Game Boy Advance emulators

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The Gameboy Advance handheld console
The Game Boy Advance (often shortened to GBA) is a 32-bit handheld video game console developed by Nintendo. It is the successor to the Game Boy Color. It was released in Japan on March 21, 2001; in North America on June 11, 2001; in Australia and Europe on June 22, 2001.

Emulators[edit]

PC
Name Operating System(s) Latest Version GB/GBC GBA NDS Game Link Support Libretro Core Recommended
Visual Boy Advance-M (VBA-M) Multi-platform r1231
mGBA Multi-platform 0.1.0 ?
higan Windows, OS X, Linux 0.94
iDeaS Windows, Linux 1.0.4.0
MESS Multi-platform 0.157 ?
Meteor Linux 1.4
No$GBA Windows, MS-DOS 2.7b
Consoles
Name Operating System(s) Latest Version GB/GBC GBA NDS Game Link Support Libretro Core Recommended
TempGBA4PSP PlayStation Portable 26731013
Visual Boy Advance-M (VBA-M) Wii, Gamecube r1229 ✓ (as VBA-Next)
gpSP PlayStation Portable 0.9

Comparisons[edit]

  • gpSP last official version was 0.9 by Exophase. There are, however, two superior forks: gpSPmod and gpSP-J. gpSP-J has superior compatibility, while gpSPmod has more options for customization (full screen, cheats, etc). Both are superior to Kai.
  • Visual Boy Advance-M (VBA-M) is the best emulator for the GBA. RetroArch's VBA-Next is based off an older revision of VBA-M with added speedhacks and tweaks, making it a bit less accurate in some respects, though it fixes a few games such as Advance Wars 2.
  • higan's GBA core is cycle-accurate, but is otherwise very much a WIP and not as compatible as either version of VBA.
  • mGBA is a GBA emulator that aims to be accurate while maintaining speed.

Emulation issues[edit]

Oversaturation[edit]

Left showing the default game, and right showing VBA-M in "Gameboy Colors" mode

The original GBA screen was not backlit, which would render the screen rather dark. To compensate for this, games would be overly saturated. The bright overly saturated colors would appear rather normal on the GBA. In emulation however, this over saturation is not needed. Some games made after 2003 may look better with the backlit colors, however, as they were designed with the GBA SP in mind. For everything else, there are several ways to deal with this:

No$GBA

Under "Emulation Options", select "GBA Mode. There are four modes.

- GBA (no backlight) = strong desaturization

- GBA SP (backlight) = strong desaturization

- Nintendo DS in GBA mode = some desaturization

- VGA Mode (poppy bright): zero desaturization

VBA-M

- (VBA-M for Windows only) Under "Options->Gameboy" you will find the options:

- "Real Colors": no desaturization

- "Gameboy Colors": strong desaturization

Shaders

gameboy-colors.cgp

A .cgp shader preset can be loaded in OpenEMU or RetroArch that is meant to (sort-of) replicate the "Gameboy Colors" option in VBA-M using the image-adjustment Cg shader. The settings are parameters that are stored in the cgp and can be adjusted at runtime. The relevant parameters set for this effect are:

Target Gamma = 2.4

Monitor Gamma = 2.16

Saturation = 0.5

Luminance = 0.9

The colors will not be exactly the same as what VBA-M produces (a bit brighter and no washed out blacks) but it will get you the desaturation effect. Can be adjusted to fit your tastes, and you can get the washed out blacks by increasing "Brightness Boost" and decreasing Luminance a bit.

Save file issues[edit]

There are a number of different save formats for GBA games. With raw save data, it's very hard to detect what save type it is just by looking at it. Visual Boy Advance tries to autodetect save type but often is incorrect and this causes issues. A fix to this issue is to use a file called "vba-over.ini" to tell VBA what each game's proper save type is, which eliminates most issues regarding save type. Current VBA-M versions come with vba-over.ini by default, but older versions of VBA like VBA 1.7.2 and VBALink did not.

The libretro versions of VBA, libretro-VBA-Next and libretro-VBA-M, come with vba-over.ini baked into the binary so it is able to load raw .sav files, but also changes the save file output to be a 136KB .srm file for every save type, with save type info contained within the file. This completely avoids any save type issues, but makes its save files incompatible with standalone VBA and most other emulators.

