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Tag Archives: Game Boy Advance SP

 

 

Mountain.

 

 

Christmas. 1990. California.

I was seven.

I spent an entire year asking my parents for a Game Boy.

I didn’t think I’d get one.

Christmas morning and we opened our presents.

And there it was.

I ran out of the room.

I was confused about who bought it. I thought it was my uncle.

I ran into the living room. I tore into the box.

Popped in the batteries. Caressed the system.

I turned it over in my hands. I enjoyed the weight of it.

I enjoyed its thickness. I was in love with its density.

I grabbed the only cart I had: Tetris.

The label was beautiful. The cartridge had a fulfilling proportionality.

It felt more promising and better designed than NES carts had been.

NES game carts were too long and too thick.

There was too much space on them. They had no visual impact.

Their faces were empty.

The Tetris cart was beautiful: Thin. Asymmetrical.

A subtle rectangle.

I slid it into the back.

I turned the system on.

The sound was crisp.

I burned through the options.

I wanted the game.

After a few rounds I thought I understood what it was.

I started at 0 and cleared lines as fast as I could.

The Game Boy was my first portable video game system.

Tetris was my first portable game.

I didn’t understand any of its subtlety.

I didn’t care to seek out its language.

I didn’t see what was so enthralling about its design.

I dropped Tetris.

I chased after Super Mario Land. Kirby’s Dream Land. Ninja Turtles.

I needed environments I could relate to.

I needed an imagined narrative.

Tetris was cold.

It fell away and I moved on.

 

Doughnut.

 

Summer. 1997.

Lebanon and the village is dead.

I gave my cousins my first-gen Game Boy one year earlier.

I now have a Game Boy Pocket.

The electricity is out. The water’s off. The arcade closed.

We revisit Tetris Attack.

It’s the first time I engage with the ‘Tetris’ brand since 1990.

I play through the stages. I enjoy the characters and the dialogue.

Puzzle mode feels more genuine than the original’s ‘B-Type’.

Endless mode is a meditative training ground.

Tetris Attack is Tetris inverted.

The pieces climb up from the bottom.

The cursor can switch two adjacent pieces horizontally.

The game pieces were blocks with symbols on them.

The object isn’t line clears, but matching blocks.

It was a proto-Bejeweled with Yoshi characters.

Tetris Attack was small, but full.

Strategic, but not complicated.

It had the sticky touch of Intelligent Systems.

Tetris Attack wasn’t Tetris.

It released in Japan as Panel de Pon.

Nintendo wanted name recognition in the West.

They wanted the Tetris name. They settled on Tetris Attack.

The Tetris Company cleared it.

And regretted it.

Henk Rogers felt it diluted the brand.

But Tetris Attack was an alternative.

It was a solid, strange experience.

It presented unique tools to rethink the Tetris universe.

Like Majora’s Mask and Zelda: It planted the seeds for the series’ deconstruction.

It brought warmth to the series.

It brought a crooked heart.

 

Hall.

 

Winter. 2015.

I try to consolidate my games.

I look for my Game Boy carts. I find Tetris Attack again.

It holds up. It still has warmth and life in it.

I find Tetris again.

I slide it into my SP.

25 years later and I decide to give it another shot.

I start at level 7.

25 years later and it feels different.

Something clicks and my hands start buzzing.

I begin to see its elegance and the subtleties of its design.

It was never just about line clears.

It was about setups. It was about adapting to flaws.

It was about recovering.

I hear about the AGDQ Tetris run.

I learn about Tetris: The Grand Master.

Developed by Arika and the series only released in arcades.

I loved what they had achieved in the past: The PS2 version of DoDonPachi Daioujou.

I seek out and download the entire TGM series.

And TGM 3 is dark, fun, and beautiful.

TGM 3 is the Daioujou of the Tetris universe.

Its presentation is clean.

Its music is engaging.

It’s difficult, but it doesn’t push the player away.

It dredges up the will to do better.

TGM 3 presents four modes of play with two different rulesets.

