Photo: GameBoyZero (Sudomod)
The Game Boy is so iconic it's transcended the limitations of its hardware to become something more than just an old handheld for playing old video games. Chiptune artists make music with Game Boys. Clothing manufacturers plaster them onto t-shirts and hoodies.
More eccentric designers have inserted them into the soles of platform shoes. And then there are Game Boy modders, artists and tinkerers who have pushed Nintendo's 1989 creation beyond its former constraints.
Adventurous modders have hacked the design, offering Game Boys running emulators with extra buttons and docks for GBA cartridges. They share the beloved, brick-like form factor of their predecessors but not much else.
There are tens of thousands of people in the Game Boy modding scene, according to the people in it with whom I spoke.Warner Skoch is one of them. He studied computer science in college but always had a soft spot for hardware.
"That, combined with my love for handheld gaming, and here I am," he said in an email to Kotaku. He helps run the site Sudomod, which serves as a blog, wiki and marketplace for the scene. About two years ago he uploaded a video to YouTube featuring an original Game Boy with a small Raspberry Pi computer, larger screen, and a handful more buttons.
As a result it could play not only Game Boy games but also newer stuff from the N64 and PS1-eras, two consoles whose games weren't intended to be portable.
"It kind of blew up," Skoch said, clarifying that he was referring to the video, not the Game Boy. "The amount of questions about it that I was getting led me to set up a community for people into that sort of thing, Since then we've grown quite a bit: we're up to about 7500 members from all over the world. We've got some very talented and smart people on there making custom parts custom Game Boy builds and other consoles (even some entirely custom handhelds). It's really been awesome to be a part of."
In the late 2000s, the modders often cobbled together rebuilt and retrofitted Game Boys out of parts harvested from the original hardware, Skoch explained. Enthusiasts worked with button boards, power switches, and volume wheels. More recently, as Game Boy modding became more popular thanks to popularizers like JoeTeach and others, the hobby expanded and grew more experimental with its creations.
New supply chains and manufacturers of higher quality replica parts came into the mix to meet the increased demand. "People started coming up with custom parts: PCBs (printed circuit boards), glass screen covers, even things like custom rechargeable batteries that fit the battery compartment to make their builds cleaner and more functional, without sacrificing original parts," Skoch said.
Game Boys various modders have made over the years using parts sourced through Deadpan Robot.Photo: Deadpan Robot (Facebook)
Nintendo stopped making Game Boys in the early 2000s. Trying to source parts for obsolete hardware is actually one of the most time consuming parts of the hobby. Some spend weeks going through sites like Aliexpress and Alibaba looking for Chinese suppliers while others will rely on other modders posting about their work.
"A lot of it is community-driven, so when someone finds a good screen or battery charger to use, for example, they will post in the forums or add it to the wiki we maintain," Skoch said. His is just one node in a much larger network of Instagram posters, YouTube channels, and Reddit threads that form a sort of digital Lazarus pit keeping the idea of Game Boy alive in hundreds of different shapes, colours, and custom configurations.
Originally, the Game Boy modders were mostly interested in simply recreating the the official Game Boy designs, the ones they'd grown up with and come to love. The handheld first released in 1989 and was popularised thanks to the success of games like Super Mario Land and Tetris.
Before it was called the Game Boy, Nintendo internally referred to it as the Dot Matrix Game, and most modders still lovingly refer to the original build as DMG. At the time it was the closest any portable piece of technology had come to capturing the feel of playing a console or arcade game, and for that reason it changed what a generation of people thought about how gaming could fit into their lives.
First there was the plain grey model with the yellowish-green tinted screen everyone recognises. Shortly after, it was followed up with a plethora of less well known variants like the "High Tech" transparent versions of the original, mint green Game Boy Pockets, and Pokémon-themed Game Boy Colours. Lots of weirder models never officially came out in North America, and part of the allure of modding revolves around trying to replicate them.
The Game Boy Ben Sparks originally picked up at this year's Magfest in Baltimore, MD after adding a backlight to it. Photo: Ben Sparks (Imgur)
This year, Brad Sparks, who got his start playing around in the extremely niche area of gaming on camcorder screens, turned his attention to old Nintendo handhelds.
"I picked up an original Game Boy at MAGFest in January and decided I wanted to see about backlighting it," he said in an email. After perusing a few online stores and blogs, he got the parts and elementary knowledge together to do it himself. "The biggest appeal of modding gameboys is simply their size, honestly. It's a lot easier to work on something meant to fit in the palm of your hand and only uses a handful of batteries."
