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GBA SP Review

Thanks to EAGB Advance for the review

Buy your GBA SP in all colours from Lik Sang


For a long time now there were rumors that Nintendo was going to release a new back-lit GBA. Nintendo, however, stubbornly denied the rumors and so sales of licensed and unlicensed external and internal light accessories like the Afterburner continued to sell well.

In early 2003, and from almost out of the blue, Nintendo announced that it will indeed release a new back-lit (actually front-lit) GBA. Before pictures of the new GBA was released, rumors were once again rife on what the new model would look like, with some speculating that illumination would be provided by an external adapter and others that it will be based on a totally new hardware architecture with even more buttons.

Well, it's 14th February and the GBA SP has been released in Japan. Without a doubt, reactions to the new GBA SP has exceeded all expectations. The most surprising change, of course, was the new clam-shell design and compact form factor.

In this page, I will attempt to show the GBA SP from various angles, compare it to the current GBA and give you some of my hands-on experience. If you want a detailed specification sheet on the GBA SP, you can get it from the Nintendo Web site.

Size Comparison With GBA

With the GBA SP closed, you can see that in terms of length, the regular GBA is undoubtedly longer. In terms of thickness, they are almost the same, except for the noticeably protruding buttons on the GBA. It's amazing isn't it, how technology has progressed and how much Nintendo has managed to shrink the SP.

When the GBA SP is opened, you can see that it's transformed to the traditional vertical oriented GameBoy. In this instance, the SP is a bit longer than the GBA. As you will note, the SP is split nicely into two halves, the bottom is the control section and top is the display section. Now, because the SP display has less of a border around its screen, it does seem to have a smaller screen than the GBA although they are exactly the same. Nintendo has done a fantastic job of making the SP lightweight and also in terms of weight distribution, balancing it just right so that when the SP is fully extended, the unit does not feel top or bottom heavy.

Button Layout

One of the many things that you will have to get used to with the new SP is the placement of the L and R shoulder buttons. They are really small and somewhat delicate; there's a probability that they could break from constant use. The way that they are positioned at the edge of the unit also makes me worry that they might come off when accidentally dropped.

Looking at the compact SP you might think that it will be difficult to handle the unit when playing. But if you look at the picture, you can see that the SP is actually very secure in my hands and easy to handle. You might, however, get tired faster, especially your index fingers on the L and R buttons because of the somewhat awkward "G" shape that you will have to maintain. When I say "G" shape, I mean the shape that is formed by your thumb and index finger when you hold the SP unit. For people with small hands, this shouldn't be too much of a problem, I guess.

Because the SP folds in half, the buttons are all recessed to prevent damage to the screen. Consequently, the buttons are now much more shallow. Looking at the picture, you can see the marked difference in protuberance between the GBA cross-pad and the SP cross-pad. As such, this might make fast moving games a little more difficult to control. Games that require multiple button presses or accurate diagonal movements like in fighting games might also be a problem.

Another thing to note is that the 'Start' and 'Select' buttons is placed further from the cross-pad. You need to extend your thumb all the way down to hit these buttons. In most RPG games, these buttons are often used to access menus, and with the SP layout, it makes things a little more harder. But I think that this is something that one can get used to over time.

Power and Battery Life

The GBA SP's power switch and power-on LED indicator can be found on the right side of the unit. Like the conventional GBA, this LED turns from green to red if the battery charge becomes weak. A new LED, the charge indicator, has been added right beside the power indicator. This charge LED glows with an orange light if the unit has been plugged-in using the included AC Adapter to charge the battery; the light disappears once the batteries are fully charged (about 3 hours is considered a full charge time). You can also play the GBA SP while the battery is charging.

At the bottom of the GBA SP is a sealed panel than contains the rechargeable battery. Normally the battery life can last up to 10 hours on a full charge (18 hours without turning on the light). While the battery life is adequate, there could be times when it could run out during long car rides or travel times, and unless you have access to a nearby electrical outlet, you're stuck with a dead GBA SP. The battery can be charged around 500 times, after which its efficiency can degrade to 70%. If the battery's efficiency continues to deteriorate, it must be replaced, which will entail bringing the GBA SP to a Nintendo Service Center; it would've been easier if we can change the battery ourselves.

Sound, Volume and connector ports

To the left of the GBA's controls can be found the volume control. Unlike the familiar dial volume control of the GBA, this time a sliding-type control is used. I don't really prefer this, since you can't get the kind of precise control you have with a dial; there's a tendency for you to unwittingly turn the slider to the max setting, which can result in a sudden ear-splitting surprise. The GBA SP's speaker is mono as usual, but you can enjoy full stereo sound when using headphones.