Libretro devs created a command line tool to convert libretro-VBA .srm save files to raw .sav save data for other emulators. You can just drag and drop a .srm onto the executable and it will output raw .sav. The same can be done in reverse. A precompiled Windows 64-bit binary of this tool can be found here.

Connectivity[edit]

GBA Link Multiplayer (1~4GBA)[edit]

  • VBA-M: This doesn't work with old VBA versions.

Just disable "Pause when Inactive", configure all four Joypads each with their own button layout, enable "Link, Enable GBA Link". Now open VBA-M again as much times needed for each player, and have them each use their separate Joypad configuration. Each player will have a separate SRAM save file.

  • No$GBA: This method also works with DS roms, and that's the actual way to see the incomplete non-functional local Wi-Fi DS multiplayer implementation. (todo)

GameCube Connectivity[edit]

The GBA unit can connect to a GameCube.

Dolphin and VBA-M[edit]

Game Boy connection support can be supported via joybus emulation. Such requires VBA-M (r947 or newer) and a dump of a GBA BIOS.

Connect 1~4 GBA Unit Without Game to GC Game

First Part!

  • Open Dolphin and VBA-M (duh). Make sure neither are blocked by your firmware.
  • Dolphin: Start your game and play until you get to the in-game menu where you're asked to connect a GBA. Under the GC controller options (earlier "Config, Gamecube", now it's with the GC/Wii controller options). You have 4 GC controller ports: change how much you need to "GBA". Leave the game and its music running :)
  • VBA-M: You'll need to uncheck "Options, Emulator, Pause When Inactive". Then, under "Options, Link, Joybus Options", Make sure to enable "Enable Joybus Connection" and set "IP/Hostname" to use default settings, that is (127.0.0.1) or (localhost) - without the brackets.
  • THEN, Dolphin will freeze. You'll want to not have the system sound too high if you're using headphones.

Second Part!

  • VBA-M: Open the GBA BIOS in VBA-M as if it were a regular GBA ROM. There will be that splash screen but it will stutter a bit.
  • Dolphin should recognize the Joybus Link by then and the GC game will detect that a GBA unit was connected.
  • To connect other GBA units, open another VBA-M instance and repeat what you did with VBA-M.

Notable games that work:

  • The Legend of Zelda Four Swords Adventures: Both two modes available for the US/PAL version work. The third Japan-only Navi Trackers mode works as well, but the game crashes after the naming screen due to a bug in the GC/GBA connectivity.
  • Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles
  • Billy Hatcher: You can download games to your GBA. Amusingly, a RAM dump from VBA-M can be opened as a functional GBA ROM.
  • Kururin Squash
  • Sonic Adventure 2 (buggy)

Don't work:

  • The Legend of Zelda Wind Waker: Tingle Trainer connection always fails, though some messages do display on VBA-M.
  • Drill Land
  • lots more

Connect GBA Game to GC Game

  • VBA-M: Under "Emulator, Bios Files" set the GBA BIOS file directory, and have the emulator use it. This will cause each regular GBA rom you load in VBA-M to show the BIOS splash screen then proceed to the game. It has higher compatibility too.
  • You do the all the steps above in the first part of the previous section (connecting a GBA unit without Game to a GC game) until the line with Dolphin freezing when you enable Joylink in VBA-M.

Then:

  • VBA-M: Open the regular GBA ROM to be connected with the GC game in VBA-M as if it were a regular GBA ROM.
  • There will be that splash screen, but if you do nothing the GBA game starts as usual and the connection doesn't actually happen. What you must do is to hold Select+Start while the BIOS is loading. This will cause the BIOS animation to stop and wait for connections, and the regular GBA ROM game won't boot immediately. If it goes as intended, VBA-M will stutter a bit and the connection will be initiated.
  • Dolphin should recognize the Joybus Link by then and the GC game will detect that a GBA unit was connected.
  • To connect other GBA units, open another VBA-M instance and repeat what you did with VBA-M.

Please note e-Reader functionality with GC games isn't emulated as of yet.

Dolphin and other emulators[edit]

Dolphin devs are working at rewriting the entire GBA connectivity code in a far better way from scratch with more accurate emulators. They did a video using the higan emulator. Nothing of the sort is published at the moment.

