Thursday, February 21, 2013

Retro Repair and Modification: DMG Game Boy

By Heath Aldrich
This machine kills preconceptions. 
It is no surprise by now that I love my old gaming devices.  I like to collect and display them, I like to play with them, I like to repair them, and now, I like to modify them.  A few weeks back, Super Hexagon was released on the Android OS, and I had a retro itch that only Terry Cavanagh can scratch.  In standard fashion with any Terry Cavanagh game, it's charming retro aesthetic draws you in, and its superior chiptune soundtrack and game play keep you coming back for more.  This game was special though, it had a very modern sounding chiptune soundtrack that reset to different parts of the track every time you died, which is often, so it means that you never get to listen to more than a couple of seconds at a time.  I would rage quit Super Hexagon often, but keep humming the music in my head, so I hopped on to the old YouTubes and searched this mysterious Chipzel, who wrote and performed the music.  If you are not familiar with the musical genre of chiptunes, then you are not alone, there are a lot of you out there.  Chiptunes is in reference to the way the music is written and performed, which happens to be using old video game hardware and computers like the Commodor 64 or the Nintendo Game Boy.  Until now, most of the chiptune music I was exposed to was either actual video game music, or very inspired by the old technology sounds, a blip here, a bloop there, that sort of thing.  Chipzel melted my face off, I had never heard chiptunes, or any music sound like that before, and I was compelled to find out how those sounds were being made.  My history with electronic music is spotty at best, and apathetic at the worst, so I was pretty surprised that I was hooked by this.  Turns out that she has two old school Nintendo Game Boys and some software called LSDj to write the music.  I was so surprised that that noise was being produced by the old toaster sized Game Boy, that I knew I had to try it out, but first, I needed an old Game Boy.

Turns out that sold my old Game Boy in my youth to get a Game Boy Advance, so I no longer had the model that I wanted for this project.  The particular model of Game Boy is called a DMG-01, this is the classic grey Game Boys, and the Play It Loud colored Game Boys.  I quickly turned to my Facebook family and threw it out there "who has an old Game Boy they would like to donate for science?"  With in 20 minutes of me posting that, my old friend Ryan, offered up his childhood toy.  Actually, the word "toy" does not do this artifact justice.  This grey piece of plastic was covered in scars from their past, this was his friend, this is a relic.  You could feel all of the special moments as you ran your fingers on the surface, the hours of playtime built up in the layer of body soil, the scuffs on the corners as it had been dropped at school, or the strategically carved passcode into the side of this totem.  This was no mere toy, this was special.
This means something, this is special.
With this sort of history tied to a Game Boy, I did not feel right using it in its current state.  This case belonged to Ryan, I would never live up to the expectations of that childhood memory.  I decided that I was going to need another case for this Game Boy, and possibly another Game Boy.  As with any modification, you will run into a lot of road blocks, most of which make them selves known in the shape of needed repairs.  Ryan's Game Boy had some problems, it turned on, but didn't stay on, and the screen had some dead pixel rows.

As with any of my repairs and mods,  they are for entertainment purposes only, and are not to be used as a step by step guide.  Hopefully they will give you some insight on doing them yourself, but their are already tons of great step by step guides out there.  Proceed at your own risk.

One row of vertical lines, and one the almost unfixable, horizontal dead pixel lines.
Repair #1 - Fixing dead pixels

This is a fairly easy fix.  Remember back a couple of repairs ago to my Virtual Boy repair, the problem is essentially the same.  Flex cable comes unglued from the screen, you have to reattach the cable, only this time you are not going to put this in the oven for a couple of minutes.  This time you age going to take a your hot soldering iron and rub it on the flex cable closest to the bottom of the screen.  I know, it sounds crazy, but it works... Most of the time.  While with most of the lines, this technique will work, but not always.  I was unable to get the dead pixel rows to come back to life on Ryan's DMG, but had great luck on my second one I repaired.  Watch this video to get a better grasp on the technique for the repair, and after you watch that, I will talk about the dreaded horizontal dead pixel line.
Now that you a master at repairing vertical lines, let us talk briefly on how to remove those dreaded horizontal lines... You don't.  It is not that the problem is unfix-able, it is that the problem is extremely difficult to fix without causing more problems.  The LCD screen of the DMG has two flex cables attached to it, one to control the X axis and the other to control the Y.  The flex cable that is attached to the bottom of the screen is made out of a heat resistant material that you can heat up to reactivate the glue.  The flex cable that is attached to the right side of the screen is; 1)  Attached to the back of the screen, making it very difficult to get to in the first place.  2)  It is made from the flimsiest material ever.  It melts, it tears, and messing with it will more than likely cause more problems.
This screen is fucked.
I picked up a second Game Boy at a thrift shop for $5, and experimented on the screen, because its only problem was the screen.  The unit itself was in great shape, so I figured I would have more luck fixing a clean specimen.  I tried clamping the cable with large paper clamps and running a soldering iron across the top of the glass to heat it up from underneath the cable, nothing.  I tried clamping two pieces of glass and sandwiching the LCD screen with mat board shims to put pressure on the cable, and then running a heat gun on the screen to get all the glue reactivated, and all I accomplished was melting the shit out of the plastic bezel around the screen.  So far, I had not made anything worse, but was a far cry away from fixing anything.  In one last attempt to fix all of the horizontal scan lines, I tried running the hot soldering iron across the connecting surface of the LCD screen.  Big mistake.  As I stated before, this cable melts, so you have to keep the soldering iron in motion so as not to melt a hole through the cable.  I never got any of the dead lines to comeback, and eventually slipped, and melted a hole through the cable.  I emailed Nonfinite from nonelectronics.com (a great place to get stuff for your builds) and asked him if he has had any luck fixing them, and he had the same problems.  My next try is going to be putting the whole top board into the oven, and letting it cook for a couple of minutes, but for now I will file that problem as unfix-able.

