The Game Boy at 35: How modders are keeping Nintendo’s legendary handheld alive

The Game Boy at 35: How modders are keeping Nintendo’s legendary handheld alive

Nintendo’s Game Boy is the grandfather of modern gaming handhelds, with fans keeping the 35-year-old device alive, thanks to a thriving modding scene.

The Game Boy revolutionized gaming by making it portable, letting people take Tetris or Super Mario Land with them on long car journeys, or to kill time when waiting for class to start at school or college.

Many people have fond memories of the Game Boy, which now celebrates its 35th anniversary. However, the handheld refuses to fade away into being just a fond memory. The Game Boy is still going strong thanks to the dedicated efforts of modders across the globe.

Making the old new again

The Game Boy at 35: How modders are keeping Nintendo’s legendary handheld alive

The Game Boy was a great little machine, but it was far from perfect. As noted by many Game Boy owners back in the day, the lack of backlight made it hard to play unless you sat directly under a light source – or even worse, out in the sun. In addition, 35-year-old electronics are going to have a fairly high rate of failure.

As such, fans have stepped in to set up a thriving cottage industry providing parts to repair or improve the Game Boy’s functions. Screen replacements are one of the most popular, with websites like Handheld Legend and Retro Modding providing a wide range of components for purchase. From standard like-for-like LCD screen replacements to modern displays with a range of backlight colors to ensure the play experience is bright and crisp.

Customers can also shop for all manner of components including replacement capacitors, ribbon cables, speakers, and more to keep their Game Boys in tip-top shape, as long as they are handy with a screwdriver and soldering iron.

Killer customization

The Game Boy at 35: How modders are keeping Nintendo’s legendary handheld alive

When most people think of the Game Boy, the image that will appear in their mind is of a pale grey or off-white rectangle with red buttons and a black D-pad. But, the world of mods opens up a universe of possibilities.

It’s possible to buy a Game Boy shell in pretty much any color you like. Translucent purple? Yup. Sparkly pink D-pad? Of course. Buttons that are shaped like tiny skulls? Absolutely. There are even Game Boy shells that can change color, or glow under a UV blacklight. Sites such as the aptly named GameBoyCustom cater to the urges of fans to make their Game Boys unique.

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Some users even choose to empty the retro electronics and use the shell to house a modern microcomputer like a Raspberry Pi for emulation purposes.

The more creatively minded have even modded their Game Boy to do things such as become a fully-featured FM radio, and some go even further, creating new use cases for the beloved handheld.

A chiptune icon

The Game Boy at 35: How modders are keeping Nintendo’s legendary handheld alive

Some of the best feats of creativity are born from challenging circumstances. Chiptune artists live this philosophy by using their Game Boys to make music, working within the restrictions imposed by using retro console sound chips as musical instruments.

The Game Boy is a very popular choice for chiptune artists across the world. Over 118 million Game Boys were sold worldwide, making it accessible, while also being easy to use. Add this to its portability and the nostalgia factor, it’s easy to see why many artists, including BAFTA nominee Chipzel, have selected it as their instrument of choice.

Of course, these machines also need to be modded to act as instruments, using custom cartridges or newly added output ports to make live performances and recordings possible.

UK-based chiptune musician Harley Martin Raine spoke to Dexerto on the enduring appeal of the Game Boy:

“I remember the first time I played on a Game Boy, it was a lime green Gameboy Colour that my brother got for his birthday along with Pokémon Yellow. I have a vivid memory of sneakily taking it to play after he had gone to sleep and playing it in my room by the window, lighting the screen by the moonlight, and playing as far as I could before falling asleep. I was captivated by the game’s progression and the music.”

“Later in life, a friend at college showed me some homebrew software called LSDj that allows you to program the Game Boy’s sound chip to make music. 13 years later, and I’m still making music with the Game Boy. It’s given me the opportunity to meet new people and travel around the world, the Nintendo Game Boy has had such a huge impact on my life.”

This all goes to show that, despite its age, the impact of the Game Boy’s release is still being felt worldwide. Despite the Steam Deck and other gaming handhelds, the Game Boy is still going strong, thanks to a dedicated community of enthusiasts.

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