GBA/DS Connectivity[edit]

Inserting a GBA card in Slot-2 in a Nintendo DS unit (that's not a DSi) while a DS game is running could unlock various gameplay features in some DS games. DesMume can emulate this: while playing the DS ROM, go to "Config, Slot 2 (GBA Slot)" and select "GBA Cartridge". Now select the GBA ROM file, and make sure its sav file is in the same folder. You may need to reset the game sometimes to see the effect in-game.

Special Hardware[edit]

Special Cartridges[edit]

These were never emulated as of yet. There used to be patches to be applied to GBA ROMS with an utility like LunarIPS, but they're for the most part lost to time nowadays. Your best bet is to use Action Replay to emulate those.

  • Solar Sensor: Boktai 1 (Fix: JP, US, EU), Boktai 2 (Fix: JP, US, EU), Boktai 3 (JP Fix).
  • Motion Control: Yoshi Topsy Turvy/Universal Gravitation (Fix: JP, EU, US), Warioware Twisted! (Patch: JP, US)
  • Variable Rumble Speed: Drill Dozer. Can still be emulated.
  • Figurine Add-on: Legendz: Isle Of Trials, Legendz: Sign Of Necromu, Plaston Gate (Fix), Plaston Gate DX (Fix). The add-on is essentially Skylanders before it became popular.

VBA-M has an option for Motion controls "Input, Set, Motion". It currently works with all versions of the GBC title Yoshi Tilt'n Tumble, which also was a special cartridge with a motion sensor built-in to control movement in-game.

Other Add-ons[edit]

Not emulated yet:

  • Battle Chip Gate (and variations): compatible with Japanese versions of Megaman Zero 3, Megaman Battle Network 4, 4.5, 5 and 6.

e-Reader[edit]

The e-Reader is an add-on for the Game Boy Advance released in Japan and USA/Australia (and cancelled in Europe).

It has a LED scanner that reads paper cards with data printed on them, called "e-Reader cards". These cards hold actual data.

This way, stuff could get unlocked in games, most famously Super Mario Advance 4 where some cards triggered switch effects (like vegetables everywhere, various powerups including the Boomerang (only appearing after in Mario Land 3DS), the Kuribo Shoe and the SMW Cape, a 100-Up powerup, a replay feature, and other stuff) while others held entire new levels in their data found nowhere in the original cartridge to be transferred to the save file. Due to its impopularity outside Japan, these features would often be removed when e-Reader compatible games would be localized.

In these cases, it requires two GBA units - one with the game cartridge, the other with the e-Reader device, linked with a link cable, with the gray end on the second GBA. Playing the game up to the point where you can initiate the e-Reader features, you can then swipe the paper cards in the e-Reader to read the data - it's not ideal though outside of emulation due to how much finnicky the process actually is.

It could also connect with GameCube games in the same way, notably Animal Crossing.

Other e-Cards that only require one GBA with e-Reader include NES games (often mapper 0 games) and various promotional cards.

e-Reader was originally released in Japan in 2001 without Link cable support (thus unable to link to other GBA/GC games), but that was added in a second version released in 2002 as e-Reader+ in Japan. That second version was released as e-Reader in USA and Australia.

What you'll need[edit]

The e-Card images: Yes, these have actual data in them. The "No-Intro Game Boy Advance (e-Cards)" rom set is only missing 12 US cards (Pokémon TGC) and a few dozen JP ones (mainly F-Zero Legend, Rockman EXE 5/6, Pokémon Pinball). Either download the set or hunt down the device and obscenely rare cards to archive them.

The dumps are around 2.2KB, and are region-locked. No European-region dumps exist (even though really rare e-Cards do).

The e-Reader BIOS: A regular GBA ROM. Three versions exist, be sure to pick up the one with the same region as the e-Card.

  • Card e-Reader (Japan) (not recommended)
  • Card e-Reader+ (Japan)
  • e-Reader (USA)

Emulators for e-Reader: Your best bet is no$gba 2.4 and above. Modified versions of VBA include e-Reader support, with one for 1.7.0 (no Link support) and 1.6e (Link support), but their emulation isn't perfect, and no$gba is still needed for many setups involving two GBAs. No emulation for now for e-Reader/GameCube connection.

