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GBA SP: Official Member of the Special Player Club

I decided to get the review for the GBA SP out of the way this week. The GBA SP for the uninitiated is the flip screen version of the Gameboy Advance which has been featured here previously. The selection of units that can play GBA games is rather diverse which makes reviewing the unit a bit different. While many handheld games are only available on one or two systems, Nintendo games are frequently available on dozens of different systems. Therefore the system can’t be judged just by itself but needs to be compared to the other systems that play GBA games. I’ll be straight here: if the GBA SP was the only system to play GBA games on it would be aces. Bellow is a short list of boss games that were released on the GBA.

In alphabetical order, a handful of games you should play that were released for the GBA: Advance Wars, Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising, Astro Boy: Omega Factor, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Fire Emblem, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, Gunstar Super Heroes, Kirby & the Amazing Mirror, The Lost Vikings, Metal Slug Advance, Metroid Fusion, Super Mario Advance 2, Super Mario Advance 4, TMNT, WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$, and WarioWare: Twisted! You very well might already have a system to play these games, be it a Gamecube with adaptor, Nintendo DS, or any of the other GBA systems. If so, you are set; the GBA SP is not for you (unless you plan to purchase a Handy Famieight).

I just found out that the “SP” in GBA SP means “Special Player”. It reminds me for some reason of a scene from the 1995 cult classic “Welcome to the Dollhouse”. Dawn Weiner, an awkward 7th grader, has a crush on the older attractive Steve Rodgers and invites him to become a member of the “Special People Club”. The following exchange happens.

Steve Rodgers: Special people?

Dawn Weiner: Yeah.

Steve Rodgers: Do you know what "special people" means?

Dawn Weiner: What?

Steve Rodgers: Special people equals retarded. Your club is for retards.

There are a few “special” features that are unique to the GBA SP. The first is the closely spaced buttons. This is not a huge deficit but the buttons are very close together and make playing with man-hands a bit cramping. Compared to all other GBA compatible systems the control layout is the weakest. I realize that with the size and otherwise excellent flip top design there is no real way around the button positioning but it’s still unfortunate.

The second negative is that there is no headphone jack. You have to use an adaptor that fits into the power jack to use headphones. Really Nintendo, there was not enough room to cram a headphone jack in there somewhere? This is again a rather small complaint but it reminds me of the following scene from “Welcome to the Dollhouse”. Dawn confronts a classmate about why she is disliked.

Dawn Weiner: Why do you hate me?

Lolita: Because you're ugly.

The otherwise excellent SP is simply the least attractive of the GBA family. It is a proto DS which was a proto DS Lite. It will never achieve the tacky loveableness of the earlier Nintendo handhelds or the i-cool of the DS Lite. Another strike is that the original GBA SP had a rather sub par front lit screen that when compared to the Nintendo DS Lite, Gameboy Micro, or even the original DS, is simply ugly. There is a version of the SP that was released later that has a much better screen that has a model number of AGS-101. If you want to save a few bucks and can find one in good condition you might consider an AGS-101. The weird thing is that if you can find the AGS-101 new it will most likely cost more then a new DS Lite.

Soon Nintendo will release a newer more portable slightly improved system that will play DS games and will likely drop GBA functionality which will force me to reconsider the place of the GBA SP. This is what Nintendo does: iterate on a system until it is about as good as it’s going to get. Until that day consider the scores below before purchase or check out the comments section for a second opinion.


Screen: 7-9/10 The original SP has a front lit screen that can be turned on or off. It is useable in near dark with the light on or in bright light with the light off. It is hard not to compare the screen quality with the DS Lite or Gameboy Micro. Fortunately the AGS-101 model has back lighting. The original should be avoided unless it can be picked up cheap.

Sound: 7/10 Has one speaker that sounds decent enough. System has no headphone jack and requires an adaptor to use headphones. This is stoopid!

Controls: 8/10 Great controls but a little close together. Probably great for children and gnomes. The controller is classic Nintendo.

Availability: 8/10 Available new online or used at your local EB or Gamestop.

Price: 5/10 Anywhere between $50 used and $160 new. When you can get a DS Lite for $129 the SP begins to lose its luster. If you can snag an AGS-101 model in good condition for less then $50 and don’t want to own a DS, this is a good system.

Library: 10/10 All the Gameboy, Gameboy Color and GBA games. Fanfuckingtastic library!

Overall: 6-9/10 The AGS-101 model is a great system. The front lit unit is not so good especially since the DS Lite and Gameboy Micro are both better systems that can play GBA games.


  1. Although I generally agree with most of your review, I think you're being a little hard on the ol' GBASP's form factor. The button size and placement are pretty much identical to what they are on the Game Boy Pocket or Game Boy Color (or the Game Boy Light, if you're lucky enough to have one of those), and though you could voice the same complaint about control size and spacing against all of these systems, it's hard to deny that more than a few people have found them perfectly acceptable... I have to say, that excepting the absence of a convention headphone port, I think that the new, "brighter screen" model GBA SP is probably the absolute best handheld available in terms of durability and portability; hey, it fits in my pocket! (which is more than I can say for the DS). Not to mention the incredible library of available games, which, thanks to full backward compatibility with the entire Game Boy library, includes all Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance games, all region free (so you can play Japanese imports without issue); it's an incredible wealth of gaming goodness! :)

  2. I personally prefer the Gameboy Micro to the GBA SP which makes it easier to be hypercritical of the SP. Both the DS Lite and SP can fit in my pockets however neiter of them are particularly small. The Micro on the other hand is tiny. It is like a baby mouse who lives in your pocket. It has better width between the buttons and has the super excellent, abeit very small, screen. It also has a headphone jack. The lack of a flip top would be a pretty serious negative if the unit did not have replaceable screens.

  3. I also have a GB Micro, but as it's not backwardly compatible, it's available library is less than half of the GBAsp... and as far as the screen is concerned, the 2nd gen GBAsp's "brighter screen" is the same thing in a larger size. I agree about the Micro's size though - it's a magnificent "stealth" handheld; go ahead, take it to church... only you and God will know ;)