Interview: The Man Behind the GBA SP

Nintendo's Kenichi Sugino discusses the GBA, the PSP, and the future of the industry.

The portable gaming market, pretty much controlled by Nintendo for the past 14 years, is about to enter a fairly tumultuous period. Of course, we were saying that back when Nokia announced the N-Gage and color mobile phones started getting popular. We didn't really mean it, though, because we knew that these systems weren't anything near valid competition for the Game Boy Advance. Then Sony and their PSP announcement came along. Oh dear. Now things are getting interesting.

A little while back we got the chance to ask Kenichi Sugino, product designer at Nintendo's research & engineering department and the chief man behind the GBA, GBA SP and several other fine portable projects. Read on to discover how the SP was born, what he thinks of the Afterburner and how he imagines the next generation of portables might turn out. Consider it a little bit of commentary before the actual portable war begins.



Combine Onyx Black and the Japan-only Pearl White GBA SPs and you too can own the same system the police use on the streets!
Q: Around what time did the idea to create the GBA SP come about?
Kenichi Sugino, Nintendo: Well, first off, the GBA SP project started about three months after the original Game Boy Advance was completed.
Q: Three months?
KS: Actually, maybe less. As a matter of fact I think we were working on the basic idea for its design even a little bit before the GBA was released.
Q: Did you go through a lot of different models before deciding on the final design?
KS: Well, kind of. Nintendo has gone through a lot of different designs for portable systems, starting with the Game Boy and going through to the GB Pocket, Color, and finally Advance. Our mission here, though, was to design a system that would sell not just based on its game library, but also on how it looks. When you talk about game consoles, most of the time it's the case that you buy a GameCube because you want to play Mario, or you buy a GBA because you want to play something else. But that's not the case with other products, right? Like, take TVs or cars as an example. Some of them are totally utilitarian, but many of them are built for style, too.
As far as the GBA SP goes, the idea was to spend money on the design project to try and make it something that'd sell based on style. So what did we do? Well, one thing was make the entire package smaller; otherwise there wouldn't be any point in making a new Game Boy.

Q: Did the idea for the flip-top screen stem from that goal?
KS: Right. Now, I don't think the GBA is necessarily a poor design, keep in mind. I designed that system too, after all. (laughs) The thing is, though, that a lot of people within Nintendo think the SP's design is really good, but they all said that with the original GBA as well, so I never know whether they really feel that way about both or if they're just being polite to me. I don't dislike the GBA, but at the time, the main goal behind its design was to make it as cheap as possible so that lots of people could buy it. This time, though, it's more like "if people were willing to spend a little bit more money on the same GBA, what would they like?"
That was where the basic flip-top design came from. It's something that's never been done with game machines before, so I liked the idea right off. At the same time, though, it meant that the GBA's outer shell is now four pieces instead of two, and even that alone made it more expensive.

Q: Did you start this project yourself, or was it a request from Nintendo management?
KS: I mentioned earlier that work on the SP began three months after the GBA was done, but in the very beginning we started it as a secret project. It was just hard to tell how the project would be gauged, because this system was trying something very new. We really weren't sure whether there was a market for a game machine that costs a little more and has a few more amenities. So when we started designing the SP it was just an experiment within the hardware development group. We had to survey whether your typical member of society would be interested in this sort of system.
So eventually we created a prototype of the SP. It wasn't complete at all, but the flip-top design was already there.
Q: Did it look like the system we have today?
KS: Oh, it wasn't anything like that. It was even smaller than some mobile phones. All of the GBA parts were in there, but we hadn't even attached any screws to the unit. The hinges and everything were held together with glue. Our aim was just to put the GBA into the absolute smallest package possible and still have it work. I still have the prototype, but it's about this close to falling apart completely.
We showed this prototype around to a lot of people, both inside and outside Nintendo, and we asked them what they thought about it�the size, the capabilities, the lithium-ion battery, and so forth. And everybody was really excited about it; they really wanted it.
Q: So by the time you had to show it to Satoru Iwata [Nintendo's president], you must have been pretty confident.
SK: I was nervous, of course, but we had some great results data on our side, and personally I just knew that this thing was going really well. So when I did the presentation for Mr. Iwata I was super excited; I really went all out on it.
But then there was this little problem... Mr. Iwata and the rest of the board praised the prototype to high heaven and, from that point on, the project officially started within Nintendo. The problem was that this was just an image model; it was all stuck together with glue. We could make it, of course, but now we had to figure out how to manufacture it. We had to make sure the thing stuck together by itself, and of course we had to go and show that really small model to Mr. Iwata, so it had to stay the same size as well. So then we all thought "Can we really do this?" (laughs) When we were making the prototype we didn't really think about how sturdy the system was; how it'd respond if you dropped it on the floor, for example, so we had to figure that out. I had no idea what the price should be exactly, either. But everyone said it was a great product, so... Anyway, I'm sorry for wandering around with the answer, but yes, we had decided on the flip-top model from the start. (laughs)

