For five minutes back at the turn of the year we were given a quick play of Nintendo's remodelled Game Boy Advance SP, and came away quietly impressed that the Japanese veterans had finally delivered a truly pocket sized console that lived up to the billing of Gaming: 24/7.
But however impressed we were with the aesthetics, there were still nagging doubts about those tiny shoulder buttons, the recessed D-pad, the lack of a headphone socket and whether your hands would end up contorting into a claw after extended use. To its credit, Nintendo dispatched the sleek silver version of its tiny games machine to Eurogamer with impressive efficiency, just days after its Japanese launch. And rather than deliver us an imported version, as expected, we have been furnished with a European edition, complete with two pin charger, necessitating a bit of plug jiggery pokery.
The same, but different
Given that the hardware is functionally identical to its two-year-old brother, it's pointless discussing the ins and outs of the gaming performance. You'll know plenty about that already. What you'll be more interested in is how it plays - and after several hours putting our now extensive GBA software collection through its paces, it's fair to say there are big plusses and some fairly large minuses; it's a flawed masterpiece.
The easiest things to document are the plusses - they're obvious and joyful additions that should have been part of the machine from the beginning. The most fantastic new feature of the GBA SP is its toggleable front light. Placed in the centre of the control deck just below the screen, it's down to you whether you'll need to use it. But unless you've got Sam Fisher night vision goggles, you'll know that playing GBA in all but optimal lighting conditions is a fairly hateful experience. Not anymore. The joy of flicking on that front light and - for the first time - being able to just settle down anywhere, no matter how dark, and be able to see everything with crystal clarity was a very special moment. It may sound ridiculous, but following this logic to the extreme, we were able to indulge in a session of Doom, in the dark, sat in bed, on a Wednesday night. Sometimes, we worry about ourselves, but it's all in the name of research you understand. Previously, even settling down to play the GBA in a fairly well lit room was nigh on impossible unless you happened to have an overhead spotlight trained on the screen. Ah, simple joys. GBA SP, where have you been all my life?
Sticking with the positive, the 'clamshell' design makes for a far more portable and pocket-sized console. While the GBA was hardly bulky, the SP version is now only just wider than the screen, while measuring the same in depth and length as before. You'll be far more tempted to slip it in your pocket than before - especially as the screen is now protected when it's closed. Previously, any attempt to carry around the GBA outside of a protective wallet would inevitably result in a scratched screen - in fact, even in a wallet it seemed to be a magnet for scratches, although we do wonder how long it will be before the silver plastic coating of our SP starts to wear out.
How antisocial are you? Really?
The battery life is also worthy of praise - with up to 10 hours of front lit gaming, and 18 hours without, the included rechargeable lithium ion battery not going to wear out in a hurry, and will save heavy duty users a fortune in batteries. The charger comes as standard, and takes no more than a couple of hours to replenish. On the downside, if you're on a particularly long haul journey, there's no way of using normal batteries instead. You'll be forced to either wait until you reach your destination to recharge, or do something radical, like talk to someone. We can't imagine it'll be that much of a problem, unless you really hate people. Or they really hate you for being antisocial and playing for 18 solid hours on your GBA.
While, yes, the GBA SP closely resembles the design of Nintendo's early Game & Watch efforts, there is something very now about it. Call it retro futurist, but it appeals to us greatly. It's a Super Nintendo, in your hand, and it looks nice and plays some of the best games ever made. What more could you want?
Well, a bloody headphone socket would've been nice, for starters. Unbelievably, after creating one of the finest pieces of gaming design known to man, Nintendo go and fleg* in our beer and forget to add one of the most essential parts of any portable gaming device. Apparently Nintendo will be selling a separate headphone port, that will plug into the Ext 2 port, but has yet to announce how much this will cost. Why Nintendo, why why why why why? The speaker is just as tinny and pathetic as the GBA, and thus if you have any intention of playing a game with the sound on while in the presence of human beings around, you'll know that you'll get that glare. Try the same thing on a train or a plane (or better still, in a library) and your life won't be worth living. Headphone socket. Where the hell is it?
* Flob, hawk, gob, spit
Another glaring oversight
The next thing to point out, again, is that the shoulder buttons are about the size of your fingertips. Tiny. They're in the region of a third of the size of before, and while we're not paid to design consoles, even we can see that there are acres of space for an extra two buttons on the control deck. Ok, maybe not acres but you can almost hear the lonely A and B buttons screaming "please let the L and R buttons come and live with us, pleeeeease". Another glaring oversight. In practise, the shoulder buttons are much easier to use than you'd imagine, once you come to terms that bleating about their size isn't going to magically make them grow. Fortunately, most of the games we played don't use these buttons extensively, although something like F-Zero felt comfortable. How it would feel after 9 hours of solid play on a beach is still open to question, (as was the case 18 months ago when this writer was utterly obsessed with the cream of the GBA launch titles).
The D-pad, however, feels as good as it is bad. On the one hand, the fact that it's recessed means you'll not suffer from gamer's thumb, and on certain games you'll benefit from being able to perform quick, gliding manoeuvres (e.g. beat 'em ups such as Street Fighter II). On the other hand there's an odd side effect of not having such a defined D-pad, and finding yourself pressing harder to compensate, and this puts an odd strain on the base of your thumb, just in the fleshy portion of your palm. The slightly more angular nature of the SP means that unless you curb your gaming instincts, you'll be suffering some slightly odd pains. The negligible distance between the D-pad and A/B buttons might take some getting used to, but it's not something that bothered us much after the first couple of minutes, and we don't expect anyone but the most shovel handed gamer to bleat too long about this.
Go on, splash the cash
So is it worth parting will your cash for? If you've held off buying one, then the answer is emphatically yes. The catalogue of classic - and now discounted - titles is as long as Tom's best lies, and it really would be rude not to tuck into the very best of them. Your holidays and long journeys will never be the same again. If you're one of the millions of owners of the original GBA, then it's a tougher call. If you've already modded yours with front light, then our question would be 'why bother?', but then if you're that keen to go to the lengths and expense of performing that upgrade, the chances are you'll twitch yourself to sleep with envy. Such is life. If, however, you've resisted the upgrade and your GBA is gathering dust, then ask yourself why? Was it the light issue? If so, a swift trade in is recommended - or hang onto it, thus ensuring multi-player link up possibilities. Ultimately, the reasons for not buying an SP are considerably less compelling than just treating yourself to an extremely cool toy. It's not perfect, but our faith is restored - and that's what counts.
Games tested for the purpose of this feature: Klonoa: Empire Of Dreams, Tekken Advance, Mortal Kombat Advance, Street Fighter II: Turbo Revival, F-Zero, Sonic Advance, Doom, Game & Watch Gallery Advance, Super Bust-A-Move, Yoshi's Island, ISS Advance.
8 / 10