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The Game Boy Advance turns 20 this weekend, and man, what a legacy. It was the third generation of Game Boy hardware, bringing SNES-level graphics to a handheld that could go anywhere. Well, anywhere that was well-lit, that is, as the original GBA unit lacked a backlight. Regardless of that flaw, a lot of us here at Engadget remember the handheld fondly, mostly due to its stellar library of titles. Join us as we reminiscence about our favorite Game Boy Advance games, as well as some related stories of our long-ago youths. (Yes, we’re old.)
Before I played the Fire Emblem series, let alone newer tactical titles like Into The Breach or Mario + Rabbids, it all started with Advance Wars. With cute infantry icons and tanks that squished around grid-based skirmishes, this was Game Boy Does War. Intelligent Systems’ Advance Wars series is the perfect first turn-based strategy game.
With initially simple rules of what each unit does, contrasting human soldiers to tanks, then bigger tanks, artillery, ships and planes, the game holds your hand throughout. No, you can’t just order your units toward the enemy — you have to think it out. The first few levels demonstrate the benefits of fortified structures, high mobility units and setting up your base before pitting you against more capable generals and threats. It’s easy to pick up and play, and forgiving enough for beginners to make their first tentative steps into the hugely satisfying tactics genre. Unlike games like Wargroove, which acts as a spiritual successor of sorts for Advance Wars, each move wasn’t necessarily make-or-break either. The original Advance Wars knows you’re only human, or at least not old enough to drink alcohol.
A lot of games were constrained by the limits of the Game Boy Advance, which is a meandering way of saying it had a small screen and not many buttons. Advance Wars didn’t really suffer, though. The unit icons and split-screen battles were more than adequate, and you didn’t need many buttons to bark orders to your forces. It was streamlined to perfection.
I haven’t played the original for years (more than a decade, if I’m honest), but it prepared me for the more complicated, richer sequels that came after it, with their increased challenges. Advance Wars is probably why I’m still contending with Into The Breach. — Mat Smith, UK Bureau Chief
If the Game Boy Advance could be said to have any cult classics, this title from Hideo Kojima would be at the top of the list. Yes, that Hideo Kojima. Boktai was basically a stealth action game like Metal Gear Solid, but with vampires and zombies.
It wouldn’t be a Kojima game without some weird gameplay gimmicks and Boktai had its share, most notably in the solar sensor embedded into the cartridge. The game’s hero, Django, wielded a “solar gun” that was charged by the light gathered by the sensor. And you needed to be outside — standing next to a window or a bright fluorescent light didn’t do the trick, and an internal clock ensured you couldn’t cheat with a sun lamp at night. The game also became a lot more difficult after sunset because the enemies would be out in full force as well.
The boss battles were also intriguing: after you defeated each villain, they would retreat into a coffin that you then had to drag out of the creature’s castle, retracing all the steps you took to get inside in the first place. Leave the coffin alone too long, and it would start to slide and hop back toward the castle’s throne room.
Boktai was pure cartoony Kojima weirdness, and not really something that could be replicated on the DS, 3DS or Switch, making it a unique time capsule of the Game Boy Advance era. — Kris Naudus, Buyer’s Guide Editor
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
So let’s get this out of the way and say this wasn’t as good as the original Final Fantasy Tactics and, after 24 years we still haven’t had a proper successor to that PlayStation classic. Yes, I’m sad too. But, while Final Fantasy Tactics Advance wasn’t the sequel we were all hankering for, it’s certainly a remarkable experience in itself.
The gameplay was largely carried over from the original, with grid-based tactics and a job system that let your fighters learn and master a variety of skills. The one major change was the “Judge” system, where at the start of each battle you were given a list of weapons, items and spells you were not allowed to use. Just like in soccer, a minor violation would result in a yellow card; two minor infractions or a major one would result in imprisonment for that character. It was an infuriating, frustrating system but it certainly made the game more interesting — and I now know the plural of “staff” is “staves.” (Not that I’ve used the word much since.)
The story was what one would today call an “isekai” tale — where characters from the “real” world are transported to a fantasy realm, in this case one inside a magical tome found in a bookstore. The protagonist, Marche, and his friends were transported to Ivalice, a world that debuted in Final Fantasy Tactics but would appear in later Final Fantasy games. Ever wonder where the bunny girls (Viera) came from? They were introduced here alongside other playable races like Moogles and Bangaa.
FFTA was good for a handheld thanks to its turn-based battles that often took 20-30 minutes; perfect for your average commute on the train or bus. I sometimes even walked down the street playing the game. I once hugged a long-unseen aunt while still playing — yes, I am a bad niece but Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was really just that addictive. — KN
Fire Emblem (FE) is probably my favorite game series. While I similarly adore the Persona, Pokémon and Civilization franchises, there’s nothing that even comes close to the amount of time and, in the case of Fire Emblem Heroes, money I’ve dedicated to FE. But despite the series dating back to the early ‘90s, I’d never heard of it until 2002 when I got into Advance Wars. Turns out, I discovered through a forum, Advance Wars shared a lot in common with Intelligent Systems’ FE series, which had just made its GBA debut in Japan. With no way to play the Japanese games and a burning need for more turn-based tactics, I played through the Genesis Shining Force releases, picked up Final Fantasy Tactics and Vandal Hearts, and basically anything that remotely resembled Advance Wars. Then came 2004 and Fire Emblem.
