After utterly dominating the handheld gaming scene for more than a decade with its 1989 product Game Boy, Nintendo in 2001 released Game Boy Advance (originally $99.95), a successor handheld with slightly more horsepower than its old but successful Super NES game console. By 2003, the company had released Game Boy Advance SP (originally $99.95), which was virtually identical in all ways but three: its casing was improved, a rechargeable battery was added, and a “frontlight” was added to make the screen considerably easier to see in all lighting conditions.
By 2004, it looked as if the Advance platform was not going to match the eleven-year lifespan of its predecessor. Following Sony’s introduction of the turbocharged PlayStation Portable, Nintendo debuted Nintendo DS, a large, dual-screened handheld originally aimed at a more adult audience. Initially the company sent mixed messages on DS, initially calling it a “third pillar” device not meant to replace either the Advance or its GameCube home console, but then rapidly focused most of its development and marketing efforts on DS instead of Advance.
That’s why this week’s release of Game Boy Micro ($99.95) may rank as one of Nintendo’s boldest moves yet: the cell phone-sized version of Advance SP debuts at a time when many people assumed Game Boy was dead, or not worth a $100 price tag at a time when a DS console can be had for $130. But as with Apple’s iPod mini and iPod nano, which debuted at only a modest discount from the $299 price point of full-sized iPod, Nintendo is trying an experiment: will older technology fetch a premium price if made smaller and cosmetically flashier? Our opinions can be found in our full review of Game Boy Micro at Read More, below.
As with the early days of the iPod mini, the jury is out on that question for now, especially given that Nintendo has simultaneously (but quietly) just released an improved version of GBA SP with a brighter, truly backlit screen for $79.95. Unlike iPod mini, Game Boy Micro isn’t the lowest priced way to buy a Game Boy. But it has some distinct advantages over the cheaper SP.
Micro’s footprint is 4” x 2” by 0.7”, and its weight is 2.8 ounces – comparable though not identical to the iPod mini, equally pocketable and almost equally convenient. It consumes roughly the same space as a set of six cartridges stacked three wide and two deep, and those cartridges remain its only disadvantage: unlike an iPod, you still need to carry around separate media, and unlike a Nintendo DS, the media aren’t small.
The single best aesthetic feature of Micro is its customizability. In the United States, two colors of Micro are now available: “black” and “silver,” though the names are confusing by comparison with the Japanese versions of the device. From the front, “black” looks mostly silver thanks to its default silver detachable plastic face plate, which is framed by an otherwise mostly black body. “Silver” looks mostly black from the front because of its black face plate, framed by a silver body. (Japanese consumers can also purchase blue, pink, and red bodied Micros, the latter of which comes with a special commemorative gold face plate.) You buy the model you want for its body color, then replace the face plates as you want, like the shells of certain Nokia phones.
If not ingenious on the surface, this feature has the potential to be an absolutely huge selling point for Micro – perhaps the thing that will make the console even bigger than the SP. If this sounds ridiculous, just take one look at the window of 162 faceplaces that appears when you click on the Vol. 3 banner here. In addition to myriad game-related plates, there are already Japanese faceplates specific to Cup of Noodles, Fujifilm, the Hanshin Tigers baseball team, Parco, Shiseido, Tower Records, and a movie called Custom Made. Collectors will lose their minds, but for average consumers, there are now endless chances to customize the device you carry around, and businesses now have yet another way to build brand equity. Imagine an iPod with band-specific face plates. Think it would sell? Think bands would go crazy? Nintendo’s there right now. You get three plates with each U.S. Micro, and more will be available soon.
We will not go so far as to say Micro is chic – yet. Nintendo is still a step or three away in the industrial design department from both Sony and Apple; the black Micro has the look and feel of a pocket cassette recorder, while the silver unit is a step better, but not on the drool-inducing cosmetic level of either a PSP or iPod. In our judgment, its aesthetic appeal will be entirely determined by the face plates and body styles Nintendo makes available; there are ways we could imagine Micro could evolve into an iPod mini-caliber object of desire, but it’s not there today.
Micro also includes a simple headphone jack – found in DS but not in the cheaper GBA SP – and a digital volume control on its right side, rather than the analog sliders found on DS and SP. The Micro buttons chirp pleasantly through 17 stages to let you know you’ve adjusted the volume, and though it only includes a single speaker to DS’s two, Micro still puts out enough sound to be heard easily in your hands. It only suffers in synthesizer and sample quality; SP games sound dated by comparison with less sonically aggressive DS titles.
