Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This feature was originally published in September 2020.
Before we dive in, let’s begin with a few words on the topic at hand when it was raised in the Nintendo Life office: “Such a neat little machine.” “I’ve always wanted one.” “Somehow I ended up with two.” “The most enjoyable way to get carpal tunnel.”
We were, of course, discussing the lovely Game Boy Micro. The diminutive console launched in Japan fifteen years ago this week (13th September 2005, and six days later in the US) and introduced arguably the most desirable form of the Game Boy Advance hardware at a time when the system was already well into its sunset phase.
Desirable, yes, but practical? Only in the sense that it’s genuinely pocket-sized — the most portable console Nintendo ever made. The Game Boy Pocket may have easily slipped into the baggy skater jeans of the average ’90s teen in the previous decade, but even that system was a porker compared to the magnificence of this minuscule miracle.
The Game Boy Micro, codenamed ‘OXY’, followed the now-familiar tradition of Nintendo releasing gorgeous hardware revisions late in a console cycle to tempt anybody who held off from purchasing initially, or people like us who can’t resist a sexy piece of kit no matter how superfluous to our requirements or gaming collection. After all, the Nintendo DS — famously marketed as a ‘third pillar’ to support the existing GBA and GameCube consoles — launched in 2004 with the in-built ability to play GBA carts. We didn’t need the Micro. Oh, but how we wanted it!
Although hard to contemplate in hindsight given the astonishing success of the DS line, Nintendo was understandably reluctant to put the ever-reliable (and profitable) Game Boy brand out to pasture and bet the farm on a new dual-screened experiment. With the GameCube struggling against PS2 and Xbox, this ‘third pillar’ strategy was marketing-speak in case the company had to fall back once again on its tried-and-true handheld business. Rejuvenated by the worldwide success of Pokémon, the Game Boy brand had kept the ship sailing full-steam ahead for almost a decade as Nintendo 64 and GameCube performed below expectations in the face of tough home console competition. In the portable space, though, Nintendo was still the king of the hill, and killing the Game Boy brand with an unproven alternative would have been foolhardy at that stage.
The launch of the Game Boy Micro in 2005 seemed to back up Nintendo’s continued commitment to the GBA, although the DS was in ascendance and the release of Nintendo DS Lite the following year (coupled with the Touch Generations brand games spearheaded by the phenomenal Brain Age) in the West really scrawled the writing on the wall for Nintendo’s venerable portable brand. The Micro hardware performed below the company’s expectations and would be the final new hardware (to date) to carry the name ‘Game Boy’.
The Game Boy Micro represents Nintendo pushing an idea to the absolute limits of sense and practicality, a truly stunning and unreasonably desirable piece of nonsense
Still, what a way to go! In many ways, the Game Boy Micro epitomises Nintendo’s handheld ethos pushed to the absolute extreme; to the point of impracticality. For one thing — as we highlighted earlier — it truly is handheld. It sits in your palm like a snack-size chocolate bar. The reduced real estate of its tiny two-inch screen (which features a backlight with adjustable brightness) makes the GBA library look crisper than ever before. Throw in a range of switchable faceplates and it’s got almost everything you want from a Nintendo console: beauty, novelty, and a software library to rival the very best of any console ever made.
However, its reduced proportions meant non-essential hardware had to be ejected from the design, so it can’t play original Game Boy and Game Boy Color software. And anyone who complains about the small text in Switch games would need a jeweller’s loupe to read the text of GBA’s impressive RPG catalogue. Then again, we can’t imagine many players have the stamina to play more than thirty minutes on a Micro anyway — anyone over the age of six (or with normal-to-large sized hands) will likely succumb to crippling hand and wrist pain within minutes.
Given all the Micro’s caveats, then, the gorgeous GBA SP still has a legit claim to being the ‘best’ Game Boy ever. The AGS-101 (which launched at the same time as the Micro with the improved backlight over the original SP) is still the best, most practical way to play your Game Boy library on official hardware, and its clamshell design saves its screen from getting scratched by keys, coins and other pocket detritus. In spite of its faults, though, the Micro remains the most coveted Game Boy ever – if the opinion of the wider Nintendo Life team is any indication, anyway.
We saw the ‘three pillar’-style spiel return years later with the launch of Switch; apparently, the new console would complement the 3DS rather than replace it. Obviously, Nintendo was going to say that — popular, proven hardware will continue to be sold indefinitely as a budget alternative all the time there’s demand. Even with the stellar success of Switch, the 3DS has still clung on for dear life thanks to its competitive price and incredible software library. The arrival of Switch Lite, and the fact Nintendo has stopped forecasting hardware sales, signifies that Switch’s handheld predecessor has now, finally, gone into retirement and the company now has but a single console ‘pillar’, now complemented by a mobile ‘pillar of profit’ (Nintendo loves pillars).
It’s tempting to see the final iteration in the 3DS family of systems, the Nintendo 2DS XL, as a modern equivalent to the Micro. It’s certainly a fine piece of hardware, but it’s way too practical — way too sensible — to rightfully compare. The Game Boy Micro represents Nintendo pushing an idea to the absolute limits of sense and practicality, a truly stunning and unreasonably desirable piece of nonsense. It’s Nintendo being more Nintendo than ever, and we adore it.
The fact that we can’t play a Game Boy Micro without developing micro-fractures doesn’t stop the members of Team NL speaking wistfully of their time with the console and cradling it occasionally in their palms (and those of us who never got around to picking up an increasingly pricey Micro from trawling eBay every so often).
Is it practical? Certainly not, but practicality be damned. You don’t buy a Ducati or a Ferrari because they’re practical. Is it a console we play often? Goodness, no — we can’t survive more than a few minutes in its company. But it is still the sexiest bit of kit Nintendo has ever produced and we’ll forever get a wistful, faraway look in our eye, and a little hot under the collar, at the mention of its name.