Despite my being a fairly serious gamer, one of the things I’ve never done is purchased a console on day one. The latest opportunity to do so came with the release of the Nintendo DS and I missed that one, too. I’m also going to miss the March release of the PSP but that’s less of a consequence since I really just don’t plan on getting that one at all.

It never fails that the consoles tend to launch when I just don’t have a lot of money to spend. Plus the last several console launches have seen the system launch without a lot of strong titles, so early adopters tend to get hosed. The DS had a PSX-ish port of Madden 2005 and Super Mario 64 DS which, despite what everyone says, looks worse than the Nintendo 64 version. The Metroid Prime: Hunters demo looks interesting but the game isn’t out yet.

Instead – I bought a Game Boy Advance SP. Seriously. While the Nintendo DS is reverse compatible with GBA games, it’s not reverse compatible with Game Boy and Game Boy Color games. Plus it can’t do multiplayer on those GBA games. So, I decided to go with the GBA SP, a purchase I had been avoiding long enough.

I bought a GBA over Christmas 2001. In January of 2002, Nintendo announced the GBA SP. I’m a big Nintendo fan, but this is the biggest chickenshit move they’ve ever pulled (waiting until after the Christmas buying season to announce the SP). Still, I had bought an Afterburner kit and decided I was going to make it work.

Well, the Afterburner kit was a disaster. The instructions for the kit left a lot to be desired and as a result, the installation attempts were all botched. The resulting trauma meant that my GBA never quite worked right again – the screen would intermittently crap out and I had to rig the insides with plastic shards to get the connection to the screen to work properly. This precluded me from being able to play GBA games for the most part. I got the Game Boy Player for the GameCube and it helped things, but I never really could get into the GBA.

In June or so of 2004, though, Nintendo released the “Limited Edition Classic NES” GBA. This, I decided, I wanted. They had released a Famicom version in Japan so I decided to wait and see if they were going to do a NES one and they did. Of course I pissed around and didn’t get one until Christmas 2004. Most of the time when a company lists something as “Limited Edition” they mean “Limited to however many we sell”. Not Nintendo. They don’t fuck around. I found out that these things were thin on the ground.

Luckily the Circuit City website lists the locations in the area where the item you find can be purchased. There were two within a hundred miles – one in Addison, and the other in South Lake, TX. So I darted out to the Addison one and found the empty box for the unit, of which there were like 2-3. When I went to the counter, the clerk told me “We only have one of these left”. To which I paused and replied “…ok, well I’ll take it.” I’m wasn’t sure why he thought I’d care that this was the last one left. Whatever. Then I had to go to the customer service desk and get the actual unit. After several minutes the woman came out to tell me that there wasn’t one in the back after all. I told them that they might want to get the other “Classic NES GBA” boxes off of the store floor then, since it looks to the average person that they had several. She said that they had to keep the boxes out there to reflect the GBA’s they had in inventory, “kinda like Xbox”. I refrained from telling her that Xboxen are usually identical and that people actually want different versions of the GBA. I then told her that the reason I was out here in the first place was the fact that the website said they had one in inventory to which she gave me some weird bullshit response which I can’t remember now, but it was essentially the “hey the website’s wrong sometimes” response. I refrained from telling her that the point of having the website tied into the inventory was so that it wouldn’t be wrong and perhaps she should see about getting it fixed. After getting a refund, I realized that the person who ran the register and this woman were both really young – perhaps someone had stolen the last one and they were covering for that person? Or perhaps they just wanted me gone. Whatever, I left.

I got smart about the second attempt – I actually called the South Lake store and verified that there was one in stock. Of course, it was a crapshoot if the person I was talking to was right, but whatever. I then did the “purchase online to pick up in store” bit, after which I noticed the website didn’t say they had it in stock anymore, so literally the last one. I drove out to South Lake before work (turns out it was closer to my workplace than my home) and sure enough, they had it. Probably the factor that helped was the fact that they were the only store in a brand new complex.

I was initially a little bit disappointed with the GBA SP’s illumination – mainly that it’s just a little bit on the blue side. Like the aforementioned botched Afterburner solution, it’s a “frontlit” soluition, not a “backlit” (for a frame of reference, your color cell phone screen is probably backlit – as opposed to puttng a light on a plastic screen in front of the screen). However, I got over it and I discovered – this thing is probably the most pefect little device I’ve ever encountered. As much as I curse Nintendo for pulling that maneuver in January 2002, I’m kicking myself for not getting one of these sooner.

Of course the first game I go buy is The Legend of Zelda from the “Classic NES Series”. I figure between the two times I bought it for the old NES (gold and grey cartridges), the special disc for the GameCube with the old Zeldas on it, and this GBA cartridge, this is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve bought this same game. And they say emulation will cannibalize these sales. And it’s just inheriently cool to run it on a screen with an old NES controller layout below it.

