Backwards Compatibility for Nintendo Handhelds

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Abstract:
A short guide on which Nintendo handheld games can be played on which handheld systems.  The goal is to prevent people from buying used games that would not be compatible with their particular handheld systems.  Also included is a brief summary of the various Nintendo handhelds.

Introduction:
It has been my experience that people have gotten confused over the backwards compatibility of some of Nintendo's handhelds.  It's not a particularly difficult subject, but can be confusing, nonetheless.  First of all, let me give a definition of what I mean by "Nintendo handhelds."

Nintendo is a video game and video game system company.  It is notable for such series as The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and many more.  As for video game systems, Nintendo almost single-handedly revived the video game market with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (often abbreviated NES).  The NES was a video game console which you hook to a television and play games.  Nintendo also creates systems which are handheld, or portable.  The Nintendo Game Boy is the longest running handheld system with a huge library of games and a short list of ancestors.  The list of Nintendo handhelds is:

  • Game Boy
  • Game Boy Pocket
  • Game Boy Light
  • Game Boy Color
  • Game Boy Advance
  • Game Boy Advance SP
  • Game Boy micro
  • Nintendo DS
  • Nintendo DS Lite
  • Nintendo DSi

What do I mean by "backwards compatible?"  Simply put, backwards compatibility refers to the ability to play older games for an older system on a newer system.  While it is only recently that console video game systems are backwards compatible, Nintendo's handhelds have been so since the original Game Boy.  The degree to which a particular system is backwards compatible depends on the system, however.

Summary of Systems:
The original Game Boy was a huge commercial success and lasted for many years.  Eventually Nintendo released the a smaller and slimmer design of the original system and called it the Game Boy Pocket.  In Japan, Nintendo released another update to the original Game Boy and called it the Game Boy Light.  Again, this was essentially the same system.  The Game Boy Light, however, had a built in backlit visual display.  This did not make any impact on the games, however.  Any one of these systems could play any title released for any one of them.

The major update in the Game Boy line was the Game Boy Color.  This system brought the world of Nintendo handhelds out of the monochrome past and into the colored future.  The system could still play all the old games as well and with the added benefit of being able to select color palettes with which to view the old monochrome games in color.  Of course, up to this point there was no issue for older systems to play new games.  With the release of the Game Boy Color, owners of the older systems were, for the first time limited.  There were some new games that were playable on both the old Game Boys and the Game Boy Color and these were usually marked by a black cartridge and simply would play in color on the Game Boy Color and in monochrome on the older Game Boys.  Some games, however were only for play on the Game Boy Color and usually had a clear plastic cartridge.

A little while later, the next big release to the Game Boy line happened when the Game Boy Advance was released.  This system significantly upgraded the technology of the Game Boy and allowed for stunning color and graphics comparable to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System's 16-bit graphics.  The Game Boy Advance was backwards compatible with every game in the entire Game Boy line but Game Boy Advance games, marked by a much smaller cartridge, would only be playable on the Game Boy Advance.

The Game Boy Advance SP, which game out a little while later, could be seen in terms of the Game Boy Light.  It was, in other words, an identical system to the Game Boy Advance with a sleeker design and one other feature: a powerful backlit display.

Perhaps the last release to the Game Boy line is the Game Boy micro which was an exceedingly slim-lined system which could play the games designed for the Game Boy Advance or the Game Boy Advance SP, but not any of the earlier games.  In other words, this is not a backwards compatible system.  If you have this system, you are the most limited out of any of the line of Nintendo handhelds.

The three other handhelds Nintendo produced are called the Nintendo DS, Nintendo DS Lite and Nintendo DSi.  The Nintendo DS Lite is simply a slimmer and sleeker redesign of the original with a much more powerful backlit display in keeping with Nintendo's tradition of improving their successful handheld systems.  The Nintendo DS and the Nintendo DS Lite both play titles housed in "cards" that are designed to make use of their powerful technology and simultaneously playing dual screens.  The DS is the first Nintendo handheld capable of 3D graphics in addition to a touch sensitive bottom screen that allows game developers to implement stylus-based control schemes.  There is also a microphone pickup that is implemented by many developers as well as well as Wi-Fi connectivity.  Both the Nintendo DS and Nintendo DS Lite also have a secondary slot where Game Boy Advance (and of course, Game Boy Advance SP) games are able to be inserted and played.  Furthermore, the option exists to play Game Boy Advance games on either the top or bottom screen, depending on personal preference.

Now comes the Nintendo DSi.  In a similar fashion to the innovation Nintendo brought with dual screens, the Nintendo DSi adds dual cameras.  One faces away from the player and another towards the player and can be implemented within games by developers or simply used to take creative pictures.  There is also an SD card slot available on which to store photos or music.  Yes, the DSi plays AAC format music files and because it retains the dual screens, a touch sensitive bottom screen, Wi-Fi connectivity and especially the microphone from its predecessors, it's capable of recording sounds as well.

But while the DSi is the most robust of Nintendo's handhelds in terms of features, it does leave out the Game Boy Advance slot eliminating backwards compatibility with Game Boy Advance games and those DS games that use something inserted in the Game Boy Advance slot (such as the Guitar Hero On Tour series of games).  Also, there will be games released that make use of features only found on the DSi.  Some of these will be playable on older DS systems but without certain functionality while others will be DSi exclusive.  So far, no DSi exclusive games have been released.  However, similar to Apple's App Store or Nintendo's own, WiiWare service, the DSi is able to download digital games using Wi-Fi.  These games are called DSiWare and are exclusive to the DSi.

Summary of Compatibility:
  • Game Boy
    • Original Games and Some Games in Black Cartridges for Game Boy Color Only
  • Game Boy Pocket
    • Original Games and Some Games in Black Cartridges for Game Boy Color Only
  • Game Boy Light
    • Original Games and Some Games in Black Cartridges for Game Boy Color Only
  • Game Boy Color
    • Original Games and Game Boy Color Games in Black and Clear Cartridges
  • Game Boy Advance
    • Original Games, Game Boy Color Games in Black and Clear Cartridges and Game Boy Advance Cartridges
  • Game Boy Advance SP
    • Original Games, Game Boy Color Games in Black and Clear Cartridges and Game Boy Advance Cartridges
  • Game Boy micro
    • Game Boy Advance Cartridges Only
  • Nintendo DS
    • Game Boy Advance Cartridges and Nintendo DS Cards Only
  • Nintendo DS Lite
    • Game Boy Advance Cartridges and Nintendo DS Cards Only
  • Nintendo DSi
    • Nintendo DS Cards that do not use anything inserted in the Game Boy Advance slot and (future) Nintendo DSi Cards as well as DSiWare digitally distributed games
Conclusion:
And so, if you simply look at this list, you can find what system you have and decide which games you are able to play on it.  Many Game Boy and DS games are listed on eBay and sometimes it can be confusing to decide on bidding without knowing if you'll be able to play it on your system or if your child will be able to play it on his or hers.  Hopefully this guide will help you if that question ever comes up again.

Good luck and happy gaming!
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