Game Boy Advance Architecture

A practical analysis by Rodrigo Copetti

Classic edition - Last updated: April 17, 2024

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About this edition

The ‘classic’ edition is an alternative version to the ‘modern’ counterpart. It doesn’t require Javascript, state-of-the-art CSS or convoluted HTML to work, which makes it ideal for readers who use accessibility tools or legacy internet browsers. On the other hand, eBook users can now check the eBook edition.

This edition is identical content-wise. However, interactive widgets have been simplified to work with pure HTML, though these will offer an link to the original article in case the reader wants to try the ‘full version’.

As always, this article is available on Github to enable readers to report mistakes or propose changes. There’s also a supporting reading list available to help understand the series. The author also accepts donations to help improve the quality of current articles and upcoming ones.

Table of Contents

  1. Supporting imagery
  2. A quick introduction
  3. CPU
    1. The Cambridge miracle
      1. The rise of Acorn Computers
      2. A new CPU venture
    2. The Nintendo partnership
    3. The ARM7TDMI
      1. Commanding the CPU
      2. The package
        1. The core
        2. The pipeline
        3. Squeezing performance
        4. The extensions
    4. Memory locations
    5. Becoming a Game Boy Color
  4. Graphics
    1. Organising the content
    2. Constructing the frame
      1. Tiles
      2. Backgrounds
      3. Sprites
      4. Result
    3. Beyond Tiles
  5. Audio
    1. Functionality
      1. PCM
      2. PSG
      3. Combined
    2. Best of both worlds
  6. Operating System
  7. Games
    1. Accessing cartridge data
    2. Cartridge RAM space
    3. Accessories
  8. Anti-Piracy & Homebrew
    1. Flashcarts
  9. That’s all folks
  10. Copyright and permissions
  11. Sources / Keep Reading
  12. Contributing
  13. Changelog

Supporting imagery


The original Game Boy Advance.
Released on 21/03/2001 in Japan, 11/06/2001 in America and 22/06/2001 in Europe.


Showing revision '03'. Note that 'AGB' is the identifier of the Game Boy Advance model.
Cartridge slot and audio amplifier are on the back.
Motherboard with important parts labelled


Main architecture diagram
Each data bus is labelled with its width.
The layout shown of the AGB Game Pak doesn't include a mapper (as the new CPU is able to address significantly more memory), although games with a large ROM may still bundle one.

A quick introduction

The internal design of the Game Boy Advance is quite impressive for a portable console that runs on two AA batteries.

This console will carry on using Nintendo’s signature GPU. Additionally, it will introduce a relatively new CPU from a British company that will surge in popularity in the years to come.


Most of the components are combined into a single package called CPU AGB. This package contains two completely different CPUs:

Note that both CPUs will never run at the same time or do any fancy co-processing. The only reason for including the very old Sharp is for backwards compatibility.

That being said, before I describe the ARM chip, I find it handy to start with the history behind this brand of CPUs.

The Cambridge miracle

The story about the origins of the ARM CPU and its subsequent rise to fame is riveting. Here we find a combination of public investment, exponential growth, ill-fated decisions and long-distance partnerships.

The rise of Acorn Computers

Photo of the BBC Micro with a box of 5¼ disks on top [1], the first disk is Elite.

The late 70s for the United Kingdom were marked by the start of an exacted transition from an interventionist economy to a free market. Amid this storm, Cambridge-based ventures such as Acorn Computers, along with Sinclair and the like, were selling computer kits to laboratories and hobbyists. Similarly to American and Japanese enterprises, Acorn’s computers relied on the 6502 CPU and a proprietary BASIC dialect.

Entering the 80s, ministerial interests within the new British government led to the creation of a project to uplift computer literacy at schools [2]. Thanks to Acorn’s upcoming ‘Proton’ home computer, the company was awarded the contract to build an affordable computer that fulfils the government’s vision. The result was the BBC Micro (nicknamed the ‘Beeb’), which enjoyed significant success among schools, teachers and students. Within the Micro, Acorn incorporated an avant-garde ‘Tube’ interface that could expand the computer with a second processor. This would pave the way for Acorn’s next big investment.

