Review by Richo Rosai

Reviewed: 10/20/03

As Small as a Box of Pocky, as Light as a Comic Book You Can't Read, and Actually Worth Giving a Damn About

There exist in the gaming world so many obscure and worthless objects of pretentious otaku twerp adoration that many gamers feel inclined to form a negative opinion of anything that they are told they are stupid for not knowing about. However, I sorely regret having ignored the Game Park 32 for as long as I did. Since finally doing some research on it and obtaining one of my own, GP32 has become my most used game console, and perhaps my most cherished one.

The Game Park 32 is a 32-bit handheld gaming console from a Korean company of the same name. Almost two years after its original release, it has a world-wide user base of about one hundred thousand. Furthermore, as it is not marketed in any other country than Korea, the only games available for it are Korean games, and a scant few at that.

Obscure? Check. Worthless? Well, it would seem so, but these facts belie the system's true potential. As a traditional gaming console, the GP32 has little to offer even if you do know Korean. But the little difference that has given this tiny white plastic box the cult following that it has is the fact that its development tools are open source. This means that anyone can make a game or other program for the GP32 and sell or distribute it as they please. What this all amounts to is something that shouldn't be too surprising: emulators, and lots of them.

The Physical Specs

The GP32 is a small, rectangular handheld game system very similar in design to the Game Boy Advance. On the left side of the generously large 3.5'' LCD screen sits the directional stick (which actually plays like a hybrid pad/stick), and on the other side the hard plastic 'A' and 'B' buttons are placed closely enough to each other that they can be pushed simultaneously comfortably, but not so close that a fat thumb would hit either one by mistake. Below these are two decidedly soft silicon buttons, 'START' and 'SELECT'. Two large stereo speakers rest under the controls. The obligatory shoulder buttons are present as well, with large Braille-like bumps to help maintain grip. Also up on the ''neck'' are the power switch and USB-out plug. The thin bottom of the console has three inputs (DC3V power adapter, EXT. peripheral input, and a headphone jack), as well as the volume control. A wafer-thin Smart Media card (most often used in digital cameras) slides in the back to serve as the game media, and below that is a panel that opens to reveal 2 AA batteries (once you put them in, that is).

In terms of comfort, the GP32 proves itself worthy as more than a specialized Pocket PC by providing a transparent, painless, and ergonomic control layout. Even hours of play won't cause most hands any discomfort, which can't be said for some mainstream handhelds. The only complaint is that the average Western male's index fingers might be a little long for the shoulder buttons, but after a few minutes of play most should have a comfortable hold figured out.

Inside this case is the most powerful handheld gaming console currently available (although another more expensive one may loom).

At the heart is a 32-bit RISC CPU (ARM9). The CPU can be under- and over-clocked easily, to anywhere from 40mhz to 166mhz, and many programs do it for you. However, anything above 133mhz is considered unwise.

There are 8 megabytes of synchronized RAM and 512k of system ROM.

The stereo sound is 16 bit, at 44.1khz and with midi support.

The 3.5'' screen has a 320 X 240 pixel resolution (which allows it to display most ports and emulators in their native resolutions, eliminating the ugly effects of down-sizing), and an optional front-light comes built into it. The screen is plastic and highly sensitive to permanent scratches, which is a big downer because of the work involved in trying to protect your investment interfering with the GP32's portability.

The unit reads data from Smart Media cards at 3.3v, and connects to a PC via USB to upload files to them. The most common Smart Media cards on the market to day hold from 32 to 128 megabytes, a considerable amount of data for a handheld system like the GP32. With a peripheral, the system
also supports 4-player multiplayer through an RF signal.

Finally, the unit runs on a pair of AA batteries. With the CPU under-clocked, the front light off, and using headphones, the GP32 is said to last up to 12 hours between rechargings. However, at 133mhz or higher, and with the front light activated and the speakers turned up, I've seen the two batteries last as few as six. Still, this is very competitive power efficiency.

