Retro Hackers Are Building a Better Nintendo Game Boy

https://www.wired.com/story/nintendo-game-boy-hackers/

Fueled by nostalgia and longing for a simpler time, hardware tinkerers are injecting new life into the iconic handheld game console.

The Game Boy lived a long life. From its launch in 1989 until its discontinuation in 2008, Nintendo’s handheld gaming device sold hundreds of millions of units. It went through seven different design iterations, six of which were sold in the US. And because the system was propped up by Nintendo’s thousands-deep library of titles, the Game Boy remains one of the top-selling videogame consoles of all time.

But for a gang of modders and hackers on the internet, these machines aren’t something to be left in the past. Rather, these underpowered, inexpensive toys are canvases for creativity and experimentation. Groups of hackers who congregate on the r/Gameboy subreddit, on Discord, on Instagram, and across YouTube have been dragging Nintendo’s tiny, world-beating machine into the 2020s by creating a cottage industry of parts, custom components, and prebuilt modified Game Boys along the way.

Today’s Game Boy modding scene largely sprang up in response to Nintendo’s own conservative tendencies. Always intent on making its game systems affordable and efficient, the Kyoto, Japan-based company has a long history of keeping its consumer products technologically behind the curve in an effort to hold costs down. Nintendo engineer and Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi famously relied on a philosophy of “lateral thinking with withered technology.” In short, Yokoi preferred to find how far older, cheaper tech could be stretched to still provide hours of Pokémon-catching, Goomba-stomping fun.

One example of this mindset is the fact that for years, Nintendo outfitted Game Boys with non-illuminated screens. This meant that a copious amount of ambient light was required to see whatever you were playing. In response, accessory makers offered up all kinds of crazy add-ons, from booklight-like gadgets that shone light onto the screen to bulky screen magnifiers with bulbs and batteries in them. In many ways, the poor display quality of the Game Boy stunted the platform’s success by making it impossible to get your game on under dim or inconsistently lit conditions. This became a meme in the early 2000s, when the online comic Penny Arcade posted its take on the handheld’s biggest shortcoming.

After 14 years of craning our necks and clipping on light attachments, we got our first light-up Game Boy in 2003 when Nintendo released the Game Boy Advance SP. This clamshell gadget packed a front-lit screen at first, and in later revisions labeled AGS-101, the Game Boy’s first backlit LCD. It was a revelation.

So, of course, Nintendo modders got busy figuring out a way to get that backlit display into older models. This was the first transformational mod in the console’s history, since it modernized the older Game Boys in a way that made them more playable and, in essence, brought the aged tech back to life.

While the display inside the AGS-101 had shallow viewing angles and less-than-vivid colors, it was the best option for the modders to use; given the odd shape of the hole for the screen in the Game Boy’s plastic body, there were only a limited number of aftermarket screens that could be slotted into the device. And using adhesive films or optical glue to add a light to non-illuminated screens had proven to be hit-or-miss; one early company that sold such a kit called Afterburner netted either spectacular results or ugly outcomes, depending on the skill of the installer.

“I mean, it was nice for a while when the AGS-101 screens were nice and cheap, like 30 bucks or so,” says modder Makho, who goes by Admiral_Butter_Crust on Reddit. As an enthusiast, he’s tested and catalogued most commercially available Game Boy screen kits on his YouTube channel, keeping a notated and frequently updated document on Reddit. “I guess there was like a warehouse full of AGS-101 screens. Game Boy nerds bought them all, and stock ran out.”

So, it was the end of the road for the AGS-101 LCD. But where there’s a supply chain, there’s a way, and the Game Boy modding community got cracking on potential solutions. Realizing the screens they had been using were substandard and expensive, the modders were eager to experiment. “Let’s try putting some newer, better screens in there and see what happens,” said Makho.

Enter Ben Grimmett, who runs a boutique hardware shop called BennVenn that serves the Game Boy hacking community. Grimmett’s shop relied on the AGS-101 display for one of its products, a ribbon cable that adapted the display for use in the older Game Boy Color. The Game Boy Color installation “was complicated and required a fair degree of dexterity to modify the shells to accept an LCD almost as wide as the console itself,” Grimmett says. Modders needed to hack away at the plastic inside the Game Boy to fit the newer screen inside, and even then, it was a tight fit that required shaving every possible millimeter from the handheld’s circuit board.

“A few months into releasing the Game Boy Color mod, we noticed the prices of reproduction AGS-101 LCDs starting to climb and original AGS-101 consoles being destroyed for the LCD.” Through his suppliers in China, Grimmett found a color LCD screen that was the perfect shape for the older Game Boys with square screens. In order to make it work, he had to whip up an adapter cable to let the new display talk to the old ‘Boys, and he had to add a custom-programmed chip that got the new screen perfectly in sync with the console’s circuit board.

After fine-tuning the design, Ben sent an early kit of the mod, dubbed Freckle Shack, to YouTuber KyleAwsm to debut on his channel.

“This LCD is out of a Palm Centro 690 or something like that. So, like, a 2009 smartphone,” said Makho. These small TFT screens sell in bulk for a fraction of the cost of the ones sourced from the AGS-101 consoles.

For the Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket, and Game Boy Color, makers like BennVenn, Midwest Embedded, McWill, and a bunch of no-brand online sellers all came up with similar adapters and cables. The new wave of conversion kits all seem to feature the exact same surplus Palm Centro display. Some of the kits even can be fitted into a Game Boy without any cutting or gluing, making the procedure more accessible to gamers less inclined to take a Dremel tool to their beloved handheld.

