Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hand-held gaming mods : Success and FAILURE!

If failure is one of the basic freedoms, as the Fourth Doctor tells D84, a sentient robot in the Robots of Death, then I have had been feeling very free lately.

Lately I have had a resurgent interest, as regular readers of this blog may note, in the Game Boy line.  I had a Game Boy Pocket and finally decided to try to install a backlight into it.  I ordered my backlight from Hand Held Legend, and it came very quickly.  I wanted a white backlight so as to minimize the color change when the backlight is installed.  While it will not look exactly the same, the Pocket's screen is close to true grayscale.

Before I could add the backlight, I discovered that the A/C power socket was not providing power to the system.  Batteries would work, so I guessed it was a bad connection.  I did not have a multimeter handy which I could use as a continuity tester.  The only schematic I had was for a Game Boy Color, and while the power section is very similar, there are differences.  I was able to fix the issue by soldering a wire from the positive pin to the positive battery terminal.  I do not believe that socket is connected exactly in this way and I may have destroyed an Official Nintendo Game Boy Pocket AC Adapter getting it to work.  I believe that at the very least there is a diode between the positive pin and terminal.  Fortunately, I had bought a Radio Shack (Enercell) 3v/700W AC adapter that worked.  You need to get an Adaptaplug Type A and the tip must be positive.  Unfortunately the wire I used for the patch was a bit too thick at .22 or .24AWG to snake it comfortably around the case.  Most Game Boy cases are tight, and tighter than they look when it comes to mods.

Okay, I fixed the AC power socket so I could use my 64MB GB Smart Card.  With the AC attached, there are no issues with contrast fluctuations with the screen.  I have read that this is also a concern with the vastly superior EverDrive GB, one of which I hope to obtain by this Christmas.

Now came time to install the backlight.  To install a backlight in a Game Boy or Game Boy Pocket, you need to remove the reflective and polarizing layers from the glass Liquid Crystal Display.  In order to remove these two layers, you have to wedge a razor blade between the layers and the glass, get a corner separated and then carefully pull the layers from the glass without destroying the screen.  The screen has connections horizontally and vertically, and the layers are affixed to the screen with some kind of adhesive.

The hardest part of the mod is removing these layers without cracking the screen or irreparably damaging the connections between the screen and ribbon cable.  While the screen comes totally away from the PCB, the ribbon cable goes up the back where you need to pull.  You have to get your razor blade in there without slicing the ribbon and pull all the layer off without damaging the ribbon or dislodging the ribbons connections.  I thought I did it right, but after I removed the layers from the Game Boy Pocket's screen, I found I had damaged the connection between the screen and ribbon cable.  There was a large gap in the scrolling "Nintendo", at least 16 pixels wide.  Unfortunately, unlike with an original Game Boy, heating up the area where the ribbon cable meets the screen with a soldering iron will not fix it.  I was able to get the lines appear some of the time by bending the ribbon on the bottom forward quite a bit, but this was obviously not a solution that would work in the long term.  Scratch one Game Boy Pocket.

I was not dispirited by this disappointment, and I knew that my local vintage gaming shop had an Original Game Boy, and I bought it off them for $20.  It was a bit dirty, the screen protector needed replacement and I could see that dirt had found its way onto the screen, but nothing that my used toothbrush and can of compressed air couldn't fix.  Fortunately the backlight I acquired can work in either a Game Boy or a Game Boy Pocket, and can fit inside the area for the screen without cutting.  Unlike the Pocket, the screen does not come totally off the PCB (the Game Boy has two PCBs).  The ribbons are soldered to the PCB, and you need to lift the screen up enough to get at the layers but not so much that you rip the ribbons from the PCB.