During the development of their next product, this time enterprise-focused, Acorn did not find a suitable CPU to succeed the 6502. Pressure to innovate against Japanese and American competition, combined with unfortunate planning, placed Acorn in a troubled financial state. Thus, a new division in Acorn was tasked to produce a compelling CPU. To work around Acorn’s recent constraints, the CPU team based their architecture on the teachings of a research paper called The Case for the Reduced Instruction Set Computer [3] and its prototype, the RISC CPU [4]. Finally, in 1985, Acorn delivered the ARM1 CPU as a Tube module for the BBC Micro, but was only marketed for R&D purposes. It won’t be until 1987, with the introduction of the first Acorn Archimedes computer, that ARM chips (by then, the ARM2 CPU) would take a central role.

A new CPU venture

A late Newton model… after I played with it.

During the commercialisation of the Acorn Archimedes, Apple became captivated by Acorn’s energy-efficient CPUs, but the American company was still unconvinced that Acorn’s latest ARM3 would be suitable for Apple’s new pet project, the Newton. However, rather than walking away (after all, Acorn was a competitor), both discussed the possibility of evolving the ARM3 to deliver Apple’s requirements [5], namely flexible clock frequency, integrated MMU and complete 32-bit addressing.

This collaboration soon turned into a partnership where Acorn, Apple and VLSI (ARM chips manufacturer) set up a new company solely focused on developing ARM CPUs. Apple provided the investment (obtaining 43% of the stake), Acorn shared its staff and VLSI took care of manufacturing. In 1990, Advanced RISC Machines (ARM) Ltd came into existence, with Robin Saxby as its executive chairman.

Years after, Apple finally shipped the Newton MessagePad powered by an ARM610, one of the next generation of ARM chips incorporating Apple’s input. Meanwhile, Acorn also released the RiscPC using the new CPUs.

Now, while Acorn and Apple lingered on the computer/handheld market, ARM devised a radical business model. Keeping away from manufacturing, Saxby’s vision consisted of licensing ARM’s intellectual property, in the form of CPU designs and its instruction set [6]. This granted ARM with clients beyond the computer realm, such as Texas Instruments [7], who later connected the company with the emerging mobile market (culminating in the Nokia 6110) and set-top boxes. The follow-up years will see ARM’s technology being bundled in billions of mobile devices [8].

The Nintendo partnership

Back in Japan, and thanks to the Game Boy analysis, we learnt that Nintendo’s hardware strategy for portable systems favours a System On a Chip (SoC) model. This has allowed the company to obfuscate affordable off-the-shelf technology and combine it with in-house developments. In doing so, the new console could be unique and competitive.

CPU AGB, housing the ARM7TDMI CPU (among many other components).

Fortunately, ARM’s licensing model fitted just right for those needs. Both companies held talks since 1994 (a year before the Virtual Boy’s launch) despite nothing materialising until many years later [9]. The reason was simple: the Japanese found unfeasible ARM’s code density and the need for 32 data wires (something the Virtual Boy’s CPU already managed to escape). Nevertheless, ARM’s new CPU designer - Dave Jaggar - quickly answered with the ARM7TDMI, a new CPU that focused on maximising performance under power and storage constraints. This was a turning point for ARM, as this new product not only pleased Nintendo, but also got the attention of Texas Instruments, Nokia and the rest of the competitors in the cellphone arena.

Unsurprisingly, when Nintendo started working on the successor of the Game Boy Color, their CPU pick became the ARM7TDMI.


Let’s now dive into what this chip offers.

Commanding the CPU

To begin with, the ARM7TDMI implements the ARMv4 instruction set, the successor of the ARMv3. This implies:

The package

Now that we know how developers talk to this chip, let’s check what’s inside the silicon.

The core

In terms of circuitry, the ARM7TDMI is a cut-down version of the ARM710 with interesting additions. The core includes [11] [12]:

Finally, all of this can operate with a 3 Volt power supply [14]. This is an evident step towards mobile computing, as earlier cores required a 5 V supply.

