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Before Netflix, you could watch Shrek on the Game Boy Advance

It wasn’t HD, but hey, it was something!

Shrek, aghast, wondering what someone is doing in his swamp. Photo: Dreamworks Animation
Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

I used to watch my cartoons on my Game Boy Advance.

You might have forgotten about the Game Boy Advance Video series, but I am here to excavate it and remind you of it and all of its chunky, pixelated glory.

The Game Boy Advance Video series allowed players to watch shows and some movies on their GBA. They came in opaque white cartridges instead of the classic gray color typical to GBA games, and were released in 2004 by Majesco. You could watch them in full color and sound — although if you were using an SP you had to live with the lack of a headphone jack.

There was a wide range of shows from across Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. Sometimes shows would get their own game cartridge, like the SpongeBob SquarePants Collection, with four episodes on it. Other times, collections would feature miscellaneous episodes from across multiple shows. The first Game Boy Advance Video collection from Cartoon Network has The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, Johnny Bravo, Ed, Edd ‘n Eddy, and Courage the Cowardly Dog. (I had Pokémon GBA Video: Johto Photo Finish, which featured two episodes of Ash and his battle with Gary at the Pokémon League.) Beyond the video game spin-offs and family cartoons, there were even some movies that came to it, like Shrek.

Watching videos on your GBA in 160p wasn’t great, but in a pre-Netflix, pre-tablet era, beggars couldn’t be choosers. There is nothing quite like the sheer thrill of watching Pokémon, out loud with no headphones, on a plane. It probably bothered everyone around me and it was portable entertainment for a kid at it’s very finest! Based on my memory, I would say that viewing 2D cartoons was bearable. However, looking at footage today of movies like Shrek, the low resolution was very visible as the pixels significantly blurred the 3D animation.

Nintedrew, a Nintendo enthusiast and retro games collector, posted a video sharing his full collection of the videos and did a breakdown of the tech inside the cartridges. Most of the collections had a regular old ROM chip like you’d find in any other GBA game. However, there was a special exception where a combo pack of Shark Tale and Shrek had roughly three hours of content on them. And, while it’s funny to say, “You can watch Shrek on your GBA,” it was actually a bit of a technological feat of its time.

Nintendrew gets into the nitty gritty of the technology, but basically the movie combo pack had a proprietary 3D memory storage system that allowed the developers to expand the storage of a standard Game Boy Advance game, and allow for 64 MB of memory. For comparison, the average max storage on a normal ROM for the TV packs was around 32 MB, making the Shrek and Shark Tales movie combo pack the example of peak performance in the GBA generation. The developers still had to bump down the resolution to a paltry 112p, but even then, it was on the cutting edge of what the GBA could do.

Today, streaming entertainment and gaming consoles intermingle like it’s no big deal. The Nintendo Switch has Hulu and even a dedicated streaming app for Pokémon now. But that wasn’t always the case. Before we had tablets where we could download movies, before we had consoles with streaming services, there was the Game Boy Advance Video, leading the way.

While portable DVD players existed, they weren’t something you’d just carry around with you like a handheld. There was something admirable about the way the series pushed the capabilities of the GBA and really served as an early test-case for how portable entertainment could look and function. It’s fun to think that maybe, Shrek on GBA was some sort of pioneer for portable entertainment.