Nintendo’s GBA Dev Board Could Pass For Modern DIY

When the Game Boy Advance came on the scene in 2001, it was a pretty big deal. The 32-bit handheld represented the single biggest upgrade the iconic Game Boy line had ever received, not only in terms of raw processing power, but overall design. It would set the state-of-the-art in portable gaming for years, and Nintendo was eager to get developers on board.

Which could explain why the official GBA development kit, recently shown off by [Hard4Games], looks like something that was built in a hackerspace. It’s pretty common for console development systems to look more like boxy 1990s computers than the sleek injection molded units that eventually take up residence under your television, but they don’t often come in the form of a bare PCB. It seems that Nintendo was in such a rush to get an early version of their latest handheld’s guts out to developers that they couldn’t even take the time to get a sheet metal case stamped out for it.

The development board doesn’t like later GBA games.

All of the principle parts of the final GBA are here, and as demonstrated in the video after the break, the board even plays commercially released games. Though [Hard4Games] did find that some titles from the later part of the handheld’s life had unusual graphical glitches; hinting that there are likely some low-level differences that don’t manifest themselves unless the developer was really digging deep to squeeze out all the performance they could.

The board also lacks support for Game Boy and Game Boy Color games, though this is not wholly surprising. When an older game was inserted into a GBA, the cartridge would physically depress a switch that enabled a special 8080-based coprocessor that existed solely for backwards compatibility. Adding that hardware to a development board would have made it more expensive and added no practical benefit. That said, [Hard4Games] does point out that there appears to be a unpopulated area of the board where the backwards compatibility switch could have been mounted.

Hackers have always been enamored with the Game Boy, so it’s fitting to see that the official development kit for the final entry into that storied line of handhelds looked a lot like something they could build themselves. If anyone feels inclined to build their own “deconstructed” GBA in this style, you know where to find us.

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ESP32 Refines Game Boy Bluetooth Adapter

Last year we brought word of a project from [Shyri Villar] that turned a stock Game Boy Advance into a Bluetooth controller by exploiting the system’s “multiboot” capability. The prototype hardware was a bit ungainly, but the concept was certainly promising. We’re now happy to report that the code has been ported over to the ESP32, making the project far more approachable.

To clarify, the ESP32 is now the only component required for those who want to play along at home. Just five wires connect the microcontroller to the GBA’s Link Cable connector, which is enough to transfer a small ROM over to the system and ferry user input to the Bluetooth hardware. Even if you aren’t interested in using it as a game controller, this project is an excellent example of how you can get your own code running on a completely stock GBA.

While the original version of the hardware was a scrap of perfboard dangling from the handheld’s expansion connector, reducing the part count to one meant [Shyri] was able to pack everything into a tidy enclosure. Specifically, a third party GBA to GameCube link cable. This not only provides a sleek case for the microcontroller that locks onto the handheld with spring loaded tabs, but also includes a male Link Cable connector you can salvage. It looks as though there’s a bit of plastic trimming involved to get the ESP32 to fit, but otherwise its a very clean installation.

The GBA will be 20 years old soon, but that doesn’t mean the hardware and software exploration is over. The original Game Boy is over 30, and people are still giving talks about it.

RuneScape GBA Controller Is A Nostalgic Mash-Up

For gamers, the early 2000s certainly stand out as a memorable era. The dawn of the 21st century ushered in the sixth generation of home video game consoles, with Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft all releasing their systems within a few years of each other. Nintendo also released their Game Boy Advance at around the same time, representing a minor revolution for mobile gaming. On the PC front, a free-to-play MMORPG called RuneScape was redefining people’s expectations of browser-based software.

Now, thanks to modern technology and the expert guidance of [TiKevin83], these varied bits of video game history can be used in conjunction for maximum rose-tinting effect. Using homebrew software on the GameCube and a healthy collection of wires and adapters, the GBA can be used as a controller for your adventures through the realm of Gielinor. After nearly two decades, the dreams of gamers everywhere have come true.

Well, that might be a stretch. In fact, we’d wager that nobody in human history has ever looked at the GBA and thought it would be a particularly good controller for an MMORPG. Watching the video after the break, it’s not hard to see why. Using the handheld system’s digital pad to control the mouse in RuneScape looks to be precisely as clunky as you’d imagine. But of course, that’s hardly the point.

