The following is a translated digital print of an interview conducted on Shigesato Itoi's 1101l website under the Nintendo Interviews banner. This interview has been translated from its original Japanese language to English by Kyoto Report. We also include the original Japanese document alongside; September 2003, Issue 25 . This interview features Shuichi Tsugawa, Takanobu Nakashima, Ryuji Umezu, Kenichi Sugino, and Masahiko Ota from the Research & Engineering Department of Nintendo Company Limited. The development staff discusses the creation of the Game Boy Advance.
Kyoto Report - Transcribe - Nintendo Online Managine Vol. 25: Game Boy Advance
Q: How long was the development cycle?
Shuichi Tsugawa: About 2 years.
Q: Please tell us about the development process.
Shuichi Tsugawa: The first thing you have to decide on is the CPU. To decide on the CPU, you have to determine the screen size, or resolution. So you have to consider that at the same time as the CPU. The resolution on the GBA is 240 pixels X 160 pixels. The Game Boy Color was only 160x144, so it's quite bigger. The size of the LCD that displays the screen depends on the resolution, so we determined the screen size as well.
Q: So you felt there was a certain screen size that you wanted?
Shuichi Tsugawa: With LCD's, there is an economical size. You basically take what you need and try not to leave anything left over. If you don't the price of the unit is going to go up. There are a number of patterns; within them we choose the one that was best suited for games.
Q: What happened after you decided on the screen and CPU?
Ryuji Umezu: First of all, it takes time to decide on the specs of the CPU. During development, we make these kind of sample boards (shows one to the editor). Then, we get the opinions of the staff and software developers. We let them look at the board and they tell us, "We want this…" or "We don't need that…" We then change the specs from there.
Q: About how long did it take to decide on the CPU?
Ryuji Umezu: More than a year.
Q: About half the development cycle was spent deciding on the CPU?
Ryuji Umezu: When we were told, "We want this feature," we usually have to include that feature on the CPU. With that, we have to change the design of the CPU itself. Therefore, if we change the specs today, it doesn't mean that it will be ready tomorrow. It takes several months to change the specifications and make a new CPU. There was only one real major change to the CPU, but there were 2 or 3 smaller things in addition to a number of minor changes. From start to finish, these three (Shigawa, Umeji & Nakajima) made change after change while evaluating things like the CPU and circuit board.
Q: While you were receiving this input, were there any impossible requests?
Takanobu Nakashima: There were various demands regarding the CPU's internal program. We added changes little by little, so it was kind of tough finally accepting the internal ROM.
Masahiko Ota: We planned the design based upon the CPU and the screen size. Things like the key layout and the location of the screen itself. The screen is horizontal, but we researched the possibility of a vertical one as well. Going along with our mistakes.
Q: Why did you decide to go with a horizontal design?
Kenichi Sugino: Of course, at first we looked into a vertical design, but with a screen this size, a vertical design would make the overall unit size too big. Nintendo's Game Boy had a vertical design for 12 years, but with portable game systems, the most important thing is for it to be compact. Therefore, we used a horizontal design to match the screen.
Masahiko Ota: Also, with a more powerful CPU, it will be easier to port console games. Therefore we decided to go with a screen closer resembling the ratio of a TV screen.
Q: About when did the idea of Left and Right buttons come about?
Kenichi Sugino: It came from the software developers. They've always been asking for more buttons. So, this time we decided to increase the number of buttons to allow for new types of games. Upon talking with the software developers, we decided on L/R buttons.
Q: What types of colors will there be for the unit?
Kenichi Sugino: At Spaceworld, we showed four colors- silver base with orange, silver base with blue, clear and clear purple. However, what colors will be used in production is still undecided.
Q: The unit feels really light in your hands. Are you using any special materials in making the machine?
Masahiko Ota: They're the same parts as the Game Boy Color, but the weight is balanced out better, so it feels lighter. The tough part was deciding where to place the batteries.
Ryuji Umezu: We created a number of models before we got to that design. Even though I'm only an amateur, I made a few myself.
Kenichi Sugino: Just because it's a portable game system, that doesn't mean just being small is good enough. It has to has a good sense of control for playing games. As people who have spent a long time making portable game systems, that's one area we're really proud of.
Q: About how many sample design models did you make?
Kenichi Sugino: Including the sketches…quite a few. We tried making a unit that included a lid like the Game Watch. But with a lid, the unit becomes thicker, which makes the overall size bigger. If it's too thick, it can't fit in your pocket. (laughs)
Masahiko Ota: I was pretty worried about what to do with the thickness and the location of the batteries. This time, the battery box is located in the center of the unit, but the circuit board has a place cut out to make room for it. So we succeeded in making the GBA a bit thinner than the Game Boy. We're talking about 1 to 2 mm. The A & B buttons are the same size as the Game Boy Color, but we tried really hard to change the insides to make the overall unit smaller.
