An old Game Boy saved me from buying a PS Vita

Crave contributor and longtime Sony observer Christopher MacManus thought he had to have a new PlayStation Vita, but a surprising find in his childhood closet made him think again.

The find that started it all. Christopher MacManus/CNET

When the PlayStation Vita launched, I didn't buy one -- or even preorder one, which seemed odd to a few people who know my affinity for Sony.

I've written about the device numerous times on CNET and enjoyed many extended gameplay sessions with major launch titles at press events. I kept up with Vita chatter on jumbo-size gaming forums like NeoGAF, reading about the trials and tribulations of the new system from faithful early adopters.

And let's face it. The Vita, with its array of sensors comparable to the Death Star, would capture the attention of any geek. Like some of you out there, I've grown tired of playing touch-screen games on my iPhone 4 and wanted buttons like the old days. Who could resist the doubleheader quad-core processor and quad-core graphics driving a mega, 5-inch OLED screen?

Well, so far, I have resisted, and I largely credit a visit to my mother's house several weeks before the PlayStation Vita launch on February 22. From time to time, I like to go into nostalgia mode and check out my childhood closet, glancing over old cameras, MiniDisc players, Speak n' Spell, and other ancient technologies.

On that day, I dug into the closet to discover a mint-condition onyx Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP. I was stunned.

I picked up the old-school game player, previously considered missing, and opened up the clamshell frame. Everything looked new, similar to how I stored it away back around 2004. Flicking the power button felt like a roll of the dice, but even after eight years of being uncharged, it powered on as if not a single day passed. I did my best Obama "Not Bad" meme face and plopped down on the carpet.

PlayStation Vita's OLED screen looks gorgeous from any angle. Sarah Tew/CNET

The familiar startup "ching" noise of the Game Boy immediately inspired a smile, and memories flooded over me when the logo for "Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising" flickered on.

Two feverish hours of battle later, I realized that even in 2012, the Game Boy Advance era produced a caliber of gaming enjoyment that still feels unrivaled in this era of quick-fix smartphone and tablet micro-games. Playing the Advance felt more fun than any other mobile gaming experience in recent memory.

To calm my urge to buy the Vita, I decided to interpret the newly found Game Boy as a gift from the past to stop me from spending hundreds of dollars in the future. I went on eBay and picked up a handful of quintessential games, including The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap; Mario Golf; Golden Sun: The Lost Age; Super Mario Advance 1, 2, and 4; Final Fantasy VI Advance; Mario Kart: Super Circuit; Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga.

I figured this salvo of titles would hold over my portable gaming urges through all the Vita chatter. Plus, I spent only less than $45 on the assorted Game Boy cartridges.

A glimpse at some of my Game Boy Advance cartridge collection. Photo by Christopher MacManus/CNET

And yes, money is a factor for me. In my late teens and early twenties, I'd drop cash on shiny new objects without much thought. Now, in my later twenties, I think first about making sound choices and meeting my responsibilities. Time changes perspective, and my knee-jerk attraction to the latest, greatest device doesn't jibe with who I am today -- or my wallet.

To satisfy a seasoned gamer like myself, the Vita setup requires a base Wi-Fi Vita ($249); a minimum of two major games (around $80-plus); and a 16GB memory card ($50). My total for the next-generation Sony gaming experience would probably cost at least $400. I realized my wallet didn't need to crawl down a Vita rabbit hole, and decided I could wait it out a year or two. Costs will come down on the storage, the games, and possibly the hardware itself.

The Game Boy proved surprisingly satisfying in my Vita-less state. After experiencing the most graphically intensive games possible on a multitude of modern machines, something about those old games on real hardware (and not an emulator on a computer) felt like reaching the holy grail. Those games of yore offer someone like me ultimately more replay value in the end.

And it wasn't just me. Weeks after my fateful find at Mom's house, my girlfriend seemingly loved playing the Advance more than I did. I would come in from another room to find her playing my Game Boy, talking to the game in frustration when a jump didn't go right in Mario. Sometimes we would take turns beating Mario levels together, but often squabbled for custody of the elder Nintendo handheld.

But after many hours on the Game Boy Advance SP, part of the shine faded as I sensed the age of the hardware and the limitations of the paltry 32,768 color display. I needed more power and flexibility, so I picked up a DS Lite ($99 or less). The DS Lite features a Game Boy Advance cartridge slot at the bottom, and a DS card slot at the top. You can even hack the DS Lite and emulate any DS game, but we don't recommend you do this.

The DS Lite can play both generations of games, opening up a vast library of titles encompassing nearly every genre imaginable. I'd describe the replay value as "insane." I get to catch up on many adventures I missed in the last decade of Nintendo handheld consoles, and at this point, nothing sounds better to me than that.

Despite its age, the DS Lite still offers incredible value for the price and offers up to 15-19 hours of battery life (at lowest brightness setting). Christopher MacManus/CNET
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