Welcome to another Handheld Havoc. Any fan of classic handhelds who spends some time online hunting for information will come across a bevy of modifications available for their devices. Newer collectors might be a bit discouraged by the sheer number of modifications – usually just called “mods” – and so this article aims to give you a background on what they are and how they affect gameplay. I will be ignoring purely cosmetic mods such as custom artwork or new housing. Instead, I’ll go over the major mods for the classic handhelds. If they are mods I’ve performed personally, I’ll rate them on difficulty from 1-10. So, let’s get to it! Starting with the king of all handhelds:
Original Gameboy – DMG
The original, or DMG model, Gameboy is likely most people’s first foray into handhelds. It is a truly legendary device with one of the greatest catalogs in all of gaming. It is a robust, easy to use and comfortable system with one major drawback – the lack of any sort of lighting for the screen. The two mods that most will recommend for a DMG Gameboy are a back light and a bivert module. I’ll tackle the back light first.
A backlight is pretty much what it sounds like. It involves putting an LED based light source directly behind the screen, making it much easier to see especially in low light conditions. Virtually all modern day screens are backlit, so for a good example grab the nearest portable device and take a look. I will always recommend the Handheld Legend mods as they are very high quality and offer excellent customer service. The actual mod is fairly simple. Once the system is disassembled, you replace the original reflective backing to the Dot Matrix screen and replace it with the back light. Simply solder the wires from the back light to two points on the logic board, button the Gameboy up and you’re playing with power. It’s not a hard mod to do, and works quite well. I’d rate this mod as about a 3.5.
Next up is the bivert module. This one takes a bit more explaining. A screen like the Gameboy works by having an array of pixels – this is what the numbers in the “number by number” resolution mean – that are turned off or on, depending on what’s going on in game. The bivert module co-opts the signal from the processor to switch which pixels are on at a given time. By deploying this, along with a twist of the polarization filter on the screen, you get a dramatically sharper picture with far better contrast. The catch with a bivert is that because you have to change the orientation of the polarizer, you must install a back light mod before biverting your Gameboy. I highly recommend doing this mod if you have the skills, but it is a bit more challenging than a straight back light. I’d rate it a 6.
Other DMG Mods/Mods for Gameboy Pocket
There are other mods available for the DMG. Usually it’s something involving audio, like adding a pro audio splitter or a circuit bender module and are often used for chiptunes and DJing. I don’t personally care for either so I won’t describe either one in great detail as I’m not the best one to ask. Check the Handheld Legend site for their audio mods and a great description of what they can do.
There are a bevy of cosmetic mods that range from simple replacement housings to LED lit buttons and much more. I’m not much for aesthetics so I only use a replacement housing if the original is messed up enough. All the mods mentioned in this section are also available for the Gameboy Pocket, though the bivert module isn’t as big of an improvement as it is for the DMG.
The Gameboy Color is an interesting console. It was essentially created just to give Nintendo more time to get the Gameboy Advance out the door, but it ended up with a rather nice library of games. The addition of a color screen was nice, but once again it was not lit in any way. Luckily, we have mods to fix that.
Unfortunately, the GBC screen can only be front-lit due to how it was designed. This isn’t exactly a deal breaker, but the screen will have a sort of washed out look that’s inherent to front-lit displays. If you want this mod to look better, you can adhere it to the screen with LOCA. LOCA stands for “Liquid Optically Clear Adhesive” and helps light disperse more evenly through the front light. With a LOCA application the front light looks much more clear, and is honestly the only way I recommend doing the mod.
While the actual front light mod itself is quite simple, requiring only two bits of soldering, I have had some trouble getting LOCA to set right. However, as I have mentioned numerous times I am, in fact, an idiot. I recommend doing your research before trying it. A straight front light mod has a rating of 3, but with LOCA I’ll set it at 5.5. Recently, modder BennVenn has announced he will be selling a backlit screen replacement, but I have no experience with that one.
Here’s where things get interesting. Years ago when the GBA modding scene started, there were an abundance of kits for quite cheap that would back light the screen, but they were difficult to install. Unfortunately, the supply of these kits has dried up so front lighting has become the standard. As with the GBC I’d recommend using LOCA to ensure even lighting but you will still have a bit of a washed out image. The mod itself is fairly simple, except for the LOCA installation which I may just suck at. I’ll rate it at a 4.
But what if you want to drop the extra cash and get all backlit glory? Then you can actually use replacement screens for GBA SP models that have back lights built in, but they require more effort. They are around $80-$100, compared to just $10 for a front light mod. I don’t have any experience installing these so I can’t comment on how it is to install. I will say that an SP front light panel is one of the best looking screens you’ll get on any handheld so advanced modders with cash to burn might want to look into this.
Nintendo DS Lite
I only want to mention this because of a handheld you’ll hear about from Gameboy enthusiasts. A “Gameboy Macro” is made by seperating the two halves of a DS lite and using the bottom section as a large screen Gameboy Advance. Very cool, but I’ve never tried it so I won’t rate the difficulty.
Sega’s attempt to take down the Nintendo juggernaut, the Game Gear was essentially a portable Master System that boasted a color display and backlit screen. The downside was the battery life paled in comparison to a Gameboy and the screen wasn’t that great. But that’s okay because we can rebuild it, we have the technology.
The most common mod isn’t so much mod as it is a repair. The Game Gear used capacitors – components that store electricity for later use – that were cheap and end up going bad. You can buy kits with modern capacitors to replace the old ones, and this fixes common issues with screen clarity, sound going out and similar things. If you have any skill with soldering and patience, you shouldn’t have trouble with this fix, though to replace all the capacitors will take time. I rated this at a 6.
The next most common mod is to replace the backlight of the original unit with a new LED set up. Originally, the Game Gear was backlit by a small fluorescent tube which is why battery life is so terrible. This is a fairly complex mod, and one I haven’t done yet. There’s a lot to it, and I’ve researched enough to say it’s like a 7 on the difficulty scale.
Finally, you can go full bore and just replace the entire screen with a modern day LCD variant. This is one that’s actually made by a Nintendo Age denizen and fixes virtually all the issues with the original screen. It’s also ten times more expensive than a simple LED mod and likely to be much more work. If you’re interested I’d advise taking a trip to the University of YouTube for more on this.
This amazing handheld was nothing less than a totally portable Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. It was compatible with the vast majority of the Genesis library, had a gorgeous screen and was very comfortable to hold, with one major drawback. This thing eats batteries like crazy and the only real mod is an LED replacement for the screen. Much like the Game Gear, the screen was lit by a small fluorescent tube, which is the cause of the battery munching insanity. I haven’t tried this mod as all I have is my childhood Nomad. If I was going to do it, I’d have to be very certain as to what I was doing.
The point of this article was for me to try and give a basic overview of the most common mods that you will encounter in handheld collecting, hopefully I succeeded. This is certainly not all the mods, let alone all the handhelds you might come across, but it’s a primer on what goes on so you can better follow other collectors while talking mods. If you are interested in doing them yourself, I recommend the parts from Handheld Legend and checking out the YouTube channel This Does Not Compute for fantastic walkthroughs of doing the actual modifications. See you next entry.