Kenichi Sugino: In the idea sketch stage, we told the staff making the circuit board, "You have to make it this size." I was pretty surprised when they actually made it. (laughs)
Masahiko Ota: Cutting out part of the circuit board is nothing special, but since it's so small, things like patterns and the placement of parts without them being a hinderance is a bit difficult. Another thing we devised was a battery box that could either accept regular batteries or rechargable ones.
//Q: Were there any troubles since it is a portable machine? //
Shuichi Tsugawa: Of course, we can use the technology used for cellular phones to make the unit smaller, but the Game Boy series needs to be mass-produced, so if we use some special technology, we wouldn't be able to make very many. We're aiming for a product that even kids can buy, so we're limited in that we have to use parts that are in good supply. Using only those parts, seeing how small we can make it is the tough part.
Ryuji Umezu: Even if you know that there are small, high quality products out there in the world, items that can only be produced in quantities of 100,000 per month aren't going to work. Sales of the Game Boy have surpassed 100,000,000 worldwide. It's at a point where it sells 2,500,000 units a month worldwide, so you need to use parts that can be mass produced.
Ryuji Umezu: It was difficult to try and make everything new while under these restrictions. For example, we knew that if we could increase the number of pins on the CPU, we could increase the capabilities of the machine. But, the current number of pins is the one that can be made the most. Now, the most difficult thing is gathering all the components.
Q: You've received a lot of attention from around the world with the new Game Boy.
Kenichi Sugino: More than that, the expectations within the company were pretty high.
Ryuji Umezu: We pretty much had the same members working on the Game Boy Color, but we didn't have quite the opinions coming from around us like we did this time. We were given lots of freedom.
Kenichi Sugino: This time was way different from the GB Color. Those around us kept saying, "We're looking foward to it." That's a lot of pressure. (laughs)
Q: Do you listen to the opinions of overseas staff as well?
Kenichi Sugino: Yes. We listened to the ideas of designers from Nintendo of America. We're making this as a product as a Japanese brand with an international awareness.
Ryuji Umezu: We listened to all of the suggestions from software designers. We were told to increase the memory, use high speed connections for network games, etc. We tried to take those into account when were making the actual product.
Kenichi Sugino: With videogame hardware, software is the first thing to run on it. We're not software developers, so the opinions of those developers sticks with us. Only they know what kind of things aren't good when making software, so we try to get as much internal/external evaluation as we can.
Q: The biggest development with the GB Advance is probably the 32 bit processor. Are the screens 3D?
Ryuji Umezu: No, it's not in 3D. There's not really enough processing power to do it and it would eat up batteries. It's difficult to try and do 3D on portable game systems with today's technology. However, we're trying to make 2D that kind of looks like 3D. For example, screens that take physical objects and rotate them around are first rendered 3D-like. Then by putting it on the screen, it looks like a simulated 3D. We're not doing anything difficult from a specs standpoint, but by doing it this way, we can get games that look like more advanced ones.
Q: Just by looking at it, it kind of looks like 3D, doesn't it?
Ryuji Umezu: Lots of people mistake it for 3D polygons when they look at it. We put in lots of movie-like patterns (many frames of animation), so it looks like 3D.
Q: Even though it's in 2D, it appears that it can do various things that the Game Boy couldn't…
Takanobu Nakashima: Yeah…. things like half transparency and layering of screens. Also, you'll notice that it can do some things the Super Famicom couldn't, like zooming in and out.
Ryuji Umezu: Just by looking at it, 3D and simulated 3D aren't all that different, but 2D is much easier to program for. If you go in 3D, it takes more time and money to do. In contrast, simulated 3D is simple and easy to make. Using the now how from machines such as the Super Famicom, we're aiming for the forefront of 2D technology.
Q: One more question. Do you think it was difficult to keep backwards compatibility with the Game Boy/Game Boy Color?
Ryuji Umezu: We've checking all of the previous Game Boy games for compatibility. There are a lot of titles, so that is pretty difficult.
Q: You're checking all of the titles that have been released?
Ryuji Umezu: That's right. We have Nintendo employees along with part-time staff checking all of them.
Q: The sound also sounds better.
Takanobu Nakashima: The sound is one of the things we improved upon. It's even better if you listen with headphones. Compared to the beeps and blips of the Game Boy, it's pretty close to the home consoles.
Q: I'm interested to see what kinds of games will come out, including ports.
Ryuji Umezu: Yeah, this time we handed out development kits early to developers. This is the type of circuit board we passed out, but about how many do you think we distributed?
Q: Hmm.. about 50 to 60?
Ryuji Umezu: No, the first time we sent out 500, the second- 1000.
Q: That many?!
Ryuji Umezu: That shows how many people we have developing for the Game Boy Advance. The Advance has a number of merits such as the four player capabilities and the beautiful wide screen. We've tried to allow for wonderful games to be easily made that take advantage of these features. We're really looking forward to what kind of games will come out from now on.