The Latest Game Boy: a Winner

aaron.curtiss@latimes.com

The video game system sure to please the most people at the lowest price this year isn't Microsoft's Xbox, Nintendo's Gamecube or Sony's PlayStation 2.

Although those beefy boxes with their equally hefty price tags have gotten most of the ink lately, Nintendo's humble Game Boy Advance could end up outselling all three of the systems--combined.

The $100 Game Boy Advance--set to hit store shelves Monday--is the first complete reworking of Game Boy since Nintendo introduced the hand-held system in 1989. Since then, the company has sold 110 million units worldwide, making Game Boy the best-selling game system ever.

If anything, Game Boy Advance only cements that position. It's a thoroughly solid system that enjoys significant improvements to the screen, processor and button layout without sacrificing Game Boy's traditional sturdiness. Its initial library of games is interesting, if uninspired. And the price is low enough that parents can justify buying it as a gift or using it as an incentive for kids to save up and buy it themselves.

The guts of the system include a 32-bit processor that's several dozen times faster than Game Boy's old 8-bit processor. Game Boy Advance also boasts a screen that's 50% larger than the old Game Boy display and capable of displaying as many as 32,768 colors simultaneously.

Because the screen is a reflective active matrix display with 38,400 pixels, graphics look brighter and sharper than on any hand-held system except Sega's old battery-devouring Nomad, which was backlighted. Happily, Game Boy Advance still relies on two AA batteries, which power an average of 15 hours of game play.

The one beef with the screen is that it can sometimes be difficult to see. Because the display depends on reflected light, players are wise to play in direct sunlight or under a bright lamp. The flat, ambient lighting of most office buildings makes for eye-straining play.

Overall, though, the result of all these technical enhancements is rapid-fire play that looks as good as some early games for the original Sony PlayStation. "F-Zero: Maximum Velocity," for instance, is a first for hand-helds: a true 3-D racer that zips along clearly and quickly.

But given the technical juice in Game Boy Advance, there are surprisingly few 3-D games in the initial library of 17 titles. In addition to "F-Zero," there's "GT Advance Championship Racing," another racing game. Plus, "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" lets players skate around completely three-dimensional skate parks. It's like the Sony PlayStation version shrunk down to a hand-held.

Those are the exceptions, however. Most initial games are standard two-dimensional fare that look like dolled-up Game Boy titles. "Super Mario Advance" and "Castlevania: Circle of the Moon" are side-scrollers that look and play like their 16-bit predecessors. And "Iridion 3D" is a misnamed space shooter in which players blast targets coming at them from the center of the screen. It looks three-dimensional at first glance, but players get to move only on a simple X-Y axis.

They're still plenty of fun--just not that eye-popping. They give players a quick and easy good time without the commitment of having to log hours and hours in front of the television.

Game Boy has never really been a franchise that knocks people's socks off. It's more of a reliable old friend that delivers solid fun in a sturdy case. It's a traveling partner that players can fire up on a plane or in the back seat of a car and while away chunks of time. It's the game machine for people who don't particularly like game machines.

Game Boy Advance carries on that tradition with games such as "Super Dodge Ball Advance" that are easy to learn and tough to put down.

The system also fits seamlessly with Nintendo's other products. Old Game Boy and Game Boy Color cartridges work with Game Boy Advance, meaning players won't have to rebuild their libraries or tote around two machines.

Because Game Boy Advance has a wider screen than previous iterations, players have the option of running their old games in a squished square box or stretched out across the screen. On an action game like "Donkey Kong," characters look short and fat--and for Mario, that's saying something. On games like "Super Scrabble," though, the wide screen makes the board and letters easier to see.

And Game Boy Advance serves as a controller for Nintendo's upcoming Gamecube console, so players will be able to use the unit's screen to, say, call plays in a football game without revealing strategy to an opponent.

Nintendo has hinted that it might do more. Although the company is cagey about some of those uses, it certainly seems logical that the players will be able to transfer data back and forth between Gamecube and Game Boy Advance games in much the same way they could with "Pokemon" titles.

Meanwhile, as many as four players can run their Game Boy Advances off a single game cartridge by chaining units together with a link cable--meaning the days of having to fork over twice to play head-to-head "Tetris" may be coming to an end.

Ergonomically, the horizontal design is a blessing. Gone is the cramped vertical layout of the screen on top with buttons below. Although the overall dimensions are not perceptibly larger than Game Boy Color, the horizontal configuration with buttons straddling either side of the screen feels much more comfortable.

The thumb pad sits on the left and the "A" and "B" buttons sit on the right. Atop the unit are right and left paddles similar to those found on the Nintendo 64 controller. These give players added control without junking up the unit with too many buttons.

2001 will go down as a year of difficult choices for video game players. With so many options, it will be tough for some to decide among Xbox, Gamecube and PlayStation 2. But one choice is easy.

Game Boy Advance is a great system at a fair price.

Get one.

Aaron Curtiss is editor of Tech Times.

How Stuff Works

* A graphical look at Game Boy Advance. T8

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The Skinny

Game Boy Advance

Price: $100

Manufacturer: Nintendo

Software format: Cartridge

Processor: 32-bit

Display: 2.9-inch active matrix reflective screen capable of displaying more than 32,000 simultaneous colors

The good: Sweet and sturdy

The bad: Not all games ready for prime time

Bottom line: Get one

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