Transitions: The Launch Games/End Games Blog

Posted on Jun 15th 2011 at 05:39:33 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Game Boy Advance, GBA, Launch Games

Welcome to a special co-production of the Transitions Blog and Game Boy Player Land. We teamed up to investigate the launch of the Game Boy Advance, a system which was released ten years ago this week in North America and went on to sell over 80 million units worldwide over the next decade. 

For gamers that can walk into a GameStop in 2011 and still buy GBA carts, it is hard to imagine that there was ever a time when the Game Boy Advance would have seemed like a risky proposition with an uncertain future.  When the system launched in June of 2001 (March in Japan), there were legitimate questions about the viability of 2D handheld gaming in an era that was championing 3D.  To put it in perspective, the GBA launched a year after the release of the PlayStation 2, almost two years after the release of the Dreamcast (which had just been dropped in North America by Sega in January)  and just six months ahead of Nintendo's own GameCube console.  Financially successful 2D games had been all but eradicated by the previous generation of console hardware, and the Game Boy's slumping sales coupled with poor international showings from the Wonderswan and Neo Geo Pocket Color pointed to an uncertain future for handhelds.  So when Nintendo introduced a unit that offered the functionality of a portable Super Nintendo, there was some apprehension in the air. 

So, let's consider what it would have been like to stand inside your local retailer of choice at midnight on June 11, 2001.  What would you see? What would you be thinking? You probably knew to bring two AA batteries with you to start playing, but what might you bring home to play?

Part 1: The Games

At launch, Game Boy Advance games sold for between $29.95 and $39.95 each, and the lineup of seventeen titles in North America was more than what had been seen before for any handheld launch in history.  The titles spanned a wide swath of new and old IPs:

Army Men Advance   As the millennium turned, there was a successful run of games in the Army Men series across several consoles.  So when the GBA launched in 2001, it was perhaps no surprise that the series made an early debut on the handheld.  While the isometric game is lacking in many aesthetic areas such as graphics and sound (especially compared to later games in the same series on the GBA), it stands out in the launch library as the only completely new title that allowed the played to run around and fire a gun (Earthworm Jim was a port).  Players could revisit levels of their choice using a password system, and those who struggled through the more technically impressive later levels were rewarded with a congratulations screen at the end of the game (which, incidentally, could be accessed from the main menu).

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon - There's a good argument to be had that this was probably the most anticipated launch game for the GBA, and by most counts it did not disappoint as it was probably the best reviewed launch title for the system.  As the first 2D Castlevania game since 1997s Symphony of the Night on the PlayStation and Saturn, the game delivers all the Metroidvania action you could crave along with the kind of distinctive artistic style that has marked the best entries in the series.  Though the game was a bit dark (and thus more difficult to see on the launch model GBA compared to later models), it offered a showcase for the abilities of the system, an intriguing story, gameplay with depth, and battery backup!

Chu Chu Rocket - There was something dirty about placing a cartridge bearing the Sega logo into a piece of Nintendo hardware in 2001, but any unease associated with that once-unholy pairing was soon erased by starting up this gem of a game.  Like most puzzle games, ChuChu Rocket is probably most at home on a portable console.  While the GBA version doesn't feature quite the same level of polish as the Dreamcast version (released just a few months before in the US), there are enough added features (such as multiplayer support from one cart and 2500 user-created levels) to more than make up for any loss in visuals or sound.  Given that it was the only true puzzle game at launch (why the GBA didnt launch with a Tetris title still confounds), this was a great release day choice.

Earthworm Jim - If you have played the SNES port of this classic 2D platformer, youve essentially played the GBA version.  Everything about the game (down to the lack of a save feature) is included here, and that's pretty much it.  It is impressive that this was the only SNES game ported directly to the GBA at launch, as it may have been fairly easier for lots of publishers to get started on the system with one of their older classics.  Thats what Shiny did here, and it helps to round out the launch with a little bit of familiarity.

