Game Boy Plays Forever

For those of us old enough to experience it first hand, the original Game Boy was pretty incredible, but did have one major downside: battery consumption. In the 90s rechargeable batteries weren’t common, which led to most of us playing our handhelds beside power outlets. Some modern takes on the classic Game Boy address these concerns with modern hardware, but this group from the Delft University of Technology and Northwestern has created a Game Boy clone that doesn’t need any batteries at all, even though it can play games indefinitely.

This build was a proof-of-concept for something called “intermittent computing” which allows a computer to remain in a state of processing limbo until it gets enough energy to perform the next computation. The Game Boy clone, fully compatible with the original Game Boy hardware, is equipped with many tiny solar panels which can harvest energy and is able to halt itself and store its state in nonvolatile memory if it detects that there isn’t enough energy available to continue. This means that Super Mario Land isn’t exactly playable, but other games that aren’t as action-packed can be enjoyed with very little impact in gameplay.

The researchers note that it’ll be a long time before their energy-aware platform becomes commonplace in devices and replaces batteries, but they do think that internet-connected devices that don’t need to be constantly running or powered up would be a good start. There are already some low-powered options available that can keep their displays active when everything else is off, so hopefully we will see even more energy-efficient options in the near future.

Thanks to [Sascho] for the tip!

14 thoughts on “Game Boy Plays Forever

      1. I had the original gameboy and traded it in for a game gear, and the game gear kept me plugged in, but I always played the gameboy on batteries. Huge difference. I wouldn’t be surprised by these numbers.

        1. Problem with the game gear and also portable LCD televisions of the era, was the back lighting available. It was generally done with a florescent tube maybe slightly narrower than a typical F4T5 tube you would see in a camping lantern, and about 3″ or so in length, basically the width of the screen. Behind the tube would be a metal or chromed plastic V shaped reflector to reflect all that light up though the LCD. So what you have here is probably a 3 or 4 watt back light on these things. This also counts for the thickness of these things. The LCD itself really wasn’t much thicker than an LCD of today, all the bulk came from the back light arrangement. Teardown here

        2. Another thought, a typical F4T5 bulb camping lantern of the era that ran off AA batteries would also have typically around a 4 hour run time off the batteries. Likely means that the energy capacity of 3-4 of the 6 AA batteries the GG used was sucked up by just that back light alone.

    1. Hah, good point. I had the green Game Boy (“Frog”?) from the Play it Loud series – if memory serves. It was identical with the beige Game Boy except for two things.A better speaker and different ICs. The beige one had ICs in conventional cases, while the green one had plastic “blobs” .

      As for the power consumption. . Due to my father being a ham, I initially tried out accus, too. However, in the 90s, these meant NiCd rechargeables with 1,2v and memory effect.NiMH rechargeables also existed, but were rather expensive and required different chargers. In the end, normal 1,5v batteries (“primary cells”) were much more convenient. Technically, these could be recharged, too, with a special DIY charger. But only a few times as opposed to rechargeables.. Anyway, I threw these batteries in the battery container rather than in the household waste.

      By the way, at the time, the missing backlight was much more annoying than weak batteries.
      Just like many other kids, I “invisted” in one if these weird Game Boy add-ons: A gray adapter that contained a magnifier and a backlight. It was mounted atop the Game Boy and contained a AA battery box, too. The lights were little lamps, not LEDs, of course. White or blue LEDs didn’t really exist in our world. :)

  1. “In the 90s rechargeable batteries weren’t common”

    I had a huge collection of AA and 9V NiCad batteries as a 80s/90s kid. They were all bought from the local small town grocery store, no special ordering, trip to the city or other extra effort required. And yes, powering my Gameboy was one of their more common uses. Now more devices have rechargeable batteries built in but for those remaining devices which use “regular” removable batteries if anything I would say that rechargeables are less common now than then.

    I pretty much gave up on them myself after I replaced all my NiCads with NiMH only to find that the NiMH batteries tended to stop working after only a couple of uses despite advertising claims that they should have done much better. Even the chargers seem to have ridiculously low lifespans!

  2. “…something called “intermittent computing” which allows a computer to remain in a state of processing limbo until it gets enough energy to perform the next computation. ”

    This pretty much describes the already-dismal data infrastructure in the US as it’s swamped by online teaching.

  3. I remember how frustrated I’d be when my GameBoy’s batteries ran low. Then my brother got a GameGear for Christmas, and I learned how well I had it. When his batteries ran out, I’d put them in my GameBoy and continue to play Tetris for a couple more hours.

  4. This seems a bit silly compared to slowing down when power is limited. Games at half-speed become easier. Having to count to twenty between each obstacle in Mario Land just sounds tedious. For more serious devices, working less but working continuously sounds similarly better than ‘come back later.’

    Though I do appreciate how capacitors have no problem running absolutely dry on power. You can’t kill them.

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