Easy teaches the game.

Sakura is a variation on a previous release: Tetris with Cardcaptor Sakura Eternal Heart.

Master is Tetris with speeds that gradually increase over time.

Shirase is Tetris at blinding speeds coupled with odd challenges.

Classic rule maintains the rotation style of the two prior iterations of TGM.

World rule is a set pushed on Arika by The Tetris Company in order to unify newer Tetris games.

The multiple modes and rulesets give TGM 3 a depth not seen in the arcade puzzle genre.

It gives the player the freedom to decide what sort of game they would like to play.

TGM 3 is difficult and obtuse.

It doesn’t explain itself and it doesn’t care.

It only wants to pull the player in as fast as possible.

The entire game is a boss fight: It seems impossible.

In Shirase, you can’t see the pieces fall.

The higher levels in Master require instinctual reaction times.

But it’s these elements that make the game so enjoyable.

In most fighting games, the curve seems vertical.

Inexperienced players become frustrated and turn away.

Fighting games require study. They require a deconstruction of situational behaviors and habits.

They bloom and open as the player’s mind and technique does.

TGM 3 must be approached the same way. It requires study.

It requires the player to focus both on the game and themselves.

It’s no coincidence that the TGM series and fighting games were both born from the arcades.

They both ask that the player be efficient and aware.

The payoff in fighting games is convincing wins against human opponents.

In TGM 3 the payoff is watching yourself calculate, strategize, and play at speeds you never thought you’d ever be capable of.

In 1990 I had no idea what Tetris was.

I dismissed it for having no heart.

I misunderstood it.

2015 and I realize now how much I’ve missed in the last 25 years.

Sometimes you just need the right kind of eyes.

Sometimes the heart is so big that you only catch a small piece of it.

Ignorance has a slow, enduring momentum.

And time isn’t always enough to kill it.

You need something savage and raw to tear through the filters you’ve tied yourself in.

Tetris Attack. Eight years on: It’s joyful and enduring.

Tetris. 25 years later: I wake up.

 

Tetris The Grand Master 3. 2015: My hands tremble, my teeth rip, and my brain is pummeled into the sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orpheus.

 

 

1) Nintendo Wii U Gamepad

 

The gamepad is bloated plastic.

It is expansive.

Even with all its technology (touchscreen, console streaming) it feels empty. It feels like a pastry puff.

The face buttons have a deep, low click when pressed and a higher-pitched, muted release.

There is stiffness to them that both speaks to the solid build of the device and of over-engineering.

Everything on the device presses like a face button except the analog sticks.

The D-pad is enormous, making it difficult to use, and clicks hard on presses, tiring the thumb.

It is nice to have triggers that snap rather than melt against your finger, but the ability to gauge force is gone.

The gamepad is not a subtle device.

It is gaudy, heavy, and tight.

It is empty, but with the right amount of friction.

A friction born from Nintendo’s first-party games.

It lacks subtlety, it lacks the hidden finesse Nintendo games demand from the players.

It’s almost as if the gamepad is a reaction to the Wii controller’s light weight.

But there wasn’t any subtlety there either since the Wii depended on inaccurate motion-control.

Nintendo gave up the sword to build the tank.

 

2) SNK Neo-Geo X

 

The Neo-Geo X is a gorgeous machine to look at.

It is a contender for the most beautiful handheld ever made.

Everything about it is understated: A black and gold color scheme and a layering of texture.

The face buttons are tighter than the Wii U gamepad, but not as audible. The buttons make the same noise being pressed as they do being released.

This lack of noise from the face buttons is offset by one of the few innovations the Neo-Geo X possesses: The joystick.

Catering to arcade/action games, Tommo built the Neo-Geo X with a microswitch joystick.

Any tap in any direction creates a loud, audible click.

The NGX has great density, but lacks the puffiness of the Wii U gamepad.

It doesn’t sit comfortably in hand.

One of the best features of the system is the split shoulder buttons.

