SEATTLE –In 1989, a few short weeks after the worldwide launch of Nintendo’s Game Boy, rival Atari released a handheld game system with a backlit color screen. The engineers at Atari considered Game Boy and its dim, low-resolution monochrome screen to be a technological joke.

So did the engineers who created technologically superior handhelds at Sega, NEC, SNK and Tiger.

But 11 years later, who’s left in the handheld game market? Since the release of its first model, Nintendo has sold more than 100 million Game Boys (including Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Light and Game Boy Color), while all of its challengers have dropped out of the market having barely made even a dent.

While Game Boy has evolved over the years, shrinking in size in 1996 with the release of Game Boy Pocket and gaining a color screen in 1998, its basic layout and 8-bit architecture have remained the same.

Until now. On March 21, 2001, Kyoto-based Nintendo Co. will release Game Boy Advance, a handheld game console with a larger screen and a 32-bit processor. According to Nintendo executives, this new system, which will retail for 9,800 yen, remains true to the vision of its Game Boy heritage.

Like Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance operates on two AA batteries. In the Game Boy tradition, its nonbacklit screen features reflective TFT color LCD technology that provides reasonable visibility in standard room lighting. (Backlit screens drain batteries. Atari’s Lynx, NEC’s TurboExpress, and Sega’s Game Gear and Nomad were all capable of draining six AA batteries in less than two hours. By comparison, Game Boy Advance, which has a more powerful processor, plays up to 20 hours on two AA batteries.)

Screen advancements

Compared to older models, Game Boy Advance’s display is positively “advanced.” Its 2.9-inch screen has a 65,535-color palette and is capable of using up to 511 colors simultaneously at a resolution of 240 x 160 lines per inch. This is a huge step up from Game Boy Color, which, with its 2.25-inch diagonal screen and 160 x 140-line resolution, is capable of only 56 colors at a time.

Unlike the original Game Boy, which had a vertical format, Game Boy Advance is laid out horizontally. Players hold it in much the same way that they might hold a controller from a video game console. It even has “shoulder buttons” along its top edge, an innovation that first appeared on the controller of Super Famicom.

Game Boy Advance may be built around a processor the same size as the one in Sony’s PlayStation, but it is designed to play games like a 16-bit Super Famicom.

While the home console world has become focused on 3-D games, Nintendo is betting heavily that on-the-go gamers still want the same kind of simple two-dimensional games that dominate the current Game Boy library.

Even with its slightly larger, high-resolution display, Game Boy Advance’s screen is too small for the fine details of 3-D gaming. With this in mind, Nintendo engineers have optimized the system for side-scrolling 2-D and puzzle games.

Of the 12 internally developed games that Nintendo has announced, most are typical of the Super Famicom generation. “Kuru Kuru Kururin,” for instance, is a simple side-scrolling action game. Two games — “F-Zero” and “Mario Kart Advance” — are adaptations of Super Famicom classics.

According to programmers at Digital Eclipse, a highly successful U.S. development house that makes games across multiple platforms, Game Boy Advance was designed for 2-D games but clearly has the ability to handle 3-D graphics as well.

“It may take a little while,” said Mike Mika, creative director at Digital Eclipse, “but the better developers are going to be making 3-D games for this system.”

Several third-party licensees have also lined up to make games for the system, with Konami and Hudson Soft having released the most aggressive publishing schedules.

But lack of software will never be a problem with Game Boy Advance as Nintendo has made it backward compatible with original Game Boy games.

All-new options

Nintendo has also announced two new communications options that have not been available on past Game Boy products. The first deals with Gamecube, Nintendo’s upcoming 128-bit game console.

Nintendo says that Game Boy Advance owners will be able to link their handhelds to Gamecube. This will allow them to pass information back and forth between Gamecube games and Game Boy Advance at a new level. It should open the way for passing characters back and forth between systems and will certainly enable users to download minigames to their Game Boy Advance.

The second communications option is the Mobile Adaptor GB, a cable that will let Game Boy Advance (and regular Game Boy users for that matter) hook their systems to mobile telephones for sending and receiving e-mail.

The ability to send and receive e-mail is a nice feature, but the most important question for any Game Boy product is what can it do with Pokemon. Nintendo has announced plans to release a game called “Pokemon Crystal” to accompany the Mobile Adaptor.

Having sold more than 8 million copies of its Gold and Silver Pokemon cartridges in Japan, Nintendo is well aware of the importance of keeping Pikachu and friends at the forefront of all Game Boy-related activities.

After all, Game Boy’s success was never about technology, it was just about games.