My Favorite Handheld

My Favorite Handheld

Ray Ivey keeps us in suspense no longer

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Quick trivia question: What’s the most successful gaming platform of all time? Nope, not the PC. Not the PlayStation. Not the X-Box 360. It’s the Nintendo GameBoy, and by a large margin.

While certainly not the only, and indubitably not the first handheld gaming device, the GameBoy’s phenomenal success has made it synonymous with portable gaming. That is, until smart phones and pads came along to challenge it!1 

The venerable GameBoy has been around since 1989, but I didn’t jump on the portable gaming bandwagon until 20012. I never thought I’d like it. My eyes are too bad, I thought. I’m too old. Handheld gaming is for kids, isn’t it?

Then something happened to make me change my mind. I began to realize that by refusing to try the GameBoy, I was missing out on a huge amount of great content.

First, the handheld had a great lineup of exclusive new games, many of which were original titles in long-running series. New CastlevaniaAstroboy, and Metroid titles beckoned.

Second, there was an increasingly spectacular lineup of ports of classic games from old, defunct systems, like the NES and SNES. I’d completely missed those generations of gaming platforms, and I was curious about the games. Early classic ZeldaFinal Fantasy, Dragon Warrior and other games from venerable series sang their siren songs.

So I could finally dip my toe into the heady waters of this rich library of games, I finally caved. I bought a GameBoy Advance.

The GameBoy Advance is the third major iteration of Nintendo’s system, following the original GameBoy and the GameBoy Color.3

Okay, the design of the thing was nothing to write home about. But the screen was bigger and brighter than the GameBoy Color.

And: it had GREAT games. LOTS of them. Even better, it was also backwards-compatible with the earlier-generation Nintendo handheld, the GameBoy Color. Which means that the GBA has/had a staggeringly rich and deep game library.

But then, in 2003, Nintendo did a wonderful thing. They introduced the wonderful GameBoy Advance SP. The “SP” stood for “special,” and (game)boy, was it. It was an almost complete reimagining of the traditional, flat concept design that Nintendo had been using for years. An ingenious clamshell, it had several immediate advantages over the old models: It was more compact, thereby fitting in your pocket better. It was sturdier, since the screen was naturally protected when closed. The control button design was compact and efficient and comfortable.

I was in love. It was on the GBA SP that I began my greatest handheld gaming era. I lost myself in games like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Fire Emblem, two of the greatest games of any genre, on any platform, that I’ve ever played.

During this several-year-run of gaming, Nintendo improved the GameBoy even more with the release of the back-lit Nintendo GameBoy Advance SPAGS-101. It was everything that the SP was, but with an even brighter screen. And this, friends, became my favorite handheld gaming device EVER. I travel a lot for work, and this baby went with me everywhere. My GBA SP has seen everything from The Great Wall of China to the blue Danube.

In the early 2000s, it was much less common to see an adult walking around with a small digital device that wasn’t a phone. People noticed it. I would be playing on the GBA SP in a restaurant and strangers would come up to me and ask me what it was. My favorite inquiry was this: “So, do you mind if I ask what that is? It looks like Mini Me’s computer.” It’s true that, opened up, the GBA SP does resemble a tiny laptop.

Of course, I have bought other handhelds in the years since the GBA SP ruled. I love my Sony PSP, and I’ll probably eventually upgrade to a Sony Vita. And I have spent years playing fabulous games on my Nintendo DS. But as great as the DS is, it’s not nearly as portable as the GBA.

So on my last few business trips, I have left my DS at home and instead reached back to my beloved GBA SP AGS-101. Recent games I’ve played on it include Dragon Warrior IIFinal Fantasy III, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

For the record, I’ve never been tempted by the GameBoy Micro. I don’t want to play games on something the size of a band-aid. I also never got the large version of the DS. Too bulky.

I’ve so far resisted the temptation of either version of the new Nintendo 3DS. I’ll probably eventually get both that and a Sony Vita, and I’m sure I’ll have a great time playing games on them.

But I know my heart will always belong to my beloved Nintendo Game Boy Advance SPAGS-101.

Do you play handheld games? What’s your favorite platform?

Coming soon: Playing games on my phone.

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1But that’s another story.
2I am cursed to being a Lifelong Late Adopter. [sobs quietly] 
3I don’t count the VirtualBoy. And neither should you.

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