Revisiting Some Not-So-Classic Game Boy Advance Games

Nintendo’s iconic handheld is home to many hidden gems

Jared McCarty
Sep 6, 2020 · 10 min read

The Game Boy. Originally released on April 21st, 1989, this little handheld console took the world by storm with its impressive 8-bit graphics and powerful 8kB internal RAM. The original Game Boy used a dot matrix screen, similar to what many construction companies use for road signs, on a spectacular 3.5in x 5.8in (90mm x 148mm) display. In all honesty, the Game Boy was actually pretty underpowered on arrival, but the novelty of being able to take your games on the go in a reliable and compact little handheld was too great to be denied.

Games like Metroid II: Return of Samus, Space Invaders, Mega Man 5, Super Mario Land, and Tetris made this console a force to be reckoned with. The Pokemon series, which is the second highest-grossing gaming franchise in the world, got its birthplace on the Game Boy. The absolute success of the Game Boy guaranteed that Nintendo would be developing predecessors in the form of the Game Boy Color, which released in November 1998, and the final iteration of the little handheld that could, the Game Boy Advance, which released in June 2001.

This particular console eventually came in three flavors: the standard Game Boy Advance, the backlit Game Boy Advance SP, and the last Game Boy console ever released, the Game Boy Micro. Unlike its grandfather, the Game Boy Advance boasted 32-bit graphics, a thin-film transistor color LCD screen, and 256 kB of external WRAM. It was a powerhouse of a handheld at the time, and developers took advance of this.

The Game Boy Advance was graced with timeless classics like Mario Golf: Advance Tour, Kirby & the Amazing Mirror, Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town, Mega Man Zero, Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros 3, Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, and my personal favorite, Metroid Fusion.

For the purposes of this article, I didn’t replay these fantastic games. Instead, I dug deep in my old Game Boy library and found some of the most obscure and rushed games I thoroughly enjoyed as a kid. I quickly realized there was an overwhelming amount of shoddy ports and cash grabs released for the Game Boy Advance, and I had somehow acquired a litany of them. Are they as good as I remember, or do I have nostalgia goggles so foggy I can’t see the Game Boy in front of my face? I decided to find out.

Sonic Battle (2003)

“But wait,” I hear you say, “ I thought you said ‘obscure games?’ I know the little fast blue hedgehog, they even made a boy-Jim-Carrey’s-back-must-hurt-from-carrying-this film about him this year.” This is true, but I would bet most people who aren’t diehard Sonic fans have never heard of Sonic Battle.

Being an isometric top-down brawler, Sonic Battle strays pretty far from the traditional Sonic formula. You can either pick the story mode, which follows Sonic and the gang as they attempt to solve the mystery surrounding Emerl, a Gizoid made by Eggman, or battle mode, where you can duke it out as some of your favorite Sonic characters. The music is pretty abysmal, with strange record scratches grating at your senses every time you make a different selection. Occasionally, Sonic will spout an “Alright!” or Tails will lament a whiny “Soooniiic!” during dialogue cutscenes, but most of the interactions will be text-based.

Honestly, despite this, if you’re a fan of the series, you can do worse for a handheld brawler. The move sets are interesting, including a clever mechanic to incorporate full move sets on the Game Boy Advance’s limited real estate, and while the isometric viewpoint can sometimes hinder you if you get stuck behind a wall, the 3D graphics are pretty neat to see in a Game Boy Advance game. I don’t think there’s enough here to put it in the Sonic Mania category of the franchise, but it isn’t as far gone as Sonic ’06 either. All-in-all, it’s a pretty solid experience.

Splinter Cell (2002)

The Splinter Cell series is revered for its stealth mechanics, tactical gameplay, problem-solving, and tension. Despite not seeing a release in the franchise since 2013, Splinter Cell still regularly comes up in the discussion for the best stealth game of all time. Approximately none of that charm translates to the Game Boy Advance version.

Splinter Cell for the Game Boy Advance is a bland side scroller with abysmal graphics and one of the worst “stealth” mechanics I’ve seen in a long time. If someone is looking your way, you either have to shoot them with limited ammunition, hang from a ledge so they don’t see you, or duck into a dark corridor or supply closet. Rinse and repeat. If you have fond memories of being Sam Fisher, I highly recommend giving this one a pass.

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

The Lord of the Rings trilogy typically needs no introduction. Touted by some as the best fantasy films ever made, the Peter Jackson epics churned out some surprisingly good video games too. Astonishingly, this achievement translates to the Game Boy Advance version as well.

Return of the King is a dungeon-crawling RPG where you play through scenes from the movie, with a host of characters to choose from. I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of character customization on offer, with each character able to carry a litany of weapons and armor to fight back Sauron’s armies.

The gameplay itself is very reminiscent of the Gauntlet or Diablo series, seeing you make your way through levels, fighting hordes of enemies and smashing items for things like gems or food. The graphics for the time are excellent, with vast areas to explore and an impressive amount of sprites on screen. The graphical fidelity may have been a little too ambitious, however, as in the later levels the frame rate can sometimes slow to a crawl as a dozen or so orcs and Uruk Hai attempt to cleave you in two. Despite this, it’s a great game to pick up if you’re a fan of the series and dungeon crawlers in general.

Digimon Battle Spirit (2001)

Oh, Digimon. Forever Pokémon’s strange little brother, the series still garnered quite a following in the early 2000s and is surprisingly still going on today. This, of course, means video games, ranging from the good (Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth — Hacker’s Memory) to the bad (this game.)

