It's not as small as you think.
The original GBA was pretty much a nightmare to use in anything other than optimal lighting conditions, and it was only a matter of time before Nintendo decided to silence the deafening amount of criticism with a new version. Given that all of us here at EG put in more hours into our gaming than can be strictly healthy, the fact that our GBAs have mainly been dust collectors for the best part of a year now should tell you something about how much fun it is trying to squint at that hideously dark screen.
Judging by the reaction from the forums, most of you seem to have come to the conclusion that it's too small for western hands. The SP is just wider than the screen of the original GBA, and exactly the same depth when closed. It really is pocket sized, so some of you will wonder how it feels in the hands of an adult. Fret not. Unless you've got hands the size of shovels, you should be perfectly comfortable with the new design. Firstly the D-pad design should cure that age-old problem of ending up with ridges carved into your left thumb. In typical Nintendo style, something that you think shouldn't work, actually works a treat, and you'll find your thumb glides across the new shallower D-pad - presumably making games that require quick quarter and half rotations in direction far more playable, and enjoyable (Street Fighter Alpha 3, for example?).
The distance between the D-pad and the two buttons has also concerned a few of you. While we only had twenty minutes or so to play about with it, and while it did feel a little too close together compared to what we're used to, it shouldn't cause any discomfort. The weeny shoulder buttons, however, are tiny compared to any other gaming device you'll have ever come across. They do have a solid, responsive feel to them, and a quick blast on Metroid Fusion confirmed that they're easy to use as long as you adopt a hand positioning with your index fingers permanently resting by them. We still hanker after the four-button design, though. Why, Ninty, why?
The screen is clearly the one thing that everyone wanted to be improved, and Nintendo has done the decent thing and provided a toggleable front light feature, with the button placed in the middle at the top, just below the screen. And to the relief of many, it works a treat, providing 10 hours of gaming in any lighting conditions you could throw at it, which is a damned sight more than you could say about the original - and should save it from being relegated to the sock drawer. The one slight drawback is that due to the lighting being run along the edges of the front of the screen (under the glass - almost exactly the same as the DIY mods) spectators will find the light glares across it, although that's hardly a criticism. One thing we did notice during our play on Metroid Fusion was that the colours looked a little washed out - but how it fairs with other games remains to be seen.
Another cool feature is the built in rechargeable Lithium battery, saving gamers potentially vast sums in battery costs. A charger comes bundled with the console (so importers beware) and a complete recharge takes around three hours. Apparently, even after 300 charge/recharge cycles, the battery will still maintain 70 per cent of its original life span. We're not sure if a car cigarette lighter charger unit will be available, but you can bet some enterprising peripherals firm has already got one ready.
Flip top head
And what of the new flip top casing? Shades of Game & Watch, mmm? Jumpers for goalposts, stick men with frightened expressions, no animation, black and white, isn't it? Designed for us "adults", it's the first portable games console that is genuinely pocket sized, and on that basis alone we'll be more inclined to take it with us everywhere we go. Looking also somewhat like a Sony Minidisc player, and of roughly similar dimensions, our personal favourite is the silver version. The one concern we have is how durable it is - i.e. how long will it be before you or a ham fisted friend or relative accidentally snaps off the screen.
On all other levels, the GBA SP is functionally identical to its older brother, but for most committed gamers out there, there are enough improvements to warrant spending the £90 to £95 that Nintendo UK reckon it will retail at. Game wise, there were also vague hints from the UK office that the prices of the games would be driven down to around the £24.99 price point - a price most gamers would welcome with open arms. After all £35 for a retro game is way too much to pay in this day and age, and the slack sales of GBA games proves that fact again and again.
Unusually in this day and age, Nintendo has the console lined up for release in just a couple of month's time - March 28th to be precise. Whether it can revitalise the pocket gaming market remains to be seen, but it's a positive step, and hats off to Ninty for rectifying the mistakes it made sooner rather than later.