A Wreck to Remember: How to Hack a Game Boy Advance SP
Many years ago, Mindtribe took apart a Game Boy Advance SP for a Teardown Thursday. And today, instead of just tearing one apart, we’ll rebuild and and repurpose one, giving a once forgotten legacy handheld a bright future. Along the way, we’ll learn about the pedigree of the Game Boy Advance, some crude chemistry behind painting and finishing with rattle cans, replicating parts, resin casting, silicone casting, and more. Let’s get started!
A Brief History of the Game Boy Advance
The Nintendo Space World 2000 prototype Game Boy Advance in an unreleased orange and silver colorway.
At the dawn of the new millennium, Nintendo released Game Boy Advance (GBA), a 32-bit cartridge-based handheld gaming console capable of displaying a whopping 32,768 colors on a 240-by-160 LCD. The first reveal of the Game Boy Advance was at Nintendo Space World 2000 (Nintendo’s video game trade show), where Nintendo displayed a prototype of the handheld console donning a mind-meltingly gorgeous silver and orange colorway. Sadly, this colorway never saw an official release, disappointing dozens of silver and orange enthusiasts.
The original GBA contained an unlit, transflective screen that was almost unplayable in low-light.
Unfortunately, the original GBA was cursed with the unlit transflective screen of its ancestors, making it practically unusable unless in direct sunlight.
The Game Boy Advance SP was the GBA’s upgraded, screen-lit clamshell brother.
To address this issue, Nintendo released the Game Boy Advance SP, a GBA with a rectangular clamshell design and front-lit screen. The front-lit screen, although a decent solution for gaming in the dark, significantly diminished screen contrast. Nintendo eventually released the AGS-101 hardware revision to the GBA SP, with a back-lit screen that used an LED panel behind the LCD to greatly increase contrast when compared to the front-lit model.
The AGS-101 GBA SP model (Left) sports a back-lit LCD that greatly improves contrast over the original AGS-001 (Right). (Source: imgur user dada78641)
The AGS-101 is the golden child of the Game Boy Advance pedigree, and it is generally regarded as the ideal medium for playing Game Boy games for its vibrant back-lit LCD. However, many prefer the original GBA’s more comfortable oval form factor, despite its unlit screen, when compared to the relatively narrow GBA SP.
In layman’s terms, the perfect GBA– complete with an round form factor and high-contrast back-lit LCD– can’t be bought, only built. (…Well, you can buy modified original GBAs with back-lit screens on eBay, but where’s the fun in that?) In any case, the perfect GBA must be built, forged from the remnants of an original GBA and a GBA SP AGS-101, bred for the best traits of each. Today, we embark on a quest to create the perfect GBA as described above, but with a unique twist: we’ll attempt to recapture the magic of the original silver-and-orange prototype from Space World 2000. Along the way, we’ll explore the challenges that come with meticulously rebuilding this legendary handheld with aftermarket parts and rattle can paint, venturing into the territory of obsessive hobbyists.
The proud parents of our newborn Game Boy, a pink GBA SP AGS-101 and glacier original GBA.
To begin, we’ll need to paint the shell silver. But Mike, there already exists a silver GBA shell! Remember the Platinum edition that was released in November of 2002? Why don’t you just buy that instead? Yes, I do remember the Platinum edition GBA– a mighty fine colorway indeed. However, this colorway is hard to come by– and aftermarket shell manufacturers don’t make shells in silver. So we’ll take the painting route instead. The original GBA shell is dented to hell, so we’ll use aftermarket shells purchased from eBay. The molding on them isn’t perfect; there is some waviness near the corners. Nintendo’s quality control is known for being top-notch, so any aftermarket parts won’t be up to the “Nintendo Seal of Quality” standard. We’ll need to carve out some ribs in the shell to make room for the larger LCD containing the back-light. (Credits to Rose Colored Gaming)
Prepping for the Paint
When it comes to prepping these shells (and any part you want to paint), the name of the game is adhesion. Adhesion means two things: cleanliness, and primer. We wash the parts very thoroughly with soap and water, and wipe them with some isopropyl alcohol to remove any grease or mold release, wearing gloves to prevent getting finger oils on our part.
