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This story was printed from CdrInfo.com,
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Appeared on: Monday, December 17, 2001
GBA FlashLink


1. Introduction
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- Introduction:

As you all know, Lik-Sang is probably one of the biggest sponsors of our site. It is an excellent online shop which sells merchandise related to consoles and videogaming. We thought that it would be a good idea if we run some reviews on some of their products. So, we asked and Lik-Sang decided to send us one of the hottest products, the Gameboy Advance Flash Linker and Card.

We know that this product is totally irrelevant with the CD-R business that we usually deal with. The relationship is there, though. This piece of equipment enables the user to backup and play a Gameboy Advance cartridge. You can connect it to the parallel port of your PC, and from there it is able to turn every GBA game into a nice little file in your hard drive. Also, if you are good in coding and programming, you can create your own masterpiece intended to run on the Gameboy Advance hardware, flash it on the Card and playtest it on the GBA.

A few words about handhelds history:

A small part of the videogame business is focused on handhelds, or 'on-the-streets-videogaming' as many people call it. So far only five companies have developed consoles and games of that genre:

Company Product
Nintendo Gameboy / Gameboy Color
Sega Game Gear
SNK NeoGeo Pocket / NGPC
Bandai WonderSwan / WSC
Atari Lynx

Only Nintendo was able to support their product with a huge collection of games. Sega never continued to make an improved GameGear, and only about 300 games were released for this fabulous handheld. The Atari Lynx was considered one of the worst moves the company could make, and it was one of the main reasons of closure. The SNK approach, the NeoGeo Pocket Color, hit the market on the winter of year 2000, and was withdrawn from all shops after only about 8 months of sales. Only the WonderSwan is still alive, but Bandai is a relatively small and unknown company and the titles for it are very few.

As you can see, Nintendo is the big winner here, and they know it. So it was a very good strategy from their part to introduce another promising handheld console, the Gameboy Advance, or GBA in short. It hit the stores on March of 2001, and everyone who owned a Gameboy or Gameboy Color in the past, just couldn't resist the temptation and bought it. Even if its price was very high (about the same as a brand new PSOne), sales were more than satisfactory even during the early first days of its release.


2. Gameboy Advance Mini Review

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Gameboy Advance Mini Review

Gameboy Advance - History and Facts:
Before we begin testing the Flash Advance Card and Copier, it would be useful to say some things about the base platform that the product is intended for. And that is the Nintendo Gameboy Advance, or GBA in short.

The Gameboy Advance made its virgin appearance at the Space World 2000 exhibition which was held in Tokyo (24/8/2000). In Europe it was introduced during the European Computer Entertainment Show, on 1/9/2000. Its technical specifications seemed really great. Not only was it much better that its predecessor, the Gameboy Color, but it was also better than the aged Super Nintendo on many characteristics. Just keep reading and find out :

- The GBA CPU is a 32-bit ARM one. The old Gameboy was 8-bit and the Super NES was 16-bit.

- The GBA memory is 32KB + 96KB VRAM (inside the CPU) and 256KB WRAM (outside the CPU).

- 2.9" TFT screen, with no back lighting. Max resolution can be up to 240x160.
- The palette is up to 32768 colors. Maximum on screen colors can be up to 511 simultaneously, or 32768 in bitmap mode.
- Total weight 140 grams.

Now that we are done with the tech mumbo jumbo, let us talk about our impressions about the Gameboy Advance. The design is sleek and impressive. The console is rugged, handy and lightweight. The TFT display is indeed very large for a color handheld, and kinda reminds of a Palm Pilot. The extra L and R buttons will surely come in handy for menus, powerslides, and other kinds of special functions. Many gamers thought that the Gameboy Color should have more buttons, so now their prayers have been answered. Last but not least, the GBA is backwards compatible with the Gameboy Color, so it should play older cartridges with no problems.

Most of the games that have been released so far are either sequels to famous Gameboy titles (Mario Kart Advance, F-Zero X Maximum Velocity, Super Mario Advance), or conversions from big hits for other consoles (Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Ready 2 Rumble, Rayman, Castlevania). Each game we played has left us speechless with the marvellous graphics and smooth scrolling. It is obvious that Nintendo has packed a huge amount of processor power and potential inside this baby. Judging by these initial titles, it is certain that programmers will be able to create true masterpieces for the Gameboy Advance.


