Why the Game Boy Advance isn’t on the 3DS Virtual Console


When Nintendo announced that Game Boy Advance titles would be coming to the Virtual Console on Wii U, it was generally presumed that Nintendo would announce them for the Virtual Console for the 3DS at some point too.

It wasn’t until a year later that Nintendo mentioned the words Game Boy Advance again, and confirmed (later in a Nintendo Direct) that Game Boy Advance games were arriving in April – with one caveat – they were coming to the Virtual Console on Wii U, and only the Wii U.

Now with the recent reveal of the price and release schedule, it has finally hit home, despite the seemingly illogical nature of it – Game Boy Advance games are not being released on Nintendo’s handheld, but instead on the Wii U. And people are furious and confused.

Surely it makes sense to release Game Boy Advance games on the 3DS. Why are they on the Wii U? It’s a home console, after all. Surely portable games on a portable console is the way to go?

The fact of the matter is that the Nintendo 3DS, at least for now, can’t properly play the Virtual Console renditions of Game Boy Advance games to an acceptable standard, and here’s why: –

The Ambassador Games

On the 28th of July 2011, Nintendo announced that the 3DS would receive a large price cut. To apologise to early adopted, who purchased the console at a higher price, Nintendo offered players ten free¬† NES Virtual Console games as well as ten free Game Boy Advance Virtual Console games. That’s twenty free games. This initiative was known as the Nintendo 3DS Ambassador Program.

At the time of the announcement, Nintendo also took time to emphasise that there were no plans to release these games to the public.


“These games will be available exclusively to Ambassadors, and Nintendo currently has no plans to make these 10 games available to the general public on the Nintendo 3DS in the future.”

By the end of 2011, the Ambassador Program was officially finished and players had enjoyed their twenty free NES and Game Boy Advance games.

Hold on a minute…

Game Boy Advance games, on the Nintendo 3DS? You just said such a thing wasn’t possible. We know these games exist Daniel, stop making excuses for Nintendo and give me my Virtual Console Game Boy Advance games!

But that’s the point!


The ten Game Boy Advance games offered as part of the Ambassador program aren’t technically Virtual Console games. All Virtual Console titles released thus far on the 3DS have save states, suspension of play when the system is closed. On the Wii U, there’s even fully mappable controls. Some Virtual Console games offered on the 3DS (NES ones in particular) even have the ability to play multiplayer over the systems wireless functionality.


The Game Boy Advance games offered as part of the Ambassador program don’t do any of this, they don’t even pause when you close the 3DS lid – they’re different to the Virtual Console games and worse for it.

The Nuts And Bolts Of It

As it stands, Virtual Console games are essentially a dumped ROM wrapped in a specially coded emulator that Nintendo tweak for each game. That’s why most Virtual Console games are roughly the same size and usually much larger than a raw ROM dump of the game itself. This seems like a waste¬†but it’s a almost zealous level of consistency and authenticity that Nintendo want to bring to their classic games.

The Game Boy Advance games offered as part of the Ambassador program on the 3DS aren’t this they’re litterally just ROMs running on a simulated Game Boy Advance on 3DS hardware.

Let’s go back in time to the Nintendo DS for a minute, that console¬†has two CPUs in it. One is for 3D graphic processing (usually on the top screen), while the second CPU is generally for 2D processing (usually on the bottom screen) but it also had another function. That second CPU was a 32-bit ARM7, literally the same chip that was in the¬†original Game Boy Advance – but just clocked at a higher rate. When players threw in a Game Boy Advance cartridge, said CPU was slowed down so that your DS was essentially a Game Boy Advance.


Now fast forward to the Nintendo 3DS, it too¬†has a couple of CPUs. It has it’s larger, dual core CPU in it as well as a smaller CPU which is, for all intents and purposes, a “Nintendo DS chip” and is the prime reason why the 3DS can play DS games perfectly – it’s actually is a Nintendo DS. Well, it’s clocked at the same speed as a Nintendo DSi, so it’s technically closer to one of those.

