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

3DS hardware isn't engineered to play GBA games

Game Boy Advance on 3DS: MIA

Nintendo

Sorry, Nintendo fans. You're not likely to see Game Boy Advance titles on the Virtual Console anytime soon, and the reasons why are more complex than you may think.

As video game technology pushes forward, many people can't help but glance backward at the systems and games they had fun with in 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 introduced the Virtual Console—a digital marketplace where people can download and play games from previous generations. The Nintendo 3DS has its own Virtual Console that offers old titles 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 titles like Metroid Fusion, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, and Wario Land 4.

Some users assumed the Ambassador Program marked the start of the Game Boy Advance's presence on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console. But, GBA games are currently not up for grabs on the handheld's marketplace, and it looks like that may never be the case. Instead, those games are 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

The short answer is that the Nintendo 3DS' 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, delivering Game Boy Advance goodness on the handheld.

The Nintendo 3DS's emulation of the Nintendo DS works in much the same manner. It has a larger CPU and 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 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 titles. That means no save states, no sleep mode, or any of the other frills that come with "properly" emulated Virtual Console games.

Game Boy Advances to Wii U

The arrival of Game Boy Advance games on the Wii U probably put the kibosh on any GBA plans for the Nintendo 3DS. But, Nintendo discontinued the Wii U in 2017 due to poor sales. Its successor, the Nintendo Switch, launched that same year and, so far, it's a big success. But, it currently doesn't have the Virtual Console. Instead, it offers some classic NES titles through its Nintendo Switch Online membership. There's no word yet on whether or not Nintendo plans to bring GBA titles to the service.