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My rediscovered Game Boy Advance is a time machine I don’t want to get out of

I recently moved into a new house and faced that most terrifying of prospects: a few days without internet access. On top of all the other dependencies that this enriching, vile invention has created in us, all the games I’ve been playing required patches, updates, or someone to play against. I was – gulp – gameless!

Luckily, I had found my old Game Boy Advance while moving, rejected and forlorn in a freezer bag in the bottom of a box with a handful of game cartridges, unfingered for nearly 20 years. It had been my constant companion on flights to from Glasgow to London back when we didn’t have phones with games, and I was appearing on what seemed like every single one of those Top 100 War Movies/TV embarrassments/Songs That Use Flowers As Metaphors for Sex. (And Richard and Judy.)

You are familiar with the sensory overload that comes with games playing in 2022, yeah? Firing up God of War on a Sauron ultimate build PC through an 85-inch OLED TV or whatever the latest thing is? This is the opposite. This is the first time I have suffered a sensory underload. I literally didn’t notice anything when I switched the Gameboy Advance on. Had I lost the power of sight? Was I deaf? The machine was so dim and quiet.

Then I saw a button with the shape of a sun on it. Ah, this must be the backlight, I surmised. And pushed it.

The screen got darker. Oh dear. The backlight already was switched on.

Legendary video game developer Shigeru Miyamoto holds up the new Nintendo Game Boy Advance in Los Angeles, May 2001.
Legendary video game developer Shigeru Miyamoto holds up the new Nintendo Game Boy Advance in Los Angeles, May 2001. Photograph: John Barr/AP

How did we ever manage to play this machine? Did we have better optometrists in 2004? Was the world somehow darker, to allow this screen to stand out more?

The sound problem was easier to explain: there was none. The years of freezer bag storage had not been kind to my Game Boy Advance speaker, so for tonight I would use headphones.

Ah. No headphone slot. You need an adaptor. What!? That’s as primitive and unhelpful as … every single iPhone in 2022.

So, I played in silence. My son does that with all games, which I have always thought is the strangest thing ever. But I gave it a go.

I lasted five minutes on Mario vs Donkey Kong. A barely readable screen and no sound made it the gaming equivalent of watching bag blown down a city street on a foggy day. Then I had an idea: I would try it at night. With no other sensory distractions.

This was better. I could now see the screen, though as I do not yet have curtains, I treated my neighbours to the sight of a 6 foot 1 inch, 230 lb man inside an empty room with his face lit by a pixelated glow, perhaps inspiring them to write a successful serial-killer movie.

But the games were worth it. Mario vs Donkey Kong is still an exceptional platform puzzler, the Manic Miner update we dreamed of as 80s kids. Mario Golf is a joyful return to the days where your swing wasn’t at the mercy of a fiddly thumb joystick.

Returning to The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap was like finding an old pair of Puma Gazelles that don’t smell. Cool comfort. Any fun that was lost playing it in silence was made up for by the fact that I named my character MYBUTT, so characters kept saying: “Where’s MYBUTT?” It really is the simple things in life that please me.

Advance Wars 2 is still perfection when it comes to turn-based action strategy, and had me wondering if we even need fancy graphics and sound in games, or indeed whether we need any game released after 2004. If the 90s truly were the greatest era for original video games, weren’t the first half of the 2000s the cherry on top, before the always-online-constant-patches-and-microtransactions era began?

Advance Wars on the Game Boy Advance
Advance Wars on the Game Boy Advance Photograph: Nintendo

I feel a more intimate, immersive connection to these games, but that may just be because my face is pressed right up to the tiny screen so that I can see it. And why are my hands suddenly 10 times larger and clumsier than they were two decades ago? Is it monkeypox?

There are disappointments though. Some games have not survived storage: Tony Hawks American Sk8land is as broken as its spelling. Super Monkey Ball is similarly bricked. The biggest dagger to the heart is my broken copy of Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon, which I remember as a masterpiece. As a nostalgia trip, this is like loading a C90 full of Spectrum games and getting an R Tape Loading Error. Or getting no reply from girls you fancied at school on Friends Reunited.

And then I remembered a hack from the cartridge days of yore: I take it out the Shining Force cartridge and I blow into it. I slap it firmly back in and switch it on. It works! The old “Magic Cartridge Blow” Special Move still working at my age gives me the biggest gaming exultation I have ever experienced. My neighbours are treated to the sight of a 6ft 1n, 230lb Scotsman dancing by the light of a Game Boy Advance screen. They may never recover. But I don’t care. I am off to the land of Rune in the kingdom of Guardania. I am off to 2004, and I may not want to return.

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