The Gameboy Advance SP initially came out back in the Spring of this year; it has been a massive success thus far (shipping over a million units across Europe) and two new coloured versions have just been launched.
We decided to get one of these chaps in and give it a thorough road test to check out just how sophisticated handheld gaming has got these days. As well as putting the hardware under the microscope, there are a few mini-reviews of games later on. After all, a console is only as strong as its cartridge line up…
The beast we got to play with was the new flame-red model and as you can see it’s aesthetically striking and very stylish looking. The other new colour is an ice-cool, light arctic blue. We liked the colour a lot – but not quite as much as the size of the SP! It’s incredibly portable with a flip-top screen. When closed, it’s about one and a half times the size of a credit card and about 2cm thick. The flip-top screen also means that the display is protected when the unit is closed and it’s a durable little handheld.
One of the main complaints about the old standard GB Advance was the lack of screen lighting, which meant that playing under dim lighting conditions was difficult, if not impossible. The SP has a backlight which solves this problem neatly and its rechargeable battery runs for 10 hours even with the light (18 without). Incidentally, recharging takes 3 hours via a standard mains power connection.
Also added to the SP are two new shoulder buttons on the top of the handheld, which give useful extra controls in addition to the standard two buttons and D-pad. The D-pad itself is pretty responsive and the overall construction of the controls and screen is very solid.
It’s not all smooth, rolling green pastures though – there’s the odd blot on the landscape. The built-in speaker is rather tinny, although the sound quality is acceptable. There’s also no headphone adapter; you have to buy a special set of headphones instead. It must also be said that even with the backlight, the screen can still look a touch dim if you’re not looking dead straight onto it.
Now onto the games we played. Sonic Advance 2 (Atari) is a classic console affair and it looks tops on the SP. The graphics are excellent for a handheld and the animation commendably smooth. It’s the same gameplay as you’ll remember from the Megadrive and every bit as infuriating and addictive today.
Atari also sent us Super Monkey Ball Junior, a dexterity-based puzzler in which you must guide a monkey in a ball around a series of tilting platforms, collecting bananas. Sounds daft, yes, but it’s highly addictive and added mini-games such as golf and ten pin bowling make this a real black hole for those spare minutes in the day.
Ultimate Brain Games (Telegames) proves that the GBA SP isn’t all about arcade affairs. This is a workout for the old noggin which features eight games; checkers, chess, reversi, four-in-a-row (connect four), battleships, dominoes, mah-jong and backgammon. These are well presented favourites with some decent computer AI to play against. You can also hook up two SPs with a link cable and play multiplayer with only the one cartridge (many games, such as Monkey Ball Junior, require both players to own the game).
Finally, we also examined Rock’n'Roll Racing from the Blizzard stable. This is an isometric racing game in which you can blast your opponents with rockets and mines, all to the tune of some surprisingly well rendered rock classics like Sabbath’s Paranoid. The controls are a little skittish but it’s pretty playable overall and the game boasts considerable depth; you can purchase new vehicles and upgrades as you progress through various leagues.
The games line-up is pretty strong overall, going by the samples we received, and there’s plenty more classic games out there. Retro gamers in particular will have a field day with the SP – a track and field day, if they wish!
The Gameboy Advance SP is a well designed and supported unit. Perhaps those with big hands will find its compactness a little off-putting when it comes to holding it for long periods of time, but all we can say is it wasn’t a problem for us, and we really appreciated the truly portable size.
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