Game Boy modding isn't that complicated given the age and relative simplicity of the hardware, but it can still be a minefield for people getting into it. Olivier runs Retro Modding, a site for people to place custom orders and also find tutorials.
He told me he's found all sorts of junk inside the Game Boys he buys or people send him, ranging from pieces of brownie to spiders, although most often it just the residue of spilt soda. From there the challenges multiply, although the biggest is defective components, including broken screens, burned voltage regulators, and batteries that have long since begun leaking acid all over the internals.
"For original Game Boy, one of the hardest part of the modding process is definitely the removal of the reflective film (and polarizer) at the back of the original screen," he said. "That film is what gives the Game Boy that distinct greenish look." The screen is made of glass, and peeling it off can easily lead to cracks which aren't fixable.
Once it's removed, though, a backlight can be installed behind the original screen and a new polarizer put in.
Game Boys that have been out in the wild for decades often have busted displays, suffer from discoloration, and have lots of rust. Photo: Reddit
Then there's cleaning them. "I think the most annoying thing with any Game Boy mod, thus the biggest problem, will always be dust," Olivier said. "The screen protector is the last part we usually install, and getting rid of all the dust particles on it or the LCD in there is always a struggle."
In a factory setting, fans and dust-free chambers are a way around this, but for people working in their garage or bedroom, it's simply a reality that has to be managed to the best of an amateur's ability.
For people like Olivier though it's far from just a hobby. Spending the last decade as a programmer in Canada, he shifted into modding Game Boys full time after a YouTube Video of his work blew up in 2016. As of the start of this year, he added a second full-time employee. In February they showcased what they call the "ultimate" Game Boy Advance on MetalJesusRocks' YouTube Channel.
It included an AGS-101 backlit display, a better voltage regulator and digital brightness control for better quality. It also had a high-end speaker and Hi-Fi Class-D amplifier, rechargeable battery pack, and a handful of clock speed options for speeding up certain games. To call it a mod is almost an understatement. It's the handheld gaming equivalent of a hotrod.
Game Boy modders now have a vast selection of good quality replica parts, including direction pads and other buttons, available to them.Photo: Jason Velazquez
For all of the scene's obsession with better performance and brighter colours though, Olivier and many others told me their passion is motivated mostly by childhood memories. "I woke up one day as a child and there was this used, boxed Game Boy over my head," he said, thinking back to 1993 when he was only eight years old.
"My dad brought it back to me from a shop he visited in a far away city during one of his business trips. That moment when I put the batteries in and powered on the machine with the Tetris cartridge... I'll remember it forever. It was not as common as today to have portable gaming device, [and] I was hooked from that day."
He said his customers and a lot of the people he interacts with are in the 25-35 year-old range, because those were the people who were still children up through when the Game Boy Advance was released in 2001. There's still interest from younger people, but they tend toward later models like the Nintendo DS, a distinctly more modern piece of hardware. "In my opinion, Game Boy modding is all about nostalgia," he said.
Spec-ing out a built-to-order Game Boy at a site like Retro Modding and others will quickly take you North of $US200 ($258) with all of the bells and whistles. It's much cheaper to buy the individual parts and DIY, but that still requires studying up and embedding yourself in the community to get a feel for the in's and out's.
Recreating a 29-year old piece of technology isn't as easy as simply sticking a Raspberry Pi inside of a 3D-printed plastic shell, even if the endless walkthroughs and tutorial videos make it manageable compared to hacking more modern consoles.
Grappling with the older technology and bending it to new ways is part of the appeal of modding, for veterans and newcomers alike. It's not enough to simply make something that looks really cool and can play Kirby's Dream Land. The point is to improve on the old and make it feel new again.
Skoch put it this way. "When I first played games on the Game Boy, it felt the same way: 'console quality-ish' games in a handheld form factor blew my mind back then," he said. "So when you put those two things together, (at the risk of sounding cliche or cheesy) there's just something a little magical about it."
One of the most popular mods is actually called the "Game Boy Zero," based on the one Skoch popularised in his viral YouTube video two years ago. In many ways it combines the best of both worlds, and pushes the idea of the Game Boy to its logical conclusion through Raspberry Pi emulation. It's essentially a miniature computer, running emulators, crammed into an original Game Boy shell," said Juan Acevedo, the proprietor of the UK-based Game Boy parts dealer, Deadpan Robot.
A lot of his business now consists of supplying parts for this new, quintessentially 21st century Game Boy. "It's a real labour of love and much more in-depth than modding original Game Boy hardware," he said.
It shows the Game Boy modding community aren't just scavengers trying to solder back together their childhood memories but also dreamers looking to create something new.