Review: VGBA: A Gameboy Advance Emulator

I’ve talked extensively about emulation in the .EMU emulators article and subsequently even looked at other emulators like reicast, the Dreamcast emulator and C64.EMU, the Commodore 64 emulator.  Thanks to top quality physical controllers like the Nyko Playpad and Nvidia Shield – we are no longer forced to play our classic favorites with horrid touch screen D-Pads.

The great thing about emulation is that it doesn’t matter what retro system you loved or what classic era of gaming you were born into; there are emulators for just about every console, handheld and computer out there (within reason of course).  The GBA SP holds a special place to me because it brought me to Nintendo.  I was never an NES, SNES or even really Gameboy fan (I did own one for a very short period of time).  The original GBA didn’t interest be because it ran on batteries and had no backlight (I play a lot in low light).  Nintendo, however, seemed to create the GBA SP to my near exact specifications – so it was hard not to fall in love.

Plus the GBA line had some phenomenal games.

Games I still want to play today.  This portable platform seems ripe for emulation; especially with my new Nvidia Shield.

The Basics

VGBA comes to you for $4.99 from the Google Play store.  It is under 2MB installed and happily supports both landscape and portrait orientations.  It supports controllers out of the box without any weird mapping software required and includes useful features such as save states and speed up.  This app was reviewed on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition and the NVidia Shield.

Much like the .EMU line, the VGBA developer has a consistent interface and feel between emulators.  Those that have used his emulators before (like the recently reviewed ColEm Colecovision emulator) will be right at home and comfortable.

For testing, I fired up some of my favorite GBA titles such as Bruce Lee, Ninja 5.0, Warioware Twisted, Pac-Man Arranged, Classic NES collection and many more.

Advanced Look

Most emulators have the basic core functionality, but many emu developers have stepped up their game and provided lots of additional features that can make the experience even better.  VGBA is a written-from-scratch emulator (meaning the developer didn’t pull some source code GitHub, slap an Android skin on it and call it a day) and is hand optimized for Android.  This improves speed and performance – and it means the developer doesn’t have to rely on other people’s updates of the core emulator before he can push out enhancements.

As you would expect, save states are here – allowing you to save anytime and pick up where you left off.  Slow-mo and fast forward let you tweak the speed the way you want it (I’m a purist; so I don’t monkey with that stuff).  You can even record your favorite GBA game ditty and save it as a MIDI file.

But that’s just the beginning.  There are many more features to follow.

First up, the ability to share save states with a built in “Exchange” system.  It works pretty well and transparent with the UI.

You also get Network Play (untested for this review).  The ability to play local wifi or across the internet.  I’m not sure how much fun this would be with primarily hot seat gaming, but it’s a nice feature none the less.

Many emulators still require you produce a BIOS file (the console/computer operating system), however VGBA does not.

Finally, you also get access to the core emulator’s advanced settings – most of which are exposed by the Android UI built around it.  For most, this won’t be a big feature – when you want to take a peek at the guts – you can.

There are some very nice little extras in the emulator, too.   You can change virtual button layouts and sizes to tailor your device screen size and needs.  You can add effects line scanlines to simulate a TV picture and a filter to soften up the jaggies.  Again, as a purist, I don’t want much changed (okay, scanlines are always fun) but it is nice to know you can.  There is a lot of little tweaking you can do to make it your own.

The developer even put in a fix for SD card access when using the Android KitKat OS – no special requirements needed.

Even More Features

What?  You demand MORE features?  Okay, just for you …

A built in Cheatopedia will give you access to dozens of games’ cheats and hacks; think of it like the old Game Genie.  Invincibility, unlimited lives and more await you.

Many GBA games had special hardware built into the cartridges like rumble, tilt and real-time clocks.  VGBA brings  you these features meaning you can finally play Warioware Twisted!

If physical controls are your thing (and they should be – this is a GBA emulator) there is support for all the popular controllers like Moga, Six-Axis, etc.  There is even Google TV support.  Hmmm…. I should try this on my Asus Cube ….

The Smurfberry Factor

There are no IAPs or Smurfberries to be had here.  I’ll give this a 0 Smurfberry Annoyance factor rating; the full version is REALLY the full version.

The Dark Side

No app is perfect.  In this section, we’ll discuss any issues I may have with it.

I mentioned it in the ColEm review; User Interface and User Experience (UI/UX) can be extremely subjective.  I’m very much used to Robert Broglia’s emulators, UI and layout and have grown very comfortable with them.  VGBA offers some UI customization including a nice coverflow version for accessing games with screenshots (these will show up in your gallery, btw – probably would be cool if there was an option to hide screenshots from the Android OS).  It does not follow Google’s Holo conventions and I suggested a few UI ideas to the developer with ColEm.  He implemented several of them – much to my delight.  These changes are also replicated here.

While it might not be the absolute best emulator UI I’ve seen, it is far from the worst; easily above average.

The emulator will not play Classic NES collection titles.  This was confirmed with the developer.  When I discussed it with him, he said, ‘There is always iNES” – the developer’s sister emulator that supports the Nintendo Entertainment System.  I’m sure support will come at some point, but I would be journalistic-ally irresponsible not to mention it.

People are going to complain and whine about having to (gasp) …. *PAY* for an emulator.  As I’ve said before, I tire of people expecting everything for free.  If you don’t want to pay the developer for their hard work?  There are free GBA emulators out there; use those.  But you have very little right o complain, ask for support or feature enhancements.  Speak with your wallet.  As the great Kevin Bacon said, ” It’s the way it was in the beginning. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s the way it should be now.”

Final Words

The Gameboy Advance has a library of over 2000 games worldwide; every type and genre of game is represented – plus you have strong Nintendo first party titles in quantity to enjoy.  Where consoles tend to make less sense for emulation on the go, emulating handhelds is a great way to go.

VGBA represents a fantastic entry into an already fantastic market of top quality emulators available.  It is fast, fairly compatible, well-supported and regularly updated; certainly well worth the money the developer is asking for.

Check out some gameplay on the Android-based Nvidia Shield:

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