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Game Boy Refurb

If you’ll indulge a rare non-work related post (though it is about technology and I did learn a lot, tenuous I know), I recently refurbished a Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP as a little lockdown project.

The whole Covid / lockdown situation hit me pretty hard back in March and April when it began, as I lost pretty much all of my hobbies – gigging, karate, cinema, travels – and then one by one everything fun I had booked in throughout the year, from a big once in a decade holiday, to new tattoo appointments, were all cancelled. Still, I am safe and well, my job is as secure as one can be in this age, and my loved ones are all pretty safe, so overall I’m not doing too bad and I pulled myself together. One of the hobbies which has grown to fill the void has been gaming, especially retro gaming, and my partner and I stumbled into a YouTube hole of people refurbishing Game Boys (this one by Odd Tinkering was the start!) So I thought I would have a little crack at that.

I chose the Advance SP because I wanted one system that would play all Game Boy games, plus I like small things. I was also hoping that the lighted display would be good, though I was mistaken on that. The starting point was a beat-up but functioning unit from eBay that I took apart, cleaned up all of the electronics with isopropyl alcohol, and then put back together in a new shell along with a new battery. I did make things somewhat complicated by deciding on a two-colour design with echoes of the original Game Boy and NES, which meant that I actually had to buy two new shells and, separately, two sets of button to get the red and black. But everything worked! And it was beautiful, until I turned it on and had to deal with the reality of that screen…

The model I purchased was the AGS-001 with a front-lit screen. There is a later model with a backlit screen, the AGS-101, but this only had a limited release in Europe and they go for about 100 quid on eBay, which was more than I wanted to spend (lol). Now, I had a Game Boy, Game Boy Colour, and the original Advance back in the day, and none of those had lighting of any kind, and I don’t recall being particularly unhappy with any of them. But how time and technology move on. That front lit screen is just absolutely unacceptable today. Pale, washed-out, terrible contrast. I wonder at how young Sonya coped!? Furthermore, there were a few blemishes on the screen, micro-scratches and dust motes that had gotten in between laters. So my refurb project ended up having a second, considerably more expensive phase – adding a modern IPS screen.

Replacing screens with IPS panels, or adding a backlight to the original DMG and Pocket models is very common in the community, but it does require a bit more work and expense. First of all the panels are typically about £60-70, then you need to make some hacks to the inside of the new plastic shells to make room for the larger components, and finally there is often some soldering work required too. In the case of the Advance SP, this is optional to add a brightness control to the panel, but of course that would be very nice. These are all things I didn’t want to do, least of all because I haven’t soldered anything since high school. Luckily for me, my most wonderful partner not only has mad soldering skillz, but a Dremel that made modding the shell so much easier. Once installed and reassembled for the second time it was gorgeous. The final step was adding a dodgy flash cart which lets me load any and all ROMS my heart desires – legally obtained of course, *cough, cough*. I was worried about battery life – that IPS and flash cart are big power draws, but I have stress tested it and got about 5 hours of life which is comparable to my 3DS.

And finally, my eBay purchase came with four games that I didn’t really care about, except for the mysterious Pokemon Green cartridge, a game that wasn’t released outside of Japan. A rare import? A dodgy cart? I was curious, but that along with two of the other four games didn’t work upon arrival, so it was back out with the screwdrivers and the trusty bottle of IPA. A little bit of scrubbing later and all of the carts came back to life. The inside of that Pokemon Green cartridge was a mess, cheaply put together and with no Nintendo or official branding anywhere, so definitely a fake. Playing the game revealed it to be a ROM dump of Pokemon Blue, with the word ‘blue’ on the title screen replaced with ‘green’. Nevertheless, it works. A very successful wee project all in all, even though it did end up being a tad pricey!

A shoutout to RetroSix and ZedLabz who between them supplied all of the new bits and bobs I needed, I can highly recommend them both.

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