Why Aren't Game Boy Advance Games on the Virtual Console?

Game Boy Advance on 3DS: MIA. Image © Nintendo

Sorry, Nintendo 3DS owners. We're not likely to ever see Game Boy Advance games on the Nintendo 3DS's Virtual Console, and the reasons why are a little more complex than you may think.

As video game technology pushes forward, many of us can't help but glance backward at the systems and games we had fun with over previous years. That's why many of Nintendo's consoles and handhelds are backwards compatible, meaning they're engineered to play games from the previous generation as well as the current one. The Nintendo 3DS is capable of playing Nintendo DS games, the Nintendo DS can play Game Boy Advance games, and the Game Boy Advance can play Game Boy games.

When Nintendo launched the Wii in 2006, it also introduced the Virtual Console - a digital marketplace that allows users to download and play games from previous generations. The Nintendo 3DS has its own Virtual Console that offers old games from the Game Boy and NES libraries.

Good stuff, but many Nintendo 3DS owners are wondering why Nintendo hasn't made Game Boy Advance games available to the entirety of the Nintendo 3DS userbase.

Ambassadors Only

A handful of lucky 3DS owners already have a selection of Game Boy Advance titles, as several were given away as part of Nintendo's "Ambassador Program." When the Nintendo 3DS failed to pick up momentum after its 2011 release date, an $80 price drop quickly followed. Early adopters were placated with free emulations of Game Boy Advance games like Metroid Fusion, The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap and Wario Land 4.

It was assumed the Ambassador Program marked the start of the Game Boy Advance's presence on the Nintendo 3DS's Virtual Console. However, Game Boy Advance games are currently not up for grabs on the handheld's marketplace, and it looks like that may never be the case. Instead, GBA titles are being sold and distributed through the Wii U's Virtual Console, a separate entity from the Nintendo 3DS's Virtual Console.

Putting retro handheld games on the Nintendo 3DS seems like a no-brainer, so what's the story?

It's All Technical

Daniel Vuckovic at Australian game site Vooks.net has an excellent breakdown of why Game Boy Advance games aren't on the Nintendo 3DS - and why we're probably not going to see them anytime soon, if ever.

The shortest answer is, the Nintendo 3DS's hardware isn't engineered to play Game Boy Advance games. As a result, the few GBA games available to Ambassadors aren't emulated. They're simulated.

The Nintendo DS has two CPUs: One for processing 3D graphics, and one for processing 2D graphics. The second CPU is the same chip that drives the Game Boy Advance. When players insert a Game Boy Advance cartridge into a Nintendo DS, the DS's second CPU slows down and reads the cartridge. Hence, Game Boy Advance goodness on your Nintendo DS.

The Nintendo 3DS's emulation of the Nintendo DS works in much the same manner. It has a larger CPU as well as a smaller CPU that can be considered a "Nintendo DS chip." That's why the 3DS can play DS games without issue.

While the same chip can be clocked down further to play Game Boy Advance games on the 3DS, the games need to run through virtual, simulated Game Boy Advance "hardware." The simulation renders the chip unavailable for 3DS background tasks like Wi-Fi, your friends list, and the like. Even the 3DS's sleep mode is disabled when an Ambassador's Game Boy Advance game is running.

In other words, a combination of hardware and software issues means the Nintendo 3DS is currently only capable of running simulations of Game Boy Advance games. That means no save states, no sleep mode, or any of the other frills that come with "properly" emulated Virtual Console games.

Nintendo treasures its past, and it's likely the company isn't happy about being limited to barebones presentation. But Nintendo is home to some of the world's smartest engineers. Surely there must be a workaround?

Game Boy Advances to Wii U

Alas, it's unclear whether or not Nintendo can overcome the problems that currently keep Game Boy Advance games off the 3DS's Virtual Console. As of this writing, the 3DS is quite far into its life cycle. If Nintendo intends to bring Game Boy Advance games to the 3DS, it needs to make it happen soon - but there's no indication it's going to happen.

In fact, the arrival of Game Boy Advance games on the Wii U probably puts the kibosh on any GBA plans for the Nintendo 3DS. The Wii U is in dire need of more sales, and tempting potential buyers with the GBA's massive library isn't a bad sales strategy.

So if you're harboring a dream about marriage between the Nintendo 3DS and the Game Boy Advance, it's probably best to put it to bed. Buy a Wii U, borrow an Ambassador's 3DS, or procure one of the many Game Boy Advance models up for grabs on eBay.