Technically the second GBA FE title and the seventh overall, Fire Emblem was the first game in the series to be translated into English. The battles were challenging, and its RPG elements drew me in much more than Advance Wars ever did. With a vast story full of twists and turns, and a cast of characters I truly cared about, I was instantly hooked. Which made it all the more tough when I encountered perhaps FE’s most famous mechanic — permadeath. The loss of a character who’s seen you through thick and thin dying a pathetic and meaningless death, all because you left them one square away from safety, is memorable. The bonds I made with the characters in Fire Emblem and Awakening are a big part of why I got hooked into Fire Emblem Heroes on iOS, handing over… honestly just an insane amount of money to build a nonsensical squad of my favorites.
While Fire Emblem has certainly been topped by almost every FE game that’s come since, you never forget your first. Lyn remains my favorite character in the series, and I can still recount pretty much every story beat on demand. I’ve returned to the game three or four times in the 17 years or so since I first played it, and it definitely still holds up. If Nintendo ever decides to open the GBA vault to Switch users, Fire Emblem had better be on the list. — Aaron Souppouris, Executive Editor
I might be a little biased here: Emerald was the first Pokémon title I worked on from beginning to end. I wrote a strategy guide for the damn thing. But the thing is, after playing it all the way through four or five times I really began to appreciate it as a game. Emerald is very… elegant for a Pokémon title.
Pre-2010, Pokémon generations always consisted of a pair of complimentary games released at the same time followed by a third title a few years later that combined the two. While games like Sword and Shield are still released in complementary sets, that third title has been dropped in favor of things like full sequels, DLC and enhanced remakes.
But way back in 2005, we were two years removed from Ruby and Sapphire here in the United States. The titles were different in their selection of Pokémon, but also had unique villain teams you’d face off against: Team Magma, who wished to awaken the Mythical Pokémon Groudon, or Team Aqua, who wanted to wake up Kyogre. Hijinks of course, ensued.
As the third title, Emerald combined these two plot lines by having both teams present and working to summon their respective creatures. Of course they succeed, forcing you, the player, to track down Rayquaza to save the world from ecological disaster. Such high stakes! And pretty nice in-game animation as you watched these titans slug it out while the weather raged around the world. You had certainly come a long way from a newbie trainer just trying to defeat a bunch of Gym Leaders.
Of course there’s plenty of that too, and Emerald also added the rather intriguing Battle Frontier for some extra challenge once the main story was complete. It made the game into a sort of “greatest hits” edition without being too overstuffed and, for that, I really appreciate it. — KN
Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen
There’s more than one Pokémon game on this list for a good reason. In many ways, the series was at its best in its third generation. Game Freak added so many features and gameplay tweaks with Ruby, Sapphire and later Emerald to tweak the Pokémon formula in new and interesting ways that even with their 3DS remakes, the originals still stand up today.
But as someone who jumped on the series at the very beginning, the era will, to me, always be defined by FireRed and LeafGreen. A lot of that had to do with the way Game Freak brought the Kanto region to life using the GBA’s new hardware. It felt magical to see your favorite Gen 1 locales and Pokémon rendered in vibrant sprites instead of their past monochromatic ones. And then there was the gameplay. Game Freak found a way to make the familiar feel new again. And nowhere did that feel more essential than when going back to the original roster of 150 Pokémon.
Many people complain there are too many Pokémon now, but the problem with Gen 1 was that there wasn’t enough variety. You can only face so many Pidgey and Rattata before things get boring. FireRed and LeafGreen first solved that problem with features like double battles and then expanding the roster to include all the Pokémon that had been introduced since Red and Blue came out. Those make FireRed and LeafGreen feel like the definitive Gen 1 experience, even with the availability of more modern remakes on the Nintendo Switch. — Igor Bonifacic, Contributing Editor
Super Mario Advance
I can’t recall where Super Mario Advance stands in the grand pantheon of Mario entries. But I remember the feeling of playing it while riding the city bus in high school. Alongside the Game Boy Advance, it was the first gadget I ever imported, thanks to my meager savings from working at Office Max. I remember the thrill of showing off the system’s powerful graphics to my nerdy friends. One moment that’s etched in my memory forever: I lent it to a kid on the bus for a few minutes, and he was absolutely astounded to see it in the US months before its official launch. (Life wasn’t exactly exciting in Hartford, CT.)
There were GBA titles that I spent more time with, like the Castlevania entries and Advance Wars, but Super Mario Advance has a special place in my heart. It was my gateway to a new level of geekdom, one powered by knowledge from the internet and my minimum wage job. I could trace a path from importing my purple GBA to where I am now.
At the time, I never really wondered why Nintendo chose to rebuild the most disliked Mario game (at least among my circle of friends), as the GBA’s debut. But the game was still a wonder, delivering SNES-like graphics and gameplay in a tiny system. As I reminisce, I kind of wish I kept my GBA around. I ended up selling it to a kid over the internet to snag the Game Boy Advance SP. (He was literally a kid, his parents even made him write a hand-written thank you note.) At least it was nice to have a GBA with a backlight. — Devindra Hardawar, Senior Editor