The King Has Fallen, Long Live the King
Nintendo Game Boy Advance
With this we say goodbye to the humble Nintendo Game Boy which, including the Nintendo Game Boy Color in its line, held on for nearly 20 years as the dominant handheld on the market. Those days had to end eventually and when Nintendo put out a basic color edition of the little monochrome device the writing was already on the wall. The Game Boy Advance put that final nail in the coffin, sending it's grand-pappy off to the retirement home where it could finally join all those it had defeated along the way (including the Virtual Boy).
Unlike the Game Boy Color, which essentially offered the Game Boy experience with a splash of color, the Game Boy Advance is more than just a Game Boy. In this instance, the "Game Boy" part simply implies a "portable" experience. Yes, the system does play all GB and GBC games, but it also had new carts that were 100% intended only for itself. There's was no half step, no trying to support old and new consoles with the same carts. Here the GBA was the one true system and the old Game Boy was ushered off to retirement.
What the GBA brought to the table was a 32-bit console that could provide Super Nintendo Entertainment System-like experiences. The body of the system was designed with SNES-style games in mind, featuring four face buttons along with L and R shoulder buttons. If you had grown up with the SNES, or were just looking for something with a little more control depth (as well as graphic depth) over the classic Game Boy then the GBA has you covered.
It's not a lie to say that the games cranked out by the GBA were gorgeous. This was Nintendo's last console that truly catered to the sprite-loving crowds. The graphic and color depth could create lovely, lush visuals that blew even the SNES away at times. It wasn't so good at 3D (and most of its best games don't even bother with 3D in any way) but it could do lush, sprite-based graphics like nobody's business. It's no wonder that sprite-based gaming had a bit of a last Renaissance on this console before everything went 3D based for presentation.
It's also fair to note, however, that for the first few years of the console's life the games were harder to see. Like the Game Boy before it, the Game Boy Advance lacked a back-light on its screen, meaning that if the graphics were dark enough (or if you were playing out in the brightest of the great outdoors) you likely couldn't see the game you were playing. Later revisions of the hardware (during the SP and GB Micro era) added a back-light to make the games easier to see, and back-light screens became the standard on Nintendo consoles after this handheld because of it.
The lack of a guaranteed back-light, though, led a lot of companies to adjust their graphics accordingly. You can see this shift fairly early on with clear examples. The prime one that's easier to see is the difference between 2001's Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, an absolutely fabulous launch title for the GBA, and 2002's follow-up Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. Circle featured lovely, lush graphics with a lot of Gothic atmosphere, but without a back-light it was hard to see the game (playing it in emulation, though, reveals its true style). To account for this, Harmony used a lot of bright, almost pastel colors that lacked the lush ambiance. Everything was made brighter so people could see the game without effort, marring the experience in the process.
Most later games tended to err on the side of bright graphics just in case someone playing didn't have upgraded hardware. Comparing games like Metroid Fusion against Super Metroid, or Mario & Luigi against Super Mario RPG, you can clearly see the shift in colors, erring on the side of brightness every time. Many games were able to account for this and get great graphics out of brighter colors, but it's clear where the GBA wheelhouse lay.
When it came to games, though, the GBA did knock it out of the park. There are a ton to choose from that will top any "Best Of" list: The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Golden Sun, and more. These were games that defined the series they were a part of, now regarded as the best those franchises had to offer. You can still find Castlevania fans to this day debating whether Aria of Sorrow or the PSX classic Symphony of the Night is the better game and, frankly, it's a tough call to make.
For Nintendo, the GBA became another way for the company to print money. While the Game Boy sold more consoles overall (counting the GBC in its numbers), it also had 19 years to produce those results. In just seven years of life the GBA sold 89 Mil units across all territories, and fantastic feat all things considered. It absolutely levels its competitors, including the PlayStation Portable which struggled to catch up in the early days of the head to head war, and then was smashed again by the Nintendo DS later in its life. Sony may have led the console wars but when it came to handhelds Nintendo was still king.
But then the GBA did slip away by 2008 in all territories. Japan saw it ends its life first, stopping sales in Q4 2006 so that the Nintendo DS (which debuted in 2004) could take over. Nintendo originally said that the GBA and the DS would exist side-by-side as two pillars of the company, but when the DS quickly ramped up its sales (aided by the fact it could play GBA titles along with new DS carts), eventually amassing over 150 Mil units sold, it was clear that the GBA was already getting forced out the door.
Despite the quick turnaround, though, there's no doubt that the GBA left an indelible mark on video game history. Its lifespan was short but it produced a ton of great games that are still played even today. It was a masterpiece of the handheld market with lovely titles that really showed the depth of sprite art. As good as the DS was, and with all the great games that were made for that console, there was something lost when the GBA went away (and it wasn't just that the "Game Boy" name died with it).