And if you haven’t already guessed it, guess what, that chip can also be down-clocked to play Game Boy Advance games, so it’s not emulating the hardware – it’s simulating it. This is the reason the 3DS Home menu can’t be reached during the Game Boy Advance Ambassador games, nor the other system functions like the Friends List, Miiverse or Internet Browser. Why is this? Because the CPU is now playing Game Boy Advance games, usually that CPU is performing background tasks like powering the wireless on or checking your friends list to notify you when they come online. While it’s being used as a Game Boy Advance – it can’t do anything else at all.

So what’s a Virtual Console title worth without a sleep mode, save states, customisable controls, a digital manual and possibly even multiplayer? Well, nothing, and that’s why Nintendo gave them away for free to the ambassador program participants. You might want to play Metroid Fusion on your 3DS, but Nintendo won’t, and probably don’t want to, sell it to you like it is right now.

What about the future?

andyrightDespite all the above being said, could Nintendo do a back flip and “fix” this problem, eventually releasing Game Boy Advance games on the 3DS eShop?


We’ve briefly explored the technical limitations that could be contributing to the problem above. Nintendo would essentially have to develop and get their emulator working perfectly on the Nintendo 3DS, something the system might not have the horsepower to do.

Technically, we think it’s possible, but again it’s always going to be a numbers game with Nintendo. There’s also the fact that the Wii U needs all the help it can get right now, and Game Boy Advance and eventually Nintendo DS games could have the potential to fill those plentiful gaps in the release schedule and help it out.

This possibly wasn’t the answer you were hoping for, but it is an answer none the less.

Author’s Note: I love the Game Boy Advance – I have 11 of them! Nothing would please me more than being able to play perfectly emulated versions of games like Advance Wars on the go with a modern screen and not have to carry around my old consoles.

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About The Author
Daniel Vuckovic
The Owner and Creator of this fair website. I also do news, reviews, programming, art and social media here. It is named after me after all. Please understand.
  • March 29, 2014 at 7:06 am

    Great article! Makes the whole thing understandable.

  • LostOverThere
    March 29, 2014 at 9:09 am

    That was a really good write up, thanks. I always knew GBA Emulation on the 3DS was a bit tricky but I never knew why.

  • Addy
    March 29, 2014 at 10:26 am

    If the Ambassador games are ROM’s, and the NES/GameBoy/etc games are legit Virtual Console games, then what does the Four Swords 25th Anniversary fall under?

    Because that runs like a dream, on both DS & 3DS.

  • MattKimura
    March 29, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    My fix of playing GBA games perfectly, is to use an EZ flash 3-in-1 with a DS Lite. It plays my games perfectly, though I can just use my cartridges instead and do the same. I don’t like how the 3DS expands the screen when playing GBA games. It starts to look pixelated.

  • MysticLegacy
    March 29, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    If I recall correctly, the LoZ Four Swords 25th anniversary is DSiWare software…which would be another category I guess.

  • GuyThatStuffs
    March 29, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    They’ll be remakes, just like how Super Mario 64DS and LOZ: Ocarina of Time 3DS was.

    I think.

  • Emmalise
    March 29, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    It’s a port, coded from scratch rather than emulated.

  • lei
    March 30, 2014 at 1:10 am

    Uh… no. The 3DS has a ARM11 and a ARM9 CPU. The GBA had an ARM7.
    The DS had both an ARM9 and an overclocked ARM7, which served as a co-processor and to run GBA games.

    The 3DS, however, doesn’t have a ARM7, just the ARM9. To emulate the DS mode, the ARM7 CPU (the co-processor) is emulated by the main processor.

    The CPU that performs the background tasks is the dual core ARM11’s second core, not the ARM9 like you said. And the ARM9 probably isn’t powerful enough to emulate the ARM7 (since the DS uses its ARM7 to run GBA games instead of its ARM9). So, both ARM11 cores are used to emulate GBA games.

  • Shogun
    March 30, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Really good write up.

  • HaHA
    March 30, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    Yeah, I already knew it was the ambassador program.
    Still great article

  • crimsondisco
    March 31, 2014 at 3:36 am

    Whoa this article is flat-out wrong. Even a shoddy Dingoo runs GBA at full speed, why wouldn’t the 3DS, quite a bit more powerful than a PSP (which runs GBA games via homebrew as well), wouldn’t be able to?