There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with Digimon Battle Spirit, there just isn’t much there at all. A generic side scroller fighting game with uninspired sound design and boring gameplay, Digimon Battle Spirit is probably a good game for fans of Digimon, but I highly doubt it could bring anyone new to the series.

Medal of Honor: Infiltrator (2003)

The Medal of Honor series has always typically been the second choice to the more popular Call of Duty in terms of World War II shooters, but that doesn’t mean the franchise hasn’t had some absolute gems during its lifespan.

Medal of Honor Frontline is one of my personal favorite PS2 games of all time, with other classics like Allied Assault and Rising Sun being popular in their own right. Medal of Honor: Infiltrator is a good addition to that list, with the game releasing a little later in the Game Boy Advance’s life cycle and taking full advantage of the system’s capabilities.

The graphics are pleasant and vibrant, with pixelated 1940’s Europe crafted to the best of the system’s abilities. The sound design is great, with each explosion and gunshot being surprisingly punchy for the tiny speaker imbedded in the handheld. There’s grainy World War II footage accompanying the gameplay, showcasing the impressive amount of content able to be packaged in those tiny cartridges.

The game, however, is hard. Very hard. It’s a top-down (kind of a pattern here) third-person shooter, but due to the nature of the Game Boy Advance’s D-pad control scheme, learning to shoot diagonally can be really tricky. If you’re patient (or just adept at using the D-pad) then Medal of Honor: Infiltrator can be a fun and challenging experience and would make a great addition to your Game Boy Advance library.

Super Hornet F/A 18F (2004)

Here we go, there’s that obscurity I promised! For those of you who don’t know (which I’m assuming is a lot), this mouthful of a Game Boy Advance title is a first-person dogfighting pilot game developed by UK Magic and released in 2004.

Super Hornet is a surprisingly competent flight game, despite the limitations of the hardware. The missions are typically pretty simple, ranging from “go blow up these enemy jets” to “go blow up these enemy submarines.” There’s an unexpectedly high amount of attention needed to play Super Hornet effectively, with multiple radars and displays showing enemy locations and ammunition stores.

Everything in Super Hornet is rendered in 2D, but the game takes place in a 3D space, and somehow the graphics incomprehensibly work. Using the shoulder buttons, your pilot will even look over their left or right shoulder, so you can track enemy pilots or missiles tailing you. It isn’t groundbreaking, the soundtrack leaves a lot to be desired as it’s the same loop over and over again, and as impressive and adventurous as this title is, it may have bitten off more than the Game Boy Advance could chew.

Still, it’s by no means a bad game — especially for the asking price as low as five bucks — so if pilot games are your thing, give it a look.

Tony Hawk’s Underground (2003)

Boy, the 2000s were an edgy time, weren’t they? Lastly, we have Tony Hawk’s Underground. I would assume most people have heard of the Tony Hawk series as the franchise has been a massive success since its first iteration in 1999, with the games frequently making “best games” lists. Tony Hawk’s Underground for the Game Boy Advance does, for the most part, continue that trend.

While not nearly the same level of depth and story its bigger console counterpart is, the Game Boy Advance version does a serviceable job of taking Tony Hawk on the go. The story is a little dumbed down, but there’s still a customizable character creator, allowing you to pick a male or female, change their hairstyles, skin color, and clothes. It all turns a little pixelated when you actually get into the game, but the allowance of it is still impressive.

There are still plenty of fart jokes and gnarly grinds to be had with your on-the-go skating experience. The biggest knock against the game, I think, is the controls. While not impossible, the best way to describe them is “tank controls but on a skateboard.” You’re still able to hop off your board, which was a huge deal for a Tony Hawk game, but it takes a while to not accidentally nosegrab into the pavement or fruitlessly fly through the air without doing any tricks because you messed up the button combinations. When it works, it works great, but when it doesn’t, it can be pretty frustrating.

The second biggest faux pas has to be the music choice. Tony Hawk games have always been renowned for their music, and Underground was no different, with bands like Bad Religion, Social Distortion, Queens of the Stone Age, and Mastodon gracing gamers with their tunes. Obviously, the Game Boy Advance cartridges can’t really handle having that many songs stored in it, but the replacement is just… deplorable. Instead of the deliciously 2000’s playlist, we get some ubiquitous, nondescript butt rock, played on a loop in some circumstances. Is it enough to derail an otherwise great game? Of course not, it’s fantastic and a great addition to the Tony Hawk’s franchise. But still, that butt rock.

And thus ends my foray into the world that once was for my gaming career. Did nostalgia win? Kind of, and that’s okay. When I play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on my Nintendo Switch I’m still blown away by what I see and what I do, all far from my television. I’m not sure if my appreciation for those experiences would be as tangible as it is if I hadn’t have cut my teeth playing the Game Boy, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed going back through my old library and playing the games I was so fond of as a kid. Are these good games? Some of them absolutely are and should be renowned for their technical and mechanical prowess. Others? Not-so-much, but that’s alright. I’ll continue to love them, warts and all.

Thank you guys so much for reading! It’s been a crazy trip down memory lane playing these games, as I hadn’t even seen many of them for over a decade. If you have a Game Boy somewhere collecting dust, I highly recommend booting it back up (and maybe cleaning out the 15 years of neglect.) You might be surprised how good some of those little cartridges still are.


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