Jonathan Chapman is a Game Boy collector; He owns a variety of hand helds, and games. He has a library of over 1000 Game Boy titles. Out of his collection he has 787 US titles, and 236 Japanese imports. His favorite games are Metroid II, Snow Bros, and Shantae for the Game Boy Color. He is the proud owner of a complete collection of Game Boys from the Play It Loud series. When he isn’t at the flea market, game shop, or Goodwill; You can find him cleaning, repairing and modding Game Boys.
A Typical Problem
A typical repair for Jonathan is fixing Game Boys with missing vertical lines. Over time, the connector to the display becomes eroded, causing columns of pixels to vanish. This can be repaired by running a soldering iron over the connectors. When the solder is heated, it resettles along the connectors allowing the display to properly receive a signal. The vertical line issue is so common, anyone can find tutorials online and repair it themselves. It was from tutorials like these, and others, that Jonathan learned how to repair the Game Boy and modify it to make it better.
Flawed By Design
Why would anyone want to make the Game Boy better? One frustration is that it cannot be played in dark settings. Most Game Boy models lack a back light, and Nintendo would not introduce one until the release of the Game Boy Light.
Another flaw by design is the Game Boy’s lack of a proper contrast. There is a brightness control on the side of the unit, but all it does is further dim the display. In order to play a Game Boy, a person has to be near a suitable source of lighting. Even when lighting conditions are right, the display is still too dim.
Despite Nintendo releasing other Game Boy models, the original is by far the most popular. Call it nostalgia, bias, or whatever you like: People like what has come to be known as the “brick.” Our collector Jonathan is no exception. The Game Boy’s original form factor was always his favorite. Although ironically, he could never play any of the older models due to the difficultly he has seeing the screen. He tried to remedy this by purchasing a modded Game Boy from eBay, with a back light already installed. What he would learn from this experience was that having a back light was just not enough. Because of this sad fact, there are people who have taken it upon themselves to mod the Game Boy, using techniques that go further than just installing a back light.
Back Lighting Is Not Enough
The Game Boy’s display was designed to utilize a mirror to reflect light from an external source. The reflection of light is what helps make the pixels on the display visible. Back lighting can be placed on the top, bottom, or sides of the display, although a back light won’t improve the Game Boy’s poor contrast. This is because a back light utilizes the display’s mirror in a same manner an external light would. The advantage of a back light is that it allows a person to play a Game Boy in a dark setting as well as making the display glow. External lighting on the other hand, tends to reflect off the display’s plastic exterior.
Inverting The Screen Will Not Give You A Seizure
One way to improve the contrast on a Game Boy (or create the illusion of improving it) is to invert the display. Inverting the display causes the lighter pixels to go dark, and the darker pixels to go light. Most games are designed using low contrast colors. The only reason a game would utilize higher contrast colors is to create a dark atmosphere. A horror themed game, or a space shooter are just a few typical candidates for dark, high contrast colors.
There are two popular methods for inverting the display: One method involves using polarized film; The other requires soldering connections to a hex inverter chip. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, which we’ll explore.
A Game Boy uses polarized film to make the pixels on the display visible. Polarized film cannot work without light, which is why there is mirror behind the display. The mirror is used to reflect light through the polarized film, which in turn passes through the display. Without polarized film, it wouldn’t be possible to see the pixels on the display.
Polarized film works by allowing light of certain frequencies to pass through, while trapping light of different frequencies. When used in conjunction with an liquid crystal display, polarized film can reveal what is unseen. This is possible because polarized film discriminates between different forms of light.
A special bi-directional film is used to invert the display’s pixels. This type of film has two uses: In it’s natural orientation, it can be used to replace the Game Boy’s existing film. When it is flipped 90 degrees, bi-directional film can achieve total display inversion. A draw back to using this method of display inversion is that it’s permanent. Once the film is installed, it can’t be removed without disassembling the Game Boy. Another method used to invert the screen involves a hex inverter circuit. It can be connected to a switch used to toggle inversion on or off. A Game Boy that utilizes a switch for inverting the screen is said to be bi-verted.
Hex Inverter Circuit
A hex inverter circuit is a chip that’s used to invert a signal that’s passed through it. It works by taking a value from an input, and sending an altered value through an output. For example, if the value 1 were sent to the chip, the value 0 would exit the chip. Another example is if a white pixel were to be sent to an input leg on the chip; A black pixel would exit through an output leg.
The chip is powered by connecting it to a clock that is used for updating the display. The Game Boy has two data lines used for pixel information: bit 0 and bit 1. These two data lines are connected to inputs on the chip. Hex inverter chips have a total of 6 inputs and 6 outputs, but only two of them are needed to invert the display.
Once the inverter chip is installed, it powers on whenever the Game Boy needs to update the display. The Game Boy uses a clock that sends 5 volts of power to the chip. When the chip is powered on, it receives data from bits 0 and 1. The data is inverted by the chip and sent to the display creating the inversion effect.
The disadvantage of an inverter chip is that it requires power to operate. Also, installing one is an involved process that requires a soldering iron. The advantage of an inverter chip comes into play when it is installed in conjunction with a bypass switch. This switch can be connected to the chip, allowing a person to toggle between regular, and inverted mode. A GameBoy is said to be “bi-verted” when it has a inverter chip with a switch installed. For the sake of this article, we’ll call this a bi-verted switch. There is also another form of bi-version that can be used to achieve a higher contrast. This second method involves inverting the screen twice.
Bi-version? Or Double Inversion
In the previous section we described what a bi-version switch is, but what is bi-version? Perhaps a better term used to describe it would be a double inversion. So how does double inversion work? As we have covered already, one method of inverting the display is to use polarized film. Another method is to use a hex inverter chip, but what if we were to use both? The result is what modders have come to refer to as a biverted display.