    • Demaka
      September 7, 2014 at 5:51 am

      Nowhere does the article state that it can’t run them. It says that it can’t give the full functionality that other virtual console system types have. read it again.

      Though that is rather dumb. I don’t care if you can’t put it in standby. Every game had some sort of save feature.

  • Kyle
    April 3, 2014 at 3:56 am

    Lack of multiplayer in Kirby and the Amazing Mirror on 3DS was the most disappointing thing. I don’t think there’s currently any confirmation of the Wii U GBA games supporting it either (which was already unlikely). Kirby’s getting sold a bit cheaper than the GBA games coming tomorrow, which is the only indication anyone really needs of what they’re going to be paying for.

    I try to pay very close attention to features and updates on my Nintendo products, but I didn’t even know some NES games got single-cart multiplayer until this January! All I want is Nintendo to not be lazy and retain multiplayer for many of their classic games that not everyone got to enjoy.

  • Brian Baehler
    April 3, 2014 at 5:34 am

    So the GBA games aren’t worth anything without access to 3DS’s advanced feature? That explains why they never released Virtual Console games the Wii…..oh wait they did and they were stripped down versions. No save states, no memory card, no rumble. Face it, Nintendo is just too busy trying to prop up their failing console to actually focus on the system that is actually making them money.

  • Akis
    April 18, 2014 at 2:37 am

    so why is the Wii U able to run GBA games… with restore points, pixel smoothing, full-screen mode, custom controlls, original manual, ability to suspend the game and access the home menu?

  • Hmm
    April 29, 2014 at 8:08 am

    Because it is powerful enough to emulate it. The 3DS simulates a GBA. Emulation is a process of using a machine to run another machine within it, simulation is having a machine act as another machine. Emulation is very taxing. Even though someone said “PSP could emulate GBA games” it didn’t emulate too well, there were times where I’d see lots of dropped frames. Nintendo doesn’t want to release VC GBA games that have noticeable frame-rate/game-play issues. Because the complaints will go from “where are my GBA games?” to “why don’t these run perfectly?”.

    • Anonymoose
      February 29, 2016 at 3:38 pm

      Theoretically, Nintendo could take a few shortcuts in the emulation process to reduce the hardware requirements, but that wouldn’t be up to their standards. It’s a bit like ZSNES vs. bsnes. Both emulate the SNES (maximum clock speed 21 MHz, effective “fast” speed 3.58 MHz, effective “slow” speed 2.68 MHz), but have VASTLY different system requirements. ZSNES takes a lot of shortcuts, and can run on a 200 MHz processor. bsnes, on the other hand, is designed to emulate SNES hardware as perfectly as it can, and requires a 3 GHz processor to do so. That’s a 15x difference.

      If Nintendo were to use tricks to sorta-emulate the GBA, like ZSNES does for the SNES, it would likely be able to run on a 3DS, but there would be some issues. They wouldn’t affect every game, but they’d be enough to keep Nintendo from doing it.

  • Dillan
    May 4, 2014 at 7:15 am

    Four Swords ANNIVERSARY Edition is a REMAKE of Four Swords for the GBA. It is a DS game and NOT the GBA original.

  • Joethejrpgmaniac
    June 6, 2014 at 12:59 am

    It falls under a port. A dsiware port. A new game with the same mechanics. A remake.

  • Kysafen
    June 12, 2014 at 1:19 am

    “So what‚Äôs a Virtual Console title worth without a sleep mode, save states, customisable controls, a digital manual and possibly even multiplayer?”
    My money, if the game’s fun enough.

    Who the hell needs save states/customizable controls/digital manual? And even without Four Swords (which Nintendo already has a 3DS port of that, for some reason, Nintendo refuses to actually sell), who the hell thinks the lack of multiplayer is such a dealbreaker that they shouldn’t bother with GBA games on the 3DS at all?

    Oh wait, that’s right, nobody.

  • Chuie
    June 17, 2014 at 8:31 am

    Nintendo have to maintain a standard. They can’t just release a game on a console that has to compromise on several features to play a game that will also be sacrificing some capability. While you or all I would be happy to play 70~80% of the “3DS” experience, Nintendo should and have to be at 100%.