Or, alternatively (even if it's not actual e-Reader emulation):

Battery backup files (sav) from people who had already scanned e-Cards. Their data gets stored in the sav file for the e-Reader BIOS rom, or the GBA game with e-Reader features. This is one convenient way to play the exclusive levels from SMB4 if you just grab a save file with the levels already stored and import it in your emulator for use with that game (also the only way to get it to work on PAL SMB4).

Cheat codes enabling the e-Reader unlockables in some games. Only works if the "dlc data" is already included in the cartridge - so it wouldn't work with SMA4's levels or F-Zero Legend's developer ghost data for example. It's also useful to get data that was removed from US versions (since the e-Reader was discontinued outside Japan very early) - including notably Pokémon Coloseum, Megaman Zero 3, and Megaman Battle Network 5 (6 JP included the data on-cart already, US didn't and made heavy content cuts)...

Scan a Standalone Card (1 GBA, e-Reader only)[edit]

Trying to scan a card for use with another GBA game to unlock stuff within using this method would give you an error message.

Using No$GBA[edit]

No$GBA offers actual full hardware emulation for e-Reader, but its GBA emulation, while very decent and with save state support, isn't the best out there. You can still export your save at will.

Emulator: Open the e-Reader BIOS. It's a regular GBA ROM.
The very first time it's loaded, it will save some e-Reader specific configuration, then reset the emulator. After that it's all good.
In-game, BIOS: Press A (or "Select" for a hidden bonus :P). Choose "Scan Card".
Emulator: A window should pop-up. Now you can choose the e-Card roms (often RAW, but can be also BIN, or BMP/JPG images) you'll need. Choose the file and click OK.
In-game, BIOS: A "Scan Card" message appears, and the data is loaded.

If the application (NES game, minigame, promotional app) is stored in multiple e-Cards, the game will let you know ("You need [n] more Dot Code(s) to start. Scan [Application Name] 2/[n].") In that case:

Emulator: Click "File, Load e-Reader Dotcode". Choose the next e-Card image file.
In-game, BIOS: In the same screen, press A to Scan Code. The data should be loaded. If you tried to do so before loading the next file, the BIOS would say you have already scanned it. Rinse and repeat until you get all parts.

If you're done with all parts (could be one part in many cases), and all is fine, the BIOS would suggest you save the data to the e-Reader's SRAM. (You can then conveniently grab the sav file for use with other emulators).

This prevents the data from getting deleted when rebooting the device or scanning other e-Cards. You can then access it from the title menu with the new third option, "Access Saved Data" (and the app name shows below too!) In case you want to delete it, hold L+R at console startup (you can use the numeric pad * (multiply) key to reset).

Then, after this save prompt, you can play the actual application.

Using VBA e-Reader compatible old builds[edit]

VBA 1.7.0 e-Reader (no Link) VBA 1.6e e-Reader + Link

These old versions of VBA (later VBA-M) do not do full e-Reader emulation but still do the job here. The version lacking the Link feature though is useless for cards to be used with GBA games. Regular VBA, and VBA-M versions do not have e-Reader support at all.

Not that different from No$GBA. You open the e-Reader BIOS first like any regular GBA ROM.

You might be faced with a "Memory Error" screen in-game. That's because VBA didn't detect the save type correctly. You'll need to do that manually, by going to Options, Emulator, Save Type, then choosing 128K rather than 64K. While you're at it, check under Emulator if "Save e-Reader RAW Files" is checked. "Pause when Inactive" needs to be disabled if you ever intend to link between two GBAs (not needed right now).

Reset, and press A and just wait for the SRAM to be formatted (a good minute). Press A when you're done and you can go to the in-game title menu. Whenever the game tries to scan e-Cards, unlike with NO$GBA a window will always pop up asking you to choose your e-Card dump (can be only a RAW file in VBA's case). It's more straightforward here, and the NES compatibility is even better. That said it's more of the same. Read the NO$GBA section for more info.

Emulators lacking e-Card reading support[edit]

Of course, you can fetch SRAM battery save files (sav) for the e-Reader BIOS or the e-Reader compatible GBA games AFTER e-Cards were already scanned and their data saved in these SRAM files, either using e-Reader emulators or real hardware. These sav files should work with ANY emulator.

