Same screen size.

Same processor.

Same cartridges.

But still...

It's A Whole New Game

Upgrade: The new Game Boy Advance SP features a screen light and longer battery life - the kind of improvements that pay off most for serious users.

March 27, 2003|By Victor Godinez | Victor Godinez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The first time you pick up the Game Boy Advance SP, you'll wonder why Nintendo didn't design the GBA like this to begin with.

In technical specifications, the SP is the original GBA's identical twin.

It has the same screen size and resolution, same processor, same number of buttons and is compatible with original GBA cartridges. It also works with Nintendo's e-Reader, if you're into that.

But the SP is by far the more presentable sibling.

The SP folds into a tiny square and tucks neatly into just about any pocket. You have no idea how small this handheld is until you turn it over in your hands, and flip it open and closed a couple times.

Once you stop giggling - several of my coworkers couldn't resist noting how cute the little SP is - you power up and go.

That's an important step, because the SP has a built-in rechargeable battery and comes with a charging cable.

Nintendo says you can get about 10 hours out of the battery with the screen light turned on and about 18 with it off, although I seemed to get a few hours less on both settings.

And that brings us to the screen light, which is the main reason the SP even exists.

The original GBA was roundly pummeled for not including a backlight, as the dim screen requires near-perfect lighting to play.

Well, Nintendo has listened to you, gamers. Sort of.

Although it doesn't include a backlight that shines through the screen, the SP has what might be called a front light. That is, there's a light between the LCD screen and the clear, plastic cover.

It's not as good as a true backlight, but it is a colossal improvement. In fact, you now get a better view of the screen if you play in the dark than if you play in bright light.

Finally, despite its small size, the SP is comfortable to hold, and the buttons are conveniently placed. Except for the backlight quibble and the fact that you have to buy an adapter to plug in headphones, this is how handheld game machines should be built.

Which means that anyone who owns an original GBA has a tough choice to make: shell out $99 for the new model or stick with the original GBA and just buy a clip-on light.

If you've got the money, I'd say, buy the SP. If you're a frequent GBA player, the SP will probably pay for itself in a year or so, just in the money you save on batteries. Plus, the GBA SP is really cool.

Timeless fun

One of the titles I tested on the GBA SP was Ultimate Brain Games ($29; suitable for all ages), a collection of old-school games from Dallas-based Telegames Inc.

You get chess, checkers, backgammon, dominoes and a few other simple diversions.

It's perfect for short breaks between meetings or classes, and you get a fun, if aimless, build-a-player mode that lets you dress up your on-screen character with glasses, different haircuts and skin tones.

I also liked the Windows-style interface for navigating in-game menus and options, and the tutorials were helpful.

During a game, you can pick from either straight overhead or three-dimensional views of the game board, and the control pad works fine for navigating your pieces. Find a friend with a GBA, and you can link up for two-player fun.

Ultimate Brain Games is a great find for board game fans.

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