Portable power-up

Punching buttons frantically, jogging his head to the rhythmic music wailing from a minuscule — yet astoundingly powerful — speaker, a child no more than 9 is consumed by the video game in his hand. His neighbor, a businessman dipped in concentration, relieves stress on the same electronic gadget. Both are waiting for flights to arrive. Both were bored — that is, until they slid the power switch to “on.”

It’s Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance that keeps the child’s patience in check and takes the businessman on a miniholiday. In other words, it’s the game machine for all generations, young and old — a 5-ounce pocket pal, beaming with more than 32,000 simultaneous colors.

And even though the lightweight GB Advance was birthed mere days ago (June 11 to be exact), Mother Nintendo has been pregnant for a decade and running.

The year was 1990. Parents gobbled up the original Game Boy to entertain children on blistering minivan hauls to grandma’s house. But the inaugural Game Boy was colorblind, retaining a constant black-and-white image. It lacked functionality. It demanded innovation. Adding color swatches (à la 1998’s Game Boy Color) was simply the foundation for a much larger project.

Rightfully, this newborn descendent earns its “Advance” surname. Aside from providing players with a colossal index of color, the system contains a 32-bit processor, projecting PlayStation-quality visuals in the palm of your hand. Now, complete 3-D worlds can be explored, making conversions of popular first-person shooters such as “Doom” a reality — an improbable feat on traditional portables.

Through plug-in headphones, Dolby Surround effects can be heard, proving that the Advance’s sound chip is truly radical. At first listen, your ears will be treated to a feast of audio, bleeding with clarity.

Another distinct advantage of GB Advance is its multiplayer capabilities. Attaching an inexpensive link cable allows up to four Advance owners to compete in knuckle-to-knuckle combat. Even better: Only one cartridge is needed (an industry first), whereas all other handhelds required multiple copies of each game. Indulging in a one-on-one round of “Super Dodge Ball Advance” (Atlus) is effortless and fun; or take to the neoflorescent highways of “F-Zero: Maximum Velocity” for four-player thrills.

However, the most exciting function of GB Advance is gameplay — fast and unadulterated. Dozens of classics spawned during the golden age of 16-bit consoles such as Super Nintendo (SNES) and Sega Genesis (including the monumental “Zelda,” “Streets of Rage,” “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Castlevania” franchises) will soon be revived for the pocket-gaming era.

As of late, video games have been decked with sparklers and fireworks — window dressings rendered to distract Joe Consumer from other shortcomings, mainly derivative gameplay. Sure, pretty graphics are impressive, but ultimately unredeeming. Before computer-generated graffiti and other eye-candy effects, video game designers couldn’t hide conceptual blemishes from the gaming public (mainly story line blotches or confusing direction). “Purity of play” was a tattooed motto when the SNES was reigning king.

Enter “Mario Kart Advance” (Nintendo), an attractive and challenging delight, featuring the entire gang of characters from the original SNES cartridge, along with a fistful of newly lacquered racetracks. The dirt-munching, steroid-enhanced hero, “Earthworm Jim” (Majesco), also makes a comeback on GB Advance. And don’t forget everyone’s favorite bumbling plumber, who graces the system in “Super Mario Advance,” a combo cart updating “Super Mario Bros. 2” and the battledome mode of “Mario Bros.” — two servings of retrofitted memories.

Advance versions of “Megaman,” “Bomberman,” “Rayman” and “Street Fighter” will be released this year as well.

With this new contraption, Nintendo has once again secured the legacy of its handheld dynasty. “Some people thought handheld video games couldn’t get any better,” chimes Peter Main, executive vice president, sales and marketing, Nintendo of America.

Nevertheless, Game Boy Advance doesn’t offer solutions to world evils or nagging moms; it doesn’t “advance” life. It’s merely a handheld spa — escapism at its best — intoxicating until the inevitable drain of the batteries.

Find a list of games available for the new Game Boy Advance at the time of the player's launch (June 11), and more that are "coming soon."

Jon M. Gibson is Inspector 23. Look for his "quality assurance" sticker before buying any video game. E-mail him at [email protected]
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