So how is it accomplished? A homebrew tool for the GameCube’s “Game Boy Player” accessory allows the GBA, when connected to the console via the appropriate adapter cable, to mimic a standard controller. Once the GBA is running in this mode, it can then be connected to the computer using a Wii U to USB adapter. Finally, the program JoyToKey is used to map the GBA’s buttons to mouse and keyboard input for “Old School” RuneScape.

If you’d like to do something similar but aren’t quite committed enough to collect up all the Nintendo-branded ephemera this method requires, you may be interested in this DIY adapter that allows the venerable GBA to be used as a standard Bluetooth controller.

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Booting The Game Boy Advance Into Bluetooth

While it might not be quite as revered as its predecessor, the Game Boy Advance is arguably the peak of “classic” handheld gaming, before things got all 3D and dual screen on us. One of its best features is the so-called multiboot mode, which allows the GBA to download a program from its link port. Officially this feature was introduced so you could play multiplayer with your friends even if they didn’t have the game cartridge, but naturally it didn’t take long for hackers to realize you can use it to run arbitrary code on an unmodified system.

[Shyri Villar] has put this capability to excellent use with a plug-in board that allows a stock GBA to be used as a general purpose Bluetooth HID controller. Now you can emulate GBA games on your computer while using the real thing as your input device. Or if that’s a bit too redundant for you, then any 2D game you think could benefit from the classic Game Boy control layout.

An ATmega328P on the board initiates the multiboot sequence when the system powers up, and feeds it the GBA program that’s stored on a W25Q32 chip. Once the code is running on the GBA, it communicates with a common HC-05 Bluetooth module through the same link port. To perform this handoff, [Shyri] uses a HCF4066 switch IC to literally change the pin assignments in the connector from the SPI used to upload the ROM to the UART lines of the Bluetooth module.

With everything powered from the 3.3 V provided by the GBA’s link port, and some software niceties like the ability to store Bluetooth pairing information for subsequent device connections, this is actually a very practical gadget. The fact that you can do this on a completely stock GBA is very compelling, especially considering some of the previous Bluetooth Game Boy modifications we’ve seen. Granted the market might be somewhat limited, but with a custom PCB and a 3D printed enclosure, we could see this potentially being a popular accessory for the classic handheld. It’s not like it can be any more niche than using the GBA as a remote display for your multimeter.

FPGA Brings Arduboy To The Game Boy Advance

Hackaday readers are perhaps familiar with the Arduboy, an open source handheld gaming system that aims to combine the ease of Arduino development with the seething nostalgia the Internet has towards the original Nintendo Game Boy. While not quite the same as getting one of your games published for a “real” system, the open source nature of the Arduboy platform allows an individual to develop a game playable on a commercially manufactured device.

While the Arduboy hardware itself is actually quite slick, that hasn’t stopped people from trying to bring its games to other pieces of hardware. Now thanks to the efforts of [uXe], the Game Boy Advance is well on its way to becoming Arduboy compatible, in a way bringing the whole project full circle. Assuming this gadget becomes a commercial device (it sounds like that’s still up in the air), Arduboy developers will be able to proudly play their creations on the final and objectively best entry into the Game Boy line.

Getting to this point has been something of an adventure, as documented in a thread from the Arduboy forums. Members of the community wondered what it would take to get Arduboy games running on a real Game Boy, but pretty quickly it was decided that the original beige brick model wasn’t quite up to the task. Eventually its far more capable successor the Game Boy Advance became the development target, and different approaches were considered for getting existing games running on the platform.

While there were some interesting ideas, such as using the GBA’s link port to “feed” the system games over SPI, in the end [uXe] decided to look into creating an FPGA cartridge that would actually run the Arduboy games. In this scenario, the GBA itself is basically just being used as an interface between the FPGA and the human player. In addition to these low-level hardware considerations, there was considerable discussion about the more practical aspects of bringing the games to the new hardware, such as how to best scale the Arduboy’s 128 x 64 output to the GBA’s 240 × 160 screen.

