOS library contains a complete MIDI sequencer with a wide set of functions to manipulate it. This is dubbed the "Sappy" Engine internally and most game developers would use this for audio playing in games rather than creating their own custom software audio engines or play directly on the PCM & PSG channels. Because of this hackers can edit games using this engine to improve sample playback quality.

Operating System

  • The Game Boy Advance contains a rudimentary operating system stored on 16KB of Mask ROM. Unlike the previous DMG and CGB bootstrap which would only clear RAM, initialize the hardware and check the cartridge header for a valid ID before shutting down and handing control over to the running software; The GBA BIOS not only performs the same security function, but contains an array of numerous libraries and software calls that developers could freely call on to perform tasks without needing to write their own routines to do so. These functions include:
  • Arithmetic calculations for division, square roots and arc tangents.
  • Affine Matrix Calculations to assist the PPU in scaling and rotating backgrounds and sprites with each having a specific function call.
  • Huffman, LZ77 and Run-Length decompression routines for game data stored on cartridge ROM in tandem using the prefetch buffer on the AGB SOC. These functions would be improved on and become another instrumental function for the Nintendo DS game cartridges several years later.
  • Memory Copy functions using the DMA controller to quickly move small blocks of memory around to the CPU, PPU or one of the several RAM regions.
  • A complete integrated sound engine using a MIDI sequencer as described in the audio section as the "Sappy" engine.
  • Interfaces to reset the hardware quickly, as well as CPU halting, RAM clearing and VBlanking. Some later games use this series of interfaces to enable a pseudo low power "sleep mode" function to save on battery life when not actively playing the game. Another function that would become a core feature in the Nintendo DS family and beyond.
  • Program Multi-boot support. This allows one GBA to send program data to another connected GBA and initialize it. This allows games to have multiplayer modes without requiring multiple copies of the same game. This interface is also used for GameCube to GBA Link functionality to send program data to the connected GBA on boot for games that support it. Due to this these games also had to ship with a copy of the entire GBA BIOS to facilitate this function. Multiboot functions would become a core feature of Wireless Play and Demo kiosk station for the Nintendo DS.

Battery Power & Life

  • The original AGB-001 model uses two AA batteries, for 15-20 hours depending on battery capacity.
  • The AGS-001 and AGS-101 Game Boy Advance SP use a Lithium-ion based rechargeable battery running at 3.8v with a 600mAh capacity. Battery life is typically 15 hours without the frontlight on for the AGS-001 or the backlight on its lowest settings for the AGS-101 to 10 hours with the light on for both models respectively.
  • The OXY-001 Game Boy Micro also uses a Lithium-ion based rechargeable battery at the same 3.8 volts. However, capacity is at a lower 460mAh, meaning it will last between 5 to 8 hours depending on the screen brightness and sound volume.

Peripherals and Accessories

  • The Link Cable, which enabled multiplayer and data-transfer between cartridges. Unlike the Game Boy and Game Boy Color Link Cables, this cable had an added feature. A GBA Link Cable still only had two plugs, but there was a port in the middle that allowed users to daisy-chain additional Link Cables for three or four-player play (though some third-party cables had four plugs so that only one cable was required). In the past, a multi-tap would've been required for four-player play (that fewer than fourteen games supported). In addition, all players no longer needed their own copy of the game. One player can own the game and download a limited version to other players' devices on the BIOS screen. This feature was so popular that it was carried over to the Nintendo DS and Nintendo 3DS linesnote . The GBA Link Cable had a different plug than the GB/GBC Link Cables to prevent a GBA Link Cable from being plugged into a previous iteration of the Game Boy and to prevent GBC Link Cables from being daisy-chained to a GBA Link Cable. In addition, the GBA Link Cable doesn't work with Game Boy or Game Boy Color games. You will need to own a Game Boy Color Link Cable to play multiplayer for those games (though some third-party Link Cables include a "mode" switch to switch the cable from being a GBA Link Cable to a GBC link cable and vice-versa.)
  • The Nintendo e-Reader (not to be confused with a tablet made for reading digital copies of books), a device that scanned dot codes on special cards to access various features. A lot of them were re-releases of NES titles, which were played directly on the GBA and saved into the e-Reader's memory until another game was scanned in. Some GBA and Gamecube games used the e-Reader for various purposes, such as obtaining special patterns and furniture in Animal Crossing or unlocking extra levels in Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3. The main draw to this is that because the e-Reader connected to the GBA through the cartridge slot, you'd need to own two GBAs plus a link cable in order to use the device with compatible games; with GameCube titles, you only needed one GBA, but still had to fork over extra money for a GBA-to-GameCube link cable. This necessity is largely credited for the e-Reader's failure outside of Japan, as it made the process of using the cards unnecessarily cumbersome for something as simple as obtaining one extra item. Plans for a European release of the e-Reader were completely scrapped soon after its North American launch. It didn't help that the cards were notoriously tricky to scan, or that players could just scan and print their own copies of e-Reader cards to share free of charge (a similar fault would plague the Nintendo 3DS's AR Cards, which were similarly discontinued after only a short period of time). Given that the add-on was hugely popular on domestic shores, the "two GBAs" aspect may be the victim of Values Dissonance. Because of the e-Reader's international failure, a large number of GBA games that had e-Reader support planned dropped the feature at a moment's notice, and a large amount of e-Reader-exclusive content for still-compatible games remained isolated to Japan (in the aforementioned case of Super Mario Advance 4, the complete set of e-Reader-exclusive levels were made available by default for the Virtual Console re-release). Among other repercussions, a set of e-Reader cards containing Game & Watch games was cancelled after the e-Reader bombed (the card for "Manhole" had already seen commercial release). Only two games on both the Game Boy Advance and the GameCube supported the e-Reader in America: Super Mario Advance 4 and Pokémon Ruby and Sapphirenote  for the former, and Animal Crossing and Pokémon Channel for the latter.
  • The Wireless Adapter, as the name implies, was a device that could allow two GBAs to interact wirelessly, essentially acting as an upgraded GBA-to-GBA link cable. The adapter was able to allow four-player multiplayer in GBA games that were released during its life cycle, though the late arrival of the adapter meant that less than 20 games were compatible with it. It's not compatible with any games that weren't designed specifically to use the Wireless Adapter due to different software calls, hardware ID and a complete lack of backwards compatibility with older GBA games, which naturally excluded many multiplayer GBA titles and basically all Game Boy Color games, so in the end it wasn't really a true substitute to the Link Cable which led to its demise. It came bundled with Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen.
  • The Play-Yan was an MP3 and MPEG4 player fitted into a game pak that included a built-in headphone jack and an SD Card slot. The Play-Yan could play music, videos, and first-party minigames from the SD Card; this add-on was never released in North America.
  • The Game Boy Advance Video was a series of white game paks containing full movies (including Shrek, Shrek 2 and Shark Tale) and television show episodes, compressed to fit the GBA's hardware limitations. Because Digital Piracy Is Evil, the GBA Video paks are incompatible with the Game Boy Player, preventing anyone from recording footage from the game pak using a VCR. Even if you get the video paks working on the Game Boy Player via hacking the ROM or using a homebrew replacement program such as the Game Boy Interface, the larger screen does not do any favors for the low video quality.

Notable Games/Series:

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    E-H 

    I-L 

    M-P 

    Q-T 

    U-Z 

Alternative Title(s): GBA, Game Boy Micro

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