In the pantheon of Nintendo consoles, I’ll readily admit the Game Boy Advance SP wasn’t the most exciting. It didn’t have dual screens and a stylus like the DS. It wasn’t absurdly tiny like the Micro, and it didn’t introduce color to the platform like the Game Boy Color. It’s nowhere near as iconic as the OG Game Boy or as tragically doomed as the Virtual Boy. But this tiny backlit square handheld was my first Game Boy ever, and no one forgets their first love.
When it came to video games, most of my childhood was spent under a rock. Sure, I occasionally got to play the odd N64 game while at a friend’s house. But at home, they were a symbol of idle American children who had too much free time—and my parents were the type to ban anything that wasn’t remotely educational. When I cobbled enough together in eighth grade for a PlayStation 2, my father’s hobby quickly became trying to find new ways to restrict my playtime. This is why I didn’t even get my grubby mitts on a Game Boy Advance SP until the tail end of my senior year of high school in 2006—well after the DS was a thing.
I got my first SP because my friend pitied me. For many reasons, I was on the outs with my parents and things at home were rough. When this friend suggested escaping into games, I had to explain how not only was I too poor to buy big-name video games, my PS2 had been confiscated. Not to worry, this friend said. Her father was a pilot, and apparently, people forgot gadgets on planes all the time. The next day, she brought her brother’s “spare upstairs bathroom SP” and a copy of Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland. It was a loaner until he noticed it was missing, which took about four months. I was forever changed.
The SP was neat because it didn’t look like the Game Boys that came before it. It was smaller, and sort of reminded me of a flip phone because of its clamshell design. This was good for hiding games from my puritanical parents. And because it was the first with a backlight and rechargeable battery, I could safely play alone in the dark into the wee hours of the night, without worrying my bedroom light would tip off my parents that I wasn’t sleeping. Plus, because it was outdated by the time I got one, it meant that when I eventually had to give my loaner SP back, it didn’t cost me too much to get a used one of my own.
The best part was that because the SP was also backwards compatible with Game Boy and Game Boy Color games, it was easy to borrow friends’ old games. I plowed through several classic games over the course of a few months, desperate to catch up on years’ worth of missed content. I was terrible at every single game. As it turns out, losing precious years of my youth not building up my reflexes has forever crippled me when it comes to playing platformers. But I deeply appreciated the ability to go back and finally learn who the fuck Link and Zelda were. Previously, I had a vague knowledge that Kirby was a pink ball that liked dancing—thanks to AIM emojis—but it didn’t really click until I sank at least 100 hours into playing and re-playing Nightmare in Dreamland. And I can’t forget the several hundred hours I sank into Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade after my high school sweetheart gave me his old cartridge.
The SP was also my first foray into gaming with other people. Up until that point, I had mostly played JRPGs by myself over summer vacations. I had to get a Game Link cable, but the first time I played Tetris with a friend, my cheeks almost burst from smiling so hard. I started carrying around a Game Link cable at all times, as well as a second SP—just in case a friend didn’t have one. They were small enough, with long enough battery life that it didn’t take much effort. My friends had all moved on to the DS like normal people, but that was no matter.
They mostly thought me odd for loving a last-gen device with such ferocity. It’s not that I thought it was perfect. The SP definitely had its quirks. I often had to play with the sound turned off because, way before the iPhone 7 ever rolled around, Nintendo pissed off fans by nixing the headphone jack on the SP. Trying to figure out if I could add a headphone jack was probably one of the first times I ever seriously contemplated modding a device on my own. (My lazy ass settled for buying the dongle adaptor.)
And while the SP’s compact size was great for sneaking around, it wasn’t so great for long hours. My hands would cramp after marathon sessions, and I developed my own set of hand stretches and a method of briefly playing one-handed for some games to give my hand muscles a break.
My love affair with the SP lasted about a year. I packed it with me when I moved to Japan for college, along with a well-worn cartridge of Nightmare in Dreamland, my first and still unsurpassed Kirby game. But at some point, I ran out of games to play and friends to borrow unwanted cartridges from. That, and the fact that the DS could double as a Japanese dictionary, meant I had no reason to keep delaying upgrading to the DS.
It wasn’t an abrupt end—more of a gradual abandonment. One holiday break, I left both my precious SPs at home. Then I lost the charger. And the Game Link cable. And the headphone dongle. Then, finally, the SP itself disappeared. But I carried that busted-up cartridge of Nightmare in Dreamland with me across two continents and at least 10 apartments before finally realizing I lost it for good about a year ago. I’m not ashamed to admit I cried when I looked everywhere right before moving and couldn’t find it.
I made peace with losing a small token of something that meant a lot to me during a tumultuous time in my life. About a month later, I finally bought myself a Switch. I clearly enjoy it. But playing several hundred hours of Fire Emblem: Three Houses on it reminded me of those days where I was glued to my SP, hiding under my blanket, listening out for my father walking the hallway toward the bathroom, stifling screams at Eliwood for dying yet again.
Funnily enough, my partner collects old Game Boys. I knew this, but for some reason, never asked whether he kept his old SP. Then a few weeks ago, while spring cleaning, I found his SP in our horrendously messy tech drawer. It was the same color as mine, stuffed in a bag with the same cables I used to carry, along with a handful of busted-up old Game Boy cartridges. And there it was: Nightmare in Dreamland.
Did I cry as I fired it up to play a few levels? Yes. I may, or may not, be in the process of replaying this godforsaken game for the thousandth time even though I have several Switch games I haven’t gotten through yet.
Games and handheld consoles have come a long, long way in the past 15 years. I don’t know how I spent as many hours as I did staring at this pixelated, 32-bit screen. Still, I haven’t felt as emotional replaying any game as I have in the hour or two I’ve spent re-playing this old-as-balls Kirby game. It’s like they say: You never forget your first.