Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Retro Modification: GBA Console(ish)

By Heath Aldrich
It's not purple, it's indigo.  
Nintendo has always been good at giving us gamers ways to enjoy their Game Boy games at home.  The Super Nintendo had the Super Game Boy, which was a cartridge adapter that allowed you to play Game Boy games on your TV, in color.  Nintendo skipped a generation with the Nintendo 64, all that system had was the transfer packs for Pokemon Stadium.  In 2003 Nintendo released the Game Boy Player for the Game Cube, and the heavens rejoiced.  This allowed you to play the entire back catalog of Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance games on the Game Cube, sans a few of the peripherals.  The Game Boy Advance is an incredibly complex machine, and it is very difficult to emulate because of that, so the Game Boy Player had to be almost an exact copy of the system.  The only drawback is that it needed a boot up disk to pass the Game Cubes hardware, and those disks are getting harder to come by.

One night, I was lying in bed playing Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga on my GBA SP, the clam shell front lit version of the Game Boy Advance, and I was getting frustrated with the washed colors on the screen.  I remembered that there was a newer model made that had a back lit LCD screen like the DS Lite, but the people who have those were selling them for about $50 and up on Ebay.  That is ridiculous amount to pay for something I already own.  I realized that the vast majority of games I would be playing is RPG's, and that I really should be looking for a Game Cube with a Game Boy Player, so I can enjoy the games on a bigger screen.  After I started my search for that, and got out bid a couple of times, my brain started to turn. "Why don't I figure out a way to mod a GBA to play on my TV?"  This seems like a totally doable process, but there is very little info on the process of doing this, because, as I found out later, it is almost impossible.

My goal seems simple, mod a GBA to plug into a TV and to have an external controller port so I can play for extended hours and not feel the portable gaming fatigue.  Little did I realize, but I was taking on a project that was way over my head.  I decided I wanted to modify an original NES controller to have L and R buttons for the external controller.  I like the look and the feel of them, and as I have stated before, old Nintendo products are almost indestructible.  To my surprise, I was unable to find any tutorials for that mod, I kept on thinking to myself "There is no way that I am the first person to think of this."  That was a thought I kept on having as my search continued.  Each piece to this puzzle is hidden, and every new revelation led me to believe I was never going to be able to complete this project, until I found this video.
My heart started to pound, as I watched this video over, and over again.  That kid had figured it out.  When no one else had, he did.  Luckily for me, he gave a brief description in the comments about how accomplish this.  While albeit vague, it gave me hope to continue on in my search on how to get this attached to my TV.  This was particularly frustrating because, almost every search lead me back to the same place, Game Boy Player and a Game Cube.  You might now be asking yourself, "Why is he so hellbent on making a GBA console, when there are clearly easier, and more readily available ways to play Game Boy Games on your TV?"  The answer to that question is simple, and two parts: 1)  Moving parts break, solid state tech is way more reliable. 2)  I like to tinker with things.  I was still very perplexed by the lack of info I was pulling up on how to hook the system up to TV, and then I got smart and typed "GBA console" into Google, and was pleasantly surprised by what I found next.  I found a person named Kon who had done almost the exact same mod I wanted to do, only 7 years earlier.  Here is the link, http://www.konlabs.com/articles_data/gba_console/index.htm I recommend worshiping it like your new religion.  He bluntly hits you with everything you need to achieve your goal, whether you have the skills, or not.

At this time, I must again state, try any modifications to your hardware at your own risk.  I will not be held responsible if you mess up your gear, and hopefully you can learn from my mistakes to save yourself the stress.

