2019-11-13

GBA IPS

There’s been an explosion in the variety of screens available for retro handhelds. Here’s a handful of the most interesting:

The FunnyPlaying IPS screen for the GBA was top of my list to try out. Fitting the screen is supposedly trickier than the 101 mod that I managed to screw up so I decided that this time I’d get a premodded console.

I have a few sources for GBA hardware:

  • RetroModding (expensive but reliable)
  • God of Gaming (cheaper and, for me at least, reliable)
  • eBay (cheaper still but you takes your chances)
  • AliExpress (really cheap but you takes your chances and it takes a month to ship from China)

RetroModding currently charge almost 50% more than God of Gaming for an IPS GBA. Both use the improved second version of the IPS adapter cable that fixes the diagonal screen tearing problem experienced by the first. On eBay and AliExpress it’s hard to tell which version of the adapter cable the modder used. I didn’t want to end up with a v1 by mistake so I procrastinated until God of Gaming had a Halloween sale.

It’s a beautiful screen. I’d include a photo but they really don’t do it justice. As you’d expect from a modern screen, the physical pixels in the display are too small to be individually discernable. It has four times the pixel density of the 101 screen yet it has almost the same physical dimensions. It upscales the GBA’s output at an exact 4:1 ratio so that the image isn’t stretched or distorted. The screen is bright and vibrant, and it is evenly lit across its entire surface. I haven’t noticed any of the ghosting and interlacing that plague the 101 screen. Now that 101 screens are becoming scarcer and more expensive, the IPS screen is a cheaper alternative.

Nothing is perfect, especially when modifying old consoles with new parts, and the IPS screen is no exception.

Most significantly, the screen drops a frame every 1.5s or so. I’d guess that this is the price paid in order to eliminate the tearing that affected v1 of the adapter cable. I’d further guess that the root cause is a mismatch between the refresh rates of the console and the screen. It isn’t terribly noticeable in games like Mario World that don’t scroll smoothly, but in horizontally-scrolling areas in the Castlevania games it is painfully obvious.

Secondly, the IPS screen causes the already noisy GBA audio hardware to buzz more loudly than the 101 screen. It’s possible that this is an issue solely with my console; it’s hard to tell exactly where the fault lies with modified and refurbished equipment.

Thirdly, the crispness of the screen makes it very easy to see the pixels in the upscaled image that the GBA is pushing to the screen. If you’ve ever seen an SD UI running on an HD laptop screen you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. It exposes the low resolution of GBA games as effectively as the aging tech in the 101 screen hides it. Sometimes the crisp image can accentuate a game’s graphics, but it can also ruin tricks like dithering.

Lastly - and only allegedly, as I haven’t tested this out for myself yet - the IPS screen has higher power requirements than the 101 screen and reduces battery life.

Which would I choose? The IPS screen is clearly superior in terms of price, brightness, resolution, and definition, but the jarring frame drop problem is hard to overlook. Nintendo shipped the original GBA with a screen that was mostly impossible to see, but I doubt even they would have used a screen that dropped frames.

Belated edit: The screen is a knock-off. The official Funny Playing screens don’t have the frame drop problem.

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.