Rather than have two long shoulder buttons at the top of the console, Tommo cut each shoulder button into two, making the NGX the only portable console with four shoulder buttons.

The PS Vita could have benefited from this feature with PS4 remote play.

The downside to Tommo/SNK’s approach to the shoulders is the difficulty in curling fingers to tap L1/R1 since they are stunted to make room for L2/R2.

The NGX has a soft rubber back that feels sticky and decadent.

This is a texture more hardware manufacturers ought to use.

In spite of its problems, this is one of the best handheld gaming devices ever made.

Even better than the Neo-Geo Pocket Color.

 

3) Xbox 360 Controller

 

The Xbox 360 controller is pretty. Its lines are both direct and subtle.

It has a better silhouette than the Sixaxis.

Between the travesty of the original Xbox controller and the success of the 360, Microsoft learned quick.

Borrowing design elements from the Sega Dreamcast, the 360 controller has one of the most unique faces of any modern console.

One analog stick positioned high on the left, bottom left sits a rolling D-pad, and further to the right the second analog stick.

The setup does seem obtuse at first, but the obviousness of its design begins to show when moving around three-dimensional spaces.

The controller itself has a nice heft and sticks in the hands.

By far the 360 controller is the most stable to hold.

It just fits.

Though the buttons are not exceptional.

Even the NGX has better face and shoulder buttons than the 360.

Its face buttons require quite a bit more force than the PS3 or the Wii U and stick out much higher than they need to.

The face buttons are too stiff.

This is strange to me when combined with the presence of a well-made rolling D-pad.

The rolling D-pad is part of what made the Sega Genesis controllers so wonderful, perfect for fast-paced action games.

Why combine a tool used for quick, fluid movement with slow, stiff buttons designed for something like inventory management?

The shoulder buttons are also difficult to press.

They are both small and require exceptional force at strange angles.

They feel almost as stunted and difficult as the NGX, but where SNK/Tommo made their decision based on space conservation and utility, Microsoft has no excuse.

The trigger buttons are actual triggers and have a strange arc to them that doesn’t work on a controller.

They are uncomfortable.

The 360 controller is an elegant, confused piece of hardware that is trying too hard to be too many things.

 

4) Sony PlayStation Vita

 

While the NGX is a product of subtle, layered design, the Vita is a powerhouse of interaction.

It has an enticing weight.

It is a very dense machine and that density is justified by the overwhelming amount of technology within.

An OLED touchscreen on the front, a touchpad on the back, two analog sticks, and front/rear cameras.

The D-pad is near perfect. It feels like a flat, rolling D-pad. Each directional press has a very subdued click that is felt more than heard.

The analog sticks are short, but responsive. They have a balanced tension that sits somewhere between the 360’s tightness and the Sixaxis’ give.

I enjoy the NGX because of its combination of textures.

Its joystick is a matte, rough plastic. Its face buttons are a clear, smooth plastic. Its case is all gloss on the front. Its back is a sticky-smooth rubber.

The Vita would have benefited from more experimentation with texture.

It would have been better without any of the gloss, like the 3DS XL.

Sony already used matte plastic around the D-pad and beneath the face buttons, they should have extended it to the whole system.

It is slippery.

It is too thin to hold comfortably and manipulate all input options.

It puts enormous strain on the wrists and hands.

While making the system larger would have been questionable, it would work better with some grips built into the back of the system rather than the two large dimples it does have.

The Vita’s highlight is its face buttons.

They are tight and responsive. They don’t feel cheap.

They have two clicks each when pressed and released, felt deep in the bones.

Pressing buttons on the Vita is a joy.

The face buttons alone are enough to make someone find reasons to play with it.

It draws you in with its innate experience.

 

5) Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP

 

The Game Boy Advance SP is one of my favorite handheld consoles of all time.

A console that drips with intimacy.

When closed, the SP is appealing and understated.

It feels good to hold and to look at: A slight rectangle with rounded corners.

It has an appealing thickness as well. It doesn’t suffer from the hyper-driven thinness of most handhelds today.

