Retro FAQ: Nintendo Game Boy (GB) / Game Boy Color (GBC)

Discussion in 'Retro & Arcade' started by elvis, Jul 23, 2019.

  1. elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    The Nintendo Game Boy was first released in Japan in April 1989. It was an 8-bit handheld, portable console, developed by the same team responsible for the iconic "Nintendo Game & Watch" series of single-game LCD hardware, including Gunpei Yokoi and the rest of the team at Nintendo R&D1.

    The console followed Nintendo's famous design goals of doing interesting things with affordable commodity hardware. The Game Boy's main CPU was a slightly customised Sharp LR35902 running at 4.19MHz, which was similar to the Intel 8080 and Z80, but missing some of the higher end functions. Performance wise, this CPU was not much more powerful than graphing calculators available at the time, and was optimised for fast moving graphics, being able to push a 160x144 pixel screen with 4 greyscale shades at 59.7 frames per second.

    Nintendo opted for 4 AA batteries as the console's portable power source, but also included a DC power jack port to optionally power the console, albeit tethered to a power source. Nintendo cited officially that fresh AA batteries would power it for "10-30 hours", although in reality it was far closer to the low end of that range. All the same, even with a budget set aside for fresh batteries, the Game Boy was a game changer for any kid on a long, boring car trip with the family.

    Nintendo saw great first and third party support for their console, with many developers understanding the "cut down" nature of the Game Boy. Games ported from other systems compensated for the smaller screen resolution by cropping the playfield, giving a "zoomed in" appearance to many titles. Additionally, developers did well to offer save abilities or simple game play that dealt with the idea of "pick up and play" well.

    Especially in Japan where time away from home and on public transport dominates most of the day, the console took off, and sales soared.

    The system wasn't without faults. The power drain was one, and the other was the console's LCD screen that was almost impossible to see in low light. While it wasn't so bad out and about in daylight, if you were at home of an evening, it meant finding a good over-the-shoulder light source to play under. Those long car trips also became less fun as soon as the sun dropped.

    Nintendo brought out slightly modified hardware in the following years. The Nintendo Game Boy Pocket was a slightly smaller model in case dimensions, but sported a similar sized screen that was a little clearer. It was powered by 2 AAA batteries, and without a substantially shortened play life either. Japan got an exclusive "Game Boy Light" which included a backlit screen.

    9 years after the original Game Boy was released, Nintendo brought to market the Game Boy Color in 1998. Sporting a slightly different CPU with the full Z80 instruction set, and also a maximum speed of 8MHz (twice as fast as the original Game Boy). The CPU could boot into a backwards compatible mode and run any of the original Game Boy titles.

    As the name suggested, the Game Boy Color could now run games in colour, with 10, 32 or 56 colours on screen at once (depending on the graphics mode chosen) from a total palette of 32K (16bit) colours. The console was slightly more power efficient, requiring only 2 AA batteries (half of what the original Game Boy required), and offering roughly the same battery life.

    The device held custom colour palettes for known legacy Game Boy games, or if they weren't known there was a default palette loaded at boot that the user could change by cycling through with the dpad at the GBC bios/logo screen. Games released around this time often allowed switching between GB and GBC mode to be backwards compatible, with a handful of late model games opting to be GBC only and take advantage of the faster CPU.

    Sadly the GBC still sported a non-lit screen. And while it kept battery life down, it did mean that the problems of low-light playing plagued the units. Several third party hardware devices at the time offered a front-light solution, however they were often bulky, ugly, and power hungry.

    PAL vs NTSC, import playing

    Thankfully the GB and GBC were both universal devices. The built in display meant that the console's graphics was not tied to TV standards of the time. Likewise there was no region locking on either unit, so import playing was a breeze (as long as you could read or work around the language of the in-game text).

    Playing the system today

    Due to the enormous popularity of the GB and GBC (118 million units sold), finding second hand hardware is a breeze. Original units are still affordable even on eBay, and can often still be found in pawn shops locally.

    Nintendo's commitment to backwards compatibility is also quite excellent. I'll avoid talking too much about the Game Boy Advance (GBA) console here, but plenty of GBA solutions overlap with GB/GBC solutions due to the shared cartridge pin count, and backwards compatibility of that system. So until I can write a GBA FAQ in depth, for now I'll mention that all models of the GBA hardware are 100% backwards compatible with both the GB and GBC. The Nintendo DS and DS Lite, despite having a cartridge slot that physically fits GB/GBC cartridges, is not compatible.

    Nintendo released a "Super Game Boy" addon for the Super Nintendo. It was an all-hardware solution that crammed GB/GBC internals into a cartridge, and allowed playing that on a SNES. PAL gamers lose out here, with the console slowed down to 50FPS for PAL TVs. NTSC gamers get the opposite - a slightly sped up game from the original clock speed. Nintendo rectified this with the Japanese-only Super Game Boy 2, with a more accurate clock. Third party mods are available for the US original version to make the playback more accurate. The Super Game Boy also offers a wide range of custom palette options to improve both GB and GBC colour choices.