The Software

Although the software library, the single most important factor in determining the worth of any console, is pitifully small in terms of official games, factoring in the emulators takes the number from the dozens into the thousands. Presently the NES, Sega Master System and Game Gear, the PC Engine, and many other classic systems run at full speed with sound on the Game Park 32, with many other desirable yet imperfect emulators making constant progress (the SNES, for example). Accessing all of these delightful emulators is as simple as plugging in your GP32 and uploading the programs onto a Smart Media Card (of course, you need ROM images for the games you want to play).

In addition to emulation, however, there are many other ways to put your GP32 to use. Following are descriptions of a few of the emulators and programs you'll find for the GP32.

The 'Real' Games

There are some fun games ranging from beat-em-ups to story-driven RPGs available for the Game Park 32, but you'd have to know Korean to get much out of most of them. That alone makes them cautious purchases at best, unless of course you can read Korean.

DooM:

The classic FPS was naturally one of the first things to be ported to the Game Park when it was released. The current version runs at full speed with stereo sound. Saving/loading, warping, pwad loading, and over-/under-clocking are also implemented. Doom alone is reason enough for some people to want a GP32. About the only thing missing is RF multi-player support...

Game Boy (Color):

Decent, but no emulator has quite as much support or stability as one would like. It should be a matter of time, however.

GP Cinema:

The only software you really don't have a choice but to pay for (the freeware competition is lousy), GP Cinema justifies its price by pumping 10+ frames per second of Divx encoded video with sound out of the little GP32 that could. Cartoons (The Simpsons, anyone?) work especially well with it, due to the low frame- and bit-rates. Well worth the eight dollars it costs.

MP3 playback:

An MP3 player is included in the system bios, so you can turn your GP32 into an MP3 player right out of the box.

NES:

NES emulation is for many the most important consideration in the GP32 scene. Now near-perfect, the best of the NES emulators can run at full speed with sound, and things should only get better in the months to come. The huge library of games available for the NES means you'll practically never run out of things to play.

PC Engine:

This overlooked console has gotten unusually fair treatment on the GP32. Even though the PCE was ahead of the NES technologically, the premier PC Engine emulator runs even better than the NES ones with full sound and good support. Saving has yet to be implemented, but there's tons of fun to be had with pop-and-play classics like Bonk and obscure Japanese weirdies like Devil Crush.

Sega Master System/Game Gear:

Another great emulation choice for an underrated system. Gems like Sonic 1 and 2, Ninja Gaiden and Golden Axe are waiting to help you pass your time. The ''SMS32'' has great speed and sound, but not all games work perfectly.

SNES and Sega Genesis

The two systems that people probably want emulated the most are unfortunately not yet emulated at a playable level (at least not with sound). Progress is being made, however, and hopefully we'll soon have Donkey Kong Country to play on long bus rides.

OS, utilities, etc.:

There is a tiny Windows-esque UI available called Wind-ups that includes an address book, a file browser, a gif viewer, and a text editor. JPEG viewers, file managers, and even an RPG engine are all available on the 'net as well. Suffice it to say that tweakers will be pleased.

The Bottom Line

The GP32 is currently available through Asian specialty game import companies for about 150USD, or 210 for the front-lit version. Whether or not it's worth the price depends on what kind of gamer you are and how often you find yourself free-handed and bored. For anyone who works at night, for example, the GP32 can turn wall-staring into great fun in the form of catching up with classic games. On the other hand, if you don't need such a complex portable or are not into emulation, it's certainly not for you.

All things said, the GamePark32 is just a mid-level Pocket PC with a smaller development community, perhaps soon to be outdone specs-wise. But the comfort and true portability it provides makes it perfect for serious gaming on the go. There's just no better way to fit such a sheer number of games into your pocket than the Game Park 32. And at the risk of sounding a little twerp-ish, it can make you feel like the hardcore-est nerd on the block having something so handy that the vast majority of people have never even heard of.

=9=

[The score of '9' represents my personal affinity for the Game Park 32. The review is meant to stand on its own as an informative exposition, and after reading it you may well interpret it as a '5'.]

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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