  • drew
    June 22, 2014 at 10:01 pm

    Sooo? The 3ds is too weak to handle emulating GBA games because the architectures is different? I didn’t realize the 3ds was so shoddy. :/

    • Anonymoose
      February 29, 2016 at 3:41 pm

      It’s not so much that it’s shoddy, as it is that the requirements for perfectly emulating one computer using another computer’s processor are INSANE, especially compared to the requirements for simulating one or sorta-emulating it via software tricks.

  • Galahad
    July 7, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    Wow, thanks a lot for the article, it is just what I was looking for (well, at least the explanation, not the outcome XDD). Yesterday I was thinking what great fun would be to play Golden Sun 1&2 and Advance Wars 1&2 (amongst others) in my 3DSs. Then I discover that they’d been released on eShop…but only for Wii U XD

    Well, I would rather play those games without the “benefits” of the Virtual Console than not playing them at all, but it’s Nintendo’s call. One wonders why I would prefer to play those classics instead of 3DS new releases, oh well…

  • Daniel
    July 11, 2014 at 11:42 am

    I thought that this article was a good read, but there are a couple of points i want to make. Though it might be a rough code they used to emulate the GBA games, as an Abassador myself, I think it’s fine the way it is. It literally states that it can’t go into sleep more while emulating the GBA games, BUT that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a sleep mode function. I was recently playing through Metroid Fusion and noticed that if you were to activate the sleep function in game and close the 3DS, it would function just the same as if you were to close the 3DS during normal gameplay of any other title. The reason being that the 3DS recognizes that the game has placed itself in a suspended state and does so when the console is closed. How do I know that the 3DS recognizes it you ask. Well when you open the system back up, the game de-activates the sleep mode, placing you back in the pause menu. I guess were I’m trying to take this is that no matter what the reason Nintendo has for not releasing the GBA titles, the least they could have done was give the public an update on what they were planning with this kind of emulation on the 3DS, rather than leaving the subject blank. It’s cool and all to see that Ambassador Certificate, but I would much rather prefer playing GBA games on my 3DS, shotty emulation and all. If it were up to me, I would release the games with the rough code and just update them later, once the emulator was functioning, just like they did with the NES Virtual Console prior to it’s E-Shop release.

    • Anonymoose
      February 29, 2016 at 3:51 pm

      The reason it goes into the 3DS’ sleep mode when you put Metroid Fusion to sleep is that the 3DS uses a version of the DS’ GBA firmware to run the games, and the DS’ GBA firmware hooks the GBA “sleep mode” call into the DS’ sleep mode function. Since the 3DS seems to use the same API as the original DS, this means that every DS function maps to its corresponding 3DS function (for example, the DS’ sleep mode is mapped to the 3DS’ enhanced sleep mode), and thus when the GBA game says “sleep mode now”, the firmware puts it into DS sleep mode, which puts it in 3DS sleep mode.

      It’s similar to how DirectX and OpenGL work, actually, except implemented in hardware instead of software. The game doesn’t have to say “put this in that pixel, this in that pixel, this in that pixel, and so on until we’re done”, it just has to say “show this picture”, and the hardware handles the dirty work for it. Similarly, the game doesn’t have to tell the system how to deactivate non-essential processes, turn off the graphics, turn off the sound, and preserve battery life; it just says “sleep mode”, and the firmware interprets that into the actual commands. The DS and 3DS just provide a modified version of the GBA firmware, that remaps GBA functions to their corresponding system-level commands.

  • Michael
    July 22, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    I believe that is treated as any other DSiWare title such as BloonsTD titles, or your Mario Clock, or any other title that has been released on the DSi Shop and ported to 3DS. It puts the 3DS into DS mode and basically turns into a DSi while it is being played.

  • Fourth Storm
    August 2, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    I agree with this comment. The GBA must be emulated via one of both ARM11s – not the ARM9. Until we know for sure how many cores they are using to emulate GBA, the jury is out on whether it is a hardware VC issue or just Nintendo wanting to add more value to the Wii U.

  • FlamingSpirit
    August 8, 2014 at 12:53 am

    So Nintendo is not having enough faith in the Wii U, even with the games that have came out and will be coming out soon. Mario Kart 8 got lots of sales, and other games are coming that will get more sales. Hyrule Warriors and Smash Bros are both coming out this winter. I want both, and would buy a Wii U if I could afford it. I’m not going to buy a Wii U for games that were on previous handheld systems.