And its controls, while small, are very responsive. Two metal shoulder buttons on its top are accompanied by two face buttons, an eight-way directional pad, and start and select buttons. The start and select buttons glow blue when the unit turns on, and red when the battery is low and needs recharging – our favorite visual touch other than the face plates. We found even the most demanding games (such as fighting games) entirely playable on Micro, perhaps even moreso than on the original Game Boy Advance. Because of Micro’s small size, and good design, virtually any adult or child’s fingers and hands will rest naturally on the right buttons.
There are four other small features in every Micro. First, the center top of each unit has a miniaturized combined data and charging port that’s compatible with the included, and very portable wall charger, but not with older cables. Second, on Micro’s right is a set of two holes for a wrist strap, which isn’t included with the unit, though a small and soft black carrying bag is. Third, cartridges are inserted on the unit’s bottom, inbetween the unit’s bottom left power switch and bottom right headphone port. Micro uses its space very efficiently, and almost ideally.
But the fourth small feature is going to be an interesting experiment. Micro’s screen breaks Nintendo’s tradition of ever-increasing screen size, which continued to arguably absurd lengths with the two-screened DS. The new screen is smaller than ever before, but remarkably crisper and brighter than even the more expensive DS. It’s a major contrast with the screen design of Sony’s PSP, which emphasized physical size (4.3”) so much that the unit became impossible to carry in a pocket.
You can adjust Micro’s brightness level through five stages by holding its left shoulder button and pressing its volume control. At peak, the screen is surprisingly beautiful, though unquestionably small. The reduction in size actually makes Micro’s aging 2-D graphics look better, but though text is still entirely readable, there are some who will justifiably prefer the larger screens of either SP or DS. Both SP and Micro get around 10 hours of battery life with illumination on, but Micro can’t turn it totally off, whereas SP can to extend its longevity to 18 hours.
As the retro gaming movement has proved, old games are neither useless nor valueless; to the contrary, there is a lot to be said for the 700-title Game Boy Advance library, which includes more than a few handfuls of superb titles, most of which merit their $20-30 current asking prices. But for the population at large, this fact isn’t obvious. Consoles go nowhere without software support, and Nintendo’s biggest challenge today is to convince people that the Game Boy library is still relevant.
In some ways, it is. GBA titles are still fun, quick distractions on the road, and easier to play than some of their DS successors. In marketing Micro, the company should be aggressively compiling a list of key, historic Advance software, and making people aware of the “short list” of top games that merit their attention – everything from puzzle, racing, and adventure games to re-releases of top 8-bit NES games. A way to order these games directly (or find retailers with current availability) should be easy for consumers to find. Even better would be a set of value-priced, five-game compilation cartridges that would eliminate the need to carry stacks of GBA-sized games wherever you go. And obviously, it wouldn’t hurt to have a few more new games better than Donkey Kong: King of Swing to keep the system going.
While Micro does not play original Game Boy titles, unlike the GBA SP, we frankly don’t care. With the exception of a few titles – namely Tetris and its Japanese Bombliss sequel – even the best of these old games are generally long in the tooth and underwhelming by comparison with titles available for the SP. For all but the hardest-core Game Boy fans, the older titles (particularly the squint-inducing black-and-white ones) have little of the emotional or other retro resonance of early NES titles, and their absence is just not missed.
In our view, Micro’s biggest selling point today is convenience – great games, anywhere you go. With cell phone-like dimensions, it can fit in any pocket alongside another device or a wallet, and yet it remains highly usable. Its included carrying case and replaceable face plates effectively moot the only gripes people had about the comparative scratch-susceptibility of its screen versus the older, fold-closed GBA SP, and its bright backlighting makes old games look almost new again. Almost.
After extended playtesting, we can say that we do enjoy using Micro, and prefer its screen to prior-generation GBA SP hardware. Micro’s 10-hour battery life is adequate for most applications, and its inability to turn off its backlight for longer play is to our way of thinking trivial in light of the GBA’s comparatively poor visibility absent illumination.
Its biggest potential sticking points are price and Nintendo’s US support for software and face plate designs. Particularly in light of this week’s screen improvements to the less expensive GBA SP, as well as the availability of a $129.95 Nintendo option with even more software support and horsepower, the $99.95 Game Boy Micro today challenges consumers to decide just how much they value size and the potential for dramatic customizability. As one iLounge reader and long-time games industry participant communicated to us, “at $49.95 per Micro, I’d buy two, but at $99.95, I’d hesitate to buy one.” We tend to think Micro will benefit most in the near future from either a dramatic show of U.S. software and plate support, or a lower price point. But perhaps, like iPod mini, we’ll all be pleasantly surprised.