Repair #2 - Intermittent Power

There are a number of reasons why your DMG wont stay on, but the easiest one, and the most common one is to clean the battery contacts.  After years of abuse, and batteries being left in the system to corrode, you simply wont get a good contact, causing your DMG to do some weird things.  Really you should clean your DMG from top to bottom before doing any mods or repairs, you can save yourself a lot of trouble that way. Use cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol to clean contacts, buttons, the case, pads, and then wipe them dry with a clean cloth.  Anything that needs heavier cleaning like the battery terminals, can be cleaned with tougher solvents, but be careful not to get it all over the DMG, or yourself.  Good DMG hygiene will prevent a lot of problems too, like load errors, or static in your headphones.  Now it is on to the builds.

Mod #1 - Changing The Case

This is probably the easiest modification to do.  All you need is a triwing screwdriver, a precision sized philips screwdriver, a new case (or old), and a bit of free time.  I ordered this case from Kitsch-Bent, it was $13 and it came with transparent blue buttons, and a screen lens.  I also ordered from Kitsch new battery terminals, because mine were pretty fried.  You can also order some cases from Nonelectronics as well as other parts.  I highly recommend using this time to clean you DMG since it will be totally naked for a bit.  Don't loose any screws, and the mod should go fine.

Mod #2 - Adding The Prosound RCA Jacks To The DMG


That's how she likes it.
This mod is a bit trickier.  Most people ask me "why" when I tell them I am doing this mod.  Their thought process is that there is already a headphones output, "why not use that?"  My answer is, and will always be "standards."  The sound is amplified before it leaves the headphone jack to power the tiny speakers that are in your headphones.  If you were to run that signal to a soundboard or a recording device, it will already have gain on the wave, so you will be recording an unclean signal.  What the prosound mod does is that it bypasses the amplification circuit and gives you a pre-gain line level.  Less noise, better sound.  The problem with this mod is that there is not much room in the case, and you have to solder three small wires to three small points on the board.  I chose to mount the RCA jacks to the top of my DMGs because there is enough space between the top board and the back board to have the legs of the RCA jacks not be majorly in the way.  You will need to drill your holes to a 1/4" size to fit the jacks in the top half of the case, and you will need to make sure that you will clear all of the screw holes where you drill.  Watch this video of Nonfinite completing a 1/8" prosound mod, the parts might be different, but the procedure is the same.  I also bought my jacks from Nonelectronics for the sole reason that they provided great tutorial videos on YouTube.
Once you have completed this mod you will probably encounter a couple of hang ups when you are trying to put this all back together.  Getting the inert's back inside the case without ruining your mod is tough, and I don't have a great solution for this, but I know that it all does fit, you will have to be careful getting it back in.

Mod #3 - Backlight Your DMG
Damn, that is a great looking screen.
This mod is equally as hard as the prosound mod, only this mod is much more dangerous, please exercise extreme caution while performing this mod.  You will need: 1)  Everything else that used in the previous mods, plus a brand new razor blade. 2)  A V4 Envy back light from our good friends at Nonelectronics. 3)  Skillz.  The actual installation of the back light is surprisingly easy, but the prep takes some time.  Watch Nonfinite's video tutorial on how to remove the screen from the bezel, and peel off the backing.  I want you to pay extra close attention to this video, because you can very easily hurt yourself or damage you DMG.
See, that wasn't so bad, the most important part is to take your time.  I will say that I removed the bottom bar of the bezel to allow for the wires to have more moving room.  This can be achieved by using a pair of wire cutters and a little bit of muscle.
All you have to do once the backlight is in place is to solder it to a regulated power source, and Nonfinite shows you how to do that in this video.  And you should be complete, but before putting everything back together and checking it out to see if it works, pop some batteries in a test it out.  Make sure to keep the two circuit boards from touching, so nothing grounds out.  If it lights up and powers on. then you are in business.  Take your time on getting everything back into it's case, that way you don't undo any of that hard work you just did.  Congratulations, you have a DMG ready for stage or in the studio, now all you need is talent.

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