The original Game Boy Advance has been hugely successful, but it has one major flaw: The lack of an illuminated screen. Now, with the arrival of the SP version, which has a sleeker, more compact design and a front-lit display, the omission seems even more glaring. But if you're willing to purchase an inexpensive lighting accessory or simply squint a lot, the original GBA costs $30 less than the new SP--and you'll probably find the device for even cheaper in the months to come.
Good and bad news
For the most part, the original GBA is very similar to the new SP. The two units share the same 32-bit RISC processor and sharp, colorful, 2.9-inch, reflective TFT LCD. To put the power of the GBA in perspective, it performs at roughly the same level as a Super Nintendo. Luckily for Game Boy owners, the new GBA will accommodate your old games, as it's backward compatible. The sound, while obviously not CD quality, is a far cry from the blips and bleeps of years past. And the 240x160-pixel display looks beautiful--when you can see it, that is.
While it has a reflective TFT display, the GBA lacks any backlighting. Under normal or fluorescent lighting conditions in most rooms, it is nearly impossible to use. In fact, you'll have to go outside (which could be a good thing once in a while) or camp under a bright light in order to play. The only reasons we can imagine that Nintendo decided to omit backlighting would be to save money on production costs, extend the battery life as long as possible, or (most likely) both. In terms of battery life, the $69.95 GBA did fairly well, yielding 14.5 hours from two AA batteries when in constant use (and if you know anybody likely to play for 14.5 hours straight, please seek professional help for them). Nonetheless, the lack of backlighting is reason enough for us to not score the Game Boy Advance any higher.
Beyond the basic hardware
Comfortable in the hand, the GBA bristles with four keys that are logically placed for frenzied button-pushing. You could even mistake it as controller for a set-top console, which is actually part of Nintendo's grand plan. With a port located at the top of the device, you can hook this GBA into Nintendo's upcoming and have it serve as an additional controller. This port serves other purposes, too. Buying an additional cable will allow you to hook together as many as four GBAs for more competition from your neighbors.
An indispensable accessory
While there are additional accessories for everything from providing force feedback and stereo sound to magnifying the display image, the one essential is the $10 external light. The most useful such add-ons are Nyko's Worm Light Plus and InterAct Accessories' Glow Guard. We also like the Light Shield Advance.
Gameboy Advance SP
Nintendo just can't leave its handhelds alone. The company created the Game Boy Advance SP to replace the backlightless Game Boy Advance. It introduced the Game Boy Micro and the DS Lite to offer smaller, slicker alternatives to the SP and the original DS, respectively. And Nintendo's even upgraded the venerable GBA SP by adding a much brighter screen. The improved SPs are available in Graphite, Pearl Blue, and Pink and retail for $80.
The new screen is a vast improvement over that of the original SP--it's brighter than the DS's and the Game Boy Micro's, and it's clearly visible in just about any condition except direct sunlight. A tiny button toggles the screen between normal and high brightness. The former setting is useful in dark areas or to conserve battery power, while the latter is best for playing where there's plenty of ambient lighting. The screen's horizontal viewing angle is pretty wide, but the vertical viewing angle is much narrower and tends to darken or blow out easily when your view is too high or too low. Thankfully, the SP's hinged design lets you adjust to the correct angle for any vantage point.
Aside from the improved LCD screen and its updated choice of colors, the new Nintendo GBA SP is identical to its predecessor. That's a smart move because the SP, first released in 2003, is still widely considered to be the pinnacle of Game Boy design. Its clamshell design and its light 5.6-ounce bulk makes it easy to pocket and transport while keeping the screen free from scratches. The controls are simple--a cross-shape directional pad, two shoulder buttons, two face buttons, and a start and select key--and generally comfortable to use. And the SP retains the expansion port and compatibility with all the accessories of its predecessor, including link cables and wireless adapters for head-to-head play in certain games.
As expected, the brighter screen sucks down the juice from the rechargeable--and replaceable--lithium-ion battery a bit faster. In our tests, the new SP lasted roughly 8 hours at full brightness, compared to the 10 hours of play we got from an older SP. But the better experience delivered by the brighter screen is well worth the trade-off of the reduced time between charges.
Unfortunately, the new SP also has the exact same problems as its predecessor. The tiny shoulder buttons are a little small and a bit awkward to use, and most annoying, the GBA SP still requires an adapter (such as this $10 Nintendo version) to use headphones.
Minor nuisances notwithstanding, the brighter Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP remains a great little gaming system--especially for kids, for whom it will no doubt provide hours of Pokemon- and Dragon Ball Z-fueled delight. But the SP is no longer the only portable gaming deck in town. Setting aside the much more expensive Sony PSP, the SP faces strong competition from its Nintendo brethren, the Game Boy Micro and the DS, both of which can play the same games as the GBA SP. The Micro costs $10 to $20 more and delivers an even more pocket-friendly form factor--but we'd opt for the larger screen of the SP. However, it's the DS Lite that will tempt potential SP buyers. For $50 more, the equally bright system will play almost all of the SP/Micro-compatible Game Boy games, as well as a growing list of newer, DS-only titles that make use of its unique dual-screen design.