Sometime in the mid-2000s I imported a flash cart for my Game Boy Advance. Not for piracy, of course, but for the wealth of homebrew games and apps developed by amateur coders around the globe. It cost about $60 and held a whopping 32 megabytes. But I had an NES emulator in the palm of my hands, so that was cool enough for me.
These are some of my favorite apps from the time.
But hey! You may be surprised to hear that GBA development is still going fairly strong today! For ROMs and news, I'd recomment checking out GBAdev and PDRoms. This is all freely distributed software, so explore to your heart's content!
It's Tetris with a twist! Try clearing lines as the entire board twists, tilts, sizzles, and smears itself across the screen. There are a handful of modes and some unique mechanics I'm not sure about. Also be sure to check out the alternate backgrounds in the pause menu.
Honestly, this was probably my favorite GBA homebrew game for the time. Play it if you like to barf.
Also I think the Tetris Company might've sent a cease & desist over this game. So that's pretty cool. Thanks, Tetris Company.
Luminesweeper is, as you could guess, a 2-in-1 combo of Lumines and Minesweeper. The game includes a pretty wide variety of skins, which can get pretty weird. Also available is a compiler for creating your own skins.
Musical selections include Guitar Hero classic "Jordan" by Buckethead, "Da Bomb" by Kris Kross, and that "Catch Me If You Can" song from the Pokémon movie. Yeah buddy.
The Minesweeper half is pretty experimental, implementing the "sweeper" from Lumines. It has a tendency to just complete itself? I don't really understand it.
Gleam is another Lumines clone. Unlike Luminesweeper, this one offers a more moody, atmospheric experience. There's a not-exactly-subtle environmental message in here, and the skins sort of tell a story as they go.
The downside is that it clocks in at a whopping 29MB. Not really a problem nowadays, but when you only had a 32MB flash cart, it was a pretty big ask.
Bullet hell on my GBA? It's more likely than you think! This game includes four levels of wave-based boss attack against a central core. The white bullets can be cleared with your shots, but this turns them into troublesome homing pink and blue bullets. This constant pressure keeps your ship on the move. Extremely difficult! But cool.
A pseudo-followup to Vulkanon. As you can tell by the screenshots, this game uses a vertical orientation that asks you to flip your GBA. It may be awkward to play on an SP, but try it on a Micro!
Similar to the previous game, this one includes four levels facing off against a stationary core. There's no tricky bullet clearing here, just simple pattern dodging. The screen-clearing bomb has been replaced with the limited ability to slow time.
On top of that, there's also the "barrage selection", which seems to include a vast number of bullet patterns from various games such as Dodonpachi, Touhou, Xevious, and others. I suppose you could consider it a "training tool" of sorts.
A Game Boy style shoot-em-up in the vein of more "realistic" affairs like 1942 or Tiger-Heli. It includes three stages, and any of that realism goes immediately out the window with the... surprising final stage. I think a colorized version was in the works for a brief period, but never got finished. The source code is available though, so maybe you can make your own.
A pseudo-remake of the original Metroid from the would-be creator of Axiom Verge. Created as a student project, this remake covers the first world, Brinstar. The animation is smooth and the atmosphere is on point. The game uses pre-rendered CG assets without looking garish, which is more than can be said for even commercial GBA games. However, it doesn't particularly have an end.
Motocross Challenge is an Excitebike-esque racing game that seemed to suffer a painful number of setbacks in its life. Originally intended to be a commercial release (pretty late in the GBA's life), the game was dropped by not one but two publishers. Not wanting their hard work to go to waste, the developers boldly decided to release it for free.
As expected, this is one of the more fully featured games on this list. The challenge mode provides time attacks, opponent races, and trick attacks. There's a number of unlockable bikes, courses, and tricks.
A DS version was proposed but apparently didn't get anywhere. An iOS version was eventually released in 2010.
There were many Christmas coding competitions involving the GBA (and other handhelds). As such, there are many, many Christmas themed games produced for the system. This one was my favorite back when.
This Doom-style FPS has Santa running around his workshop gunning down his elves as Dean Martin's "Jingle Bells" plays. Find and kill all 64 elves to unveil a picture of a pin-up girl in a Santa outfit (by pressing Select).
As you slay elves, signs with miscellaneous pictures will appear over their corpses. I thought these were just random Google image results or something. But no, apparently they're profile pictures belonging to members of a French Nintendo message board the creator was a member of. How sweet.
An extremely Castlevania-inspired "Metroidvania" that plays well and looks great. Unfortunately, what's here is quite unfinished. This is seemingly a work-in-progress demo that allows you to select any of the available "levels". Getting killed, or just pressing Start, will send you back to the title screen minus any of your item pickups. So maybe don't do that.
It was created with a custom map editor tool, which is also publicly available. Apparently the developers were looking for a publishing deal that didn't get anywhere. But with this demo you can wonder what could've been.
A Zelda-esque action/adventure game, and a fairly sizeable one at that. There are five dungeons and a full overworld littered with secrets. You could easily sink a few hours into this one. A DS version also exists.
by GValiente (2021)
An impressive top-down racer rendered in full 3D! It includes six courses, a boost system, and a nifty model viewer. Looks good, sounds nice, runs smoothly. No wonder it took first place in this GBA game jam.
Super Star Shooter was a doujin shmup created by The Dotmap Brothers (no relation) for the Sharp X68000 in 1991. It looks and plays very similarly to Star Soldier. As a "caravan" shooter, the game challenges you to get the highest score possible within 2 minutes. It can get pretty addicting.
A Wii port was also created years later, and even an iOS version called Super Star Shooter Gaiden.
A very solid adaptation of the classic arcade puzzler, especially for 2002. Almost commercial quality. Includes "normal" and "widescreen" modes, and even 2-player over link. This was another favorite of mine.
Sonic the Hedgehog GBA
by Stealth (2007~2008)
"Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis" was an infamously terrible and broken port of Sonic's debut game to the GBA. This fan-made proof-of-concept was created to show that an accurate adaptation was totally possible.
This demo includes the entirety of Green Hill, the special stage, and a partially complete Labyrinth Zone. And it also brings playable Knuckles and Tails!
Stealth would later go on to co-develop the well-regarded official mobile ports of Sonic 1/2/CD, then the prestigeous Sonic Mania, and now Sonic Origins. You could say Sega learned something. Maybe.
by XProger (2022)
OpenLara is an open source conversion of the original Tomb Raider engine. It's playable on a large number of devices—including your web browser—but most impressive is this new Game Boy Advance conversion.
This shouldn't exist. And yet here it is. Existing.
This alpha demo only includes a couple playable areas. Frame rates vary roughly between 10 to 20fps. But there's plenty of room for optimizations in future updates.
Probably the most famous and well-supported emulator on GBA, PocketNES was my #1 draw towards getting a flash cart. I was obsessed with the NES, and in the mid-2000s, having NES emulation in the palm of your hands was pretty novel. (Plus it paired nicely with my NES edition GBA SP.)
Compatibility isn't perfect, but it's still extremely high. Punch-Out, as a famous example, has very corrupted graphics. Audio also might not sound exactly how you're used to. But the vast majority of games are 100% playable.
There are a number of scaling options to compensate for the GBA's lower screen resolution. There's support for save states, cheats, and even single-cart multiplayer if the game is small enough.
PocketNES was actually released as public domain software. As such, it ended up used in a number of official commercial releases — specifically, some Japan-exclusive compilations from Hudson, Jaleco, and Atlus. (It's also commonly found on pirate carts, but hey, that was always gonna happen anyway.)
A Game Boy and Game Boy Color emulator. It was initially spun-off from "Goomba", which only covered monochrome GB games. Runs pretty much flawlessly. Also supports Super Game Boy borders and palettes.
A Game Gear and Master System (and SG-1000!) emulator. Also has near-perfect compatibility.
The SMS doesn't have quite the vertical resolution of the NES, so the screen squashing isn't so bad here. But there's also a nifty feature for unscaled mode that can (potentially) keep a game's HUD window visible no matter where you raise or lower the viewport! And on the GG side, you can disable the border to (potentially) increase the screen real estate, which actually works quite well depending on the game.