On opening the console, the proportions are less appealing.

When open, the SP looks worse than the Game Boy Pocket.

It does maintain the intimacy: The screen is small and bright and the controls are simple and obvious.

On its face the SP has only two buttons, D-pad, backlight adjustment, and Start/Select.

The whole console is matte plastic, which gives it the right amount of friction.

Nintendo positioned the Start/Select buttons near the bottom, making pausing awkward.

The SP D-pad feels similar to the Vita D-pad.

There is more space between the directions on the SP, but it has a great rolling effect. Otherwise, the SP D-pad has the same tight click as the Vita’s, without feeling difficult like the Wii U gamepad.

What’s amazing about this is that the SP predates the Vita by almost a decade.

Not only is the D-pad ascendant, but the A/B face buttons are also as good as the Vita: Dense, heavy clicks that reverberate in the thumb.

The GBA SP does have two shoulder buttons as well and while they are tight and loud, they are just as awkward to press as the NGX and the 360.

This doesn’t affect the SP as much as the other two since the shoulder buttons are not utilized in critical situations.

It’s inspiring to see what Nintendo is capable of when they get things right.

The SP came out on the back of one of the worst-designed handheld systems in history: The Game Boy Advance.

Much like with the PSV, the SP is so satisfying to interact with, it makes you find reasons to play it.

In 2014 it still doesn’t feel dated.

This is a portable device that continues to hold its own, almost 10 years later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flower.

 

 

In 2007, I came back to video games.

It has always been a dynamic relationship.

After the release of the SNES in 1991, I stopped following or caring about games until a friend of mine showed me the PlayStation in 1996.

My brother convinced my parents to get us a PS1 for his birthday. We stuck with Sony consoles through the PlayStation 2.

My interest in games waned again just before the generational switch (PS2 – PS3).

Having witnessed the July War in 2006, I was full of anger, resentment, rage.

I wrote a lot in that period. I read a lot. I listened to music and drove around the Midwestern back country alone.

I had no place for games then.

But I got tired. I burnt myself out.

I collapsed in and found nothing.

A friend of mine had managed to purchase a PlayStation 3 near launch in fall 2006.

I would go over to his place some nights and we would play Call of Duty 4 together.

It was strange to me even then that I could find some comfort in playing a war game considering I had just lived it.

But I was tired and it was fun.

I bought a PlayStation 3 in 2007.

The PS3 was more than just a console to me, it was a companion.

A friend to pull me back into myself.

I still had my PS2 and used it to play fighting games and old JRPGs, but the PS3 was about potential, it was about looking forward.

I chose PlayStation over Xbox because Microsoft was taking themselves too seriously at that time. It felt as though MS was trying to turn the 360 into a war simulator (Gears of War, Halo 3) and I couldn’t deal with it.

Assassin’s Creed was the first game I bought.

I bought it because it looked like Thief.

I bought it because the hero was an Arab. I needed that. I needed to see that.

After I completed AC, I bought CoD4. I loved the crispness of its action and the quick pacing.

It was a grand piano of a game.

I was back into games now. I was having a great time.

And in Christmas 2008 I discovered something I thought had died in the medium:

Joy.

 

River.

 

I still don’t understand what compelled me to consider buying Prince of Persia.

It was getting a lot of attention. The sentiments were mixed.

I had tried to enjoy the franchise before, somewhere in the Sands of Time trilogy on PS2.

I didn’t like it.

Coming off of God of War, PoP lacked the visceral, flashy combat I had become used to.

Prince of Persia was all about the fluidity of motion and in the mid-2000s, that wasn’t something I was looking for.

When the new PoP released in December of 2008, I had already begun to think about games differently.

I had begun to see them less as virtual gauntlets and more as products of interlocking systems. I made the switch from playing games to analyzing them.

As I looked through the screenshots of the new Prince of Persia, I fell in with the art.

The colors were vivid, bright. The lines were bold. It reminded me of Okami, but more fluid.

I bought the game based on art alone.

I went home for Christmas.

