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

A complicated Virtual Console mess

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?

Despite 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.

Categories: Virtual Console
Tags: EditorialGame Boy AdvancegbaNintendovirtual consoleWii U
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.