F-Zero: Maximum Velocity - Other than a Mario title, this was the only first party game Nintendo had ready for the GBA launch.  Like Earthworm Jim and Pitfall, F-Zero felt like a 16-bit console port (even though it isn't a straight port) and helped establish the idea of the system as a portable Super Nintendo.  That means that your feelings about this game will closely mirror those of the SNES original, as the control and difficulty closely match that title.  The graphics actually look a bit nicer, though, and having something so fast on a small screen was a bit dizzying at the time. 

Fire Pro Wrestling  This long-running series had already published almost thirty entries in the series before the Game Boy Advance launch, and so its inclusion in the launch library didn't come as a real surprise.  This edition of the game featured many of the things that have made the series great  the ability to create your own wrestlers, a deep roster of available players, a smart grappling engine, and enough production quality to make it seem like a polished release. Since there was no other realistic fighting game at launch for the GBA (Ready 2 Rumble doesn't count) and no sports games aside from racers and Tony Hawk, a wrestling title probably looked alluring to a wide variety of consumers looking to scratch their competitive itch on launch day.

GT Advance -  Gamers in 2001 may have had to do a double take when they threw GT Advance into their GBA.  The combination of mode-7 style graphics and some excellent shading work really make the game pop off the screen.  The pseudo-3D effect is really quite something, and the selection of cars, colors, and other customization options meant that this game was an innovation in handheld racers upon its release.  The password system (instead of a battery save) is a real pain in the ass, though  it would have been nice to just use a battery backup.  Nonetheless, the controls feel very good, the amount of racing that you can do is impressive, and this was one of the few launch titles to feature link play capability.  Give that the only other racing options at the GBA launch were an F-Zero game (futuristic) and Konami Krazy Racers (kart racing), this would have been a strong choice for someone looking for something more realistic.

Iridion 3D -The 16-bit era had been regarded by many as the heyday of the shmup, so you could forgive gamers who picked up Iridion 3D while looking to find a GBA launch title that might deliver on the rich history of SNES games like Axelay or Phalanx.  Unlike the excellent sequel, however, the original Iridion game is a 3D corridor shooter that has more in common with the Genesis' Galaxy Force than it does with any of the great 2D shooters of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The graphics and sound are certainly passable in that they showed off what the GBA could do, but the core gameplay is quite boring and pretty frustrating.

 Konami Krazy Racers - If you've ever wondered who would win in a race between Goeman and the Octopus from the Parodius games, then Krazy Racers is for you. Although Mario Kart Super Circuit had been announced at launch, Konami beat Nintendo to the punch. This charming little Super Mario Kart clone is actually a blast for fans of the SNES classic kart racer and borrows heavily from it. Everything from terrain to coins and Mode 7 scrolling is present. However Konami enthusiasts will love all the fan-service with appearances from beloved franchise characters, music and even the Twinbee! bells returning as power-ups.

 Namco Museum - No system would be complete without Namco repackaging a handful of ROM's from their pool of classics. This GBA collection is decent but underwhelming, and certainly not a launch game that showed off what the GBA system could do. While gamers could rejoice to have such nice portable renditions of Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man, Pole Position and Dig-Dug, it must have also been disappointing considering the small collection of games offered. The lack of a battery feature to save high scores would just kick retro-enthusiasts while they were down.

 Pinobee: Wings Of Adventure - A prime example that lush, colorful graphics do not make a great game. Pinobee is actually pretty sub-standard platforming fare. The controls are awful and the levels, though gorgeous are extremely boring to actually play through. There's not a whole lot of challenge or even reward to motivate you to play through the game. Though certainly a fine tech-demo, Pinobee perhaps should have not made it to the launch lineup.

 Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure - Based on the SNES game of the same title, this platformer looks nice but really doesn't play all that great. Not only does it commit the cardinal sin of making B the jump button but it also goes overboard with stage design that's all style over substance. Its as if there was so much intention to show off what the GBA was capable of graphically that often the flow of a level is confusing -- you can pass in front of one tree, but another that looks just like it proves to be a roadblock. Ultimately its a frustrating game in a rather long series of letdowns.

 Rayman Advance - Whereas the GBA was touted as a portable SNES pretty much out the gate, Rayman Advance was one the few launch games that argued it could actually be a lot more than that -- in this case a portable PlayStation. This port of Rayman is absolutely gorgeous. More importantly, it plays remarkably well and may have been the best platformer available upon the GBA's launch.

 Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2 - For an arcade style boxing game Ready 2 Rumble is surely a bit of a fun. It looks impressive for such an early GBA game using scrolling to give a slight feel of 3D movement in the ring. It also uses some nice voice samples to add a touch of realism to the sprites as well. However the controls are also quite laggy, which can lead to frustrating gameplay as punches are often thrown after a bit of delay which makes strategizing rather hard. Its not quite game-breaking, but its awful close and can often lead to resorting to button-mashing out of frustration.

Super Dodge Ball Advance - This port of the classic Kunio-kun sports title is bittersweet. While it retains the fantastic gameplay of the original -- mixing a bit of brawling in with everyone's favorite Phys. Ed. pastime -- for some reason the developers, Million decided to complete re-design the Kunio-kun appearance of the sprites. Certainly this won't sit well with fans of the long-running series of games, but the upside is that it's still as fun to play today as it was at launch.

 Super Mario Advance - Though its no surprise that a new Nintendo system would launch with a Mario platformer, it is odd that a remake of a rather infamous black sheep would be one of them. Super Mario Advance is just that, a somewhat upgraded version of the NES Super Mario Bros. 2, which adds in the welcome addition of a save feature but also adds in a lot of infuriatingly horrible voice samples as well. If you can get past the voices though (or at least play with the volume turned off) then its still a pretty decent take on the game and features some very bright, colorful sprite work which was especially welcome on the original GBA's overly dark screen. Perhaps Nintendo figured it would use the GBA launch to give players a chance to reevaluate this oft-overlooked sequel.

 Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2 - The first Pro Skater game was released on the Game Boy Color, but didn't resemble the console versions at all. Instead it was a horribly stripped down mess that couldn't even redeem itself as a decent Skate Or Die clone. So when Activision rolled out the sequel on the GBA it was amazing to see how well they had captured the PlayStation/Dreamcast versions of the game. Pro Skater is presented in an isometric view that works beautifully on the handhelds small screen. And though obviously there are omissions to the graphical detail and soundtrack, the game really plays excellently. The same game engine would later be used to bring the cult-classic Jet Grind Radio to the GBA as well.

Part 2: The System

The system launched for $99.99 in North America, $10 more than the original Game Boy fetched upon its release in 1989. 

Hardware: The system had some interesting similarities and differences to both the Game Boy/Game Boy Color systems and to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System that had launched a decade prior.  The most obvious change was the number of buttons.  The GBA introduced SNES-style shoulder buttons that had not been there on the original line of Game Boys, though Nintendo decided to stick with only two primary buttons on the unit's face (the X and Y buttons wouldn't make their debut on a Nintendo handheld until the DS).  The most damaging similarity to the GB was a screen that lacked any backlighting, meaning that gamers needed to shell out for worm lights and the like for any nighttime gaming plans.  Luckily the system only needed 2 AA batteries to run, and could last for as many as 15 hours under the right conditions.

Furthermore, even though the GBA was actually a 32-bit system, most launch games shared more in common (from a technical standpoint) with Nintendo's 16-bit console.  This was good, as most games looked remarkably improved over even the most technically impressive GBC titles, but also contributed to a misconception about the system that it was only able to do SNES-level graphics, a view that dogged the handheld for its whole life.  To combat this, Nintendo stamped "32-bit" prominently on many of the retail boxes, hoping to convince consumers that they were getting high-end graphics in a handheld for a bargain price.

Wide Compatibility:   One of the major selling points for the system was that it would support all previous Game Boy and Game Boy Color cartridges.  Furthermore, like the Game Boy before it, the GBA would continue to be a region free console.  These two decisions effectively extended the library of games available for the system into the thousands. The system even offered options for screen stretching and color palette swapping via the use of L&R buttons.  In many ways, it was like the GBA has a built-in Super Game Boy.

Connectivity:  Like the Game Boy series before it, GBA units were able to connect to one another for multiplayer gaming, something that titles like Chu Chu Rocket took advantage of from the get go.  In addition, they launched with the promise of future connectivity with the Nintendo GameCube, something that was instituted very well for several of the games in that system's life. 

