2017-05-24

Fake DS Lite

I had some problems with devKitARM recently that broke Chuckie Egg and Hanky Alien. Thinking that the problem might be related to some DSi-specific code that got added to libnds, I decided to try out the games on my DS Lite. Unfortunately, the console no longer recognized DS carts. No amount of fiddling would get it to read either of the two carts I tested.

Nuts.

I’d heard that AliExpress - purveyor of fine knock-off Chinese electronics like the GB Boy Colour - had a selection of fake DS Lites on offer, so I went digging. I eventually settled on a cobalt blue DS Lite for the very reasonable price of $40. Given that an original Nintendo console would have cost more than double that back in the day, and given that it’s difficult to find an original, new DS Lite for less than ten times that, it seemed like a chance worth taking.

Here’s what arrived:

Fake DS Lite

Let’s start with the bad first. Side by side with a real DS, the shell is obviously not original. The top case is slightly larger than it should be and bulges outwards slightly along the edge where the clamshell opens. The square black rubber pads that are dotted around the upper screen are fitted imprecisely. The plastic feels cheap, especially when compared to the beautifully glossy Nintendo device. The A, B, X and Y buttons are horribly mushy, and the Start and Select buttons are too small for the holes that they sit in. The cover over the top screen is fitted incorrectly, allowing light from the screen to bleed through its top edge. The screens themselves are set deeper into the casing than on the original. The DS cartridge slot makes a series of nasty griding sounds when a cartridge is inserted, and the cover over the GBA slot is looser than on the original handheld.

In short, the casing is cheap and poorly assembled. But it’s close enough.

Now the good. My original DS Lite came from the factory with a dead pixel; a common problem. Cracked hinges were another, and the hinges on mine cracked not long after I bought it. The clone device doesn’t exhibit either problem (yet). Both screens are perfect and indistinguishable from the original. We’ll see how long the hinge lasts.

Functionally it appears identical to the Nintendo console. When you consider that the K1-GBA still isn’t a perfect clone of the GBA, and that this thing has a GBA embedded within it, that’s stunning. The only explanations that make any sense are that this clone is from a DS factory secretly making extra devices on the side, or that someone stole and replicated the PCBs like the Everdrive clones, or that it’s assembled from spare OEM parts and a third-party case.

It even comes with a box (missing the serial number, of course), manual, soft case and screen protectors.

I haven’t really tried the stylus yet. It’s possible that the touchscreen is terrible. The screen’s texture feels different to the original, though that could just be because it’s new. I haven’t tried the charger yet as the battery is fully charged. The combination of a knock-off charger and a knock-off battery is a little concerning. Other than that, it looks to be a good alternative to either buying a second-hand DS Lite (and possibly ending up with a device that was mistreated) or paying a crazy amount for a new official device.

Oh, and now that I have a second DS Lite, my original console has started recognizing carts again.

2016-01-13

Collecting GameBoys

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:

K1-GBA

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. They refurbish second-hand handhelds using 3rd-party replacement cases, screen lenses, buttons and button mats to make them look and feel like new:

Monster Arcade GBC

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.

Original GBC

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:

Monster Arcade GBA

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. 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:

GameboyMods GB

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:

Original GB

The backlight in the DMG was such a vast improvement over the original that I was inspired to get a frontlit GBC from 8bitAesthetics:

8bitAesthetics GBC

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:

GB Boy Colour

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:

customers1stgaming GBA

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.