I remember fondly back when Nintendo launched the Game Boy. Who would have thought that a little 2-bit system would have conquered the world in such short time and emerged as the most venerable and widely owned video game system ever. When Nintendo launched it's successor, Game Boy Advance, in Japan in March, the lines to get one were reported by some Japanese news stations to be almost half a mile long. That HAS to say something about the system. So, while we wait here patiently on GBA to arrive on US shores (June 11th folks), here is my review of the Japanese version of the system, after many hours of extensive testing.
It should be noted that both the Japanese and American versions of the handheld will play the other's games, so your days of modchipping and putting in weird add-ons to at least one of your systems are over. I tested 1 Japanese GBA game (Dodgeball Advance) and 5 American GB/GBC games (Tetris, Dr. Mario, Tetris Attack, Tennis, Bases Loaded) on my GBA and all played beautifully.
The full color screen, which Nintendo claims is capable of playing up to 32-bit games on, displays brilliant color with every pixel. The screen width is roughly double that of the Game Boy Color, and nowhere is this more evident than when you try to play an old Game Boy game and the game is stretched reasonably to fit the screen. Games like Tetris play a lot better like this, as they not only have the full color of the Game Boy Color, but also the wider screen for better play. And if you don't like the stretched view, a simple tap of the "R" shoulder button (I'll discuss that later) takes it back to the games original width. The new screen is excellent, but my only complaint is that there is no brightness adjuster! Unless you are in direct light, it makes it very, very hard to see the game when you play. A light add-on will certainly be a worthwhile investment.
Width and weight wise, the system is extremely light weight and pretty durable, as I dropped mine not 5 minutes after opening it and it took the blow like a prize fighter. Made of heavy plastic, it fits comfortably in your hand and doesn't slip around as you pound furiously on the buttons. Every person I let try the system, from the bulkiest man to my 9 year old little cousin, could hold the system and maneuver their hands on the handheld with ease. Kudos to Nintendo for making a "Wider is better" system. The GBA is a little bit taller than the GBC was but much shorter and thinner than the original Game Boy. It still fits easily into your pocket and is ultra portable thanks to the light weight design.
The buttons are your standard Game Boy fare, with the analog pad and the "A" and "B" buttons we have all grown to love. The new addition of the "L" and "R" shoulder buttons is sort of a mixed blessing. While games like Dodgeball Advance take advantage of having them in gameplay, they feel sort of awkward playing older games. You feel like you want to click/push them, even if they don't do anything for the game. Also, at least on my GBA, they are very sensitive and it doesn't take much to, pardon the pun, push these buttons. The plastic they are made out of also feels cheap and out of place on the system, although they are wide enough to fit your finger comfortably. I think that after more and more games are released for the system, the judgment will come in on whether the buttons are a welcome addition or not.
Hardware wise, the Game Boy Advance is a great logical progression for portable gameplay and I'm sure it will be more than well received here in the US. While I wouldn't expect half mile long lines, I do think that finding one on launch day will be pretty tough.