As for the headphone jack, Nintendo seems to have adopted a similar design with Bandai's Wonder Swan, in the sense that there is no direct headphone jack available on the GBA SP. Instead, a headphone adapter plugs into the back multiport, the very same port that the AC Adapter connects to. Which means that you can't listen to the headphones when the unit is plugged-in, which can be somewhat of an annoyance if you don't want others to be disturbed by the sound while playing. The headphone adapter isn't also included; it's purchased separately. Oh well, at least it's cheaper than the Wonder Swan's.

Other external cables such as the GBA link cable and the GameCube link cable can be attached to the back connector port, located beside the AC Adapter multiport. However, while you can use the link cable with the GBA SP plugged in or with a headphone, you can't use these with the GBA to GameCube link cable, as the connector will block the multiport. On the other hand, the e-reader peripheral (the Japanese version only) will no longer block the link connector port as it did on the standard GBA.

Built-in Light

The biggest feature of the GBA SP is of course, the built-in light. Contrary to what others might say, it is not a backlight, but rather a frontlight, located at the bottom portion of the LCD screen. The front-light lights evenly and brightly illuminates the entire screen with a faint bluish glow. The light switch is conveniently located above the directional cross-pad and the A+B buttons; it's a good thing that a separate light switch was provided, unlike the old Game Boy Light models that had the light switch integrated with the power switch. However, the light also turns on when you turn on the system, which can drain the battery fast - the battery can last a good 18 hours on a full charge if the light isn't used.

To illustrate how the light makes a big difference in playing, take a look at these three pictures of Mario Kart Super Circuit: the top one was taken with the GBA SP light on, the middle picture with the GBA SP light off, and the bottom picture was taken from a regular GBA. It's obvious that the trees can hardly be seen in the last two pictures while the lighted one shows a substantial improvement.

Another more striking example can be seen here, in the popular Castlevania: Circle of the Moon game, which was plagued by one thing - gamers complained that it was literally too dark to see anything in the game. The GBA SP alleviates this problem somewhat, as the formerly dark levels become a bit brighter with the built-in light.

Cartridge Slot

The GBA SP's redesign places the cartridge slot at the underside of the unit's bottom half, far away from the LCD screen where the carts used to be inserted behind it on the top of the old GBA. Cartridges for the old Game Boy and Game Boy Color systems will run on the GBA SP, with some very minor exceptions, such as the special carts with extra hardware, like the sensors in Kirby's Tilt N' Tumble, which will make playing the game difficult. Non-GBA carts, which are bigger, will of course protrude from the bottom, but the e-reader device will look awkward the most; the USA version of the e-reader will also have an unsightly link connector protruding from it as well. The new layout might also pose problems for existing third party peripherals like cameras and TV tuners.

Other Observations

There is concern that constant opening and closing of the GBA SP could loosen the hinge in the middle portion. The hinge is actually very tight and secure, and is set to open the unit in specific positions (see pictures); you can slightly alter the angle, but the hinge will lock on the nearest set position. Of course, it also helps to handle the unit with care when opening it.

For those who enjoy using straps for handling or carrying the GBA, 2 strap holes are provided on the GBA SP, on the bottom left and right corners, right beside the shoulder buttons. You can hook the strap string through these holes and out the slots where the GBA to GameCube link cable attaches; while it looks that you can't attach the GBA to GC cable while there's a strap present, you can do so without difficulty.

Final Comments

If you want to know what cables and accessories are compatible with both the GBA SP and the regular GBA, you can visit Nintendo's web site here. In terms of specifications, the SP and the regular GBA is almost the same, and even the opening logo animation is the same.

In my opinion, overall the price of the GBA SP is rather high. Also, the fact that it uses a special re-chargeable battery is another problem, as it will have to be replaced by a Nintendo service center. Unlike the old GameBoy, we could simply buy batteries off the shelf, but in a way, Nintendo's use of a re-chargeable battery for the SP is more environment friendly in the long run.

On the other hand, however, you can't deny how compact Nintendo has made the SP. Just look at the picture above and compare the size of the SP and GBA packaging. So if you want a hand-held in a compact form factor that is sleek, then the SP is definitely your choice. As for me, I only hope that Nintendo will limit the number of limited editions SPs that they release. There is already news that a Limited Edition Final Fantasy bundle is coming out and if more are released, then I will be bankrupt because I'm a big collector.


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