Switch Is Great, But The GBA SP Was The Pinnacle Of Public Transport Gaming

GBA SP Train
Image: Nintendo Life

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they’ve been chewing over. Today, nearly 20 years to the day since the GBA SP launched in Japan, Jim argues the case for why it still has a very important role to play in his day-to-day…

Ok, let’s get this out of the way first of all. The year is 2023 and I own a Switch OLED packed full of great games, and even some great Game Boy Advance games, too. So why — with one of Nintendo’s most successful consoles ever sitting right there — am I still playing my Game Boy Advance SP? The answer (in case you had somehow stumbled this far without seeing the title): public transport.

Gaming on the go is a strange beast. Since the birth of handheld consoles, the concept of playing your games wherever you happen to be has been the big selling point in the sales race. Why play Skyrim on your TV when you could be playing it on one of those giant drop-down airplane tables that only exist in TV ads?

I moved to London six months ago and my travelling has become a lot more Tube-focused ever since. While I used to make quirky decisions like walking or riding my bike to the venue 20 minutes up the road, I’m now one of those Big City Kids that you see in The Movies™ — no need to get my walking shoes on, I’ll hop on the Tube.

But this comes with its own set of challenges. I’ve been lucky enough to ride on a number of underground train networks in my time (I know, save your applause) and I am yet to find one that doesn’t make me want to stuff headphones so far into my ears that I can’t hear myself think. Frequently, there’s no mobile phone signal on these journeys so you are left to either play some trashy, Flash-y game that a YouTube ad said “you absolutely must play,” stare into the abyss of the chewing gum-encrusted floor to avoid catching anyone’s gaze, or bring a games console along for the ride.

GBA Game Stack
Just look at those gamessss — Image: Zion Grassl / Nintendo Life

The thing is, this is a crowded market these days. You’ve got your family of Switches and new-fangled Steam Decks on the one hand, but there’s a boatload of so-called “retro” consoles that also fit the bill from the ancient days of *gulp* 10 years ago. I’m talking about your DS, 3DS, and PSP. Consoles that, yes, have fallen out of fashion, but still offer that sense of portability that we crave so badly. None of these, however, can match up to the Game Boy Advance SP.

The Switch, while packed full of great games, is just too big for this. Most people can’t slide one into their pockets and even if you do take a bag with you when leaving the house, playing Nintendo’s latest in a crowded carriage is bound to draw unwanted attention from those around you. “Wait a second, he’s not staring into the abyss of his phone. What’s going on there?”

The same can be said of the 3DS. It is easier to slide into a pocket, yes, but you open up that bad boy on the train or bus and it is going to be very clear that you are the odd one out. There’s no use trying to crack the case of The Curious Village when a snotty toddler opposite is giving you those “you got games?” eyes.

And so we land, comfortably, on the GBA SP. It slips into most pockets (I wear men’s jeans and understand that I am extremely lucky in the pocket-size department as a consequence), has a backlight, and when unfolded is no larger than a standard phone today. In fact, at first glance, other folks might think that I was tapping away on one of those new sci-fi-looking new-old folding phones and move on with their quest for a grubby seat, blissfully unaware that I am actually taking orders from a talking hat on a two-decade-old Game Boy.

GBA SP Minish Cap
To be clear, this is the talking hat that I am referring to — Image: Zion Grassl / Nintendo Life

What’s more, there’s a game library to boot which ensures that no two journeys need ever be the same. Yes, we all own at least one bad movie tie-in title *looks shamefully at my GBA copy of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest*, but for the most part, there are games for all occasions. I have completed a full playthrough of Pokémon Emerald and I am currently working on A Link to the Past for longer journeys, but there are a lot of titles broken down into crisp 10-minute levels which feel made for riding a couple of stops before hopping off — Super Mario Advance, Wario Land 4, that Crash and Spyro bundle that everyone seemed to own, the list goes on!

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