    Nintendo released a "Game Boy Player" addon for their Nintendo Game Cube console. It was a physical device that connected in underneath the Game Cube, and allowed for GB, GBC and GBA cartridges to be physically inserted into the unit. It required a boot disk to go with it that is unfortunately rare, and prices for it are beginning to climb (despite the hardware being quite cheap). However, the homebrew community has come to the rescue, and offers software titled "Game Boy Interface" (GBI). Even better, GBI offers several more accurate and clearer modes compared to the muddy picture of the original boot disk, and slight game studder as the official mode struggled to make the 59.7 FPS GB games work smoothly at ~60FPS.

    https://www.retrorgb.com/gameboyinterface.html
    https://www.gc-forever.com/wiki/index.php?title=Game_Boy_Interface

    And of course Nintendo offer numerous games via their official "Virtual Console" service on 2DS and 3DS hardware. Due to the low power of the GB/GBC, these are easily playable on the regular 2DS/3DS as well as the "New" 2DS/3DS hardware. Emulation quality on these is up to Nintendo's usual excellent standard.



    Hardware modding

    Game Boy modding typically involves changes to the screen or case. Screen mods come in a variety of flavours, including backlit, bivert and other mods.

    Aussie hardware hacker Ben Venn has an online store with plenty of options for addons, mods, hacks and even tools to dump and re-program cartridges:

    https://bennvenn.myshopify.com/

    New to the GBA scene is the "GBA consolizer". Again, I'll avoid going into the GBA in depth, however it will mod any real GBA hardware so that it can display out to a HDMI capable TV, and take a SNES controller for input. This is another great, new addition for playing GB and GBC games on a larger and clearer screen, albeit sacrificing portability of your original console.



    Flash cartridges, clone cartridges

    The famous Krikzz offers the famous "Everdrive" flash cartridges that are GB and GBC. Similar to other models, games are loaded onto a MicroSD card, and can be chosen from a menu. Several models exist that vary in price and features:
    https://krikzz.com/store/

    And a second mention of Ben Venn. His "Joey Joe Bags" device can flash Chinese clone cartridges with new game images. Not as flexible as a Krikzz flash cart, however when clone cartridges can be bought for a few dollars, it still works out pretty well.

    https://bennvenn.myshopify.com/

    And of course, all your usual spots have clone cartridges for sale. AliExpress and eBay are full of them.

    Clone hardware

    Interestingly enough, there's not much in the way of competent GB / GBC clone hardware out there. Certainly not any that will take real cartridges. Several GBA clones exist, although it's difficult to find solid reviews of them because the manufacturers aren't well advertised. Some of these are backwards compatible with real GB/GBC games, some not.

    AliExpress and others are full of handheld emulator devices that come pre-loaded with games (or offer MicroSD card addon for loading ROMs). While quite capable, these carry all the usual caveats of emulation, which may or may not bother you depending on your own requirements and/or the specific games you like to play.

    FPGA hardware similation

    Analogue's Nt Mini console was originally released as a NES FPGA clone, however with "jailbreak" firmware supports both GB and GBC gameplay.

    The open source MiSTer FPGA project supports GB and GBC playback, although a handful of compatibility problems still exist. Recent scaler enhancements allow it to be played back quite well on both low resolution CRT and high resolution digital flat screens like LCDs and OLEDs.

    Emulation

    Due to the GB and GBCs relatively simple hardware, emulation for both platforms has existed for a long time. Popular frontends like RetroArch support several competent emulators, and these have been ported to all sorts of devices new and old (even low end hardware like the Nintendo DS can play GB/GBC games at full speed via emulation).

    As always, Byuu's excellent Higan emulator includes a GB/GBC core, which has very recently been updated to pass even the strictest of compatibility tests. While not as fast as other emulators, it exceeds everything else in accuracy. Worth using as a test on a desktop computer if you feel your other emulation options aren't working as expected.
     
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2019
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  2. power

    power Member

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    i watched that consolizer video last night and came away super impressed.
     
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    elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    Certainly not cheap, but if you're a GB/GBC/GBA fan, I think it's very likely your top tier option for playing games on a larger screen from those systems.

    I've got a modded GameCube, Game Boy Player and the "Game Boy Interface" software. For accuracy, that's good enough for me at this stage, although I do like playing games on a CRT. If I really wanted it crystal clear on a larger display, then the consolizer would win I think.

    The last "Retro Let's Play" game Boy Game was Donkey Kong (not the arcade version, but a massively improved game IMHO). I played that entirely on MiSTer, and despite a bit of screen tearing due to the 59.7-to-60 Hz conversion, it was still excellent to play it that way. At the time MiSTer only supported HDMI out for the Game Boy core, so I played it on a low-lag 24" LCD gaming monitor. Recently they added CRT output via some modeline trickiness, and I re-tested on CRT. It was quite fun to play it that way too.