The pipeline

Since its first iteration, ARM has implemented a three-stage pipeline to run code. In other words, the execution of instructions is divided into three steps or stages. The CPU will fetch, decode and execute up to three instructions concurrently. This enables maximum use of the CPU’s resources (which reduces idle silicon) while also increasing the number of instructions executed per unit of time.

Like two very similar contemporaries, ARM CPUs are susceptible to data hazards. Nevertheless, neither the programmer nor compiler will notice it as, in this case, the CPU will automatically stall the pipeline whenever it’s needed.

Control hazards are also present, but ARM tackled them with an efficient approach called conditional annulment: Whenever a branch instruction is at the second stage (Decode), the CPU will calculate the condition of the branch [15]. Based on the result, if the branch must be executed, the CPU will automatically nullify the follow-up instruction (turning it into a filler). Now, this may look inefficient when compared to MIPS’ approach (as a MIPS compiler can insert useful instructions, not just fillers). Hence, apart from branching, ARM provides conditional execution. The latter turns this pipeline design into an advantage, since ARM can decode an instruction and calculate its embedded condition at the same stage. Thus, in this case, no fillers will be added. That’s why conditional execution is preferred over branching when programming for ARM CPUs [16].

Squeezing performance

One of the drawbacks of a load-store architecture led to ARM’s code being very sparse. Competitors like x86 could perform the same tasks using smaller amounts of code, requiring less storage. Consequently, when Nintendo took a look at ARM’s latest design, the ARM7, they weren’t pleased with it. The size of ARM’s instructions meant that hypothetical gadgets comprised of 16-bit buses with limited memory and storage - all to save cost and energy - would make the CPU inefficient and bottlenecked. Luckily, Dave Jaggar had just finished designing the ARM7 and wouldn’t give up yet. During his commute after meeting Nintendo, he came up with a solution: The Thumb instruction set [17].

Thumb is a subset of the ARM instruction set whose instructions are encoded into 16-bit words (as opposed to 32-bit) [18]. Being 16-bit, Thumb instructions require half the bus width and occupy half the memory.

The main compromise is that Thumb doesn’t offer conditional execution, relying on branching instead. Additionally, its data processing opcodes only use a two-address format, rather than a three-address one, and it only has access to the bottom half of the register file (thus, only eight general-purpose registers are available). All in all, since Thumb instructions offer only a functional subset of ARM, developers may have to write more instructions to achieve the same effect.

In practice, Thumb uses 70% of the space of ARM code. For 16-bit wide memory, Thumb runs faster than ARM. If required, ARM and Thumb instructions can be mixed in the same program (called interworking) so developers can choose when and where to use each mode.

The extensions

The ARM7TDMI is, at its essence, an ARMv3-compliant core with extras. The latter is referenced in its name (TDMI), meaning:

Overall, this made the ARM7TDMI an attractive solution for mobile and embedded devices.

Memory locations

The inclusion of Thumb in particular had a strong influence on the final design of this console. Nintendo mixed 16-bit and 32-bit buses between its different modules to reduce costs, all while providing programmers with the necessary resources to optimise their code.

Memory architecture of this system.

The Game Boy Advance’s usable memory is distributed across the following locations (ordered from fastest to slowest) [19]:

Although this console was marketed as a 32-bit system, the majority of its memory is only accessible through a 16-bit bus, meaning games will mostly use the Thumb instruction set to avoid spending two cycles per instruction fetch. Only in very exceptional circumstances (i.e. need to use instructions not found on Thumb while storing them in IWRAM), programmers will benefit from the ARM instruction set.

Becoming a Game Boy Color

Apart from the inclusion of GBC hardware (Sharp SM83, original BIOS, audio and video modes, compatible cartridge slot and so forth), there are two extra functions required to make backwards compatibility work.

From the hardware side, the console relies on switches to detect if a Game Boy or Game Boy Color cartridge is inserted. A shape detector in the cartridge slot effectively identifies the type of cartridge and allows the CPU to read its state. It is assumed that some component of CPU AGB reads that value and automatically powers off the hardware not needed in GBC mode.

