Summary: Jakub recently picked up the Gameboy Advance SP. Is it worth the buy? Is it revolutionary? Will it change the way we play our games on the road? Unlikely, but check out this overview and see what we thought of this nifty little unit.
Denver International Airport. You will never find a more wretched hive of boredom and monotony (at least not in this reviewer's opinion.) Having learned my lesson in years past, it would be a cold day in hell before I flew through there again. Still, facing the prospect of spending my hours on the airplane next to a senile old geezer blabbing on about his mythological exploits in 'da war', or a cute, energetic, precocious child that everyone aboard wants to strangle, I splurged on entertainment this year.
Already dreading the crowd onboard the airplane, I'd wisely brought my headphones in preparation for the battle of noise. Of course, the Game Boy Advance SP is notorious for its lack of a headphone jack. The Nintendo giveth light, and he taketh away the sound. The only solution to this is to purchase an additional adapter pack. Rather than settle for the overpriced, under-featured Nintendo release, I picked up the Mad Catz bundle.
The Game Boy Advance SP, like the Game Boy Advance, uses a 32-bit ARM processor with embedded memory. This processor powers a 40.8mm high, 61.2mm wide 240x160 pixel screen and is capable of displaying 511 colors in character mode, or 32,768 in bitmap mode. What does all that mean? Basically you have a Super Nintendo with a SuperFX chip built into a device smaller in all dimensions (including thickness) than the average adult male palm.
While we're on the topic, the battery has gone through some changes. Instead of using AA batteries, there's a single rechargeable lithium ion battery included with the GBA. Did you catch that? Lithium Ion. Lithium ion is easily the most efficient battery design commercially available. It's light, takes up very little space and holds up to three times the voltage compared to nickel-cadmium or nickel-metal-hydride. Also unlike nickel-cadmium, lithium ion has no memory effect.
In fact, any extra costs sustained in purchasing an SP are almost immediately returned by the extra value and convenience of having a lithium ion battery. The battery lasted with full sound volume and backlighting for almost 4 hours. Now, not having a chance to test if it was fully charged before take-off, we can't say if that is the best it can do, but even so 4 hours is very impressive giving the extra charge used up in powering the headphones and light.
Overall, the Game Boy Advance SP is a significant improvement over the original. It's more compact and the flip-top protects the screen from damage, though the shape design changes made is slightly less convenient (particularly the shoulder buttons.) I still had no trouble playing either Castlevania or Golden Sun, and consider the screen protection and the presence of backlighting a fair trade for the higher cost and less comfortable design.
SIDEBAR: The transition quote comes from a Bugs Bunny episode where Bugs visits Transylvania and picks up a book of magic incantations.
Castlevania has been my personal favorite action franchise since Simon's Quest, mostly because I managed to avoid all the games after Simon's Quest. Still, the endless praise lobbed on the last Castlevania game and the sequel, Aria of Sorrow, convinced me to give it a shot. It's more like Diablo than Simon's Quest - the RPG elements are more stat- and ability-oriented. Despite the lack of dialogue and towns there is a rudimentary plot to give a reason for the player's rampage through Dracula's castle (again).
The vast assortment of items and abilities really keeps Castlevania fresh. Friends tell me that the original Circle of the Moon was 'an instant classic' and suggest that Aria of Sorrow doesn't stray far from the formula. This being my first experience with a Castlevania since Simon's Quest (not counting the abysmal Castlevania 64), I can't help but be impressed by the clean, sophisticated gameplay. Actually, let me take back my Diablo comments, as in retrospect Aria of Sorrow has as much in common with the original Metroid. The side-scrolling and relatively non-linear play resemble the classic NES title in equal proportion to the ability unlocking, item hunting and experience hogging of Diablo.
Stats go up automatically every level and improve the player's attack and defense values, which are the two stats that truly matter. There are also hitpoints and magic points, which of course increase with every level. The effect of hitpoints is obvious, but magic points are what allow the player to use his abilities. Magic points regenerate slowly or with the help of hearts, which are dropped from destroyed candles, chandeliers and torches. Those same objects can also drop gold coins, which may be used to eventually purchase equipment. Most items can be found on monsters (which drop them very, very rarely) or guarded by boss monsters and/or creatures more powerful than typically found in that area of the map.
All in all, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow provides and incredibly compelling and addictive experience. This is without even considering the limitations imposed by its platform. It is definitely one of those games that will have me playing it through to the end even though I bought it only with the intent of having some entertainment for the trips to and from E3.
SIDEBAR: The whips in Simon's Quest: short whip, long whip, chain whip, morning star, flame whip.
I couldn't even tell you who developed Golden Sun: The Lost Age, and that's not because I threw the game aside. Indeed, it's a tribute to Lost Age's design that it split my playing time 50/50 with Castlevania. Not that there's really anything that unique about Golden Sun at the outset. The game starts with a surprisingly long prologue which explains the events of what occured in the original Golden Sun. This prologue is excellent and left me completely satisfied and not at all confused with subsequent plot events.
However, given my limited time with Golden Sun so far, I can't fully judge the plot and writing. Indications are that it's a much better story than most - particularly given the tie-in to the previous game and the slightly darker tone to things. My concerns are more about the long-term consequences casued by the limitations imposed by the age of characters.
On the gameplay side, Lost Age manages to introduce some new concepts to keep it fresh. It is still clearly a Japanese RPG with the standard, turn-based combat and various special abilities, but it's not generic by any stretch of the imagination. Like Final Fantasy VII the characters can be customized by their tools of the trade. Instead of using Materia like in FF7, characters collect djinns. Djinns are elemental - air, earth, fire or water. They are 'set' to a character and give him stat bonuses and an ability like double strike. Once that ability is used in combat, the djinn can be set again or used to summon his power. In addition, player characters have psyenergy, which is basically magic. They use it to manipulate their chosen element, which is based on their class. Classes can changed depending on the kinds of djinns a character has set to him.
While Golden Sun: The Lost Age is no Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy V (so far, at any rate), it's much more entertaining than I expected. The extremely impressive graphics, which occasionaly take advantage of the Game Boy Advance's 3D capabilities and always feature robust animation, certainly help this along. The sound track, clear sound effects, and even the pleasant Zelda-like beeps as text appears all lend an undeniable charm to Lost Age.
SIDEBAR: Chrono Trigger is my favorite SquareSoft game ever. EVAR.
Sum it all up
The Game Boy Advance SP purchase, originally a hot-blooded impulse buy intended to make tolerable a prolonged flight to Los Angeles, has really surprised me. The quality of the games and Game Boy themselves aren't an end in themselves, but a means to one. While I fully expected buyer's remorse upon my arrival in LA, the raw quality of the SP and the entertainment that comes with it have banished all such thoughts.
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