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The Video Game Handheld War Part 4 August 19, 2013

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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While Nintendo competed practically uncontested in the previous Video Game Handheld War with the Game Boy Color, they were not going to rest on the Color’s success for nearly as long as they did with the original Game Boy.  Just a few years after releasing the incredibly successful Game Boy Color, Nintendo started to prepare its successor, the Game Boy Advance.

The Game Boy Advance would feature a color screen and a graphics system that could reproduce a Super Nintendo game.  It would be able to play any Game Boy, Game Boy Color, or Game Boy Advance game, once again making it a logical upgrade to current Game Boy or Game Boy Color owners.  The Game Boy Advance required just two AA-batteries to get working, and they would provide a phenominal 15 hours of gameplay time.  The only downside was once again you would need to buy a new cable for games that supported System Link.

The Game Boy Advance launched in early 2001.  Once again, it seemed like the company that would uncrown Nintendo would be Nintendo.  Early system sales were strong as gamers once again chose to bet their money based upon Nintendo’s flawless handheld track record and the strength of their first-party properties.  New Mario Kart, Metroid, and Legend of Zelda games would be coming to the Game Boy Advance, to say nothing of the highly anticipated third entry in the Pokémon series!  If you were a gamer who wanted a handheld in 2001, you wanted a Game Boy Advance.

However, it became clear shortly after launch that the Game Boy Advance was not without problems.  While the GBA featured a fantastic full color screen, the fact that Nintendo chose not to backlight it was a huge issue.  Providing a system backlight would drain power quickly and seriously cut into game time.  It hadn’t been much of a problem in the past due to the simplistic graphics of the earlier model Game Boy systems, but the improved graphical capabilities of the GBA made backlighting necessary.  Many gamers complained after picking the system up that the screen was just unreadable unless games were being played under a direct light source.  In fact, Penny Arcade made a comic strip which theorized the reason why moths were so attracted to light sources was because they were trying to play games on their own Game Boy Advance systems!

Regardless of issues with the lack of a backlit screen, Nintendo had once again made a successful handheld gamers bought like crazy.  By choosing to use a game cartridge slot that could accept a game from any version Game Boy up to that point, gamers were once again choosing to make the upgrade, and to take their game libraries with them.  In fact, many gamers took it upon themselves to add a backlight to their GBA screens themselves in the form of the unofficial Afterburner modification.

However, the Game Boy Advance was not the only Nintendo console that was on the market at that time.  A few months after the release of the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo released the GameCube.  While it had a unique graphics system and a great first party lineup of Nintendo titles, the GameCube was sitting in third place behind the Xbox and Playstation 2. To rectify this, Nintendo tried to create a way to capture some of the magic they were having with the Game Boy Advance and bring it to the GameCube.  To do that, they created the Game Boy Advance/GameCube Link Cable.

This new Link Cable could connect to the GBA’s serial port and connect to one of the GameCube’s front controller ports.  From that point, the possibilities this cable provided were limited only by the developer’s imagination.  The cable could be used to unlock unique content in either the GameCube or Game Boy Advance games, like in Metroid Prime, where a user could unlock the original NES version of Metroid or an exclusive suit for Samus if they connected their GameCube to a Game Boy Advance with Metroid Fusion loaded on it.  As time went on, the Link Cable’s possibilities got all the more stronger when games such as Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles or The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures were released for the GameCube.  These games took advantage of the Link System and Nintendo promoted them as party friendly, theorizing that a player would invite over their GBA-equipped friends to play these games together.

The GameCube Link Cable was far ahead of its time.  While it did not improve the GameCube’s standing in that generation of the console wars, Nintendo saw a great amount of publicity in releasing games for the system which would now be considered cult classics with a GBA Link feature, and cemented the strength of the Game Boy Advance.  In a precursor of Sony offering PS3 and PS4 connectivity with the Playstation Vita, Nintendo’s link-enabled games offered a true dual screen experience, where you could enter rooms in the GameCube and search it in real-time on the GBA’s screen.  Nintendo has since offered Dual Screen solutions with their gaming devices including the Nintendo DS and Wii U, but the origins of that interest began with the Game Boy Advance and GameCube.

I’ve spent this whole article so far talking about the Game Boy Advance and that is because the Game Boy Advance was uncontested in the Video Game Handheld War for a few years.  That was all about to change.  In the early 2000s, cell phone manufacturer Nokia had made a huge name for themselves in meeting the demands of a country exploding with a desire to be contacted wherever they were.  Most cell phones that people used in that time were made by Nokia and because of that Nokia’s brand had never been stronger.  Suddenly the Game Boy was being replaced as the personal electronic device people took on the go.  The problem was cell phones of the time had nowhere near as much technical capability as a Nintendo Game Boy did, and because of that Nokia could only include simplistic games with their handsets.  Well, Nokia wasn’t content with doing that anymore.