From the software side, there is a special 16-bit register called REG_DISPCNT which can alter many properties of the display, but one of its bits sets the console to ‘GBC mode’ [21]. At first, I struggled to understand exactly when the GBA tries to update this register. Luckily, some developers helped to clarify this:

I think what happens during GBC boot is that it checks the switch (readable at REG_WAITCNT 0x4000204), does the fade (a very fast fade, hard to notice), then finally switches to GBC mode (BIOS writes to REG_DISPCNT 0x4000000), stopping the ARM7.

The only missing piece of the puzzle is what would happen if you were to remove a portion of the GBC cartridge shell so the switch isn’t pressed anymore, then did a software mode-switch to GBC mode. Multi-boot mode could help here. I’m not sure if the switch needs to be pressed down for the GBC cartridge bus to work properly, or if it just works. I’m willing to guess that the switch is necessary for the bus to function, but that’s just a guess.

Dan Weiss (aka Dwedit, current maintainer of PocketNES and Goomba Color)


Before we begin, you’ll find the system a mix between the SNES and the Game Boy, the graphics core is still the well-known 2D engine called PPU. I recommend reading those articles before continuing since I’ll be revisiting lots of previously-explained concepts.

Compared to previous Game Boys, we now have an LCD screen that can display up to 32,768 colours (15-bit). It has a resolution of 240 x 160 pixels and a refresh rate of ~60 Hz.

Organising the content

Memory architecture of the PPU.

Graphics are distributed across these regions of memory:

Constructing the frame

If you’ve read the previous articles you’ll find the GBA familiar, although there is additional functionality that may surprise you, and don’t forget that this console runs on two AA batteries.

I’m going to borrow the graphics of Sega’s Sonic Advance 3 to show how a frame is composed.


These two blocks are made of 4 bpp Tiles.
You may notice some weird vertical patterns in here, these are not graphics but ‘Tile Maps’ (see next section).
These two blocks are reserved for sprites.
Pairs of charblocks found in VRAM.

GBA’s tiles are strictly 8x8 pixel bitmaps, they can use 16 colours (4 bpp) or 256 colours (8 bpp). 4 bpp tiles consume 32 bytes, while 8 bpp ones take 64 bytes.

Tiles can be stored anywhere in VRAM, however, the PPU wants them grouped into charblocks: A region of 16 KB. Each block is reserved for a specific type of layer (background and sprites) and programmers decide where each charblock starts. This can result in some overlapping which, as a consequence, enables two charblocks to share the same tiles.

Due to the size of a charblock, up to 256 8 bpp tiles or 512 4 bpp tiles can be stored per block. Up to six charblocks are allowed, which combined require 96 KB of memory: The exact amount of VRAM this console has.

Only four charblocks can be used for backgrounds and two can be used for sprites.


Background Layer 0 (BG0).
Background Layer 2 (BG2).
Background Layer 3 (BG3).
This particular layer will be shifted horizontally at certain scan-lines to simulate water effects.
Static background layers in use.

The background layer of this system has improved significantly since the Game Boy Color. It finally includes some features found in the Super Nintendo (remember the affine transformations?).

The PPU can draw up to four background layers. The capabilities of each one will depend on the selected mode of operation [22]:

Each layer has a dimension of up to 512x512 pixels. If it’s an affine one then it will be up to 1024x1024 pixels.

The piece of data that defines the background layer is called Tile Map. To implement this in a way that the PPU understands it, programmers use screenblocks, a structure that defines portions of the background layer (32x32 tiles). A screenblock occupies just 2 KB, but more than one will be needed to construct the whole layer. Programmers may place them anywhere inside the background charblocks, this means that not all tiles entries will contain graphics!


Rendered Sprite layer

The size of a sprite can be up to 64x64 pixels wide, yet for having such a small screen they will end up occupying a big part of it.

If that wasn’t enough, the PPU can now apply affine transformations to sprites!

Sprite entries are 32-bit wide and their values can be divided into two groups:


All layers merged (Tada!).

