I picked up a 3DS XL on Black Friday this year, and upon looking through the eShop, I found myself attracted to the Virtual Console section.† I soon purchased Super Mario Land 2 on sale, and then the original Shantae at its full price of $5.† But I noticed one glaring omission: there are no Game Boy Advance games to be seen.† In investigating why this is, I couldn't find a straight answer anywhere, so I put together the pieces of the puzzle myself.† I thought I would share what I found.
It's common knowledge that Nintendo gave several GBA games for free to 3DS early adopters as part of its "3DS Ambassadors" program, and stated that they had no plans to release them on the eShop.† Many people since have lamented this decision and wondered why this is.† Nintendo never made an official response, but there's enough information to figure out why.
People who received the GBA games from the Ambassadors program have noted that the games don't go into sleep mode when the console is closed, and don't have save states or the other nice features that are available for Game Boy and Game Boy Color games on the 3DS.† Wait, that sounds familiar.† What other device played GBA games without support for sleep mode or save states?
The 3DS has native backwards compatibility with the DS, which is achieved not by emulation but by hardware compatibility, the same way that Nintendo always does it: the 3DS's two processors are compatible on an instruction set level with the DS's two processors.† Likewise, the DS achieved hardware compatibility with the GBA by having one of its two processors have the exact same ARM7TDMI architecture as the GBA's.† See what's happening here?† The 3DS essentially has a Game Boy Advance inside of it even though it doesn't have a GBA cartridge slot.† Those games from the Ambassadors program are missing the standard Virtual Console emulator features because they're not being emulated at all!
This leads us to the main problem: Nintendo hasn't developed an emulator for the Game Boy Advance. If you're like me, you might think of the Game Boy Player add-on for the GameCube, but it turns out that the Game Boy Player also had the hardware of a Game Boy Advance inside of it and didn't use software emulation.† And although the native hardware solution for GBA on 3DS might suffice for games that Nintendo gives away for free, it doesn't meet their quality standards for products that they actually sell.
This will probably change in the future.† Nintendo announced earlier this year that Game Boy Advance games will eventually be coming to Virtual Console on Wii U, presumably since they're struggling to sell that console while the 3DS is doing fine.† It seems likely that the emulator they are developing will eventually find its way to 3DS as well, so I wouldn't be surprised if Nintendo announces it in the next year or two.