2019-03-14

GBA Modding

I had to try out the GBA backlight mod for myself. I’ve been slowly collecting the pieces necessary to perform the mod:

  • SNES-style reproduction GBA shell (eBay; $13);
  • Glass Famicom-style screen lens (RetroModding; $5);
  • GBA with a 40-pin motherboard ($30);
  • AGS-101 screen to 40-pin motherboard type “B” adapter cable (God of Gaming; $8);
  • AGS-101 screen (God of Gaming; $78);
  • 25 watt Weller soldering iron with a fine tip (Lowe’s; $20);
  • Precision X-acto knife (Home Depot; $4);
  • Electrical tape (Lowe’s; $4)
  • Tri-wing screwdriver (possibly Lik-Sang; I’ve had it for years)

I ordered the shell just over a year ago when the SNES design first appeared, and got the matching screen lens about 6 months ago. I found a cheap GBA at a local retro toy fair last month. The most expensive part was the screen; they were half the price last year. The rumor is that the screens are no longer being produced, pushing up the prices, but I wonder if Donald Golf’s trade war is contributing to the inflating cost.

The mod instructions are simple:

  • Disassemble GBA;
  • Cut away excess plastic from top of shell so that larger screen fits;
  • Connect the screen to the adapter cable;
  • Connect the adapter cable to the motherboard;
  • Solder additional wire from adapter cable to the motherboard;
  • Assemble GBA.

Cutting the shell to size was easy enough. Many sites recommend a Dremel instead of a X-acto knife, but I found that the plastic used in the reproduction shell was soft enough to make cutting through it fairly easy. At one point the knife snapped in half, pinging a razor-sharp chunk of blade across my desk, but fortunately the half-blade was better suited to slicing up the plastic than the pointed tip had been.

The first time I put the GBA together I didn’t bother soldering the wire. A few online guides suggest that this is optional if you don’t mind a dimmer display. Having used other modded GBAs I thought that the dim screen was disappointing, so I decided to open it back up and solder it. This was the part that concerned me: I don’t mind ruining a cheap reproduction shell, but I really didn’t want to damage a GBA motherboard. I haven’t done any soldering in years and never anything as fine as required here. Surprisingly this part of the mod also went smoothly and I got the wire soldered on my first attempt.

The electrical tape comes in handy in a few places:

  • Taping around the edges of the screen to eliminate light bleed;
  • Insulating the area where the cartridge slot pins poke through the back of the motherboard;
  • Insulating the soldered wire from other components around it.

With all of this done I loosely screwed the GBA together and gave it a try. It worked!

I screwed it together properly. It didn’t work.

I unscrewed it a little. It worked!

Hmm. If I squeezed the bottom of the GBA the screen switched off. Looking closely, it seemed that the screen was still working but the backlight was off. Time to unscrew it fully and figure out what’s going on.

Some diagnosis later - disassembling everything I’d just put together, including removing the soldered wire - I found that there was a tiny rip in the ribbon cable that connects the screen to the adapter. This cable is part of the screen and cannot be replaced. Any damage to the cable means the screen is dead. I have no idea where the rip came from, but now I needed a new screen. Remember that I said the screen was the most expensive component in the mod?

Nuts.

Another $78, another week, and finally a new screen arrived. In the meantime I’d re-soldered the adapter cable’s wire; of course it detached again whilst I was working on the GBA so I had to solder it a third time. Each solder was messier than the last, but I somehow avoided damaging the motherboard. This time there were no rips and I got the GBA assembled. I didn’t bother taping up the screen with electrical tape as I’d subsequently heard that it doesn’t look that great.

The last piece was the Famicom-style screen lens. The lens came with glue already in place. All I had to do was peel the backing off the lens, ensure the screen and lens were clean, and stick it down. After checking both surfaces and sticking the lens down I switched the GBA on to discover that there was now some sticky goop between the lens and the screen. I have no idea how that got there. One quick complete disassembly, clean and reassembly later and I had a fully modded GBA.

Lessons learned along the way:

  • The SNES shell is very gray, and I think a white shell might look better with the multicolor buttons and Famicom lens;
  • An X-acto knife is good enough to mod the shell, but beware breaking blades;
  • You absolutely must solder the adapter wire for the best display;
  • Soldering the wire isn’t as difficult as you’d think;
  • You’re not treating the screen’s ribbon cable carefully enough, even if you take into account this lesson;
  • The light bleed around the screen edges is annoying, but not annoying enough that I want to open it up again (RetroModding sell a “backlight bleeding protector” which might work better than electrical tape);
  • The tools to do the mod weren’t as expensive as I’d expected;
  • Screens and adapter cables can be ~20% cheaper on eBay and AliExpress if you don’t mind waiting for delivery from China;
  • You can probably buy a pre-modded GBA for around the price of the individual components;
  • You can definitely buy a pre-modded GBA for considerably less than the price of the individual components if you damage your first screen and have to buy another.

The most important lesson I learned was this:

  • I should stick to software.

Here’s the finished product:

GBA-101

2016-07-24

AGB-101

I need to stop collecting these.

AGB-101

The purple and black GBAs came from eBay, while the yellow version (it looks orange in the photo, but it’s really banana yellow) is from Retro Modding. Like GB modders Deadpan Robot (formerly Gameboy Mods), Retro Modding take used GBAs and refurbish them with a variety of third-party shells and enhancements.

I was very pleased with Retro Modding. In addition to providing great service and doing an excellent job of modifying the GBA - for considerably less than the current prices on eBay - they threw in a neat case and a bunch of stickers.

Aspiring backlit GBA owners should note that a triwing screwdriver may turn out to be an essential purchase. Two of these three handhelds have required adjustments to the voltage potentiometer inside the console in order to fix graphical glitches on the screen. The purple unit displayed flickering colors, whilst the yellow unit was noticably interlaced. There’s a video here that demonstrates where to insert a screwdriver if you don’t mind poking a hole in the sticker on the back of the device, but a triwing screwdriver will allow you to open it up and avoid the hole.

The approach that’s worked best for me is to make small adjustments of around a quarter-turn, testing out the console with each change. It’s a little laborious, as each test requires reassembling the console enough to be able to re-insert the cartridge and batteries, but I’ve seen numerous (unsubstantiated) reports that turning it too far can damage the screen. The purple unit was particularly troublesome to get right because it would work well for a day or so before the flickering re-appeared.

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 (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:

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 (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:

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.