Thanks to the burgeoning retro/modding scene, Game Boy Advance has been enjoying a bit of a revival of late.
You can (get on the waiting list to) buy an Analogue Pocket to play original carts on state-of-the-art modern hardware, or you can buy modded original hardware from companies like RetroSix.
I’ve done both, but currently only have the latter – a wonderful ‘Prestige Edition’ Game Boy Advance, which features original circuitry made new thanks to a super-bright and high-refresh backlit screen, a new louder speaker, replaced buttons, new shell and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery for USB charging. I love it.
But what racing games should be playing on such wonders? Or indeed, even on original hardware in all its dim-screen glory? Let’s take a look.
7. Sega Rally Championship
Let’s be completely honest here: there should never have been a conversation about trying to port Sega Rally Championship to GBA, but here it is.
To say it’s rough is a massive understatement; it’s a complete shambles visually, with ultra-pixelated visuals thanks to low resolution rendering – the kind that allowed Doom to be ported to the machine.
But, amazingly, once you get used to the visuals (and work out which car is best), there’s a really good Time Attack game here, and the battery back-up and ghost mode mean there’s always something to beat.
It also sounds incredible, with versions of the Saturn version’s tunes. Just don’t try playing it in link-up, as you can overtake your rival on your screen yet not be ahead on theirs. Utter craziness, but I just love that this exists.
It’s almost like a Mega Drive version. Imagine if 16-bit Virtua Racing had texture mapping – that’s how this looks. Rubbish. Amazing.
6. TOCA World Touring Cars
This is arguably the most realistic racer on the system and certainly among the most ambitious. Real-world tracks including Sugo, Monza and the Red Bull Ring (here the A1 Ring, of course) are drawn with Mode-7 style flat tracks, only there are 3D elements too, like barriers at the side.
The game even manages to simulate reflection effects on wet tracks and leave dry lines and skid marks behind cars by changing tiles on the track surface. Very clever, and an effect used in Codemasters’ other racer, Colin McRae Rally 2.0.
But what’s cleverest of all is the car handling, which manages to simulate inertia, which is particularly evident if you venture onto the grass, resulting in the finest spins on the system, complete with animated window reflections as your car spins in front of you.
Running smoothly even with loads of cars on the screen, this is a tour-de-force for the system and still very playable.
5. Konami Krazy Racers
Known as Wai Wai Racing in Japan, this was available at launch for the console, so a lot of gamers picked it up, essentially hoping for a handheld Mario Kart.
They weren’t disappointed, and the game remains a true showcase for the hardware. With transparency effects abound, a wealth of weapons mirroring Mario’s arsenal, and some familiar(ish) Konami characters including Solid Snake, it appears to have been a labour of love for the development team.
With voice samples in its music, 60fps gameplay and a charming ’90s PC Desktop UI, there’s loads to like here. And being able to actually see its graphics now on a backlit screen having formerly sat directly under my bedroom light just to see the thing on the original GBA is literally a revelation.
Turns out it was actually good after all. I knew it!
4. F-Zero Maximum Velocity
GBA has long been said to be essentially a handheld SNES and that’s never more apparent than playing F-Zero on it.
The 360-degree rotating track surface allows you to turn around and go backwards around the circuit, which blew gamers’ minds on the Super Famicom back in 1990. The game looks even better on GBA, thanks to a new parallax layer in the floor graphics, making it look like the track is raised above the city beneath.
With speed-up boosters in the track, ramps to hit and that iconic energy lane to recoup lost HP, this is the pure F-Zero gameplay that gamers have loved for over 30 years now.
It’s also worth noting its sequel, F-Zero GP Legend, which features a story mode based on the Japanese anime series. Super-fast, super-smooth and super-playable, both are sheer class and will always be brilliantly playable no matter how old they get.
3. Sega Arcade Gallery
This is a compilation of four Sega arcade games, and two of them are racers: OutRun and Super Hang-On.
These games need little introduction, hailing as they do from the golden age of sprite-scaling pseudo-3D. But despite the GBA’s power, they’re not straight arcade ports. Oh no, they’re actually bespoke renditions made for the GBA.
So you get a gorgeously smooth version of OutRun with charmingly low-res road graphics and slightly-smaller-than-they-should-be environmental sprites, coupled with a blazingly fast version of Super-Hang-On, complete with the undulating road, exploding motorbikes and turbo boost.
The games both run like greased weasels, which is Very Fast in case you were wondering. If only the cartridge had battery back-up for your best times, this would be perfect, but as it is, there’s very little reason ever to take this cartridge out of your GBA.
ust wonderful handheld gaming. Shame it’s quite expensive to get hold of these days, but it’s totally worth the effort and the cash. You won’t be disappointed.
2. V-Rally 3
This is pretty amazing really. V-Rally 3 on Game Boy Advance somehow manages to provide near PS1-quality 3D driving on this diminutive handheld. And it does it so well.
Smooth visuals, different handling over the various terrain types, two views including a pseudo-3D cockpit cam and even weather effects. The career is long, there’s a wealth of stages to race through and it feels so much more assured than most of the other racers on the GBA.
If any criticism had to be levelled at it, you could say that the car doesn’t slide quite as much as it should, and it can become a little easy and sedate once you get the hang of the controls.
But with a punishing and nuanced mechanical damage system that needs to be managed across multiple stages, and manual gears to master if you so wish, this is a full-fat rally experience that should be in every GBA owner’s library.
1. Mario Kart: Super Circuit
This is the best racer on the Game Boy Advance, hands-down. Whether solo or with friends, this is an exquisitely crafted video game with no noticeable compromises.
Single-kart link-up play is available if your mate wants to be just Yosh, or multi-kart play with the full roster of characters is there too. Sitting in a small circle with link-up cables connecting you to your friends is, for many, one of the most enduring memories of handheld gaming in the 1990s.
The game itself is a slicker version of the original Super Mario Kart on SNES, even including all its tracks as unlockables. It’s faster than you probably remember and much harder to do well thanks to the twitchy handling and unforgiving track design, but once you get back into the swing of it, it’s clear why this did so well.
This is just classic gaming fun in perfect miniature form. When I reviewed this in 2001 (in my first ever published review – have I really been doing this for 20 years?!), I said ‘Your GBA needs this like you need air’, and I stand by that, 100 per cent.