Twelve years after the release of the original Game Boy, Nintendo finally released the Game Boy Advance, then only three years later, they released the DS, and the GBA line was soon forgotten about…
The Game Boy Advance was an incredible console, with a vast library of games, despite its short time in the spotlight. But doesn’t it seem like the GBA should have been released a few years earlier? Was the Game Boy Color really just a stop-gap to extend the original Game boy’s lifespan?
In this post, we will explore Nintendo’s long journey to create their 32-Bit portable, so join me as we take a deep dive through the history and development of the Game Boy Advance…
The story begins in 1994, the Game Boy had been out for 5 years and it was time to begin thinking about a successor. Nintendo were in talks with a British chip manufacturer called ARM to supply some new chips for their next generation handheld, tentatively titled Project Atlantis.
Rumours began circulating in magazines at the time, It sounded extremely very ambitious, probably too ambitious… Apparently it would have featured a 32Bit CPU and been capable of 3D graphics rivalling the PlayStation and Saturn AND have a 30 hour battery life! It all sounds a bit too good to be true, and a bit of a pipe dream back in 1994.
After a while, the rumours began to fade away and Nintendo kept releasing upgraded versions of the classic game boy line, and then later in 1998, the Game Boy color launched, which wasn’t really a generational leap like some had expected.
Apart from a few small mentions of the name, nothing was ever officially shown about Atlantis by Nintendo for years, that is until 2009 when the prototype console was casually shown off at GDC by Masato Kuwahara, the designers of the DSi!
Although the talk has only been uploaded in Japanese, it didn’t stop me watching the entire thing and it shows off a lot of other really interesting prototypes too, which I’m sure I’ll get to in future videos and blog posts!
While it did look very bulky here compared to the DSi, it’s only about the same size as the Gamegear or the Lynx, which were both viable handhelds in the 90’s, but i can see why Nintendo didn’t want to release such a big handheld back then…
Just for fun I compared the DSi and the Switch in the same way, and it’s amazing to see that it’s actually bigger than the Atlantis would have been! How times change!
Even though the GDC talk did shed some light on the size and design of the console, plus the fact that it did actually exist, the most exciting thing I found, and something that cements these magazine rumours of the new 32 bit ARM CPU as fact, was from a 2019 video interview at Google with Dave Jagger, who was responsible for the development of the ARM architecture between 1992 and 2000.
In the interview he states that he was working with, and visiting Nintendo in 1994, just after they had made the ARM7 chipset, which matches up exactly with those magazine rumours! He also goes into lots of detail about how exactly those chips, and the ones that eventually powered the GBA a bit later on, actually work from a technical level. It’s a fascinating talk and I highly recommend giving it a watch if you’re interested!
The Atlantis is a fascinating glimpse into what could have been, and I believe that getting such a powerful handheld back in the mid 90’s would have changed the industry completely, I have no doubt that if it did release, the Wonderswan and Neo Geo Pocket colour may have been very different, or not existed at all… Maybe Sony would have released a PSP style device in the late 90’s to compete too?
I love speculating about these possibilities, and apparently I’m not the only one who day dreams about this stuff either! I found this amazing website which is dedicated to such things, and back in 2018, someone actually documented an entire potential timeline, sharing in extreme detail exactly how Nintendo’s future could have looked if the Atlantis, which they ended up calling the Super Game Boy, did get a release in 1997 as originally planned. It’s a really fascinating read, and the whole website is such a deep rabbit hold of information if you’re into alternative history!
In the intervening years while Nintendo were experimenting with the ARM processor and the possibility of a new 32 bit handheld, the original Game Boy was still going strong, and the Atlantis project was ultimately put on hold in favour of continuing the existing Game Boy line.
Thanks to some late releases like Pokémon, and upgrades like the Game Boy pocket, lite, and color, that was an easy task! Although by the late 90’s, the technology was looking a bit long in the tooth, and a few competitors are finally beginning emerge to challenge the untouchable Nintendo.
The Game Boy Color, and SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket both released in 1998, and Nintendo finally began officially working on the Game Boy Advance. It took the next two years to develop and finish internally, and was finally released to the public the year after in 2001.
Even though the GBA began development after the Game Boy Colour, the GBA was actually the direct successor to the cancelled Atlantis, rather than the Color. There’s a lot of similarities across the two projects.
The GBA also used an ARM processor, the ARM7DMI, which was an upgraded version of the 710 which was going to be used in the Atlantis. As well as four buttons instead of the GBCs two. Except the X and Y buttons were swapped for shoulder buttons instead.
There was an Iwata asks style interview on Nintendo’s Japanese website before the launch of the GBA to give a glimpse into its development. I managed to track down the original website and translate it, and here’s some of the most interesting information I found on there.
The first year of development was focussed on defining the CPU specs, and screen size. Interestingly they mentioned having the wide screen display as a point towards porting console games as TV’s were beginning to feature 16:9 displays, but as we all know, the GBA ended up having mostly ports of SNES games, which didn’t use 16:9, so they ended up being zoomed in and having details missing compared to the console counterparts…
Maybe this was a bit of an oversight on Nintendo’s part? The Atlantis was planned to continue the same screen aspect ratio as the original game boy, and the DS that followed did too… But widescreens were becoming popular in the home, so it seemed like a marketing tactic more than anything.