3. Gameboy Advance Flaws

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Gameboy Advance Flaws

After naming all the new advanced features, we move on to our usual 'moan and groan' part of this mini GBA review. Let us begin this with the fact we disliked the most. I am sure that most N64 owners know the problem of a 'foggy' in-game screen. That is why the N64 has the bad reputation of being a 'fog box'. Well, the Gameboy Advance can surely earn the title of the 'dark box'. Each and every game we tested (well over 40 titles from all 3 world regions) is very, VERY dark. In fact, during our first test with 'Castlevania' we thought that our console was defective. But no, unfortunately it wasn't. The screen is really dark under most of the usual situations of environmental illumination and angle of view. And just like in the Gameboy Color, there are no controls for brightness and contrast to ease the pain.

We know what you are thinking by reading these comments. 'Oh come on, how bad can the situation be? You always keep exaggerating here, you find the weak spots of a piece of equipment and try to blame the manufacturer. And besides, that is your own personal opinion, and many users will find the Gameboy Advance screen to be satisfactory for their gaming needs'. Well, don't take our word for this, have a look at what an independent artist has to say about this fact:

Click here and get ready for a big laugh

You wanna hear Nintendo's official answer about this? The GBA is designed so that the user will be able to play under the direct sun light, something that the Gameboy Color can't do. If you ask us, that is a really stupid excuse. Three members of our staff have owned a Gameboy Color for more than 4 years now. They have been playing all kinds of titles under the warm, bright, intense Greek summer sun. No one has ever had any problems or complaints. And during this summer, the GBA and GBC screens looked alike, with the GBC one looking better! Our guess is that Nintendo stayed focused into making a screen so large that it would be impossible to keep lit efficiently without draining the batteries after two hours of play. It would either force the price to go up really high (we will talk about that later), or it would take so long to develop that it wouldn't be ready until the next decade. Both those two scenarios wouldn't serve the company plans, so Nintendo decided to release it anyway.

So, now that you know about this problem, and you are already facing it if you own a GBA, what can you do? Well, not much, but you have to do something. One bet would be to attach a huge spotlight on your shoulder while you play. Nah, we wouldn't think so either. You just have to buy the GBA Light & Magnifier Advance (above picture) or the GBA Light Magnifier Joy (picture on your left), both available by Lik Sang. They come really cheap and help improve the situation a lot. We consider these pieces of hardware as essentials for all the Gameboy Advance users.

Our next complaint is about the price. Sure, it should be more expensive than the Gameboy Color... but come ON! MORE expensive than the almighty Dreamcast? It costs as much as a PSOne? At least the game prices didn't go that high up, and were kept at Gameboy Color game price levels. Most users thought twice before buying this gem, because they were discouraged by the amount of money they had to spend for it.

Other points we disliked were the small size and rubberish feel of the L and R buttons, the size of the cross that should have been a bit bigger, the lack of an input for external DC supply, and some other facts that we could go on complaining about for pages and pages.

As a conclusion, we must say that the Gameboy Advance did not live up to be what we expected. Sure, it takes gaming on the road many steps further, but its negatives points are many and severe. Of course, it will stun you with its excellent graphics and fast-paced gameplay, but it will leave you with the question about which is the best angle to hold that thing in order to see what you are doing. Nintendo has failed to continue the legend and produce a handheld console worthy of its reputation.


4. Hardware Inspection

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Hardware Inspection

Physical Examination :
Having tested all points and aspects of the base platform, the Gameboy Advance, we will move on to examine the main course of this review. The Gameboy Advance Flash Linker and Card.

Package:
The package that arrived for testing was the retail version. Inside the boxes we found the devices, which were held in place by a plastic casing. Also included was a very brief leaflet, explaining most of the functions. A minor dissapointment was that the documentation was only in English and Chinese. We noticed that the manual had 'Instruction Manual Version 1.00' printed on the front page, so we should probably be expecting revised versions.

Inside the Flash Linker box we also found a 1.44" floppy disk. It had no label, and contained the necessary software for the PC, used in order to communicate with the parallel port and download/ upload games to the Flash Card. This software is called 'Flash Advance Writer', and it is also available for download at the company website.

The envelope also contained a DB25-to-DB25 cable for connecting the Flash Linker to the parallel port of a PC.