Applying Tamiya fine surface primer to our GBA parts.
We apply a thin coat of Tamiya’s white primer fine surface primer. Grey primer also works, but will cause the final colors to come out slightly darker. After a 24-hour dust-free wait period, we’re ready to begin applying color coats.
Pro tip: In case dust particles do happen to fall on the part, just wait until the primer is dry, and use a clean microfiber cloth to brush off those nasty dust particles.
We’re using Tamiya’s synthetic lacquer paints because they are great for preserving detail due to their thin application. They’re typically used for Gunpla modeling, which is a very detail oriented craft. They also come in some great colors, including lots of metallic varieties. The GBA shells and buttons are made out of ABS, which will play very nice with synthetic lacquer. (Tamiya’s Polycarbonate paint will react poorly with ABS, so avoid the PS line of paints if you’re looking to paint ABS.) The colors we’re using are TS-30 (Silver Leaf) and TS-12 (Orange). When it comes to painting these shells, there are three main variables to keep in mind: distance from the nozzle to the can, speed of the can moving relative to the part, and temperature/humidity of the can/environment. That’s a lot to wrap the mind around, so we’ll start with a helpful diagram from Tamiya’s very own guide to painting (a great read!).
When the paint comes out of the can, it atomizes into millions of tiny droplets. Once they hit the surface, these droplets will try to cohere to one another, “puddling” on the surface and resulting in a sooth, glossy finish. However, if there is too much distance between the nozzle and the surface where the droplets are airborne, the solvent in them can evaporate, and by the time they hit the surface, they are unable to fully join their neighboring droplets. This results in a surface finish that is somewhere between “orange peel” and flat. Not pretty. The longer the distance between the nozzle and the surface, the more time the paint droplets have to “dry” while in the air, when they should be drying after they’ve hit the surface. On the other hand, if your nozzle is too close to the surface, or you move too slowly across the part, the paint will run. Blech! The moral of the story is to keep your paint’s viscosity low, and to observe how the droplets are falling onto the surface of your part, rather than looking at the color of the part itself or the color of the paint. Adjusting the distance and speed of your nozzle is a matter of gaining experience and staying vigilant while applying coats. The third variable is trickier to manipulate. We can control the viscosity of the paint by controlling the temperature of the can. And high humidity (> 60%) can prevent paint coats from curing correctly, so unless you can manipulate humidity, it’s best to paint on a dry rooftop, around noon. (Humidity is highest closer to the ground.)
Pro tip: Heat the cans in hot water 30 minutes before painting. This will lower the viscosity of the paint, allowing it to be applied in thinner coats. Caveat: The paint will come out of the can faster, making the spray harder to control, so you’ll need to move across the part quicker. For more information on painting, read Tamiya’s guide. It’s a great read if you want to understand the granular intricacies of painting with any rattle can, not just Tamiya brand.
We’re using a jig made out of straws, double stick tape, and a barbeque tray. Since we’ve heated our cans, the paint comes out quick, and we need to move quickly across the part to ensure our paint doesn’t run. In total, the paint is applied in about three coats. The first is very light– not even enough to cover the entire part. After waiting half an hour, another coat is applied to cover the whole part, and then after another half hour a final coat is applied. Do not to try and cover the whole part with one coat; with the Tamiya paints, this will most definitely cause a run to occur.
After waiting a day or two to allow the paint to cure in a dust-free area, we apply Mr. Hobby Super Clear. Apart from having an awesome name, Mr. Hobby Super Clear will give the part an even surface finish, as well as protect and seal the paint.
The Buttons (Where things get interesting)
To make orange face buttons (A, B, D-pad buttons) , we will explore two options: resin casting new buttons, and painting over existing buttons.
