“Do you have any hobbies?”
Non sequitur aside though, I don’t know if I’ve ever truly had any traditional hobbies. Sure, you could consider me spending several hours a week playing video games to be a hobby. But to be honest, I mainly just view video games as consumable media, like movies or music. In the same vein, gaming has inspired many people to express their love for the medium in some really interesting ways. And which one of these outlets have I fallen for hook, line, and sinker? Drum-roll please…
“But wait… why Gameboy modding? That seems like an oddly specific hobby to pick up at random, doesn’t it? What’s the allure of modding such old hardware anyway? What can you even do with a Gameboy but play horribly outdated games?” Why thank you, strangely-judgmental voice in my head. I thought I got rid of you long ago. Well no matter, pull up a mind-chair, I’d be happy to answer your questions. Let me explain where this all started.
It all began with my on-again off-again love affair with the Raspberry Pi. For those who aren’t aware, the Pi is a small and surprisingly cheap computer designed to help inspire hobbyists to create awesome projects for dirt cheap. It comes in a range of sizes and prices, the smallest being the Pi Zero, which is barely larger than a quarter. It also only costs $5, so pretty much anyone can afford to give it a try without fear of wasting a lot of money. Now for the longest time I looked at the Raspberry Pi from a distance with immense curiosity, but never bothered to give it a try. The fear of failure, and the idea that I wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to use it had kept me away for years. But eventually, after watching several Pi project videos on YouTube, one of them finally grabbed my interest in a big way.
“Whoa, that’s small!” – Abraham Lincoln (probably)
It was a project called the Gameboy Zero, and boy was it a massive undertaking. It basically squeezed that little Raspberry PI Zero I mentioned earlier into the case of a Gameboy. Not only that, it gutted all of the original hardware in favor of both custom-fabricated internals, and a hodge-podge of other random parts. Hell, at one point they strip down a cheap backup camera they bought off Amazon for a few bucks and use it as the device’s screen. Two videos and just under 40 minutes later, it was done. He buttoned it up, flipped on the power, and was soon playing everything from Sonic the Hedgehog to Metal Slug X. I was enamored.
I began doing research. I watched hours upon hours of videos. I searched forum after forum, absorbing as much information I could about the subject. I soon came to discover that there were actually SEVERAL communities built entirely around the little grey brick. Some dedicated themselves to restoring them to their former glory, while others sought to improve on the original, making it feel more modernized. Custom Gameboys showcased online range from meticulously crafted and painted pieces of art, to slick illuminated DJ tools used by chiptune artists to weave complex retro-inspired melodies. It was a proverbial treasure trove of cool ideas and projects to try out. “What should I do first?”, I thought.
I was enamored.
I knew I eventually wanted to build my very own Gameboy Zero, but ultimately decided to start out small. I first attempted to do a full restoration of an old Gameboy to almost-new condition, just to get more familiar with the hardware. I trekked out to the local flea market one Saturday afternoon, and after about a half-hour of browsing, came across a poor little battle-scarred thing. Scratches and dents, discoloration, bruises, and smears. If it was a dog, it would have been one of those strays you see in those infomercials. You know the ones. It had survived the 80’s, 90’s, and beyond. But just barely. I quickly scooped it up and took it home, then began ordering parts.
[Insert sad infomercial music here]
I also went out to a hardware store shortly after with a laundry list of tools to assemble. It’s funny. I never would have thought a year ago I’d be willingly inside the likes of Sears, Lowes, and Home Depot buying tools, but there I was. Buying a soldering iron, a cell phone repair kit, a toolbox, wire cutters, and countless other items. Some of it I had trouble even finding locally, so I had to special order certain items online. Desoldering braid is a hot commodity in my town, turns out. But soon enough, I had the kit I needed, and the parts had finally come in, so it was time to put what I learned into practice.
Using a detailed video guide on my phone, a steady hand, and a LOT of patience, I ended up completing my first custom Gameboy project in a handful of hours! I actually ended up ditching the pure restoration idea and added a back-lit screen mod to the build as well. Specifically, an orange one to give the all-black and grey color scheme a bit more life. Also, it was just too cool not to try.
This thing is just awesome!
Most of the restoration was pretty straightforward. Disassembling the Gameboy and replacing the buttons, screen cover, battery contacts, and case are a breeze if you take your time and do your homework. Aside from requiring a specific “tri-wing” screwdriver to open, this part is as easy as assembling a dining-room chair. The back-light kit however, requires soldering tiny parts, and making various other minor adjustments. It’s not particularly difficult, but it’s time-consuming, and you DEFINITELY want to watch a tutorial on it several times over, then have it open during the entire process of doing the mod. Getting hasty and being too rough could permanently damage the Gameboy. That said, it’s totally worth the effort!
Shortly after doing this build, and doing more research, I bought and modded a Gameboy Color as well. I added a front-light, and gave it a Ninja-Turtles themed case and buttons.
I mean come on, everyone knows Raph is the REAL leader. Amirite?
This mod however, didn’t go as smoothly. It was a little more complicated, and involved this clear liquid adhesive called LOCA. I won’t go into a lot of specifics, else this will end up becoming a full-blown tutorial, but basically it gets everywhere if you aren’t careful. Including on the top side of the front-light. And that’s quite noticeable when you turn the system on, believe me. I tried several different methods to get the adhesive off the front of the screen, but ultimately found that lightly rubbing it down in one direction with toilet paper finally cleaned it off. Even this took considerable time and patience, and afterward, I found yet another issue. Pressing buttons made the front-light flicker during gameplay. Needless to say, I’m no electrician, so I’m still working on that issue.
Despite all this, I never once felt any intense frustration or sense of defeat like I often do when working on a computer, or when failing at a video game. Even though I was clearly doing something wrong, and may have permanently ruined that project to a degree, it didn’t really bother me. For once I was just fascinated by the learning process, and totally engrossed in picking up a cool new skill, rather than losing my mind over something that won’t do what I tell it. If it was a game, I’d be tightly clutching a damaged controller, and if it was a computer issue, I’d be walking away from a tower with a dent in it where my fist had once been. Did I mention I have an anger problem?
An anger problem that may have met it’s match, it seems. Instead of always blowing off steam in ways that involve high levels of stimulation, I can now slowly and thoughtfully peruse and absorb knowledge and experience in something I genuinely love doing. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll open my own retro games shop. One where I can not only help people indulge in nostalgia, but discover sides of that nostalgia they never even knew existed.
Well holy crap, you made it to the end! As you can tell, I could easily write on this subject in meticulous detail for quite some time. Maybe I’ll even make a habit of doing more articles on this subject in the future. We’ll see. If you enjoyed the article, and want to actually try some of this stuff yourself, here are some helpful websites and tutorial videos to get you started!
PLACES TO BUY GAMEBOY MODS/PARTS
BASIC/ADVANCED GAMEBOY MODDING TUTORIALS
BUILD YOUR OWN CUSTOM GAMEBOY (Elly Awesome)
Backlight and Bivert Your Original Game Boy DMG! (ThisDoesNotCompute)
Install a Game Boy Color Front Light Kit! (ThisDoesNotCompute)
Gameboy Zero Custom Parts Build – Part 1 – Part 2