by Marty Demarest
It's an often-repeated statistic these days that the video game business is bigger than the film industry. As it turns out, while domestic sales of video games are greater than domestic movie ticket grosses, the video game industry doesn't even begin to approach the dollars involved in the film industry when one considers overseas ticket sales, television, video, DVD and marketing deals. But it's still a surprising indicator of where Americans are choosing to spend their time and money.
With the hype generated during the last holiday season by Sony's PlayStation 2, and the upcoming releases of the X-Box from Microsoft and Nintendo's GameCube, it's easy to attribute the success of video games to high profile, flashy and expensive pieces of equipment. But look a little closer. That child who is staying mysteriously quiet all by himself in the doctor's office? The family of tourists in the airport, each devoting their concentration to an object smaller than a paperback held in their hands? The two children who are tapping away at small boxes that are connected by a cable? They're all probably playing with a Game Boy.
First released in 1989, the Game Boy seemed small, but it was powerful, and the company that had managed to make the name Nintendo synonymous with home video game entertainment was backing it up with quality games. By 1998, the Game Boy was still going strong, but the unit's size had shrunk considerably, and the display screen for the games was in color, as was the casing. Games were popular and fun. Especially when Nintendo released a series of Japanese titles about collecting imaginary monsters called Pok & eacute;mon. Game Boy sales skyrocketed.
In the 11 years since it was first released, more than 110 million units have sold -- approximately 1,000 of them every hour worldwide -- making it the world's best-selling video game system. The Game Boy continues to outperform both the PlayStation 2 and the Dreamcast in retail figures.
This Monday, Nintendo hopes to start changing those statistics, when it introduces the next generation in the Game Boy's evolution: the Game Boy Advance. Accompanied by a marketing campaign that promises to take routine daily activities like family trips and waiting in line to a new, "advanced" level, the machine will sell for approximately $100. Nintendo plans to have shipped 24 million of them within one year. If the success of the initial release in Japan this past March is any indication, in which more than one million Game Boy Advances sold within 11 days, Nintendo probably will.
According to the machine's specifications, the Game Boy Advance features a 32-bit processor that is several dozen times more powerful than the current Game Boy Color. The screen, which is 50 percent bigger than that of the Game Boy and displays 500 times as many on-screen colors, promises to deliver a sharper picture that most current video game systems playing on a 27-inch television. Oh yeah, and for parents whose wallets are already aching at the thought of battery bills, allegedly one pair of AAs will last around 15 hours.
So how does it actually measure up? Surprisingly well, it turns out. The first and most striking thing about the Game Boy Advance is its size -- about five and a half inches wide and three and a quarter inches tall. It weighs less than five ounces. It seems impossible that something so diminutive could possibly produce an image better than a television set. But every time the machine starts up, it's amazing how clear the game's image appears. It's also much more comfortable to hold than the Game Boy, and the batteries really do last a long time.
But what will ultimately decide whether the Game Boy Advance succeeds or fails with consumers is the lineup of games that will be made for it. Nintendo published several games in the past few years that managed to push the technology of the Game Boy to surprising levels, so it's a safe bet that it will be awhile before gamers start seeing titles that reveal everything built into the Advance.
The games that will be available at the system's release this Monday, however, should appeal to a wide enough audience -- so wide that finding an Advance in stores might prove tricky. Nintendo itself is releasing two games, one of them a double pack of the classic Super Mario Bros. 2 with the original Mario Bros., and the other a racing game called F-ZERO: Maximum Velocity. The best feature in both games may be a linking system that allows four players to play a multi-player game against each other, using four Game Boy Advances, a connector cable and only one copy of the game. This means that kids can play together as long as at least one of them has a game pack, and families with multiple kids won't need to spring for two copies of the same title just to take advantage of the multi-player features.
Konami, a popular video game publisher, will be releasing Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, which is the latest adventure in the successful vampire-slaying series of games. This installment returns the series to its original look, with some enhanced effects, meaning that video game fans will consider this reason enough to buy the Game Boy Advance. Another title that will make units move off store shelves is Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, which has all of the features of the Dreamcast and PlayStation versions, with the exception of a skate-park editor, and utilizes a different perspective when controlling the skater. A copy wasn't available by press time, but advance buzz is strong, and if this game can capture the addicting and rewarding gameplay that made the PlayStation version such a hit, almost every Game Boy Advance owner will have a copy this summer. Rayman Advance, a classic side-scrolling adventure, manages to look better on the Game Boy Advance than it did in the original PlayStation version.
Of course, the big guns will
follow before too long. Metroid IV and
Sonic the Hedgehog Advance should be in stores soon, and Pok & eacute;mon Advance is
already in the works. The best news of all, however, may be that the Game Boy Advance can play all existing Game Boy games just fine. Which means that even if it takes awhile before a lot of must-have titles are available exclusively for the Advance, there is still an enormous library of entertaining hits that can be picked up, and taken anywhere. Just try that with a movie.