Four Shades of Olive

Posted September 25, 2013

Every few years I get out my first Game Boy and just hold it. The memories of Nintendo kiosks at Kmart flood back, the same store I’d return to for Super Mario Land, the slow-motion Castlevania Adventure, and later The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. Walking around the mall playing Tetris (テトリス) while my mom shopped reminded me of the same freedom I felt when I first got a Sony Walkman.

When the Game Boy was released in 1989 by Gunpei Yokoi and Nintendo R&D1, it packed an 8-bit processor and a whopping 2-bit color palette with 4 shades of olive on a 2.6″ reflective STN LCD. It was like carrying around a tiny NES! The next significant advancement wasn’t made for nearly a decade, the 1998 Game Boy Color. Along with bumped specs, the screen was now capable of showing 56 colors simultaneously from a palette of 32k. It even improved on old games with a user-selectable 10-color palette set through button combinations during the Game Boy logo screen. Then in 2001 the Game Boy Advance arrived with a 32-bit ARM processor, shoulder buttons and a wider TFT LCD supporting 512 simultaneous colors in 15-bit RGB. But it still lacked a lighted screen. Two years later with the release of the Game Boy Advance SP we finally got a front-lit LCD, along with a clamshell design and a rechargeable lithium ion battery. But despite the nearly usable Worm Light workaround, the dimly lit screen was always a disappointment to me. After a few months playing the excellent Yoshi’s Island I lost interest and stuck it in a drawer.

Nintendo’s subsequent DS and 3DS fell outside of my 2D single-screen attention. Occasionally I’d get the SP back out, remember how unusable the screen felt, and put it away again. But then someone mentioned a later edition SP with a backlit screen, the 2005 AGS-101, “Now with a BRIGHTER backlit screen!” After watching a few videos I was sold and found one in great shape on eBay in pearl blue. The difference is pretty ridiculous, enough that I don’t see the need in keeping the first SP around. Maybe due to being backlit vs frontlit, the screen image also appears to be much closer to the surface, similar to later edition iPhones.

The 700+ games in the GBA library were so colorful and creative, it’s a shame they weren’t better served with a brighter screen. I’ve added Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap to my tiny collection, which I’ll begin as soon as I finish Yoshi in a dark room nowhere near a sunlit window.

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