As always, the PPU will combine all layers automatically, but it’s not over yet! The system has a couple of effects available to apply over these layers:

On the other side, to update the frame there are multiple options available:

Beyond Tiles

Sometimes we may want to compose a background from which the tile engine won’t be able to draw all required graphics. Now, modern consoles addressed this by implementing a frame-buffer architecture but this is not possible when there’s very little RAM… Well, the GBA happens to have 96 KB of VRAM which is enough to allocate a bitmap with the dimensions of our LCD screen.

The good news is that the PPU actually implemented this functionality by including three extra modes, these are called bitmap modes [23]:

The reason for having two bitmaps is to enable page-flipping: Drawing over a displayed bitmap can expose some weird artefacts during the process. If we instead manipulate another one then none of the glitches will be shown to the user. Once the second bitmap is finished the PPU can be updated to point to the second one, effectively swapping the displayed frame.

Super Monkey Ball Jr. (2002).
Bitmap mode allowed the CPU to provide some rudimentary 3D graphics for the scenery.
Foreground objects are sprites (separate layer).
Tonc’s demo.
Rendered bitmap with some primitives.
Notice the screen doesn’t show significant patterns produced by tile engines.
Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants.
Episode distributed as a GBA Video cartridge (it suffered a lot of compression, of course).
Examples of programs using bitmap modes.

Overall it sounds like a cutting-the-edge feature, however, most games held on to the tile engine. Why? Because in practice it costs a lot of CPU resources.

You see, while using a tile engine the CPU can delegate most of the computations to the graphics chip. By contrast, the frame-buffer system that the PPU provides is limited to only displaying that segment of memory as a single background layer, which means no more individual affine transformations, layering or effects unless the CPU computes them. Also, the frame-buffer occupies 80 KB of memory, so only 16 KB (half) are available to store sprite tiles.

For this reason, these modes are used exceptionally, such as for playing motion video (Game Boy Advance Video completely relied on this) or rendering 3D geometry with the CPU. In any case, the results were impressive, to say the least.


The GBA features a 2-channel sample player which works in combination with the legacy Game Boy sound system.


Here is a breakdown of each audio component using Sonic Advance 2 as an example:


PCM-only channels.

The new sound system can now play PCM samples, it provides two channels called Direct Sound where it receives samples using a FIFO queue (implemented as a 16-byte buffer).

Samples are 8-bit and signed (encoded in values from -128 to 127). The default sampling rate is 32 kHz, although this depends on each game: since a higher rate means a larger size and more CPU cycles, not every game will spend the same amount of resources to feed the audio chip.

DMA is essential to avoid clogging CPU cycles. Timers are also available to keep in sync with the queue.


PSG-only channels.

While the Game Boy subsystem won’t share its CPU, it does give out access to its PSG. For compatibility reasons, this is the same design found on the original Game Boy. I’ve previously written this article that goes into detail about each channel in particular.

The majority of GBA games used it for accompaniment or effects. Later ones will optimise their music for PCM and leave the PSG unused.



Finally, everything is automatically mixed and output through the speaker/headphone jack.

Even though the GBA has just two PCM channels, some games can magically play more than two concurrent samples. How is this possible? Well, while only having two channels may seem a bit weak on paper, the main CPU can use some of its cycles to provide both audio sequencing and mixing [24] (that should give you an idea of how powerful the ARM7 is!). Furthermore, in the ‘Operating System’ section, you’ll find out that the BIOS ROM included an audio sequencer!

Best of both worlds

Some games took the PCM-PSG duality further and ‘alternated’ the leading chip depending on the context.

In this game (Mother 3), the player can enter two different rooms, one relatively normal and the other with a nostalgic setting. Depending on the room the character is in, the same score will sound modern-ish or 8bit-ish.

Normal room, only uses PCM.
Nostalgic room, PSG leads the tune.

Operating System

ARM7’s reset vector is at 0x00000000, which points to a 16 KB BIOS ROM. That means the Game Boy Advance first boots from the BIOS, which in turn shows the iconic splash screen and then decides whether to load the game or not.

That ROM also stores software routines that games may call to simplify certain operations and reduce cartridge size [25]. These include:

The BIOS is connected through a 32-bit bus and it’s implemented using a combination of Arm and Thumb instructions, though the latter is the most prominent.