Bi-version works by installing a hex inverter chip to invert the display. The next step is to install polarized film rotated at 90 degrees, which will invert the display again restoring it back. By inverting the display with the chip, we achieve a slightly higher contrast. A polarized lens used in conjunction with the chip inverts the colors again, helping us achieve an even higher contrast. Using this bi-version method, combined with a back light, we are able to get the most of of the Game Boy’s display.
You can build a Game Boy yourself with a bi-verted display and back light. What you will need for this project is a soldiering iron, solder – $4, some 30 gauge wire – $5, a hex inverter chip – $2, 1k Ohm resistor – $1 (to protect the hex inverter chip), a back light – $10, some polarized film – $3, and a Game Boy – $20. The total cost to perform this mod yourself: $45! Not bad if you’re good with a soldering iron. For the rest of us, our friend Jonathan occasionally sells modded Game Boys on eBay (http://www.ebay.com/sch/necrom23/m.html).
Interview With Jonathan Chapman
Jonathan Chapman is the man when it comes to Game Boy modding. If it wasn’t for him, I would have never discovered what could be achieved with the Game Boy. Through a little bit of research, fueled from tips I received from him, I was able to learn a little bit about how integrated circuits work. Since I have yet to do a Game Boy mod myself, I figured why not interview Jonathan so we could learn a little from his experience.
How long have you been repairing and modding Game Boys for?
Jonathan: [I have been] Modding about 3 or 4 months now (been collecting for years).
What is your most challenging Game Repair? and Mod?
Jonathan: Hmm.. For repair, just getting the vertical lines gone and the sound working. For the mods.. well I really just buy components (including painted shells). Also, I’ve tried and can’t fix missing horizontal lines (vertical lines are fine). And I’ve fixed the sound by re-flowing solder, but haven’t really replaced all the capacitors on a Game Boy yet (it’s something I’ll play around with).
Biverting the screen on a Game Boy is interesting ([It] involves cutting two traces [from the display], soldering [it] to a hex inverter chip, and then soldering that to the board). I’ve kind of got things [down] to a science, but when I first started, getting the film off the back of the LCD glass was tricky (especially when the adhesive is all crusty from age and abuse).
What is your favorite Game Boy mod out of your collection?
Jonathan: That’s a tough one. I guess the orange/red camo/marbled/splatter one is my favorite. I picked it out from a contact that sent me pics of extra shells he had gotten in. When I got it in the mail, he had shipped it with some cables and they had gouged the paint pretty badly. So I ordered some paint and touched it up, and [now] it looks better than it did originally. [It] Definitely gained some character once finished.
How many Game Boys do you have in your personal collection so far?
Jonathan: For original (DMG-001) Game Boys I have 16 or so that I’ll keep for now. I have about 12 or so Game Boy Colors, around 12 Game Boy Advances, around 12 Game Boy Pockets, 16 Game Boy SP’s (mostly because I liked putting vinyl lables on them), 2 Micros (Famicom-style and Black), about 12 Nintendo DS’s (collecting the multiple colors), 3 DSi XLs (brown, blue, red), 2 3DS’s (black/blue).. maybe more.. have to look.
What is the process you go through to repair and mod a Game Boy?
Jonathan: [The] Process is something like this:
- Check the screen and speaker (see what the damage is).
- Disassemble Game Boy and keep track of screws
- Check the board for corrosion and blow it out with an air can.
- Clean off gunk with 90% alcohol and clean up the rubber parts.
- Remove the back-glass film and clean off residual adhesive.
- Dry-fit the back-light assembly and power unit on as a test.
- Make sure there is no dust between glass and back-light and permanently fit in back-light.
- Solder in the wires with the resistor.
- Test again (because it really sucks to get everything together and have to disassemble again).
- Assemble Game Boy.
- Clean outside really well.
Where do you get your parts?
Jonathan: I scavenge everywhere for used/broken Game Boy’s (sometimes buy broken lots on ebay). Get back lights, buttons, etc from kitsch-bent.com and asmretro.com. I’ve also done bulk orders from handheldlegend.com on back lights as well as buying from some individuals.
As we conclude, it is time to take a look at where we are in this series. This is the first article out of 20 that I plan on doing for Limited Edition. The idea for this introductory article was to provide a glimpse of some of the things that can be done with the Game Boy. For most people, installing a back light, and improving the contrast is a significant leap.
It’s also important to highlight that when the Game Boy was introduced, it was not perfect. A flaw with it’s display caused a ghosting effect whenever objects moved around. This same flaw was responsible for the lack of contrast, which can’t ever be fixed, but as demonstrated, can be remedied. What I like about the biverted mod personally, is that it shows there is always a way around a particular problem. In our case, we cannot improve the display’s contrast, but we can make the display more visible.
For those who are interested in Jonathan Chapman’s modding and collecting endeavors, he has provided us with a few useful links on where to find him:
eBid: http://us.ebid.net/perl/main.cgi?mo=user-store&title=retro-gear – A trading post/storefront ran by Jonathan Chapman where he sells items he’s collected from trades, or picked up at flea markets.
eBay: http://www.ebay.com/sch/necrom23/m.html – An account Jonathan uses to sell his latest Game Boy mods.
- maxjus. “Restore and Modify an Original DMG Gameboy” instructables.com. n.d. web. 2, Aug 2014.
- BenBurge. “The Ultimate Guide to Creating Chiptunes on the GameBoy!” instructables.com. n.d. web. 2, Aug 2014.