  • sigv
    August 12, 2014 at 4:22 am


    people still don’t understand that accurate emulation takes power and that nintendo cares enough to have some qc on it. their debug team(mario club) is actually pretty small too and has to serve the whole company.

  • sivg
    August 12, 2014 at 4:24 am



    people still don’t understand that accurate emulation takes power and that nintendo cares enough to have some qc on it. their debug team(mario club) is actually pretty small too and has to serve the whole company.

  • Maxi Pareja
    August 12, 2014 at 5:41 am

    Because the Wii U is a home console that is much more powerful than a handheld?

  • foohazard
    September 13, 2014 at 12:07 am

    Now that the “New 3DS” has been announced and it has better CPU, do you think they might finally get SNES and GBA games emulated on 3DS?

  • Garnium
    October 6, 2014 at 5:03 am

    Well with the announcement of the newer, much more powerful 3DS system, I’m sure Nintendo will plan to release the GBA games on /that/ system sometime in the future, assuming that they make the system strong enough to completely emulate GBA games in the same way they emulate actual Virtual Console games.

  • Garnium
    October 6, 2014 at 5:06 am

    To me at least, it seems likely. So far, there have only been a few games announced to be compatible only with the New 3DS, so having SNES and GBA games compatible for the VC on it may make more people be accepting of the system.

  • yeahyeahyeah
    October 6, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    BS… I am sorry, but I was able to run a fully emulated version of zero mission almost ten years ago now on a shitty laptop. The PSP can run fully emulated versions of PSX games and they are a hell load more intensive than a GBA game. If Nintendo wanted to solve this problem, they could.

    Just so you know, if you have a half decent tablet from the past 4 or 5 years, you can easily emulate these games at 100% speed and accuracy. If Nintendo do not want your money, that is a pretty simple way around it.

  • Leo F
    December 5, 2014 at 7:52 am

    DSiWare. It was ALSO given away for free.

  • Blaine
    January 1, 2015 at 4:23 am

    This article is great, but it makes me pissed off that one of the reasons is a marketing gap in the Wii U. Get the numbers right and get the emulator working properly Nintendo you assholes. If it doesn’t have the horse power than I am feeling some kind of intense resentment towards Nintendo.

  • TvSonic Serbia
    January 2, 2015 at 4:52 am

    Lol,3DS could perfectly emulate most of GBA games,if nintendo wanted to do it,it was just easier,and cehaper(probably to make the price drop) to use DS processor,even old DS can emulate some GBA games perfectly with the 3D processor,its not about the power,megaman zero games on DS are emulated,if a big company like nintendo tried to emulate,it would be very possible,even on a DS

    • Anonymoose
      February 29, 2016 at 3:58 pm

      The thing with that, though, is that the DS is incapable of actually emulating GBA games. It actually runs them through customised firmware (a GBA BIOS) that remaps GBA functions to their DS equivalents, and outright turns itself into a glorified GBA to run them. Similarly, the 3DS doesn’t actually emulate DS games, it just slows down enough to run them at their intended clock rate.

      If you were to play around with the Ambassador program’s GBA games, you’d notice that the 3DS isn’t emulating them, either: it handles them exactly the same way that the DS does, except that you can exit out of “GBA mode” without rebooting. Note how, for example, closing the system doesn’t put Metroid Prime in sleep mode, but using Metroid Prime’s built-in sleep mode function puts the system in normal 3DS sleep mode. This suggests that the 3DS is using a custom GBA BIOS to map GBA function calls to their 3DS equivalent, just like the DS did.

  • Will
    February 12, 2015 at 6:02 am

    Actually it is a completely remade game. If you notice, it has touch screen functionality so it is a DSi ware game.

  • MeisterRabe
    February 26, 2015 at 2:13 am

    This possibly wasn’t the answer you were hoping for, but it is an answer none the less.