Nokia announced the N-Gage in 2003.  It was marketed as both a cell phone and a handheld gaming system.  Nokia’s marketing focused exclusively on the older gamer demographic who may have been turned off by Nintendo’s cuter family friendly face.  Many people were impressed from the early previews of the system.  Nokia had done quite well in the cell phone industry up to that point and pundits believed if there was anyone with enough experience in the mobile industry that could unseat Nintendo from their flawless track record, it would be Nokia.  The N-Gage had great system specs, a long list of developers and publishers who planned to release or port games to their system, and most importantly, the ability to make phone calls.  The problem was they had went about their marketing in the completely wrong way.  A Nokia executive was famously quoted as saying that they didn’t believe their target market would be the kind of person who would break out a Game Boy on the subway train.  Well, he said this without realizing that person they were making fun of was their target market.

The N-Gage launched at a $299US price point, the same as the launch prices for that generation’s consoles years earlier, and much more expensive than the Game Boy Advance.  While the N-Gage had a few immediate loyalists, early reviews of the system were mixed.  The N-Gage had a 3D graphics chipset with a backlit screen, which could in theory provide superior graphics to the aging Game Boy Advance.  However, from nearly every other perspective, the N-Gage was a total functional disaster.  Nokia had an exclusive retail deal with GameStop, which was the same kind of retail space that a person could pick up a much cheaper Game Boy Advance.  A better retail space for it would have been a cell phone store, which were doing quite well in the middle of the booming cell phone market.  The N-Gage also failed from a design perspective.  The N-Gage released just before digital distribution of games became practical, so Nokia distributed its games on physical memory cards similar to a regular SD card which you could buy at retail.  However, if you planned to change games in the middle of a gaming session you needed to remove the system’s battery, not a convenient task for someone planning to play games on the go.  If you wanted to make a phone call you had to turn the N-Gage on its side, a very unnatural and uncomfortable position.  Because of all that the N-Gage systems collected dust on GameStop shelves.

On the other side, Nintendo was listening to their fans and understood the difficulty people were having with the GBA’s non-backlit screen.  In 2004, Nintendo released a major revision to the Game Boy Advance, dubbed the Game Boy Advance SP.  The Game Boy Advance SP’s primary selling point was that it included a backlit screen that the user could turn on and off during gameplay, but the truth was it offered so much more.  The SP was a complete top down revision of the GBA’s form factor.  Instead of being a solid device, the SP flipped open very similar to a cell phone.  This reduced its size and make the device easier to keep in a pocket.  The SP also featured a rechargeable battery, the first that I had ever seen in a portable device which exclusively played video games.  Previously, rechargeable batteries were common in electronic devices like video cameras, but devices like the iPod or modern cell phones had proven that a rechargeable battery would work in a small personal device and provide a longer battery life than disposable batteries could.  It also saved the player a fortune in not having to buy more packs of AA-batteries.  The Game Boy Advance SP could play Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance games, as well as support GameCube linking.  The redesigned SP scored a lot of points with critics and sold a lot of units to gamers, both in players wanting to upgrade, and new players finally ready to join the Game Boy Advance’s community.  The only problem that critics of the SP had was that it lacked a native headphone jack.  If you wanted to listen to your game with headphones you would need to buy an adapter to plug your headphones into the system’s charge port, or buy a new set of headphones which used the GBA SP’s unique port.

Undeterred by the GBA selling at a near 10-to-1 ratio to the N-Gage, Nokia decided that they should do a redesign for the N-Gage as well, and redesign they did.  On the new N-Gage, a user would no longer have to remove the battery in order to change games or turn the device on its side to make phone calls.  They also expanded the device’s retail channels.  You could finally buy the N-Gage at your local Cingular store, a perfect location as it was the same place you could buy a new cell phone plan to go along with it.  Dubbed the N-Gage QD, the redesigned system was what Nokia should have released originally.  Nokia also included a price drop on the system.  The cost of a brand new N-Gage QD would be a much cheaper $100 US.

While the QD was an improvement from almost every perspective, the problem with the N-Gage QD was that it was too little too late.  Other than a handful of titles at launch, new games for the N-Gage would be slow to release, and when sales of the system floundered, developers and publishers stopped supporting the system.  By 2005, the Game Boy Advance and the redesigned Game Boy Advance SP were seeing a renaissance of some of the greatest games the handheld would see.  Metroid Fusion, Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, and of course Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire would be some of the platform’s highest rated exclusive titles, with the Pokémon games being the system’s biggest sellers.  In fact, in Japan, Nintendo would release Mother 3 for the GBA, the highly anticipated follow up to the cult classic called EarthBound in the West.  To this day, gamers are still talking about these games, and it is no surprise that Nintendo has promised to rerelease many GBA exclusives on the Wii U’s Virtual Console in the future.

In the end, the N-Gage could not compete with the near unstoppable force of the GBA’s quality titles.  The Game Boy Advance already had a hugely solid library of hit games, as well as the full support of Nintendo’s entire Game Boy library of titles.  The N-Gage could make phone calls if you turned it on it’s side.  That was it.  In the end, even with two revisions, Nokia could not compete against Nintendo and the N-Gage was a total failure and a huge black eye for Nokia.  For a device that tried to do everything, it ended up being a device that did everything poorly.  Once again, Nintendo would take the crown in the Video Game Handheld War.

For the next Video Game Handheld War, we’re going to talk about the time Nintendo went Dual Screen, and the gaming giant who had won the two previous console wars that decided to throw their hat into the handheld gaming ring to bring the strongest competition Nintendo had seen yet.

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