I wrote this post draft years ago, at a time when I had only recently switched to Nintendo DS after years of loyal GBA playing, and I honestly thought the former console had some major benefits over the latter.
It does, but the benefits are slim compared to the cons, and as the benefits of the original GBA don't all carry on to the modified form of the GBA SP - there really isn't much you can do with a GBA that you wouldn't be able to do better with a DS. Only if you don't compare the actual games, the GBA may pose a serious challenge. After a few years of getting used to the NDS, and then a few days of playing some GBA once again: I feel like it's time to finally post this thing!
Note btw that Nintendo considers both the DS and the GB separate series of consoles, and did during a previous interview say they might consider going onward with the previous model as well, though considering the design of the GBA SP - which seems to fit right between the GBA and the DS - that seems like a bit of bogus. Maybe the GB was planned to be their failsafe if the DS didn't do too well, but it did, and I doubt we'll see the end of the new franchise anytime soon.
Or if we do, I doubt we'll see a rebirth of the old one, it'll probably be cellphones taking over, fo' shame. Anyway, the benefits of each console, as I see it, are as follow:
- Much longer battery time than the Nintendo DS or even GBA SP. This is greatly thanks to the lack of a backlight in the screen.
- A comfortable material interface design that is easy to hold for long periods of time, especially compared to the Nintendo DS that has sharper edges and somewhat stiffer buttons.
- A volume wheel that is easy to adjust even for minimal changes, whereas the DS has a slider where even minimal shifts produce a larger difference in volume.
- It uses AA batteries, so you can easily change them yourself and don't need access to a charger or external power source.
- The button configuration is dead simple: L/R, A/B, Select/Start and Arrows. I still consider this the optimal set, and assume game developers thought so too as it was well-implemented in all games for this console. Not as many games take advantage of all XZAB buttons on the DS, or the added touch-screen. In fact, games that extensively rely on the touch screen to play even when they don't provide a set of features optimal for this format, are often much harder to navigate than the traditional games.
- The lack of a flippable screen made it overall much more durable. Hard to break even if you twist and turn, throw or drop it. All that easily fell off was the battery hatch, and the batteries, which may have been one of the reasons they moved onto chargeable built-in power supply.
- It was also considerably lighter than the following two consoles.
- The addition of an (optional) backlight was a huge improvement! No longer did you need to have a strong, external light source to be able to play games. It was now a console suitable for all types of scenarios and locales: dark subways, elevators, bedrooms etc. You could even play in the dark if you knew the controls well enough.
- The battery was, as with the DS, now re-chargeable and built-in. Though more difficult to change, it is a more environment-friendly solution. Plus the hatch doesn't fall off or break.
- The flippable/close-able screen allowed you to transport and store the device without getting scratches on the screen or dust and dirt around the buttons/speaker/etc. Of course the obvious side-effect was that it was now easy to accidentally break the device in half, and personally I've never had a problem with scratches or dirt/dust on the older consoles, so for me this wasn't a very notable benefit.
- Collapsed, it was smaller than the GBA. But it was also not as comfortable, and didn't fit the palms of your hands as sublimely as a pair of eh... I mean a steering wheel. The square edges easily pressed into your palms, and the start/select buttons were placed way down out of easy reach.
- This console also introduced the DS-type audio slider and smaller square-type L/R buttons, which I personally don't consider an improvement.
- The DS touch screen was a pretty notable addition, even if it's abused to death in certain games, and very few releases have managed to incorporate the controls and the use of the extra screen in a way that is purely a benefit and not also an annoyance. Amongst the good games I can mention Advance Wars DS, Mario Kart and Pokemon HeartGold. Among the bad ones... too many to mention, but the first that annoyed me to death was COP - The Recruit. Why would someone make a game that doesn't even allow you to navigate the menus via regular controls if you so prefer?! A deficit in far from just this one example.
- The DS (dual slots) for games, was maybe the feature I consider the most impressive. The GBA and GBC both allowed you to play one previous generation of GB games as well as the current one, but since the cartridges were so different between the NS and GB series, they added an extra slot. This doesn't just let you play GBA games, but also lets you transfer certain game information to new releases in the same franchise. You could grab a few 'secret' maps and background from the old Advance Wars games, import Pokemon to newer Pokemon games, or why not... well, that's all I know about, but I'm sure this feature allowed for plenty of neat easter eggs and nifty features! It also allowed you to have two different games inserted at the same time, easy to swap between and transport. If only they'd known about this when they were developing games for the GBA, maybe they could have included some backwards-compatible Easter Eggs as well. ;)
- The game cartridges were much smaller, like SD cards compared to the previous blocks. Depending on how you store your games, this could be both good and bad. I don't know which set is the most reliable, but the newer ones are definitely easier to accidentally bend, break or snap in half.
- The added hardware and increased richness of gaming experience is the obvious benefit, that somehow easily makes all the other flaws in design fall away and seem much less important.
- In addition to being able to play games, the DS had a few other tools built-in, like an alarm clock, a chat app, wifi (which you could usually turn on or off as you saw fit - and be notified via a blinking light if it was on - much appreciated), and certain customizable user options like name, color, time, etc. You could bypass the startup screen completely and dive right into a game, or have the options menu open up as a 'launcher' when games were inserted. Pretty useful! And no superfluous gadgets that'd age with time, like a crappy 5MP camera or webcam. Like I think the 3DS might have included... also, the DS had a microphone, even if I've yet to play a game where this feature is usefully incorporated.
- The ability to set a time was one huge benefit for certain games. For the GBA, games like Pokemon relied on a clock battery built into the game cartridge for certain time-based events, but now the games use the built-in time of the device. Using built-in wifi for in-game features such as trades or transfers is another notable benefit, compared to the link cables of old that didn't always work like they should. Not that wifi always works like it should. I'm actually very anti-wireless, but if it's only for short-term events then OK!
- The buttons, though stiffer, were also much more responsive, and seem less inclined to wear and tear, though I've still to thoroughly trial my DS as much as I have my old GBA.
- On the other hand, the edges were even harder than the SP and may cut into your palms after continual play, and the buttons are too low down, straining the thumbs. They do have a pleasant clicking sound, but feel stiff and plasticly compared to the prequels.
And that's it! All the improvements since the days of GB Color were lost in the blocky transition to GBA SP, and then part of those improvements re-emerged in the DS, and the 3DS... I've yet to test, but it looks pretty neat, especially with the added joystick. Maybe game manufacturers have managed to add better support for regular button-style control as well.
I'm not as impressed by all new feature editions that don't directly relate to gaming, as that what these consoles are for, and I'd rather have one for games, one for photos and one to phone with, than have everything on the same device. I'd also rather have an alarm clock on my bedside table, even if you never know when basic features like time management come in handy. The one basic feature I'm missing is an ability to jot down a note, a small notepad to store temporary ideas or items of importance. As far as gaming goes, these consoles seem to progress steadily, with or without a few quirks or needed features.
What'll be the next generation? Whatever it is, I'm looking forward to getting myself a cheap 3DS as soon as it comes out! ;)