Also, remember that all of this will only run on the ARM7. In other words, there isn’t any hardware acceleration available to speed up these operations. Hence, Nintendo provided all of this functionality through software.


Programming for the GBA shared some methodologies with the Super Nintendo but also inherited all the advancements of the early 2000s: Standardised high-level languages, reliable compilers, debuggable RISC CPUs, non-proprietary workstations for development, comparatively better documentation and… Internet access!

GBA programs are mostly written in C with performance-critical sections in assembly (ARM and Thumb) to save cycles. Nintendo supplied an SDK with libraries and compilers.

Games are distributed in a new proprietary cartridge format, it’s still called Game Pak but features a smaller design.

Accessing cartridge data

While the ARM7 has a 32-bit address bus, there are only 24 address lines connected to the cartridge. This means, in theory, that up to 16 MB can be accessed on the cartridge without needing a mapper. However, the memory map shows that 32 MB of cartridge data are accessible. So, what’s happening here? The truth is, the Gamepak uses 25-bit addresses (which explains that 32 MB block) but its bottommost bit is fixed at zero. Thus, the only 24 remaining bits are set. This is how Game Pak addressing works.

Now, does this mean that data located at odd addresses (with its least significant bit at ‘1’) will be inaccessible? No, because the data bus is 16-bit: For every transfer, the CPU/DMA will fetch the located byte plus the next one, enabling it to read both even and odd addresses. As you can see, this is just another work of engineering that makes full use of hardware capabilities while reducing costs.

Cartridge RAM space

To hold saves, Game Paks could either include [26]:


The same Game Boy Link socket is included to provide multi-playing capabilities. Though there’s no IR sensor anymore, for some reason (maybe too unreliable for large transfers).

Additionally, the GBA’s BIOS implemented a special feature internally known as Multi-boot: Another console (either GBA or GameCube) can send a functional game to the receiver’s EWRAM and then, the latter would boot from there (instead of fetching from the Game Pak).

Anti-Piracy & Homebrew

In general terms, the usage of proprietary cartridges was a big barrier compared to the constant cat-and-mouse game that other console manufacturers had to battle while using the CD-ROM.

To combat against bootleg cartridges (unauthorised reproductions), the GBA’s BIOS incorporated the same boot checks found in the original Game Boy.


As solid-state storage became more affordable, a new type of cartridge appeared on the market. Flashcarts looked like ordinary Game Paks but had the addition of a re-writable memory or a card slot. This enabled users to play game ROM files within the console. The concept is not new actually, developers have internally used similar tools to test their games on a real console (and manufacturers provided the hardware to enable this).

Earlier solutions included a burnable NOR Flash memory (up to 32 MB) and some battery-backed SRAM. To upload binaries to the cartridge, the cart shipped with a Link-to-USB cable that was used with a GBA and a PC running Windows XP. With the use of proprietary flasher software and drivers, the computer uploaded a multi-boot program to the GBA, which in turn was used to transfer a game binary from the PC to the Flashcart (inserted in the GBA). Overall, the whole task of uploading a game was deemed too sluggish. Later Flashcarts (like the ‘EZ-Flash’) offered larger storage and the ability to be programmed without requiring the GBA as an intermediate [27]. The last ones relied on removable storage (SD, MiniSD, MicroSD or whatever).

Commercial availability of these cards proved to be a grey legal area: Nintendo condemned its usage due to enabling piracy, whereas some users defended that it was the only method for running Homebrew (programs made outside game studios and consequently without the approval of Nintendo). Nintendo’s argument was backed by the fact flashers like the EZ-Writer assisted users in patching game ROMs so they could run in EZ-Flash carts without issues. After Nintendo’s legal attempts, these cartridges were banned in some countries (like the UK). Nonetheless, they persisted worldwide.

That’s all folks

My GBA and a couple of games.
Too bad it doesn’t have a backlight!


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Sources / Keep Reading






Operating System



It’s always nice to keep a record of changes. For a complete report, you can check the commit log. Alternatively, here’s a simplified list: