I Miss Watching Horribly Compressed Movies on My Game Boy

I Miss Watching Horribly Compressed Movies on My Game Boy
Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo

Recently the internet has stared in disbelief at people horribly compressing movies so they can fit on outdated tech, including Shrek squeezed onto a 1.4 MB floppy disk, and Tenet smooshed across five GBA cartridges. But as horrible as these viewing experiences seem, for a short period of time watching TV shows on the Game Boy Advance was the best tool I had for enduring long bus rides.

Released as a major upgrade to the original Game Boy in 2001, the Game Boy Advance had more processing power than the Super Nintendo (many SNES games would be ported to the GBA over the years) plus a full colour LCD screen that could display up to a whopping 32,768 simultaneous colours. By comparison, the Game Boy could muster just four shades of green. Nintendo released the GBA as a gaming machine first and foremost, not a handheld designed for multimedia consumption, but eventually a series of Game Boy Advance Video cartridges were released that pushed the console’s hardware and made 20-minute episodes of heavily compressed cartoons playable on the handheld.

After graduating from university I lived in the downtown core of a sprawling metropolis where owning a car was a mostly unnecessary expense. I saved lots of money (and stress) by relying on public transit, but the tradeoff was that anytime I wanted to head out of town without splurging on a flight, I was staring down many boring hours aboard a Greyhound bus. By that time I did own a laptop with DVD capabilities, but it was a beast of a Dell (which cost me close to $US4,000 ($5,151) at the time) and its battery life was awful. And the alternatives, including portable DVD players, PDAs with colour screens, and the first generation of smartphones, were luxuries I refused to splurge on.

The cure for my boredom turned out to be my GBA SP — the second folding version of the Game Boy Advance that introduced a side-lit screen — and a special cartridge called the GBA Movie Player I imported from overseas. It was much larger than a standard GBA cartridge because it included a slot for a compact flash memory card (the most affordable form of flash memory at the time) that I could fill with videos compressed using an included Windows application. To say that software wasn’t user-friendly would be generous, but it worked, very slowly, and after hours and hours of rendering I could shrink a handful of videos and squeeze a couple of hours of entertainment onto my 256MB CF card.

If you’re obsessed with video and image quality on your smartphone, and refuse to watch anything less than a 2K stream in HDR, you’ll probably want to skip this next part. The GBA SP’s screen had a resolution of 240×160 — just 38,400 pixels in total — but I regularly compressed video files to half that resolution to make them as small as possible while still technically passing as watchable. I mostly stuck to rewatchable animated series like Sealab 2021 and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law that compressed very well, as opposed to feature-length movies.

I wholeheartedly admit that my setup was just about the worst way to enjoy these shows imaginable (short of somehow getting them to play on a monochromatic Handspring Visor) but it worked just fine for my needs which were focused on finding a way to keep my brain distracted for as little money as possible.

Eventually, as I saved up enough money to feel comfortable about splurging on gadgets, my subpar handheld home theatre was replaced with a PDA — a Compaq iPaq — and then a series of smartphones from companies like Sony and Nokia that quickly became more and more capable. Eventually these were all replaced by the smartphones we all use now, with the iPhone leading the way. If I remember correctly, shortly after upgrading to the original iPhone I put a full copy of Jurassic Park on it, with the compression settings maxed out to full quality, but today thousands of movies and TV shows can be easily streamed on services like Netflix and Disney+ from a phone, making my GBA setup feel impossibly antiquated.

Without access to a compact flash card (which are, not surprisingly, hard to find on the cheap these days) I haven’t touched the GBA Movie Player cartridge in well over 15 years, but the Game Boy Advance still remains one of my favourite consoles of all time. As much as I rely on devices like my smartphone, tablet, and e-reader to help maintain my sanity when travelling now, I still make sure there’s room for a GBA in my carry-on whenever I fly.