Alternatively, there are cheats. Very often, that's the only way to unlock e-Reader features in games lacking them in some versions (notably US Megaman games versions, and SMA4 PAL).

Scan a Card for Use with a GBA Game (2 GBAs linked, e-Reader + GBA Game)[edit]

(TBA)

No$GBA[edit]

Shugo Takahashi's explanation in the case of SMA4.

1. You'll need a save file for the e-Reader BIOS GBA ROM with the SMB4 Level Card Program already saved. (Link, US).

2. Next you need to set up NO$GBA. Place the GBA BIOS file in NO$GBA's root and run NO$GBA. Open any ROM (right now it doesn't matter) and immediately go edit the settings by pressing F11. Go to the Controls tab and define your control layout for both Player 1 and Player 2, then click on Options and click "Save Options". Close out of NO$GBA.

3. It should now have created several files and folders in the root folder you placed it in. Open NO$GBA.ini in Notepad and find the "SAV/SNA File Format" setting. Change this to "Raw" and save it. Go place your SMA4 SAV and the e-Reader SV2 in the BATTERY folder. Make sure they share the same names as the SMA4 and e-Reader ROMs you have.

4. Open NO$GBA and open the e-Reader ROM. Change "All machines" to "1st machine". Then press F11 and change "Number of Emulated Gameboys" to "2". DO NOT SAVE THE OPTIONS HERE. IT WILL CRASH ON STARTUP EVERY TIME IF YOU DO.*

If you screw up and save the NO$GBA options after you've enabled two Game Boys, then open NO$GBA.INI and find the "Number of Emulated Gameboys" option. Change this to "-Single Machine" and save.

5. After enabling two Game Boys, click "File" and "Cartridge Menu (FileName)" and open your SMA4 ROM, this time selecting "2nd machine". If you did this right, then SMA4 should be loaded on the left side with sound and the e-Reader should be loaded on the right side without sound. Navigate to the SMB3 main menu and check to see that your save file loaded properly.** Go to "Level Card" and then move Mario/Luigi onto the swirling panel in front of the castle to open a menu. Move up to "Level Card" and select it to be taken to the e-Reader communication screen.

6. Next use the Player 2 controls you mapped out to navigate the e-Reader menu to "Access saved data". "Super Mario Advance 4" should be displayed as the saved data.** This should take you to a communication screen just like SMA4's next to it. Hit A on SMA4 to begin communication. Go to "File" and then "Load e-Reader Dotcode" in NO$GBA and navigate to the .RAW Level Card dotcode files you downloaded. Double-click one and the e-Reader should accept it and send it back to the SMA4 ROM. The SMA4 ROM will then tell you that a Level Card was received.

If either the SMA4 ROM or the e-Reader ROM don't have the proper saved data, make sure that you changed the save type in NO$GBA.INI to "Raw", the save files are the same names as their ROM counterparts, and that SMA4 is on the left screen while e-Reader is on the right screen. If their screens are flipped, then either restart NO$GBA and follow my instructions more carefully or open BATTERY and change their save types around (.SAV to .SV2 and vice versa).

6b. Now here's the catch. SMA4 will not let you save a level permanently and then scan more levels until you beat the level you just scanned at least once. So you either have to beat the level now in the emulator or load the save back onto your real game, beat the level, and then repeat this entire process for the next level. It's cumbersome, I know, but in the end when you have all the levels scanned in and you've played them all it'll be well worth it; these are some of the coolest levels in the entire Super Mario series!

7. If you choose to beat the level using your original game cartridge, another emulator or are just ready to transfer your save file back, then press Start in NO$GBA on SMA4 and hit "Save". It will take you back to the title screen. Go back into Level Card and check to make sure the level you just scanned is still on the level list. Close out of NO$GBA and go into the BATTERY folder. Copy the .SAV file from SMA4 and paste it somewhere else: you can import it in other emulators or even real cartridges.

Scan a Card for Use with a GC Game (GBA and GC linked, e-Reader + GC Game)[edit]

Unfortunately neither the Dolphin emulator nor any of the GBA emulators it can connect with, do support this feature at all.