The next part of the interview covered some of the design challenges. It’s interesting to see that they considered doing a clamshell design before the SP, but at the time it would have been too bulky, but as we’ll see later on in the GBA’s life, they did get to go back to that concept, and ended up creating what many consider to be the best iteration of the Game Boy line, the SP.
They also discussed the fact that the system was designed to be the next evolution of 2D pixel art style games, rather than going down the 3D route, as it would drain power too fast.
They also talked about how much effort it was to test every single game boy and game boy color game for compatibility on the GBA too!
The final design of the GBA was done by an outside design company called Curiosity, based in Tokyo. https://curiosity.jp/works/gameboy-advance.html
Interestingly, most of their design work before the GBA was actually architecture, and some furniture. They did design a mobile phone in 2009 though, which is pretty interesting, although there’s little in common with the GBA aesthetically.
In 1999, Bandai released their Wonderswan handheld, which was designed by the inventor of the original Game Boy, Gunpei Yokoi, and SNK released their upgraded Neo Geo Pocket Color. While still no match for Nintendo’s almighty Game Boy, at least in terms of popularity, they did both have a great library of games and very good specs too, and must have given Nintendo at least a bit of a push towards releasing some upgraded hardware…
In 1999, Nintendo began to send out Dev Kits to potential developers. By the end of 1999 they had already sent out over 1000 boards!
The gaming news website IGN got a hands on with one of these boards for an article at the time, The boards were known as the Game Boy Advance Target Board TS2 (standing for Test System), it’s really interesting to see what developers would have been working with at the time.
This TS2 board was actually built upon the original game boy and gameboy color dev kits which also used flat circuit design like this. The board used a modified SNES controller to be able to control the game, and had a GBA screen and buttons on the board its self.
Hard 4 Games did a fantastic video looking at it in detail, it’s one of my favourite Channels too, so definitely go and give them a follow after this!
Later, a much more professional looking Dev kit by Intelligent systems was sent out, this one just had a GBA cart slot, and had an optional GBA link to be able to play games on the system through the dev kit it’s self. A channel called Behind The Code did a great rundown of everything that the Intelligent Systems version of the Dev Kit can do.
As well as these, there’s a few other interesting dev devices I found which I’ll share briefly. I would love to try and own some of this stuff someday! You can find out more at this website called Retroversing.com
So, with all this development equipment in the hands of Nintendo talented developers, things must have been very exciting internally, and the following year, Nintendo were preparing to reveal the console to the public for the first time, along with some playable demos of the early games for the console!
2000 marked the first time Nintendo publicly announced the GBA, Nintendo decided not to share anything about the GBA at E3 that year, instead decided to do a conference at their own show called Spaceworld in Japan instead. This was a very special event for Nintendo because not only were they announcing the Game Boy Advance, but the Game Cube too!
The event spanned several days and was open to the public as well as thew press. And thanks to this amazing video, we can have a great look at what the event was like! I always imagined Spaceworld to be a dark show, with nothing more than a main stage and maybe a few booths, but this looks like a much bigger and brighter event than I imagined! It even had a Nintendo march store there too! I would have LOVED to to go an event like this as a kid, it must have been very exciting!
In terms of the GBA at the show, there were some interesting differences to the final product, in terms of both games and hardware. First, there were several unreleased color variants of the system.
- Clear with blue buttons
- Silver with blue buttons
- Clear purple with orange buttons, well technically brown d-pad and shoulder buttons, and orange A,B Start and select buttons there’s a video by xxx that details the difference with the colours compared what people expected,
- Silver with orange buttons – which also seems like it actually has brown D-pad and shoulder buttons?
There was also a berry red variation, which while not shown off at Spaceworld, was given out with Dev kits. It’s a shame we didn’t get these brighter colours, the final choices for the GBA launch were much more plain in comparison. We did get something similar to the Berry red one, but it was a very rare explosive system that you could only get form one specific shop in Canada, it’s thought that only between 1000 – 5000 of these exist!
None of these colours were ever released officially, but over the years, some of them have surfaced online though Yahoo auctions Japan, and been preserved with high quality photos and videos too! From these videos and preservation efforts, we can also see that the boot up was different to the final release
With the initial showing of the system going down so well with the press, just after Spaceworld, a trade show called ECTS in the UK also had the GBA on show for the press and public to experience before release, and the reception to it was extremely positive! From the photos I’ve managed to find from the event, they were using the same prototype GBA colours that featured at Spaceworld.
It’s cool to see something so important to Nintendo’s story at an event centre that I’ve been to before!
Around this time too, Nintendo began sending out something called the Wideboy64 to press, this was a device that let you plug GBA carts into an N64 to be able to capture gameplay footage and screenshots.
Hype was beginning to build for the launch in 2001, and as a Nintendo obsessed kid back then, I was glued to the gaming magazines every month, devouring any pieces of information about the GBA I could find!
In 2001 the GBA was finally launched worldwide! in Japan on March 21, 2001, in North America on June 11, 2001, in the PAL region on June 22, 2001
It was the first console I ever got on launch day and I have very fond memories of playing it, along with the games I got at launch which were Pinobee Wings of Adventure, and Rayman Advance! Soon after I also got Mario Advance and F-Zero Maximum velocity, and I loved all of them! The GBA era was off to a fantastic start!
Thank you for reading. Watch the YouTube version of this post here: