Released in 2003, the Game Boy Advance SP is an upgraded version of Nintendo's original Game Boy Advance – itself a revision of the now almost-two-decade-old Game Boy.
So, if you're thinking "This pocket gaming console has pedigree...", you're right. Until mobile phones arrived and Sony released the PSP, Nintendo owned pocket gaming; rivals came and went as the trusty Game Boy brushed them aside with a killer combination of practical size, value for money, legendary toughness (in tests, the original has survived being run over!) and a huge library of great (and not so great) games.
The SP carries on the family tradition: it costs just £69.99, it's little bigger than a pack of cards, its clamshell design protects the screen from scratches, and it's backwards-compatible, which means the majority of old Game Boy games work on it, as well as all the new titles still being released. To help you work through them, the SP's rechargeable battery lasts for ages, at least 10 hours and more than half as long again if you play without using the console's built-in screen light (this light is the SP's major advantage over the original Game Boy Advance).
Compared to the faff required to keep a PSP juiced up, the SP's extended battery life is a major advantage. But really, putting the SP side-by-side with the PSP or Nintendo's DS is like comparing apples with Marks & Spencer's microwaveable ready meals. Those newer machines have the bells, whistles, and kitchen sink – the SP is about back-to-basics gaming. It's got a widescreen, but it's less than three inches wide. The games are bright and colourful, but at their best when the graphics are simple. Indeed, for old-time gamers, playing SP games is like going back to the TV-consoles of the early 1990s.
That's the strength of the GBA SP; game creators have been making these kinds of games for years, so when they make an effort, the results can be brilliant. (Too many poor GBA titles are produced far too quickly, with a famous cartoon character or actor slapped on the box to guarantee sales – check our reviews). Developers know how to make Game Boy titles that are great for taking anywhere, playing for short bursts, and then storing in a coat pocket. There's rarely that feeling of trying to squeeze in too much that you sometimes get with the newer devices.
Equally, the GBA SP's controls are based on what's worked before. No dispute about fiddly analog sticks or the pros and cons of a stylus here, a simple directional pad and a minimum of control buttons makes for less grappling with the console itself and more battling your foes in the game.
The GBA SP isn't perfect, mind. While the screen is protected, the outer casing is prone to scratching. Some find the buttons a bit fiddly (the Left and Right buttons were slightly shrunk to enable the SP's square design). Annoyingly, you must buy a separate headphone jack or else put up with (and make everyone around you put up with) music and sound effects from the SP's rather feeble mono speaker.
Most critically, GBA games are showing their age, for all the fun they offer. Nintendo's DS is only £30 more – backwards-compatible with Game Boy titles, but you can also get fancy dual screen games and a stylus to wave about. On the other, other hand, the DS is a lot bigger and its battery doesn't last half as long.
The bottom line is that the GBA SP is a neat, rugged and loveable machine that will give you a lot of game-playing pleasure and little bother. It's not cheap enough to be a total bargain and it's not going to impress your mates. But you probably won't care about that when you're playing.Game Boy Advance SP is on sale now.