Casting New Face Buttons
In order to cast new face, we need to first create a two-part mold. We’ll be using Smooth-On’s Oomoo, a silicone-rubber that is often used to create replica molds. Oomoo is desirable for its quick demold time and low viscosity, which captures small details (like the lettering on our buttons) and allows bubbles to escape from the premold mixture without the need for a degasser. We lay out the buttons inside of a makeshift cavity. We used an iPhone box and double stick tape to keep the buttons in place. After applying Mann 200 mold release, we pour the thoroughly mixed Oomoo into the cavity. After that’s cured, we tear the mold out, and cut some dove tail knots into the edges. After another coat of mold release, and then we place it back in the cavity upside down. Then we mix up another batch of Oomoo and pour it in.
The second pour of Oomoo will fill in those dovetails, which will act as locating features when we’re ready to cast our buttons. We separate the two molds, taking care not to tear the dovetails or any of the thin features responsible for the internal features in the buttons.
Now it’s time to cast the buttons inside of our shiny new mold. We’ll be using EasyCast Castin’ Craft, along with their line of resin pigments. In order to get the orange we want, we’ll use opaque yellow and transparent red.
Mixing Castin’ Craft requires accurate measuring tools; if the ratio is off by even a tiny bit, the final cast will come out soft and slightly mushy– no good for buttons. Once we’ve mixed the correct amount of resin, we add the pigment and throw it in the degasser to remove all the bubbles. In order to prevent bubbles from showing up in our cast, we use a syringe to shoot the resin into the cracks that will form the internal features of the button.
And we put those two halves together using the dovetails. Inject more resin than necessary, so that when putting the halves together the resin oozes out like a packed sandwich. Take care not to squeeze the mold so that bubbles do not form. After a few days of curing, the face buttons are ready to pull out the mold! Here they are:
Details are preserved spectacularly. Unfortunately, they’re not the right color. Even after several tries, we found it very difficult to get the correct shade of orange. In addition, the buttons are slightly translucent, even when using opaque pigments. Although casting resin buttons is a totally viable option for people looking to create interesting translucent custom face buttons, they’re not quite true to the original GBA prototype, so we’ll paint existing face buttons instead.
Dying and Casting Start and Select Buttons
These buttons are trickier than the others, because they are soft silicone buttons. As we’ve shown already, we are capable of casting silicone– the tricky part is getting the color to be right. Others who have attempted to be replicate the Spaceworld 2000 GBA have failed to get the orange Start and Select buttons. We have the option of coloring existing buttons, or casting new buttons. We’ll first try coloring existing buttons. Thanks to a quick internet search on dying silicone, it turns out people have used hair dye to color silicone buttons dark colors in refurbished Game Boys.
Long story short, the hair dye method was a complete disaster for a couple reasons. It only seems to work for dark colors (like black or navy); bright orange hair dyes made the silicone buttons turn out brown at best. Even worse, the dye makes the button smell like the trashcan of a hair salon. No good. So instead, we’ll have to cast our own buttons, using dyes to get the color right. In order to do this, we won’t be using the same replication method we used for the face buttons. As it turns out, Oomoo doesn’t play well with whatever silicone the Start and Select buttons are made of. Times like these call for a 3D-printer. We designed a quick negative of the Start and Select buttons, with some locating features in Solidworks.
Then we mix up some Smooth-On (not a sponsor) Dragon Skin, along with some red and yellow silicone dyes to mix the right shade of orange.
And voila! Orange silicone Start and Select buttons. Let’s install them and get started! But in our 3-D printed hubris, we overlooked two important details: the original grey silicone button contains a conductive pad at the bottom that allows the motherboard to know when the button has been pressed.
Our orange silicone buttons are missing the conductive pads that make the original buttons work.
In addition, the hardness of our orange button is slightly softer when compared to the original, so it doesn’t preserve the snap-through buckling design feature of the original.
