New Game Boy: Best handheld ever?

Some think so, some don't. What Game Boy Advance offers is more power and speed, better color and a bigger screen. Japan is getting its first look today.

TOYKO--Nintendo released Game Boy Advance in Japan Wednesday, and parents and kids snatched the new system up. Light, small and convenient, Game Boy Advance is likely the best handheld game system ever made. But it is not the best game system--Game Boy Advance cannot measure up against powerful consoles such as PlayStation 2.

GBA is being billed as an incremental step forward from the original eight-bit Game Boy. GBA may be outfitted with a 32-bit processor, but Nintendo (ntdoy) is carefully selling the system as having architecture that is similar to the 16-bit Super NES and especially well-suited for playing two-dimensional games.

What Game Boy Advance offers is a lot more power than older Game Boys, better color, faster frame rates, better resolution and 50 percent more screen.

"Super Mario Advance," "Kuru Kuru Kurin," "Mr. Driller 2" and "Castlevania: Circle of the Moon" are good diversions for people on airplanes or waiting in doctor’s lobbies. I doubt they were meant for extended home use.

As an added touch, Nintendo has rigged several Game Boy Advance games so that up to four people can link their systems together and play against each other using a single cartridge. It’s a nice touch that may prevent fighting among younger siblings on long road trips.

On the other hand, it could also promote fights--depending on how well those siblings play together.

When Nintendo executives demonstrated Game Boy Advance to retailers, they received non-committed soft orders for 2.7 million units. Though they have not gone back to convert those requests into actual orders, Nintendo is understandably confident.

Will GB withstand slow economy?
Both the Japanese economy and the Japanese game industry are at fairly significant lows at the moment. Weekend traffic in places such as Akihabara and Den Den Town-—the electronics districts of Tokyo and Osaka, respectively—-remains steady. This weekend was especially busy due largely to the spring equinox, which is a school holiday.

Stores that were nearly empty last week were packed Wednesday with children and parents anxious to purchase Game Boy Advance. Retailing at 9800 Yen (approximately $100 U.S.), Nintendo’s new handheld game system comes in three colors--white, purple and translucent blue.

While game stores around Akihabara and Den Den Town sold their pre-order allotment over a week ago, as recently as Sunday shoppers could still reserve a Game Boy Advance at many department stores.

Supplies were low, however. A Daie, the largest department store chain in Japan, in downtown Osaka, for instance, could only take orders for a few units, and the only remaining color was white.

Interestingly, the store manager was unsure how many game titles his store would receive. Though Nintendo and its third-party partners have prepared 25 titles for launch, the store manager said that his store might only receive four titles--"Super Mario Advance," "F-Zero: Maximum Velocity," "Napoleon" and "Kuru Kuru Kururin."

But even in stores that have not sold out, there is an interesting difference between the ways consumers respond to Game Boy Advance and the way they responded to PlayStation 2 in the days before it launched.

Shoppers crowded around demonstrations of PlayStation 2 waiting anxiously for an opportunity to try any game they could get their hands on.

There were no crowds around Game Boy Advance in the days before its launch. Shoppers snatched it up, but they were not as openly crazy about it.

Nintendo spokesman Yasuhiro Minagawa says that Nintendo has increased its proposed shipment of Game Boy Advances and asked retailers to pre-sell the units to avoid crowds and confusion.

"If you go to Lawsons (a chain of convenience stores that are popular throughout Japan), they are excepting pre-sale [orders for Game Boy Advance]; but the delivery date will be in April," says Nintendo manager of public relations Yasuhiro Minagawa. "The situation is not so bad at other stores. One point one million is enough units that we are hopeful that we will not have that many complaints."

Lukewarm reviews so far
One reason for the seeming lack of enthusiasm may be the lukewarm reviews the Game Boy Advance launch lineup received from Famitsu, an extremely influential Japanese game publication.

Famitsu judges games on a 40-point scale. Famitsu’s reviews give point scores between one and 10 for four categories. The scores are added together for the final score.

Light, small and convenient, Game Boy Advance is likely the best handheld game system ever made.

The highest scoring games for Game Boy Advance was "Power Pro Kun Baseball" with a score of 32. "Mr. Driller," an '80s-style arcade game from Namco, and "F-Zero: Maximum Velocity" both scored a 31. "Super Mario Advance," basically "Super Mario Bros. 2" for the Nintendo Entertainment System, only scored a 27.

"Famitsu is almost always nice to us," says Minagawa. "But they have a critical eye for Game Boy games. They are more hardcore game users. When it comes to these critiques, Nintendo people often question why they give such high marks to certain console games and such low marks to games like 'Zelda: Mysterious Fruit.'"

According to many game company executives, a good Famitsu review can turn an unknown game into a hit, and a bad review can cause consumers to take a wait-and-see approach to a highly anticipated game.

One game that might have scored better with Famitsu would have been "Mario Kart Advance"-—the combat cart racing game used as the lead demonstration game at Spaceworld last August. Nintendo, however, decided to withhold it from its launch lineup.

"Actually, there was some strategic thinking behind the decision not to release 'Mario Kart Advance,'" says Minagawa. "We were thinking about using it as the ‘killer title’ for Game Boy Advance; but the delay of Game Boy Advance allowed Nintendo and its licensees to develop more games.

"When we had Spaceworld last August, it became obvious that many licensees were working on similar games. 'Mario Kart' was already completed, but we are now adding extra touches, and it will be compatible with the Mobile Adapter System."

The Mobile Adapter System, available only in Japan, allows players to hook their Game Boy or Game Boy Advance to a cellular telephone.

And the verdict
Let Microsoft and Sony argue about how their new game consoles are the most powerful super computers ever offered to mortal man; Nintendo is going the opposite direction and managing expectations about Game Boy Advance.

Nintendo has been wise to manage expectations. Game Boy was never the most exciting game system on the market, and neither is Game Boy Advance. It is a good system with solid games that are better suited for short bursts than extended gaming.

That said, Game Boy Advance is a nice piece of hardware. It does its job well and offers an extraordinary diversion to people who like to play on the go.

MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.


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