Let's look at the manual and read about what those two devices are supposed to do:

"Flash Advance Linker can be used to transfer data to Flash Advance Card by connecting to a PC via a 25-pins printer extension cable (both ends of cable must be male). Insert the Flash Advance Card into the Flash Advance Linker cartridge slot to receive data from PC. After data have been transferred into the Flash Advance Card, remove the card and insert it into the Gameboy Advance cartridge and power on. The supplied software, Flash Advance Writer, works flawlessly with Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows 2000 and also Windows NT (using additional software)."

As you can see on the photos, both the Linker and the Card have a cool transparent blue casing. Due to this we were able to see most of the parts that were inside. But as an attempt to justify our title of 'ruthless hardcore reviewers that snoop inside everything', we decided to unscrew the shells and have a thorough look inside. All of our findings were satisfactory. Soldering joints were of excellent quality and the whole design is based on custom ICs. The casing of both devices seems rugged and of good quality. It is probably able to withstand years and years of punishment. As for the battery on the Flash Card, its expected life span is well over 5 years, and it is also a common type and replaceable one. We just couldn't help putting our thumbs up for the project engineers that designed these babies.

The only thing that we didn't like during the physical examination of the two devices was the shape of the Flash Card. It has the shape of a Gameboy cartridge, and not that of a GBA game. As a result, when you plug it in the console it sticks out in an awkward manner. Fortunately the Flash Card that we reviewed was an older model one, and as we were told pretty soon all the future Cards will be produced at the appropriate shape and size.

 

In order to make this review a detailed as well as an interesting one, we decided to compare the Flash Advance Linker and Card with a similar but a bit older system. It is the GBXChanger and GB Flash Card, manufactured by Bung for the Gameboy Color. For those of you who don't know, Bung was forced to close down due to a lawsuit by Nintendo in the year 2000. So the GBXchanger and its cards are not available anywhere for sale anymore.


5. Checksum Tests

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Checksum Tests

- Test Software: Flash Advance Writer version 2.0 and Gameboy Advance Header Viewer version 0.93, for the Flash Advance Linker. GBX Tool version 1.7 and GB File Information version 0.9, for the GBXchanger.

- Backup Tests: We decided to test the backup procedure first. So the thing we needed was some material to try our teeth on. Without any further delay we paid a visit to our local videogame rental store. The cleck there looked at us pretty suspiciously when we approached the counter with 15 different Gameboy Advance cartridges. We took them home with us and started dumping them like crazy. The games that we tried were the following :

Men in Black Bomberman Tournament F-Zero Maximum Velocity
Hot Potato Ready 2 Rumble Round 2 Final Fight One
Castlevania Tweety & the Magic Gems Pitfall - Mayan Adventure
Mario Advance Earthworm Jim Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2
Jurassic Park 3 Konami Krazy Racers Namco Museum Advance

We copied each game twice and after each dump we verified the checksum of the produced file using a handy utility, Gameboy Advance Header Viewer. The reason we got into all this trouble is that we needed to find out the Linker success rates as a copier, and to compare it with its ancestor, the GBXChanger. We already had the results from back when we did the same task with the GBXchanger, using all kinds of Gameboy Color cartridges.The results were the following:

As you can see, the Flash Advance Linker scored a whopping 100%, since all 30 dumps we made had OK checksums. The GBXChanger had problems with certain Gameboy Color carts, but managed to get them on second attempts.

- Flashing Tests: After backing up every cartridge we flashed those backups to the Flash Card. The flashing procedure never failed to execute, and the Flash Card always seemed to be an exact duplicate of the original game.

Another feature that we tested at this point was the ability of the Flash Card to hold not just one but two games. This is because many Gameboy Advance titles are 32M and the card had hold up to 64M of data. The way to do it is through a menu program, which is flashed to the card and sits on top of the two games. After that menu program each game is flashed separately. When you boot your Gameboy Advance with a two-game Flash Card, a menu shows up and lets you choose which one of the two to play.

That specific feature was tested extensively with all kinds of games and in many different orders. We were happy and pleased that it worked flawlessly in all cases. We were even more happy that we had two games packed inside one cartridge.


