Celebrating the GBA SP on its 19th anniversary

Lighting The Way 19 Years Later

23 March 2022
by benmagnet 8
Image credit: Yeahyuhk
Image credit: Yeahyuhk

It might be hard to believe, but Nintendo’s first upgrade to the GBA is nearly 20 years old. March 23rd marks the 19th anniversary of the GBA SP’s release in North America; a platform that launched just 2 years after the GBA itself. Since its release, the GBA SP has become the go-to handheld for those who want to revisit the Game Boy Advance library, and thanks to backwards compatibility, it’s perfect for Game Boy and Game Boy Color games, too.

In honor of the GBA SP’s 19th anniversary, let’s take a look back at this amazing upgrade to an already amazing handheld.

Right off the bat, the biggest draw for the GBA SP was the front-lit screen. Thanks to this, gamers no longer had to hold their system just right to see their games. Even better, this lit screen made it much easier to play on the go. Fans could now play in the car with ease, instead of just catching a glimpse of the action with every passing street light. Gone were the days of parents needing to purchase accessories (like the Worm Light!) for their kids to enjoy some late-night gameplay. Those lucky GBA SP-owning kids could now get some gaming going under the bedsheets when they were supposed to be sleeping!

Now, it’s true that the SP wasn’t the first handheld system with a lit screen. Both the SEGA Game Gear and the Atari Lynx had backlit and full-color screens long before the GBA SP existed. The thing is, those platforms ate AA batteries like nobody’s business. When Nintendo *finally *made illuminating the screen a standard with the GBA SP, they ensured players could get anywhere from 7-10 hours of gameplay on a single charge of the portable’s internal battery.

A GBA 101 model screen in total darkness.
A GBA 101 model screen in total darkness.

The SP was also more compact than ever, with a clamshell design perfect for sliding the device inside a pocket. While the Game Boy Pocket certainly slipped into a pocket easily, some were concerned about the screen and buttons being roughed up while walking around. With the GBA SP’s clamshell design, those fears were completely done away with. Whatever was bouncing around in your pocket had very little chance of penetrating your GBA SP and causing a problem. The only potential sticking point came from playing Game Boy or Game Boy Color games, as the cartridges would jut out from the cartridge slot like a sore thumb. Not the best for situation by any means, but certainly better than scratched screens or jammed-up buttons.

Super Mario Land in a GBA
Super Mario Land in a GBA

As great as the SP upgrade was, there were some areas where the platform fell a bit flat. The shoulder buttons in particular, with their smaller, more rectangular shape, could become quite uncomfortable to hold. Along with that, the GBA SP lacked a headphone jack as a cost-cutting measure. This was sorely missed on a portable device, but at least Nintendo offered an accessory to allow the use of headphones. Even the main draw, the front-lit screen, faced some criticism. It was great to play games in the dark, but the colors on an original 001 model SP didn’t pop as much as they should. Nintendo eventually remedied this with the 101 models that came out in 2005, which included a back-lit screen that blew away the 001 model.

Even with these drawbacks, the GBA SP is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the Game Boy family. The value in this system is bar none, with collectors keeping the platform in high demand decades later. There’s even a thriving case mod community, with countless types of shell designs and colors to choose from. Chances are, if you have an interest in some sort of color scheme or style, a modder out there has made a GBA SP case for it.

The Super Famicom Shell of my personal GBA SP
The Super Famicom Shell of my personal GBA SP

The GBA SP may owe much of its success to its lit screen, but the fact that it’s a sturdy and super compact device certainly helped it bring in even more fans. The backwards compatibility really is the icing on the cake, all but guaranteeing the platform would remain in heavy rotation for years to come.

From the front-lit screen to the little click you hear when you close the device, the GBA SP is just as satisfying today as it was all the way back in 2003.

About benmagnet

benmagnet

When Ben isn't writing or hosting Basement Arcade: Pause Menu, or The Fake Nerd Podcast, he's probably playing games or reading about them. When he isn't playing games, he's usually reading, watching a movie, or playing with his cat.

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Comments (8)

cephalogod

9M ago

The internal battery on my original model is still kicking, incredibly. One of my favorite handhelds ever and I hope the sturdy, clamshell form factor makes a comeback someday.


socar

9M ago

Love the SP. Best GBA model period!


mako

9M ago

I remember being somewhat blown away when this thing came out. You could charge it and not have to worry about batteries, it had the backlit screen so you could see when it gets dark, it was smaller with the folding design, etc. It was my favorite handheld until the DS Lite launched.


luke

9M ago

I really enjoyed all you had to say about the GBA in the piece. I love the GBA it's one of my favorite systems with such a great library and it's very nostalgia based for me. I had it at a time where I wasn't old enough to have a ton of responsibilities but I was old enough to have a job where I could go out and buy many games for it. I've always been a handheld guy and the GBA SP 101 was the best that it go at that time and mine still works like a charm. Played it today in fact on my lunch break.


rawmeatcowboy

9M ago

@cephalogod

I was just saying that about mine! I have four of them, and all four still had a charge last time I used them. Just crazy!


artistic_anarchy

9M ago

What a fantastic read. Loved it.

I still have my NES GBA SP edition and it's still as beautiful as the day I got it. ❤️


My battery is still good too! What sorcery is this?


kingbroly

9M ago

If only the original model had a backlight and internal battery.