Release Date: 3/23/2003
Colors: Blue, Black, Silver, Red
The Good: Great ergonomic design, rechargeable battery, small and compact, backlight
The Bad: Backlight isn’t all that bright, no headphone jack, not ideal for large hands
While Nintendo may have dominated the handheld market before smartphones were even a forethought, there was something about them that made them just seem…ugly. Bulky, low end specs, battery suckers; these are just a few names that early handhelds received from the original GameBoy, the Atari Lynx, all the way to even the GameBoy Advance. Handhelds required large casings as CPUs hadn’t quite been perfected yet and were large and bulky, not to mention screen technology was the same still being used in Texas Instrument calculators. LCD was extremely expensive and not cost effective for small devices yet. Same went for battery power. Lithium ion batteries were extremely expensive and not ideal for handhelds. Then came the GBA SP. A sleek fold up GameBoy with a rechargeable battery. It was the first of Nintendo’s handhelds that shed the disposable batteries and improved on screen technology.
The first thing you will notice is the sleek form factor. The GBA SP is an awesome looking device. The original model was bulky and didn’t quite fit in your pocket, thus having to walk around with those dorky GBA bags. The button placement was perfect and the battery lasted for an amazing 10 hours on one charge (15 if you didn’t use the backlight). There was just this perfect square in your hands and it would amaze school yard kids and gaming fans alike. I actually remember having one of these in junior high and original model owners were extremely jealous due to the form factor and the backlight.
Speaking of backlight it was a huge deal. Self-lit LCDs were quite available yet so Nintendo stuck a backlight in the screen to brighten it up as the original model needed and actual flashlight clipped on top. While the screen is still quite dark it made a world of difference and was so much better in the dark. Kids who stayed up late playing their GameBoys were grateful as they no longer needed a flashlight to see the screen and catch their parents’ attention. Later on, however, Nintendo release a newer model SP with an even brighter screen. These models are harder to find and were released towards the end of the GBA’s life cycle.
One major downfall of the SP is the lack of a headphone jack. The speaker is hard to hear in noisy areas with the volume all the way up, so headphones would be ideal. An adapter was required and went into the Link Cable port as an actual output would not have fit into the casing.
Aside from those issues the GBA SP was the portable gamers dream. A strong library with backwards compatibility for the GBA Color and original GameBoy what more could you want?
The GBA SP also came in several colors which wasn’t seen too often in the States. Flame Red, Onyx Black, Cobalt Blue, and Silver were amongst the colors available, while a pink model and a retro NES style model were released later on. However due to the GBA SP’s age it really shows its teeth. Let’s take a look at the actual specs of the machine.
Powering the entire system is an ARM7TDMI CPU at a whopping 16 MHz. Yeah, it’s ancient tech even for 2003, but it got the job done. It had 128 KB of VRAM and 256 KB of DRAM. Yes, that’s kilobytes. The resolution was 256×160 and displayed an astounding 512 colors. However, those dinky specs were home to some of the greatest games of all time; it just goes to show that power isn’t everything.
With that said, the GBA SP is a must buy even for today. We have smartphones that are nearly as powerful as laptops now, the 3DS, and Vita that trumps the GBA in every aspect, but it’s the games that those devices can not bring back. While the $130 price tag was well worth it back in 2003, you will pay close to that or more for one in nearly perfect condition. Honestly, they don’t exist. They are scratched up, dinged, and chewed on. I had to buy my new one with a refurbished third party shell. If you’re a collector go this route on eBay. $60 will get you a new looking GBA SP. However, if you just want the games and don’t care, they run as low as $30 in pawn shops or eBay.