Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Retro Repair pt. 2: Virtual What?

By Heath Aldrich
Batteries not included
In 1995, one year before we all lost our minds over Mario 64, and our future home console was still named Ultra, the big N was trying to change the face of portable gaming, by covering the faces of the gamers.  The Virtual Boy was the planned successor of the most popular portable format since the paper back book.  The original "toaster sized" Game Boy came out in 1989, and changed the public's perception on what video gaming can be.  Road trips were filled with 50% less fighting between sibling, and 90% less "are we there yet(s)?".  Train rides to work were more pleasant as you would bury yourself in Tetris blocks, and smoke breaks were no longer for just smoking.  So, why wouldn't Nintendo want to try to repeat their success?  The early 90's were a interesting time, technology was starting to accelerate at an alarming rate, ask anyone who tried to keep up with PC's.  There was this "future" that all science fiction writers had been prophisizing about for years, virtual reality, where we could live inside the game.  Anytime a movie in the 90's showed "future technology," it was always someone wearing goggles and gloves, listening to really loud techno music. When Nintendo announced that they were releasing a black and red, virtual reality, gaming head set called the Virtual Boy, I was already brainwashed to want one.  The problem was, the Virtual Boy wasn't the future, it was barely a step up from the Game Boy.  Unfortunately, the Virtual Boy was a failure.  Maybe it was the fact that it only 14 games came out in the states, or the fact that the only color the lenses could produce was red, or that there was no comfortable way to play it, or the simple fact that you looked absolutely ridiculous playing it.

Is Virtual Boy the only Hipster proof system?
The Virtual Boy had a very short life, being released in mid August, and discontinued in December before it's first Christmas season was over.  Nintendo was quick to cover it's tracks by sending out a PR smoke screen that stated that the Virtual Boy was never intended to be the next Game Boy, it was intended to be a toy.  A $180 toy, that has $30 games that plugged into it.  Most of the kids who got it for Christmas, played with it for a week, and then boxed it back up, and put it in the closet never to be enjoyed again.

The weird thing is, even though the Virtual Boy was down and out, it quickly became a collectors item, and in much smaller circles, a homebrewer's wet dream.  Nintendo hardly flinched at killing the system, and some of us gamers couldn't let it go.  My uncle C.W. was one of the lucky few who received a Virtual Boy for Christmas, and promptly moved on with his life.  17 years later, I remember that he had one, buried in a closet somewhere, and I knew that it had to see the light of day again.

As I said in my last retro repair post, Nintendo products are made out of a rare material called Nintendite.  Well, Nintendo's stock pile must have been running low, because they were saving it for the Nintendo 64, so they opted to use a less rugged material to build the Virtual Boy.  For the most part, the Virtual Boy is built pretty well, but in order to achieve the stereoscopic effect, the system had to be designed drastically differently than other Nintendo products, making it comparatively fragile.  Out of the many design flaws the Virtual Boy has, there appears to be one that makes itself known.  In order to keep production costs lower, Nintendo used glue to attach the ribbon cables that power the lenses.  As time passes, the glue becomes fragile, and separates from circuit board, causing migraine inducing glitches in one or both of the lenses.  In extreme cases, the cable can separate from the board, leaving you to figure out how to reattach the cable to the board.  When I powered up my VB for the first time, I was so excited to relive my youth, only to have the right eye, bugging out.
This is the inside of  the Virtual Boy.
With the nerd rage thermometer rising, I hop on the Googles to see it anyone else has had this issue.  Again, the internet is the wonderful wealth of information that it promises to be. I instantly found this forum called Planet Virtual Boy, and realized that there were still people out there who actually care about the continuing legacy of the Virutal Boy.  In the forums, I realized that this was a common issue, and the fix shouldn't be anymore difficult than the Game Gear repair I just did.  I watched a number of videos on YouTube to see how to do the repair, and if you have the same problem, and are checking out this blog for advice, stop now, and search YouTube for better instructions. The solution to this problem... Remove the lenses and bake them in the oven. Yes, bake them in the oven.
That bastard ribbon cable, go fuck yourself.
Using a oven feels very arcane to me, sort of like using a hammer to fix the Mona Lisa, but all advice led me to that conclusion.  Before you could start on this project you need to know one thing.  In order to keep people from stealing their design, Nintendo added one more security feature that had not been in previous systems, they added super deep wells for the security screws, so you need a longer bit to remove the bottom case.
I got this from Amazon.com and it worked like a charm
Once the case is open, your main goal is to not fuck anything up, because the motherboard is now only attached by the cables that it powers.  That's right, the motherboard is floating in the case, the only thing that keeps it mounted it is the bottom part of the case.  From hear, it is pretty easy, unscrew the two screws that are directly on the circuit board for the lenses, do not unscrew anything else, or you may never get the VB re-calibrated again.  Second, grab the paper tab and ribbon cable, and pull.  The cable should come right out, and you should be ready to bake the lens.  If you remove both lenses, be sure to put them back in the right spots, I am not sure if it makes a difference, but I would not risk getting them mixed up.
The is the screen of the VB.  If this was still being made, nerds would be making jewelry out the failed screens. They are really stunning in person. 
Next you preheat the oven to about 170 degrees, and place the the lenses, screen up on a baking sheet, and let them sit in the oven for about 5 minutes.  Please watch a video on this before actually baking the lenses, this will visually give you the sign that they are done, so you don't over cook them.  Pull them out of the oven once the glue is reactivated and place them on a flat, cool, surface, and press the circuit board at the ribbon cable joint for a couple of minutes to re-adhere the ribbon cable.  Once the lenses are cooled down, they ready to be put back into the VB, and you are ready to play some red games in 3D.  It is too bad the the repair process doesn't make the games any better, but at least now, you will be able to know that you are keeping the memory of this failed system alive so future generations will not make the same mistake.

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