Often, the Game Boy Advance version of a multiplatform game bears only a passing resemblance to its console-based counterparts. In order to cram a console game onto the GBA, the development team has to simplify the gameplay, remove features, and put together a weak 3D graphics engine that pushes the hardware to its limits. That's exactly what happened with Need for Speed Most Wanted. It's a competent racing game compared to everything else on the GBA, but this pocket-sized iteration of EA's marquee title is missing much of what made the console versions interesting.
Unlike the console Most Wanted games, which assail the senses with flashy menus, comedic video clips, and free-roaming objectives, the GBA version is set up simply as a series of events that are organized under quickplay and career modes. The career mode is sufficiently drawn out. It organizes 75 different events and 15 individual rival showdowns into 15 chapters. Completing events earns you respect and cash, which can be used to purchase additional licensed cars and dozens of different performance and appearance upgrades for your new rides. Race events are the typical circuit, time attack, and point-to-point competitions that you'll find in any other racing game, although Most Wanted does include one unique event, called "barricade," where you have to try to break through police road blocks without slamming into their cruisers and SWAT vans.
Gameplay is straightforward and mostly without frills. The point of most races is to outrun the other three competitors and take first place. The artificial intelligence puts up a challenge, but not unfairly so. Each course has one or two shortcuts. Taking them can give you a serious lead. There are commuter traffic vehicles out on the road to watch out for. Hitting them head-on will send your car into a spin, but rear-enders and sideswipes will only jostle your car and slow you down. For the most part, the physics and handling are good. Cars are weighty, the steering is responsive, and bumps and crashes are about what you'd expect from an arcade-style racing game. Incredibly, you can't collect nitrous or activate a slow-motion camera in the GBA version. Those aspects, while not integral to gameplay, did give the console game some of its unique flavor. The racing is still solid and enjoyable despite those omissions.
One thing EA's marketing juggernaut hyped about Most Wanted is the inclusion of police vehicles. Cops play a major role in the console game. They're all over the place--on the street and in the air. In the GBA version, they're hardly noticeable. You have to bump into numerous commuter vehicles just to grab the law's attention, and, after all that effort, your reward is a single police cruiser that won't try very hard to stop you. Even if it succeeds, there's no bust in the GBA version. Once stopped, you can simply accelerate again to get moving. Suffice to say, the inclusion of the police in the GBA version of Most Wanted is mainly an afterthought.
Much more effort clearly was spent on the game's visuals, specifically the 3D texture-mapping engine that generates the vehicles and course environments. The results aren't always pretty, but, considering the GBA was never designed to do 3D, it's actually rather impressive what the development team was able to squeeze out of the hardware. The engine maintains a smooth frame rate while handling four competitor cars, the course, and any number of bystander vehicles. Car models are excellent. The metallic paint jobs absolutely pop, and any changes you make to a car's paint scheme, rims, or body kit are visible out on the course. Not so excellent are the courses themselves. The pixelated buildings and trees look OK in the straightaways, but in curves and corners, everything becomes so blocky and distorted that it's often impossible to judge when another corner or sharp turn is coming up. Things get easier once you learn the course layouts, but there's no denying that, at least occasionally, the environments look ugly.
The audio, by contrast, is barely worth mentioning. Instead of using licensed music, the game's soundtrack consists entirely of generic techno and rock instrumentals that continually loop. All of the various engine, skid, and revving noises are appropriate, although car engines tend to sound more like lawn mowers than 500 horsepower V-10s.
When you add everything up, it turns out that Need for Speed Most Wanted on the GBA is a decent racing game--generic and formulaic, but decent. It isn't a good replica of the console Most Wanted game, however, since most of what made the console game interesting was removed from the GBA version.