  • Slowbro
    April 13, 2015 at 12:56 am

    Im gonna have to call bs. I’ve emulated gba on my old iPod touch 2nd gen. You can’t tell me Nintendo the creator of these games can’t mange to get snes and gba up to par. I don’t know the specs but I’d guess a 3ds is vastly more powerful than a itouch 2nd gen. Honestly they should either let some smaller companies port popular titles for the eshop or ask the fans how we feel about having the titles released like the ambassador titles. I’m guessing they still can’t get wii u to sell so they are keeping the games on that virtual console to boost sales. Not to mention if you look at every console especially Nintendo consoles what they can do with it when it is first released is always less in quality then later in the consoles life span. So by now I’m sure Nintendo could give us these games at great quality if the wii u wasn’t flopping compared to the 3ds. They just want that cash.

  • Slowbro
    April 13, 2015 at 12:58 am

    Oh btw the emulation was just about perfect with very few quirks happen very rarely. Emulator had save states and I think was capable of multiplayer although i don’t rememeber. I never personally tried it.

  • biggest_fudge
    May 6, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    This is total crap. There is no good reason for Nintendo NOT to have a functional GBA emulator on the 3DS, it’s a more advanced machine and can certainly handle playing games from a 15 year old console. It’s the same BS that Nintendo has always done. Their strategy is to approach every problem and release in the most obtuse way possible and letting the consumers suffer.

  • Grenge
    August 20, 2015 at 10:31 am

    “So what‚Äôs a Virtual Console title worth without a sleep mode, save states, customisable controls, a digital manual and possibly even multiplayer?”
    Look up some used titles on GBA on eBay: $25-35 for say, Fire Emblem/The Sacred Stones, $30-50 for Rhythm Tengoku, and oh yeah, English versions of Mother 3 are being sold as well for $28-50.

    And you wanna know why? Because the merits of those games make them worth their price tag.

    Factor in that you’d no longer need to carry around each cart physically, have them all stored on one system, have a backlight, and you already have enough reasons why 90% of the whole library would work on the 3DS perfectly without VC’s bells and whistles. If Nintendo can’t perfect their emulator software to run on the 3DS hardware, then this is a clearly valid option, and after 4 years (more if you count the hardware’s development time) to understand what’s possible with this hardware, Nintendo should have come to a decision on whether or not emulation was possible. There is clear evidence that SIMulation is a viable option. Just because there are reasons Nintendo doesn’t do it doesn’t make their reasons not stupid.

  • Clint
    January 15, 2016 at 1:00 am

    What a load of garbage. The PSP could emulate the GBA easily, and don’t lie people about it dropping frames because I have that emulator on my PSP and it played them 100% even the most taxing GBA games ran perfectly.

    This is Nintendo being lazy, simple as that. Stop trying to make excuses for them and start holding them accountable for once.

  • Adam
    July 7, 2016 at 9:59 pm

    I don’t really understand Nintendo’s problem with this. So they’re saying its not worth it because they would lack features such as save states, multi-player, etc. For some reason, they’re worried that because it would be titled “Virtual Console” people would expect those things. It seems to me that there would be a very simple solution: don’t call them virtual console. Problem solved. At least from a semantics viewpoint, which is one of the things they seem to be hung up on.

    Besides, honestly who cares about that stuff anyway? That’s exactly how GBA games were handled on the DS, and it’s how they originally played. The DS offered no multi-player or save states or enhanced functionality.

    Really, this is all pretty cut and dry to me. Nintendo doesn’t see GBA games, in their current form on the 3DS, as something they can make enough money on supposedly because of the lack of virtual console features. Although there are plenty of ways around this, such as simply not calling them virtual console games (which they probably shouldn’t have done to begin with). Call them “GBA Games” and say from the get go that they don’t function like virtual console titles. Be very clear and honest about it and people will be fine.

    Because of how Nintendo feels about this, and the fact that they’ve only been released for free in the ambassador program, it’s very clear to me that this was (in their mind) a half assed attempt to get those early adopters to shut up. It has nothing to do with exclusivity, because the ambassador NES titles were subsequently released.

  • Greenstorm
    March 19, 2017 at 10:28 am

    Okay, I really doubt this.
    Considering how Nintendo has shown that they’re able to get their shiz together and make SNES emulators for the New Nintendo 3ds, I fail to see why they can’t do the same with GBA. Heck, it’d be more possible than SNES, since GBA is a less complex system.

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