In addition to making new homebrew for the DS, I’ve been indulging my passion for all things handheld and retro by amassing a collection of original, refurbished, modded and cloned GameBoys.
I started out with a K1-GBA. This is a GameBoy Advance hardware clone (rather than a software emulation like most GBA knockoffs) that purports to be an almost exact replica:
It’s a neat little handheld but the buttons are a little stiff and unresponsive, the screen is nothing like the GBA’s (wrong resolution so everything is upscaled) and the battery life isn’t great. On the other hand, it comes with a flash cart (that only works on this device) and the screen is backlit, so it represents a considerable improvement over Nintendo’s own hardware. I’ve found that I can’t use it for very long because the combination of the diminutive SP design and the unresponsive buttons makes my hands ache.
Wanting something a little bit more official, but not something whose condition reflected its age, I got hold of a GameBoy Color from
Monster Arcade (edit: now defunct). They refurbish second-hand handhelds using 3rd-party replacement cases, screen lenses, buttons and button mats to make them look and feel like new:
For comparison, here’s the GBC I bought back when they were first released. Note that it is still in its original box from when I bought it back in the late 1990s; this will be important later.
The refurbished model is pretty much indistinguishable from the original. The plastic doesn’t have quite the same feel and the buttons are a little spongier, but unless you play the two side-by-side you’d never know there was any difference (now that I’m looking at the two together, though, it’s obvious that the logo on the refurb’s screen lens is spaced all wrong). It’s close enough that I bought one of their GBAs soon after:
I don’t know how close this GBA is to an original, as I have temporarily mislaid mine. However, the controls are a little spongier than the spongy controls on the refurbished GBC.
At this point, let’s talk about why my GBC (and indeed my original GBA) are still in mint condition in their original boxes: those dreadful, dreadful screens. For whatever reason - battery life, weight, heat, cost - Nintendo decided against frontlights and backlights in the GBC and original GBA and used reflective screens instead. It’s hard to tell from the images here, but under anything but ideal lighting conditions those screens are impossible to see. My GBC and GBA are still in mint condition because they’re pretty much unusable.
Clearly unlit handhelds were a bad idea, so I turned to GameboyMods (edit: now Deadpan Robot). They provide much the same products as Monster Arcade - second-hand hardware refurbished with new parts - except that they only sell original GameBoys, and they fit them with a range of modifications: backlights in a range of colors, bivert mods (in which the display is inverted electronically, and then inverted again via a polarizing filter, in order to provide better contrast when lit), and fixes to the sound hardware. This is mine:
I wanted the original lens but ended up with something different, unfortunately, but the light is fantastic. I haven’t noticed any drop in battery life from my original GameBoy (DMG) and it’s usable in any lighting conditions. The polarizing filter over the screen has a habit of wrinkling in one corner when the unit warms up, but otherwise it’s a great handheld.
For comparison purposes, this is my original DMG:
The backlight in the DMG was such a vast improvement over the original that I was inspired to get a frontlit GBC from 8bitAesthetics:
Take a GBC from Monster Arcade, paint it to look like a DMG and stick a frontlight in it and you’ve got one of these. There’s a whole subculture of GameBoy modders creating custom handhelds like this.
I saw it on their website and couldn’t resist it, but it has a few flaws. I’m a little concerned about how resilient the paint is (there’s already a patch by the link port that’s flaked off and I haven’t done much more with it than switch it on and check that it works); it smells weird due to the paint; and the frontlight washes out the screen and really highlights its low pixel density. It’s nice to have a GBC with a visible screen, and this is definitely the most unique GameBoy in my collection, but it’s probably the one I like least. Perhaps I’m just a Nintendo purist.
I ended up with one of these after seeing it on a website filled with dodgy Chinese console clones:
This is a “GB Boy Colour”, or an imperfect GBC clone. It’s imperfect in just about every way. The d-pad is hideous, the buttons are big and chunky, the screen’s viewing angle is abysmal and it’s the wrong shape, the cartridge port is stiff, the power LED is in exactly the wrong place, the sound is all wrong and the thing that looks like the IR sensor is really just a piece of colored plastic, but it only costs $20 and the screen is backlit. Clearly a vast improvement over an original Nintendo console.
The last GameBoy I bought was this from customers1stgaming on eBay:
Now this one is gorgeous. Take a refurbished GBA like those produced by Monster Arcade, replace the screen with one taken from an AGS-101 (backlit GBA-SP) and add a glass screen lens. Again, slightly spongy controls, but the screen is incredible. Unlike the SP that was sacrificed in its creation, it wasn’t designed for tiny child hands. This is the console Nintendo should have released 25 years ago. There are plenty of these on eBay at the moment from numerous sellers, but as the mod kits have dried up it’s possible that backlit GBAs will become harder to get hold of.
Phew, that’s a lot of consoles. So which ones offer the most enjoyable handheld Nintendo experience? The backlit GBA is by far the best option: nicely refurbished with an amazing screen. The backlit DMG is a close runner-up: it retains the classic design but makes the screen visible, and the range of possible customizations make it easy to create something unique. Of the others, the K1’s screen is too dissimilar to the original, the GB Boy Colour is a distorted, nightmare GBC, and it’s impossible for me to recommend anything without a backlight having used the backlit versions. As for the frontlit GBC, it’s beautifully done but possibly more of an art piece than a practical gaming device.