As demonstrated in the videos after the break, [uXe] now as all the elements for playing Arduboy games on the GBA in place, including the ability to disable full screen scaling by using the shoulder buttons. Now he just needs to shrink the hardware down to the point it will fit inside of a standard GBA cartridge. Beyond that, who knows? Perhaps the appeal of being able to run Arduboy games on a real Game Boy is enough to warrant turning this hack into a new commercial product.

Thanks to a hardware swap we’ve seen Arduboy games played on the Dreamcast VMU, and [uXe] himself previously grafted Arduboy-compatible hardware into an original Game Boy, but being able to play these games on an unmodified Game Boy Advance obviously has its own appeal. At the very least, it will be a bit more ergonomic than using a hacked classroom gadget.

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GBA On The Big Screen: FPGA Delivers HDMI And Every Feature Imaginable

The concept of creating a gaming portable out of a home console has been around for some time, but it’s hardly seen the other way around. There have been a few devices that dared to straddle the line (i.e., Sega Nomad, Nintendo Switch, etc.), but the two worlds typically remain separate. [Stephen] looked to explore that space by attempting to turn the Game Boy Advance into a “big boy” console. The FPGA-based mod kit he created does just that, and comes complete with controller support and digital video output in 720p over a mini HDMI cable.

The kit itself was designed specifically for the original model GBAs containing the 40-pin LCD ribbon cable. These original models were the early run of non-backlit screens that are also denoted by a motherboard designation that can be seen by peering into the battery compartment. RGB signals are read directly from the GBA LCD socket by removing the handheld’s screen in favor of a fresh flat flex ribbon cable. This method enables a noise-free digital-to-digital solution as opposed to the digital-to-analog output of Nintendo’s own Game Boy Player add-on for the GameCube.

At an astonishing 240×160 native resolution, GBA video is scaled by the FPGA up to 5x within a 720p frame. Of course some of the image is cutoff in the process, so options for 4x and 4.5x scales were included. As a wise man once said, “Leave no pixel behind”. Since Nintendo designed the GBA clock to run at 59.7276 Hz, [Stephen] removed the oscillator crystal in order to sync the refresh rate to a more HDMI friendly 60 Hz. This means that the mod kit overclocks GBA games ever so slightly, though [Stephen] included a GBA cycle accurate mode as an option if your display can handle it.

The video below is [Stephen]’s initial test using a SNES controller. Tests must have gone well, because he decided to incorporate a SNES controller port in the final design. Now all those Super Nintendo ports on the GBA are back home once again thanks to this “consolizer” kit.

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Building A Supersized Game Boy Advance

Unless you really look closely at the image above, you might not realize you aren’t looking at a normal Game Boy Advance; which is sort of the point. Even though it retains the looks of the iconic Nintendo handheld, this version built by [Akira] is supersized for adult hands. How big is it? To give you an idea, that screen is 5 inches, compared to the 2.9 inch screen the original sported.

Unlike most of the portable gaming hacks we’ve covered recently, this big-boy GBA isn’t powered by a Raspberry Pi. Internally it’s packing a genuine GBA motherboard, which has been wired into a portable screen originally intended for the PlayStation.

Though that may be understating things a bit, as getting the round PCB of the original screen into the rectangular shape of the GBA meant it had to be cut down and the traces recreated with jumper wires. The original CCFL backlight of the screen had to go in the name of battery life, and in its place is the backlight system pulled from a Nintendo DSi XL.

But where did [Akira] get a giant GBA case to begin with? No, it isn’t 3D printed. It’s actually a hard carrying case that was sold for the GBA. The carrying case obviously didn’t have a cartridge slot or openings for buttons, so those sections were grafted from a donor GBA case. So despite the system overall being so much bigger than the original, the D-Pad, face buttons, and cartridge slot on the back are at normal GBA scale.

The GBA XL is really a labor of love; browsing through the build log you can see that [Akira] actually started the project back in 2014, but it kept getting shelved until more research could be done on how to pack all the desired features into the final device.

While this may be the most historically accurate attempt at making a bigger Game Boy, it certainly isn’t the first. There seems to be a fascination with turning the quintessential pocket game system into something that’s quite the opposite.

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