Q: One of the main complaints people have about the SP is its lack of built-in headphone jack. What was the reason behind removing it?
KS: Well, you can use headphones with the SP if you plug in an adapter, of course. In the beginning we planned to include the jack, but from a purely physical standpoint, we just couldn't get it in. (laughs) If we put the port in, then that's that much cubic volume we can't use for other parts of the GBA. We were worried, of course, how people would respond to that, but when we looked at our research, we found that the percentage of people that use headphones with their GBA is actually pretty low. It's low, but there are people that use them, so we decided to build the system with the majority of users in mind and, at the same time, also accommodate the rest of the people that play it with the adapter. It was a compromise, you could say.


Star Dingo had to work all day to get the Afterburner up and running. Now the SP's come and made his hard work obsolete.
Q: About a year or so ago, a group of people released a backlight for the original GBA. Well, it wasn't a backlight, exactly, but...
KS: Oh, yes, I've seen it before.
Q: What was your reaction to it?
KS: I thought they did something really impressive. (laughs) The SP has a front light as well, but being able to put a good front light into the SP and still keep everything balanced is actually a very tricky technical endeavor. It's a world-class technical feat, actually. The thing with the front light that they sold was... the thing really ate up batteries, didn't it? For the SP, we had to develop a front light that would work well, but still not consume too much battery power. So when I saw that light at first, I was happy to see it, but I also thought "Oh, I wish it didn't use up all my batteries..." (laughs)
In a way, though, it also reminded us of exactly how many users really wanted to see some kind of light in their Game Boy Advances. It was an impetus for us to devote the time to figuring out how to finally just do it. So, in that aspect, it helped us during SP development as well.

Q: The GBA has been out for several years now. Do you think there are any games that really push the hardware to its limits?
KS: Hmm...
Q: There are a lot of 3D games coming out for it lately, too. Did your team design the original GBA with the idea that 3D games might come in the future?
KS: Oh, we didn't think about that at all. Well, we didn't completely ignore the idea, exactly, but we didn't think it was a very important part of the system. As for what game pushes the hardware to its limits... well, if I could think of a game like that, I'd probably go make it myself. (laughs) My responsibility here is to provide the canvas for developers to make lots of different games on, so in a way I'm happier to see games that don't really tax the GBA too much but are still lots of fun because of the ideas behind them. Of course, I do have my favorite games, but...
Q: For example?
KS: Wario Ware. (laughs)
Q: I like that game a lot, too. It's the sort of game you'd think would've come out before now, but it never has.
KS: Exactly. At first I was like "Did they really make this?", but then I just couldn't put the GBA down.


Wario Ware doesn't exactly scrape the metal in terms of GBA processing power, but it's still a blast to play, somehow.
Q: The portable marketplace has attracted a lot of attention recently, especially now that Sony has announced its first entry into the field. What do you think the next generation of portable systems will be like? Do you think we'll see more hybrid mobile phone/movie viewer/game player systems, or do you think that game systems should stick to games alone?
KS: Well, with Sony's announcement earlier, the only thing they showed off was the media, really, so as a hardware designer I really don't have any idea where they're going with the system. If you ask me whether I think the PSP is the form all portable systems will take in the future, I have to point out that the system's a year and a half away from release. A lot can happen before then.
As I mentioned before, a portable system isn't about features as much as it is about balance�the balance between capability and price. When I worked on the Game Boy Pocket a few years ago, things like backlights and lithium-ion batteries already existed, right? But, at the time, if you want to use those things in a game system, you'd have to build a really, really expensive machine. And in the case of the Game Boy, we may have to make one or two million systems a month. If we have the need for lithium-ion batteries, then we'll need a lot of them. We'd need a factory dedicated to those batteries alone. There wasn't any company in the world that could produce that many ten years ago, even if we had the money to pay for them all.
Since then, though, mobile phones have become huge. Thanks to mobile phones, whole companies have been dedicating themselves to improving battery technology. The fact is that we wouldn't be able to build a lithium-ion-based system without the ability on the part of these companies to build a million or so of the batteries every month. Backlights were the exact same way, right?
Q: The Game Gear had a backlight, didn't it?
KS: Exactly! And the Game Gear is twelve years old. But remember: that system ran on six AA batteries and only lasted for about four hours. That's really not all that portable. However, with the advances in LED technology, your average mobile phone screen can now be lit up pretty easily. Once we realized we could light the whole screen with a single LED�that's when we could put it in a game system. Most mobile phones use four lights at once, but using only one light allows us to save on battery time. All of this technology was what enabled us to release the SP for $99 while still retaining all of those features.

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