6. Cartridge Backup Tests

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Cartridge Backup Tests

Now let's measure the time each copier needs to backup a single cartridge to hard disk. Of course, we needed results for cartridges of the same size. So we decided to use a huge Gameboy Color cartridge, Dragon's Lair (4 Megabytes in Size, aka 32M) and a small Gameboy Advance cartridge, Hot Potato (also 32M).

The software used for communicating with the Flash Advance Linker was once again the Flash Advance Writer version 2.0. You can see a screenshot of the program and all of its features here:

We repeated the procedure for both ECP and EPP parallel port modes. The times that each copier needed are shown on the diagram below:

The Flash Linker appears to be a faster dumper than the GBXChanger, which struggles to keep up. Just imagine that you need only 11 seconds to copy a full Gameboy Advance cartridge to your hard drive.

Flash Card Tests

The following test involves writing a backed up file to the Flash Card. We again needed a big Gameboy Color dump, so we decided to use Alone in the Dark 4 - The New Nightmaire (4 Megabytes in size, aka 32M) and Mario Advance (also 32M). We repeated the flash procedure under both ECP and EPP parallel port mode. The results are pretty surprising here as you can see:

There is a reason for this situation that can explain this. During the write procedure the Flash Linker performs a final verification check to the card before it raises the "OK!" flag. This algorithm slows down the flashing, but ensures that written data are in perfect condition. This is something that the GBXChanger never does, and we have had problems in the past with it and flash cards failing to boot on the Gameboy Color.


7. Compatibility

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Compatibility

The final tests we did on the dynamic duo is that of cartridge compatibility. Several factors have been taken into consideration in order to reach a fair judgement. Those were things like the following :

* Does the Flash Card behave exactly as the original cartridge?
* Are the colors of the game distorted in any way?
* Is the brightness and constrast the same as the original game?
* Is the flashed cart missing any options in menus?
* Is gameplay speed exactly the same on both original and flashed game?
* Does the flash card have any problems booting up on the GBA?
* Do the original cartridges drain less battery power than the Flash Card?
* Is sound the same in volume level and quality on both situations?

We kept testing and testing the variety of games we had on our hands for hours and hours. The only major flaw we found about the Flash Card was that in some games we weren't able to save our progress. But then again, patches are always under development that solve this situation for most games. The ones we tried worked like a charm.

Everything else is good news all the way. The Flash Card behaves exactly like the original in graphics, sound, and gameplay. We had no problems playing any of the tested games on the card, and we also tried a vast variety of game copies (aka ROMs) we donwloaded from the Net. As a last note, the Flash Card also seemed to need less power from the Gameboy Advance batteries to operate.


8. Conclusion

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Conclusion

Well, time to lay down our overall impression about the product. If you have been reading so far you have probably guessed it. The Flash Advance Linker and Card are two products that are really worth their money. For the price of three GBA games you buy a system which allows you to backup your cartridges and keep a copy of them in case the originals get lost, stolen or destroyed. Plus, if you are a serious coder, then you have the opportunity of creating your own Public Demos or games and then test them on the Gameboy Advance.

As you can understand, Nintendo is not exactly happy about the existence and availability of these two products on the market. If they haven't already done so, pretty soon they will be filing lawsuits against the manufacturing company and threatening all resellers to seize selling it. They will claim that it is an illegal product, because it can be used to make illegal copies of original GBA games. Oh sure... Umm let us think about this a little. Shouldn't CDRW drives be considered illegal? Aren't they used to make illegal copies of CD games and applications? How about photocopiers, which can be used to make illegal copies of books? How about scanners, or cameras? And what about cars? Shouldn't they be considered illegal since they can be used to run people over?

The keyword in this whole situation is one tiny little word. Three letters. 'CAN'. Yes, the Flash Linker can create illegal backups. Yes, the Flash Card can be used to play pirated games, scattered all over the Net. But it is up to the user, his responsibility, his self-respect, his honesty and dignity to decide which path he will take. So all that Nintendo claims is a bunch of crap. The problem is that Nintendo has some serious connections inside the IDSA. And that couple is capable of dragging anyone to court, even us for writing these few lines. When someone confronts a collosus like the Big-N, he knows he doesn't stand a chance. The biggest example is Bung, manufacturer of the GBXChanger and GB FlashCard, who got sueued and went down in flames.

So our advice is the following: Buy it, and buy it NOW! Tomorrow might be too late...



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