The story for this one starts a few months ago, when [John Green] released his PICO-GB project. His code allowed the Raspberry Pi Pico to stand in for a Game Boy cartridge, complete with a simple text menu that let the user select between ROMs that had been baked into the microcontroller’s firmware. The project was particularly notable for the fact that it was entirely a software solution; while a custom breakout cartridge made for a handy temporary solution, you could have permanently wired the Pico’s pins directly to the Game Boy’s cartridge connector if you wanted to.
The RP2040 is joined by a trio of Texas Instruments TXB0108 level shifters, and there’s a spot for adding a SPI flash chip. The RP2040 supports a maximum of 16 MB of external flash, but given the size of Game Boy games were generally measured in kilobytes, that shouldn’t pose much of a problem.
Looking ahead, the original PICO-GB documentation mentions enhancements like loading ROMs from SD card, as well as hardware additions like a real-time-clock for the more advanced games that supported it. We assume those concepts will become part of [Martin]’s PCB eventually, but these are still early days.
Traditionally, a forum full of technical users trying integrate their own hardware into a game system for the purposes of gaining unfettered access to its entire software library was the kind of thing that would keep engineers at Sony and Nintendo up at night. The development and proliferation of so called “mod chips” were an existential threat to companies that made their money selling video games, and as such, sniffing out these console hackers and keeping their findings from going public for as long as possible was a top priority.
But the Arduboy is no traditional game system. Its games are distributed for free, so a chip that allows users to cram hundreds of them onto the handheld at once isn’t some shady attempt to pull a fast one on the developers, it’s a substantial usability improvement over the stock hardware. So when Arduboy creator Kevin Bates found out about the grassroots effort to expand the system’s internal storage on the official forums, he didn’t try to put a stop to it. Instead, he asked how he could help make it a reality for as many Arduboy owners as possible.
Now, a little less than three years after forum member Mr.Blinky posted his initial concept for hanging an external SPI flash chip on the system’s test pads, the official Arduboy FX Mod-Chip has arrived. Whether you go the DIY route and build your own version or buy the ready-to-go module, one thing is for sure: it’s a must-have upgrade for the Arduboy that will completely change how you use the diminutive handheld.
The Arduboy, as you might have guessed from the name, was designed as a love letter to the Nintendo Game Boy that many a hacker spent their formative years squinting at. While the open source handheld is far smaller than the classic DMG-01, it retains the same general form factor, monochromatic display, and even the iconic red LED to the left of the screen. But one thing it didn’t inherit from the original was the concept of removable game cartridges. That is, until now.
Over the last year, [Mr.Blinky] and a group of dedicated Arduboy owners have been working on adding a removable cartridge to the diminutive handheld. On paper it seemed easy enough, just hang an external SPI flash chip off of the test pads that were already present on the Arduboy PCB, but to turn that idea into a practical cartridge required an immense amount of work and discussion. The thread on the Arduboy community forums covers everything from the ergonomics of the physical cartridge design to the development of a new bootloader that could handle loading multiple games.
The first problem the group had to address was how small the Arduboy is: there’s simply no room in the back to add in a cartridge slot. So a large amount of time is spent proposing different ways of actually getting the theoretical cartridge attached to the system. There was some talk of entirely redesigning the case so it could take the cartridge internally (like the real Game Boy), but this eventually lost out for a less invasive approach that simply replaced the rear of the Arduboy with a 3D printed plate that gave the modders enough room to add a male header along the top edge of the system.
As an added bonus, the cartridge connector doubles as an expansion port for the Arduboy. While perfecting the design, various forum users have chimed in with different gadgets that make use of the new port, from WS2812B LEDs to additional input devices like joysticks or a full QWERTY keyboard. Even if you aren’t interested in expanding the storage space on your Arduboy, being able to plug in new hardware modules certainly opens up some interesting possibilities.
For one reason or another, [Dragao] has an old Sonic The Hedgehog cartridge that throws an illegal instruction somewhere in the Marble Zone stage. While the cause of this illegal instruction is probably cosmic rays, how to repair this cartridge isn’t quite as clear. It can be done, though, using BIOS chips from an old computer.
[Dragao] got the idea of repairing this cartridge from Game Boy flash carts. These cartridges use chips that are a simple parallel interface to the address and data lines of the Game Boy’s CPU, and Sega Genesis / Mega Drive flash cart would work the same way. The problem was finding old DIP flash chips that would work. He eventually found some 8-bit wide chips on the motherboard of an old computer, and by stacking the chips, he had a 16-bit wide Flash chip.
To program the chips, [Dragao] wired everything up to an Arduino Mega, put a ROM on the chip, and wired it up to the old Sega cartridge. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, everything worked, and now [Dragao] has a fully functioning copy of Sonic The Hedgehog.
A month ago, we reported that Nintendo’s new DSi portable didn’t work with any of the current crop of flash cartridges. Things didn’t look good for homebrew. Here we are a month later and looking at the release of the Acekard 2i. It’s the first DSi compatible flash cartridge. The features appear to be identical to previous versions and we expect other manufactures will be updating their product lines in short order. You can find a video of the Acekard 2i after the break.
These carts may exist because of pirates, but we happily use them for homebrew. There are a lot of great programs out there; here’s a list of 24 apps that are dedicated to music creation. You can run Linux on it too. It’s as easy as copying a file to a flash drive. If you have a DS and aren’t using homebrew, you’re wasting it. We’ll be picking up a DSi as soon as they’re in the US (they’re region locked).