Perhaps the best replacement Game Boy display available is from a company called FunnyPlaying. This high-resolution screen has fantastic color and contrast, and it gives anyone who can solder a few wires the option of adding brightness controls. Out of all the aftermarket display upgrades, Makho gives FunnyPlaying’s V2 kit the highest marks: “It’s pretty much perfect, as far as I can tell. It still could go a little farther on power consumption, but I don’t think there’s a good way around that. You gotta power the conversion hardware and the new screen as well.”

With this essential fix for the console’s Achilles’ heel out of the way, it makes sense that what’s left on any modder’s wish list are nice-to-haves, additions that let Game Boy enthusiasts customize the less-critical components. Kyle Capel, CEO of online store Hand Held Legend, stocks a wide variety of mods that can tweak a Game Boy’s exterior appearance or bestow it with new functionality. Want to add an internal battery that charges over USB? He’s got that. A rainbow of plastic shells and buttons in glow-in-the-dark, translucent, or neon hues? Yep. Custom-cut, scratch-resistant glass screen covers? He’s got those too.

“As kids we decked out our Game Boys with lights, screen protectors, battery packs,” Capel says. “Modding Game Boys today not only brings back some good memories, but expands upon the desires we had to make the experience even better. What we would have given to play games in the dark! Now we can play in full color with backlit screens, loud speakers, and modern rechargeable batteries.”

Boxy Pixel, a manufacturing house based in Michigan, will sell eager Game Boy modders metal cases that give the famously cheap Nintendo handheld a premium look and feel. “I design all my own components that are CNC machined from aluminum,” says Boxy Pixel founder Nick Rose. “I get most of my ideas for my designs from necessity of other modders.”

Others are getting their designs using more crafty methods. The resourcefulness of the Chinese manufacturing world often leads to a rapid dissemination of ideas—and sometimes involves outright intellectual property theft. Small makers trying to peddle their wares frequently find strikingly similar versions of their unique components being sold elsewhere at a discount by shifty and nimble overseas retailers. Even electronic components like Ben Grimmett’s screens can be copied almost exactly.

“Our first clone was found on Taobao,” says Grimmett, referring to the popular Chinese online marketplace. “It was identical right down to our name and website printed on it. Knowing another person or company spent the time to copy our work, reverse engineer our code—it was an honor, but it also made me feel a little nauseous,”

“Having said that, in the last few months or so we’ve seen some great innovation coming out of China. Copies of our screen kit that have in some ways improved upon our first versions made us evolve our design further to compete.” Grimmett’s latest screen upgrade, called Aioli, is his response to the copycats. This new kit, he says, should be almost as easy to install as his imitators’ wares, but will suck down less power and provide smooth frame rates.

The Game Boy platform itself has its limitations, just like any aging digital device. Old capacitors and fuses can burn out. Power switches can corrode and break. But between its flash-based game cartridges and a thick plastic construction that’s proven to be close to indestructible, the Game Boy is a born survivor. “Game Boys are extremely tough, and as such, most electronic components on the circuit boards can be fixed or replaced. They will be here for a while,” says Boxy Pixel’s Nick Rose.

And as long as Game Boys are still kicking around, the tinkerers will tinker. InsideGadgets, run by a hardware hacker who goes by the name Alex, hosts a Discord chat where aspiring Game Boy modders brainstorm and dissect the latest mods. He’s been in the scene for around a decade. The Game Boy was his first hack, and he’s been using the handhelds to make misfit electronic toys ever since.

Alex has come up with some wacky creations, like an adapter board with a display-out for a TV, a Game Boy with a big 7-inch display, and even a custom cartridge that turns a Game Boy into a Bluetooth controller for other systems. “I thought the Game Boy Advance was a nice handheld and that we should be using it as a controller for other things too,” he says. “After a couple of hours I had a working prototype.”

Despite its ancient chips, Alex says the Game Boy could eventually get a full internal revamp from the community. “If you wanted to, you could design a new board for all systems to have modern components and new features,” he says. “One of the users on our Discord is planning to do this with the Game Boy Advance.” With a new board designed to natively support features like USB or a high-res screen, the Game Boy could live on indefinitely.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the baked-in simplicity from Nintendo’s design philosophy is what gives the Game Boy line an audience in 2020. Even with impressive, cheap clones available—as well as successors like the $50 Sega Game Gear Micro and the $200 Analogue Pocket, a device with a high-res screen that’s compatible with multiple gaming systems—fans are adamant that only the real thing will do.

“No phone or box with a screen can replicate a genuine memory like those we have with our Game Boys,” says Kyle Capel from Hand Held Legend.

At its core, the quest to update the Game Boy is one fueled by nostalgia and a longing for a simpler time. In the Game Boy’s heyday, there were no software updates to download over Wi-Fi, games started up at once, and a fresh set of AAs was all you needed to keep playing all day.

“There is something simple and satisfying about plugging in a game cartridge, turning it on, and pushing some buttons,” says Boxy Pixel’s Nick Rose. “Game Boys take you back to a time when things were simple and technology could still cast a spell. On a practical level, these modifications are a form of upcycling. Each piece that is modified becomes useful again and won’t end up in a pile of rubbish. Unlike some antiques that hang on the wall, this one can be used and enjoyed.”

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