People online said that removing the layers from a Game Boy's screen was easier than the Game Boy Pocket's screen.  Unfortunately, I found it to be six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other.  The inner layer did not come off easily, I had to peel it off pieces at a time and probably left razor nicks in the glass.  When I put it back together, I found that I did not have dead pixel columns.  Instead, the lower right corner looked like I had cracked it when I peeled the last of the layers off.  It looked similar to how a broken pocket calculator's LCD looked.  The rest of the screen functioned normally.  Scratch one DMG Game Boy.

The Game Boy after the back-light was installed, I threw out the Pocket before I could take its picture.
In one day I had essentially destroyed two great vintage video game systems.  However, I was still undaunted and determined to mod a hand-held system successfully.  Ten years ago I had bought an Afterburner Kit for my Game Boy Advance.  The complexity of trying to install the front light in my GBA put me off trying it, and once the front-light GBA SP came out, I bought one and the Afterburner went into my miscellaneous console stuff drawer.  Occasionally I would pull it out and contemplate installing it, but I would look at the lengthy instructions and turn back to my backlit GBA SP.  However, determined to have something to show for all my modding efforts, I grabbed a lightly used GBA I acquired and went to work.

The Afterburner is a PITA to install, no bones about it.  The hardest part for me was scraping down the plastic in the screen area.  All those little bits of plastic tend to create dusty conditions that tend find their way in between the screen.  I did not use a dremel because I did not know if I would carve too much and create holes in the front of the case.  That was a mistake.  I apparently lost the included 44 ohm resistor that goes to reduce the screen brightness.

They also give you these really tiny wires, which were difficult to strip with my wire stripper.  In addition to the front light, there is a piece of anti-reflective film that is supposed to go between the front light and LCD screen. Getting this thing on the LCD without bubbles forming was impossible.  Snaking those wires around the PCB was a miserable experience, and soldering the wires to the tiny potentiometer to control screen brightness and mounting it to the case was a miserable experience.  When everything was finally done, the case did not have the same snug fit as it did before I touched it.

I installed the backlight and found the result to be terrible.  The screen looked totally washed out and I had a hard time making out objects on the screen.  Game boy games were a little easier to see.  I thought installing the potentiometer would improve things, but it really didn't.  It was easier to make out the screen from an angle than from a head on view.  I thought I may have screwed up the AR film somehow.  I opened up the system, fiddled around with with and found that things looked better when the AR film was not present!  Maybe my AR film was defective or maybe I lost the proper layer in the last ten years.  I reassembled the GBA and found the results to be more tolerable, although it pales in comparison to my back-lit GBA (for which I had traded in my front-lit GBA).  Unfortunately when I was playing around with the front light and AR film, I had caused a few, quite visible, scratches to appear on the front light.  There is a bit of dust on the bottom part of the screen, but still I consider this mod much more successful than my Game Boy backlight mods.

The Game Boy Advance after the front-light was installed, the horizontal lines are a camera artifact.
The same system at an angle, you can see the scratches and dust, but the graphics are clearer than they appear.
Lessons I have learned from these experiences:

1.  Use thin wires, but thick enough to strip.

2.  A dremel is a wonderful tool, worth every penny.

3.  Have a safety razor handy.

4.  See through consoles help with threading wires.

5.  Have a spare screen protector ready

6.  If you don't break your Game Boy or Game Boy Pocket screen installing a back light, consider yourself fortunate.

7.  A dab of hot glue is not an evil thing.


trixter said...

You succeeded where I failed. I tried to add a backlight to my son's GBA and when I had it all assembled, it refused to turn on (everything, not just the backlight). He got a GBA SP shortly thereafter as an apology!

Anonymous said...

I know, not another resurrected post, but a nice article. I had preordered the Afterburner kit for the GBA and had a much different experience installing mine. I did not try to install a switch through the side of the case, I just wired the light to be on when the GBA was powered on. I followed the directions to the letter and I thought it was a pretty straightforward mod. There was some glare but it was much less objectionable than the glare provided by the aftermarket external lights which were the only other option at the time. My GBA was the solid indigo colored unit and there was a lot less light spill-over than what is shown in your photo. Good information.