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Was the GBA Just a Super Nintendo?

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Gameboy Advance vs. Super Nintendo… is the GBA just a Super Nintendo in smaller form? Did Nintendo simply repackage their 11 year old hardware into their latest handheld in order to get a cheap, quick and easy to develop portable gaming device out to the masses, or is there something different going on under the plastic GBA casing?
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Today we’re asking the age old question: Was the Gameboy Advance really just a Super Nintendo?

This video feels like it’s almost verging on the modern, because we’re visiting a year post millennium bug. 2001 is the year in question and the device is Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance.

Now the Advance confused me, in fact, most of Nintendo’s portables did. Nintendo always seemed to have the knack of pushing out older hardware and stealing the entire marketplace with it. For me, something felt amiss. The Atari Lynx had come out in 1989, featuring 16 bit power and technically far superior to Nintendo’s also 1989 released handheld; the Gameboy. And here we were 12 years later and Nintendo were pushing out something which seemed some 10 years behind the times, but again, the advance sold well, being a relative giant leap over Nintendo’s Gameboy Color, released in 1997, and shifting over 80 million units worldwide. This was only 3 years before the PSP would launch and the same year the Gamecube arrived.

Gameboy Advance

It’s undeniable that Advance games look incredibly similar to Super Nintendo releases – itself launching in 1990. So the question I always wondered was, did Nintendo just cram a SNES into the Game Boy advance? I mean, the original Game Boy was comparable to the NES, so it kinda makes sense.

Well, on pure technical specs, the answer is an actually a resounding no. The Super Nintendo’s CPU was a Ricoh 5A22 running at 3.58MHz (these 16 bit chips are actually descendants of the MOS 6502, as featured in the NES). It had 128K of RAM, 64K of video RAM, a maximum resolution of 512×448, 256 on screen colours from a palette of 32,768 and a Nintendo S-SMP 8 channel ADPCM audio chip.

Super Nintendo

The Game Boy Advance in comparison had a 16.8MHz 32bit ARM7-TDMI RISC processor, along with a Z80 for backwards Gameboy compatibility, 128K of VRAM and 256K of DRAM, 240×160 on screen pixels, 512 colours on screen in character mode or a whopping 32,768 colours on screen in bitmap mode and dual 8 bit DAC for stereo sound.

So there are differences. The Advance had a more powerful CPU, and generally better specs, so the question is; where’s all this extra grunt going to?

Gameboy Advance Cartridge Chips

It all comes down to that ARM RISC processor. RISC chips are essentially cut down processors. They have a lot of power, but their coding is simplified and more bare to the bones. This means that a lot of coding you might usually fire directly at the CPU needs to be completed in software or on a separate chip to run effectively. The ARM chip is certainly more powerful, but it will often need to compute more operations to get the same output as the SNES Ricoh chip. Another factor of SNES games was their cartridge format. Cartridges have room for lots of chips, including Nintendo’s FX and FX2 chips, which allowed the SNES to render 3D environments. Now, with the Advance’s dinky little cartridges, this simply wasn’t possible, so the GBA needed rudimentary 3D ability from the get go. Again, this is where the ARM chip comes into it’s own. It has the power to output 3D environments through software rendering, allowing it to handle games such as Duke Nukem Advance, Crazy Taxi and of course Doom.

Gameboy Advance SP

And that pretty much is the nub of the matter. The Game Boy Advance can pretty much rival the SNES in terms of ability and sometimes even beat it. Having a smaller screen and lower resolution helps to make 3D games appear more convincing as well as the general expectation at the time that you’ll probably lose something in a handheld version of a game. The way it accomplishes it, is by trying to copy the abilities of the SNES in a reduced chipset… i.e. the ARM processor. This essentially allowed the SNES custom features such as Mode 7 and FX to be emulated and provide a familiar template for both gamers and developers alike. And we all know, that for a platform to succeed, developers need to be on board.

Super Nintendo Controller

So the Game Boy Advance’s technology wasn’t really lacking for the time, like my brain had concluded, it was just emulating something that was some 10 years old. And given this fact and the difference in size, the GBA was actually pulling of a pretty mean feat of complexity, which coupled with it’s long battery life, like the Gameboy, captured the attention of gamers worldwide.

And so clears up another aging technology conundrum.

[Console images courtesy of Wikipedia/Wikimedia]

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