I then bought the GBA “port” of DOOM. It’s still pretty damn impressive. It’s just close enough to make you feel like you’re really playing DOOM, and just different and flawed enough to remind you you’re not. It’s a really really impressive tech demo and it’s a lot of fun, but the menu interface kinda sucks and in a few places the limitations of the hardware come out. Plus it just throws you off when the music is all different – I guess they didn’t want to re-license Bobby Prince’s music. Still, that I can run freaking DOOM and The Legend of Zelda on the same machine – one that I can carry to bed with me.

Of course therein lies part of the problem. My Wife got a little annoyed since I played it all the freaking time. I’ve had to learn how to balance play time with real life again. At least I can put the GBA away easily, which is more than I can say for those poor WoW players. I finally got around to beating Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Zero Mission, the second of which was particularly cool since the unlockable extra on completion is the original NES Metroid. Nintendo actually also came out with this on a separate $14.99 cartridge and I almost got it – not because I didn’t know about the unlockable feature but rather because of the way my mind works – I’d rather have the cartridges separated. Fortunately common sense won out. It’s funny, I beat Fusion and then beat Zero Mission and they were both incredible games and I did well and it occurs to me – I never really did beat the original Metroid. I watched friends beat it but I never did myself. One of my college roomates could go through the entire game in one sitting. I figured, while I was on a roll, I’d go beat Metroid and I’ve come to realize why I never beat it – that game is freaking hard. Well not only that but whereas in a “modern” game there’s all these gameplay conventions like being able to save in a bunch of spots and get recharged – in Metroid there’s none of that. You get a password (which the game saves for you – nice) and you start from one of like four places and have 30 health. Period. You have to build that back up yourself. Unless I’m forgetting some special trick, the only real way to get back to fully charged easily is to pick up another energy tank. Ouch. Plus the shock of going back to 8-bit graphics is bigger than I anticipated. Still, I’m having fun – this game is seriously hardcore.

Back to more current handhelds – I do plan on getting a Nintendo DS, mostly because I played Wario Ware Touched! at Target the other day. Yeah, I don’t see the DS as something long lasting. It’s neat as hell and I think when Nintendo or one of their partners writes games for it and it alone (not ported from some other game) it’ll get its due. The usage of the screen and stylus in WWT was nothing short of brilliant. But the Target unit’s screen already had scratches on it. I know your average kid at Target is a threat and all but I’m not sure that bodes well.

The thing that gets me is this – yeah it runs GBA games and all but the DS is somewhat close to the Virtual Boy – it’s not a GB/GBA replacement, it’s got an unusal, untested gimmick, and the standard development and porting process just won’t work for it. Unlike the Virtual Boy it’s not some sort of stopgap until Nintendo’s next “real” home console, but I’m just wondering what it’s like to have to develop for two screens now and take ergonomics into account.

The PSP though, I think I might skip. It’s supposedly got horrible battery life and I’m not thinking that the usual graphical yardstick applies. Nintendo comes up with souped-up SNES graphics for the GBA and it’s golden. I’m not sure it’s going to matter in the long run how many polygons the PSP port of Gran Turismo will run if the thing kills the battery in a couple of hours. Does anyone really want to play detailed games on a tiny screen? Maybe they do. But I can’t believe people are actually excited about UMD Movies. Let’s see, a movie I probably already own on DVD on a smaller disc with a substandard resolution and no extras that I can watch on a tiny screen and pay the same price as a DVD for? I’ll pass.

Of course to some degree what the PSP is doing is taking what Nintendo does and throwing more at it, hoping that will win out. They see that Nintendo has a huge hit with the GBA so they say “hey let’s do better hardware!” which the PSP is, but at the expense of battery life. Nintendo was so concerned about battery life that they waited from 1989 until 2002 – thirteen years – to give the GBA a lit screen. And the only way they’d do it is if the GBA had its own battery. Sure, people like me think the light thing is more important than batteries, unil we remember what it was like to play the Sega Game Gear and have six AA batteries last eight hours, tops. And more people care about batteries than light. By 2001 the Game Boy line had sold over 100 million hardware units, so Nintendo was doing something right.

Nintendo came out with “Game Boy Advance Video” carts. These were carts that somehow held video. I think their choices of content (Pokemon and Spongebob Squarepants episodes, for example) help witht he compression (animated content has the potential to compress better) but I thought these were stupid when they came out. But at $20 a pop for ~2 hours of content, they basically pan out with DVD’s and videos for kids. And kids watch the same DVD’s and videos over and over again. And these carts are more durable (I saw a child at someone’s house break one of their DVD’s in half trying to get it out of a case). And they’re portable and easier than a portable DVD player. So they sold truckloads. Again, Nintendo is the Apple of gaming – doing things that seem idiotic and turning them brilliant (usually). Sony said “hell, we have actual movies like Spider-Man 2 we could put on this thing! Stuff adults would want!”. I just don’t see it working. Why wouldn’t an adult just get one of the many existing portable DVD players I see people using at airports all the time – you can use your existing DVD collections (which adults tend to have), pop in a copy of one of the LOTR movies, and viola. Entertainment for hours.

Anywho, another month, another freakishly long post. I’m off to go play some more Zelda.