This is a generic NES Controller, I got it for $6 off Amazon.com
The NES controller was a pretty high tech piece of equipment for how simple it is.  Nintendo decided to use a complex clock mechanism, like how a keyboard for your computers works, to make this whole project harder on us in the future.  I am not exactly sure why, so I will claim it was to hinder our progress.  That means instead of having 9 (up, down, left, right, B, A, select, start, ground) wires running from the controller to the console, they used only 5.  We need to have 11 (the addition of L and R buttons) wires for this mod. To further explain, one thing needs to be demistified for you, all a button is is a circuit, a circuit that is always on.  In order to activate the button, you need to break the circuit, and send the current to ground. Pretty simple, huh?  Underneath the black cross, and red buttons, that we have all mashed for many years, are little silicone forms that have that black, hard spot in them, that rests on the circuit board.  That hard black spot is a conductive material that send the breaks the circuit, and sends the signal to ground. With this principal in place, all you need to do is figure out what wire connects to the ground, and isolate the button contacts from the rest of the circuit.
unmodified board.
As with all circuit boards, they are designed to have a level of efficiency that humans can't produce, so there is a level of elegance to them that should be admired.  Have you taken time to gaze at the glory of the NES controller and understand the flow of the current?  I will try to break it down for you, so it will speed up your learning curve.  On this particular board, the ground connection is the metal strip that goes all the way around the board, and also connects to all of the contact points.  DO NOT BREAK THAT CIRCUIT!!! That is one of the most important parts of the board.  You will need to take a razor blade and scratch out the copper in 3 spots on this board: 1)  On the 5 thin copper lines that connect to the directional buttons and select, which is in the center of the board. 2)  The thin strip that is coming of the start button. 3)  The two runs that connect the A and B buttons.
Board with 3 circuit breaks, one for directions and select, one for select, one for B and A
Once you have done that you will be ready to solder new leads to the test points on the board, and wire out to a connector.  The test points are the pencil sized exposed copper pads that are just before that actual button pad.  To get L and R in the mix, you will need two momentary micro switches. Modify the controller case to fit the switches, and solder wires to the connector, and to the ground.  Pretty simple, by the time you are done with this mod you should have 11 wires running to the connector.  I chose to use 15 pin VGA connectors because they have enough room to work on, and is not easy to get the ports wired up backwards.  You should use cable ties or shrink tubing to keep your wires under control.  And you should have a working GBA controller.

GBA Controller Mod:
Are you confused yet?  So am I.
The Game Boy Advance is a beautifully designed machine. The already compact device gets even smaller as you remove the case, and in order to do that, you need a triwing screw driver.  Once you get the back off  you will need to remove 2 more screws to get to the front of the GBA's circuit board.  Please take care to not scratch circuit board, or twist the ribbon cable.  Now, refer to Kon's page and look at the circuit board layout, this is where it gets tricky.

Memorize this.

Kon recommends using 28 gauge wire and a fine tip soldering iron, I second that.  I made the unfortunate mistake of using 22 guage solid core wire, because that is all that Radio Shack had, and I will explain my mistake a bit further on.  All of the contacts that you will need to solder to are labeled on the board, but they are very small, very close to other contacts, and very fragile.  Plan your coarse across the board, I went left to right, and wired my connector to suit.
Here is where I made my fatal flaw.
It is a good idea to hot glue the wires to a surface to keep them from popping off the test points. I did it to the back case, but I had gotten a bit a head of myself.  You see, I found a GBA TV converter on Ebay, and I needed to replace the back case with their new one.  When I went to remove the wires from the case, the test points broke off the board. FUCKFUCKFUCKFUCK.  Leaving this portion of the mod incomplete.  I could probably solder the wires to the actual button pads, but I would then run the risk of ruining the entire board, and I would have useless system.  So, I buttoned it all up and moved on to the last part of this mod.

GBA TV Converter:
The final piece of the puzzle, the GBA TV Converter.
This took me the longest to find online, but turned out to be the easiest part of the mod.  Innovation made this converter so it is about as plug and play as you could get.  All it is is a new back for your GBA with a ribbon cable that clips on to your existing hardware.  It only cost me $30 from Cheap Game Stuff on Ebay.  The only thing you need to know is that the stock Converter is for the first generation GBA's, that have a 40 pin ribbon cable. This is clearly marked on the board right next to the ribbon cable connector.  For newer systems, you will need an adapter which you can get from the same ebay store.  Follow the broken engrish directions, and you will be playing your Game Boy games on your TV in no time.

Not what I had planned ,but it will do.
This was a project that took me months to line up all the pieces, so I am a little dissapointed that I messed up the controller mod, but their is always next time.  Even with the GBA Converter attached to the back of the GBA, it is surprisingly easy to hold and to play, and will make long sessions of playing old Gameboy games much more comfortable.  The games look pretty good because they are connected to the TV by a S-video cable, and the Game Boy sounds, sound great in stereo through the TV.  I guess I will have to wait till I stumble across the next GBA to try the mod again.  All In all I would give this mod a difficulty of 6, mainly because of all the small soldering.  If I was to rate it off of research alone, this project would have been a 10 in difficulty.  I hope this helps you with your GBA mods, and would love to see pictures of your final projects.


  1. Love seeing projects like theese. I too love opening, looking, fixing, soldering and messing shit up in general.

    Just replaced the upper screen and resoldered the power button on girlfriends dslite. Worked great, only took a sixpack beer and lots of cursing.

    Seriously, thanks for sharing. Really inspirering.

  2. Thanks for the kind words! I had a sort of spiritual awakening after my first fix, and realized I had a much deeper connection to those pieces of plastic and circuit boards. I'm not great at it yet, but I love doing it, so I will get better. I would love to see some of your projects too, and if you ever need any help, I am only a shout away.


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