    I also tested "Shantae" (IMHO the best GBC game ever made) on CRT via MiSTer. The colours and especially brightness was quite weird, and I had to turn down my CRT's brightness quite a bit to deal with it. I don't know if it was the choice of palette or the game design itself (considering the original GBC wasn't backlit, so colours likely had to be bolder to stand out). But that was a bit hard on the eyes via CRT compared to a monochrome GB game.
     
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    elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    Very impressive setup from "Roarke" has made his own Game Boy case mould, and can now do fully customised cases fro scratch. Not 3D printed, but fully moulded.

    https://www.roarkesretrocorner.com/
    https://twitter.com/Roarke84694999
    https://www.instagram.com/roarkesretrocorner/

    Hopefully he can sell a few of these at scale.

    And a different user who makes machined Aluminium case replacements. I linked to these in the retro activity thread a while back, but re-linking here since it's relevant:

    https://www.boxypixel.com/products/game-boy-color-ags-101-machined-housings
    https://www.instagram.com/boxypixel/
     
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2019
  5. Grant

    Grant Member

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    After playing Super Metroid for the first time in the recent Let's Play, I recently played through the original Metroid for NES, emulated on the Switch from the Nintendo Online classic pack. So next up is Metroid 2 for the Game Boy.

    I still have my well-loved DMG, but I recently picked up a Color which is a little more portable and friendlier on batteries. The flash cart I went with was a reprogrammable one from a guy on Tindie (JRodrigo), probably just as expensive as an SD card version but I wanted a separate cart reader/writer for moving save games on/off other carts.
     
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    elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    Looks like yesterday our time (today US time) is the 30th anniversary of the US launch of the original Gameboy.

    Happy birthday, you amazing grey brick, you.
     
  8. power

    power Member

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    yeah it's a good year, the Lynx turned 30 earlier this year too.
     
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  9. cvidler

    cvidler Member

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    still have my original GB parents bought it for me in ~1990 before a international flight to keep me and my brother quiet/behaved.

    Got many years of use, but eventually the screen started to loose lines on it. note that benvenn offers replacements. yay.
     
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    elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    Screen replacements are pretty easy on the original model. You might even find the screen is fine, and it's just the polarising film that needs changing.

    https://www.aliexpress.com/wholesale?SearchText=gameboy+polarizer

    Search for various permutations of polariser/zer/zing/zed.

     
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2019
  11. power

    power Member

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    I had an OG GB, i thought it was pretty crap (#lynxmasterrace) the GBA never got a look in from me at the time simply based off that early experience.
     
  12. OP
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    elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    You just volunteered for a Lynx FAQ article.

    I got one as a gift from awesomewife (first gen, Glacier, too sentimental to mod). Easily up there as a favourite console, mostly due to the software library. It was pretty much a "mini SNES", and the ports of NES and SNES games as well as originals made it fantastic.

    These days I generally play GBA on my NDSLite because the screen is better. But what I'd do for a first gen GBA with an AGS101 screen mod...

    Damn, I need to do GBA and NDS FAQs too...
     
  13. cvidler

    cvidler Member

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    Mines lost a few columns of pixels.
     
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    elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    Oh, bugger.

    Well, now's the time to fix them up. Parts are plentiful and cheap. Get in before the vanish (like my precious AGS101 screens did).
     
  15. g12345567

    g12345567 Member

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    Was watching this restoration of an original GB. Here is the section showing where he repairs the screen with lost colums of pixels that I thought you might find helpful. Starting around the 3:08 minute mark.

     
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2019
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    elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    Quite a few good videos on this channel:
    https://www.youtube.com/user/amace09/search?query=gameboy

    The dude in question trawls eBay for non-working/broken/junk consoles, and attempts to fix them up. His hit rate is pretty good, and it all serves as excellent repair documentation.
     
  17. Vanne

    Vanne Member

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    Had myself one of these in the day. Not too sure what happened to it, prob gave it away to a niece/cousin. Might see if I can track it down. I remember I found it at the old Hong Kong airport.

    Good memories..

    [​IMG]
     
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  18. Vanne

    Vanne Member

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    Combine the GC with a proper/semi proper hdmi solution, and even the GBP works awesome! I have... A few *cough* if some of you guys wanna try it out..
     
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    elvis

    elvis Old school old fool

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    So many great after-market options and mods coming out for the original GameBoy models lately. There seems to be endless improvements on IPS screens and third party cases, which is a great way to extend the life of an old, busted GameBoy without destroying original components.

     
  20. th3_hawk

    th3_hawk Member

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    I was looking into the backlight mod and some sort of screen enhancement (inversion + polarising filter flip??) when the Retro Lets Play on here got me to play through Gargoyles Quest again! A brilliant upgrade while keeping everything pretty much original otherwise, although in the end I just bought that game through the Nintendo Store on the 3DS and played with a much nicer screen ;)

    I might go back one day and still do those mods, but I have a few other options these days with the RetroFlag Gpi setup... although I do wish that was closer to full size and really would have liked to see it based on the Gameboy Advance shape which I think sits in your hands better, especially for the shoulder buttons.

    The Gameboy Advance SP provides all of the backwards compatibility with a backlit (and colour) screen but sadly is a bit small for my hands.
     
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