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Net access, 32-bit chip planned for Game Boy

Called the Game Boy Advance, the new device will hit the market next year and allow users to send and receive email and download software.

Game Boy, Nintendo's best-selling handheld video game machine, is about to grow up.

Nintendo plans to upgrade its popular device by including a powerful processor and a port that will allow it to connect, via cell phone, to the Internet. With the new capabilities, users will be able to go online to play multiplayer games, participate in online chats, download software, and retrieve email.

Nintendo also said it will develop a new digital camera for the new Game Boy that will allow users to see the faces of their online opponents.

Game Boy Advance, as it is currently being called, should reach the Japanese market by August 2000 and the North American market by the end of the 2000. Pricing details were not released, but current Game Boys cost less than $100.

With the ability to download software and email, the device will become less of a toy more of a competitor to handheld devices such as the Palm Pilot.

"This is an entirely new field of development for the video game industry," said Nintendo chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi at a press event in Japan. "Being able to play any time, any place is what video games should be all about."

Game Boy Advance will include a 32-bit processor from U.K.-based ARM. Current Game Boys use a much older 8-bit chip running at about 2 MHz. The ARM 32-bit processor swallows 32 bits of data at a time--as do PC processors such as Intel's Celeron and Pentium chips.

Internet connectivity for handheld games is starting to look like a must-have feature in the Japanese market, where teen-age consumers commonly wield cell phones. Bandai also is developing a cellular phone adapter for its new portable gaming device.

To help ensure development of games for the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo is setting up a joint venture with Konami called Mobile 21. The unit will also produce software for Nintendo's upcoming game console, code-named Dolphin, which is set to compete against Sega's Dreamcast and Sony's upcoming PlayStation 2 consoles.

Nintendo has sold over 80 million Game Boys since their introduction. A version with a color screen, introduced last year, and the "Pokemon" game phenomenon, have helped sales remain strong. The devices are selling so well that Nintendo expects to post a seventh year of record profit.

Bloomberg contributed to this report.