Sitting in my old bedroom in the middle of a heavy winter: I spent a lot of time in Prince of Persia’s world.

The movement was bubbly, the levels had charisma. It was a beautiful game.

Much of the talk around this new interpretation of the PoP series involved not being able to die.

Many in the gaming community felt that not being punished for failing a jump made the game too easy, too simplistic, and less rewarding.

They got this one wrong though.

The punishment in Prince of Persia is that you lose the fluidity of movement.

You lose the ability of fluid expression, of pure motion.

This subtlety was lost on many.

The amount of negative feedback has stalled the series.

 

Soil.

 

Prior to the 3DS, the last Nintendo console I owned was the Game Boy Advance SP.

I never bought a DS.

When Nintendo announced the DS, they said it wasn’t meant to replace the Game Boy.

I held onto my SP waiting for a new Game Boy announcement. I loved and still love everything about the SP.

But that announcement never came.

I bought the 3DS out of frustration, out of having been tricked by Nintendo into waiting, into missing an entire portable generation of content.

I bought the 3DS when the media and the community at large was saying it was going to fail.

I always have a tendency to get involved at the ends of things and I believed them.

At one point, I hadn’t touched my 3DS for months. I thought it really was over.

Then I read Tim Rogers’ review about Super Mario 3D Land.

I bought the game immediately.

I loved it.

SM3DL was the first Mario Game I played since Super Mario World.

It had the same core, emotive design as PoP in 2008: A platforming game designed around joy, around really inhabiting and exploring a world of bright colors, excellent movement, and charismatic levels.

Super Mario 3D Land made me smile.

While critically acclaimed, again the game was considered too easy by many.

The point was missed again.

The player can still die in 3D Land. However, death isn’t the punishment for bad play.

The actual punishment is being kicked out of that world for a brief moment.

The punishment is the extraction from a joyous place.

Death is only the conveyor.

 

Rustle.

 

3D Land has stuck with me.

I go back and think about it.

Super Mario 3D World is also a good game, but it has more problems.

3D World lacks some of the joy, the lightness of 3D Land.

It takes itself a little more seriously.

3D World is a little more messy.

This probably has to do with it being a console game and therefore having to be full of content.

It’s no surprise then that the next joyous platformer would appear on the 3DS.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe is the first Kirby game I have played since Kirby’s Dream Land in 1992.

Triple Deluxe is wonderful.

The game is always playing with and manipulating player expectations through clever level design.

It is bursting with joy.

It is the true companion to 3D Land.

The most impressive element in Triple Deluxe is the use of 3D.

Levels are two planes: Front and Rear.

The Front plane is where the player operates most of the time.

The player can still see what’s happening in the Rear.

The player is also transported in and out of the Rear plane throughout the levels.

With the player operating in one plane, while being able to see what’s happening in the other, Kirby: Triple Deluxe wastes nothing.

It is a tight game driven by Chekhov’s Gun and joy.

Triple Deluxe is stunningly beautiful.

Bright, thick, and layered: Triple Deluxe is a rainbow ice cream cake of art.

Dying in K:TD is difficult.

It sits somewhere between PoP and 3D Land, between not dying and dying as a conveyance.

This again has led many to suggest it is too simple.

And again, the subtlety is lost.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe doesn’t really want to punish the player. It encourages the player to inhabit the world as much as they want.

Where in PoP the player loses movement and momentum and in Mario the player’s time in the world is dictated, Kirby wants the player to lounge around in its world.

It wants the player to hang out and poke around.

This is very rare for a 2D platformer.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe is a game that should be sipped at, like Dark Souls.

The gaming media and community need to stop judging games simply by the merits of their difficulty.

Not every game is designed within the spectrum of ‘simple-difficult’.

The metrics of analysis must be greatly expanded.

The medium needs more games designed around joy, designed around the idea of wanting to inhabit a place.

Since 2008, I’ve played a lot of games and the only ones that have managed to stick with me are the ones that make me feel welcome:

 

The games with warmth in their bones.