A quick solution to both of these problems is to snip the cylinders off of our orange silicone button and the original, and use Smooth-On Sil-poxy (seriously not a sponsor) to create a franken button. It’s not a pretty solution, but it’ll definitely work. It’ll be our little secret.
What about L, R, and the Bumpers?
The L and R buttons and bumpers are tricky. Their geometry don’t allow for easy replication like the A and B buttons do. If we chose to go with casting the face buttons, color matching between the silicone, face buttons, and L/R buttons and bumper would be a terrific task. Luckily, since we’ve opted to paint the face buttons, the easiest way to have consistent colors across all of the buttons is to paint the L/R buttons and bumpers as well.
Now that the mechanical parts are done, let’s move on to…
After coming so far and inhaling so many paint fumes, it’s quite easy to lose sight of what the original plan for the Game Boy is. But don’t forget, we’re doing this so that we can install the high-contrast back-lit Game Boy Advance SP LCD into an original Game Boy Advance form factor. Now we crack open our donor, the Game Boy Advance SP AGS-101 model. We’re mainly looking to remove the LCD, but opening up the GBAs allows us to take a quick look at the differences between the motherboards of the original and the SP.
Once we remove the GBA SP’s precious LCD, we take care not to get dust into the screen. Remember, the backlight is a foreign concept to our original GBA. It’s been sitting in the dark ages. Luckily, there is a market for pin adapters that allow the original GBA to talk to the GBA SP display. They’re on eBay for about 12 bucks a piece.
The pin adapters for connecting a GBA SP LCD to an original GBA.
There are two types of pin adapters, one for each type of model of the original GBA, which comes in 32-pin and 40-pin models. Depending on what model our GBA is, we’ll solder a lead from a transistor on the motherboard to the adapter in order to route power to the LED panel that lives behind the GBA SP’s LCD. Our model is the 32-pin, which means we have some soldering to do.
Using the microscope from Mindtribe’s EE lab, it’s a breeze soldering the lead from the adapter to the upper left leg of DA-1. We route the wire through the caps to the left of the transistor to provide some strain relief to the wire.
And finally, we’re ready to assemble! Placing it into the silver shell is easy once you’ve carved away the ribs to make room for the larger LCD. One last detail– we replaced the plastic screen with a more scratch-resistant glass lens, which will give the screen better clarity and a neat iridescent quality.
Once we’ve finished placing all the components and tightening all the screws, installing the glass lens, and putting in batteries (and even giving it a fake serial number label) we’re finally ready to bring a new Game Boy into the world.
Capturing the details of the Space World 2000 prototype GBA presented several intriguing challenges: painting detailed parts with Tamiya lacquer, matching color schemes between different fabrication methods, casting the orange silicone start and select buttons, creating silicone molds for resin- not to mention the time (and money) needed to screw up (a lot). All of these obstacles could have been easily avoided if we had instead decided to do a vanilla backlight mod, but the lessons we learned today are useful for more than just the obsessive task of making an old Nintendo handheld new again. Maybe they’ll come in handy when painting or fabricating parts for a prototype, or creating a replica mold out of silicone or 3-D printed parts.
Another lesson learned from this arduous process is patience. Every project teaches it at one point, but the meticulous nature of a personal project like this reinforces this virtue by reminding us that it’s important not to rush when there is no deadline, whether it’s waiting for a paint coat to dry, or the right tool to come in the mail. A wise man once said, “teardowns can be a fun and engaging way of sparking a young, inquisitive mind.” Perhaps the most important lesson learned from all this is that our old, torn apart gadgets may have more to teach us than just how they’re put together or what they’re made of.
Helpful Links, Sources
A helpful video on how to install the AGS-101 backlight from Faginrs500
A video on how to remove the GBA SP Screen from kindofalotofgaming
How to paint with Tamiya’s synthetic lacquers
A comprehensive guide to Tamiya synthetic lacquers, and samples of how they look on plastic spoons