Part 3: The Launch

As mentioned above, there was some trepidation in the air over the launch of the GBA. 

Audience:  Much of the press covering the launch emphasized the unit's appeal to children  it was seen by much of the mainstream media as a purchase that parents would be asked to make.  For example, USA Today held a focus group of young kids to review the consoles the week before the system's US launch.  The article emphasized that

The latest version of the most successful game system ever, the $100 Advance (in stores Monday) wowed our testers, ages 9 to 13 and all Game Boy veterans, with a combination of compelling games and realistic graphics.

The next day The Washington Post explained that
Parents concerned about what all these games might cost them -- or kids worrying about how to stretch their own allowances -- do get one break with the GBA. Not only can gamers link up to four handhelds with an optional Link Cable, they can also share certain games with friends with only one cartridge on hand.

At a time when console games had clearly broken through to an older audience (after a half decade of struggling to do so), handheld gaming was still largely considered by mainstream media coverage to be toys for kids to play with on car rides in the back seat.  In some ways, over its lifetime the GBA would work to change that perception, but at launch the designation of "toy" was very much a real problem for Nintendo.

Ads: Nintendo ran a series of bizarre ads in 2001 promoting the GBA, some of which can be seen here:

These artistic ads, featuring CGI and high end production, certainly oversold the capabilities of the GBA.  However, they also gave it a certain "cool factor" for older gamers, as these ads weren't aimed at the young children suggested by the press coverage above: they were aimed at older teens and young adults.  The unit itself was only featured briefly in these spots, as was any footage of actual gameplay.  Instead, Nintendo was selling an image of the company and of the handheld that looked to break from its more traditional image and, perhaps, to blend better with the marketing that existed for its console contemporaries.

Availability: Reports in the days after launch suggested that the unit was selling out at many locations, and any fears about its initial success were quickly dashed when the unit passed the one million units sold mark by July of 2001 (by contrast, the 3DS took more than three months to hit that milestone).

We hope you've enjoyed this retrospective on the GBA launch but there's certainly more to be said...Were you there on launch day? What did you pick up and why?  What else do you remember about the system's marketing and sales? Speak up and share your stories in the comments below!

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Ah the GBA, still probably my favorite handheld system of all time.

I remember not having the money for one of the new generic ones, then waited until they announced and released the limited edition Platinum version. I still have it and the box and use it to play all my older GB games when the mood hits me.
I got the GBA a day or so before it officially came out, as I recall!  I had a friend whose mother worked in the electronics section at the local K-mart.  Had a lot of fun with the two titles I got to start, Super Mario Advance and Rayman Advance.

A great little system, but I was certainly kicking myself when they released the GBA SP.  I never did end up getting one.  I never really had an altogether strong collection of games for it either-- I mostly had ports and stuff, like all the Mario Advance games and Link to the Past: Four Swords.  The only exclusive games I really had were the Sonic Advance games and Pokemon Ruby.  I did enjoy myself very well overall, but looking back I could have done better actually exploring new games instead of playing the same old stuff.

A few years after I got a DS (finally a backlight for GBA!) I started going back to the GBA's library and picking up more exclusives.  I'd say I'm enjoying it more now than I did back when it was mainstream.
I remember getting my GBA as a kid.  I believe that I did not get it on launch because I didn't like the colors it came in.  I was going to get it for my birthday (GBA launched in June, my birth month), but my parents said they would buy it for me when they launched the Arctic White version, which I liked.  I believe this was only a month or so after the initial launch.

I think the only game I had for it initially was THPS2, which I loved.  I played that game to death, even with the horrible lighting (or lack thereof) of the screen.

I never bought an SP when they came out, but I bought a micro a year or so after that came out and loved having a backlight.
The GBA would have launched right after I graduated high school, but I didn't own one until after I got a DS (I've got an onyx unit now, for playing GB/C games). I gotta admit, familiarizing myself with the GBA library for the first time in 2004, when I got my DS, was daunting. It was a good time to get into it, though. Games were (and are) plentiful and cheap, albeit cart-only (I dislike cardboard boxes, anyway, though manuals can be kinda neat).

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