The first video game console my parents ever bought me was a Nintendo Game Boy. My sister and I each got one for Christmas one year. I got the original grey model and she got the clear model, and from that day forward I loved handheld gaming. The years went by and on another exciting Christmas morning I unwrapped a teal Game Boy Color and fell in love all over again. A few short years later, Nintendo released the Game Boy Advance and as I looked on with envy I began counting the days until I would be able to have one for my very own. However, any money I managed to save was quickly spent. The years went by and I eventually accepted the fact the I would never own a GBA, then one day I went to visit a friend. We were hanging out in his room when I opened a drawer and discovered a silver, first generation GBA. By this time this model was pretty old and my friend had completely lost interest in it. I on the other hand was extremely interested and it was obvious he saw this when he offered it to me. Ecstatic, I took it and the single game it had in it home with me that day.
The game that was in it was Metroid Fusion. I began playing it and was instantly hooked. I played it constantly. I would even play it in the car, in the dark, with a flashlight stuck in my mouth to illuminate the screen. I thought the new 32-bit games were incredible and I could even still play all my favourite original Game Boy and Game Boy Color games on it. I was moved.
This experience cemented the GBA as my favourite handheld video game console of all time. The form factor of the original release was perfect but it had its shortcomings, most notably the lack of a backlit screen. Later iterations of the GBA resolved this but the changes in form factor never really did it for me. Thankfully today mods exist to rectify the problems with the original GBA and I decided it was time I built my ultimate Game Boy Advance.
There are several mods you can do to an original GBA any one of which would be a vast improvement, but in order to build what I consider to be the ultimate GBA I needed to do them all. Here's what they are and how I gathered the parts:
New shell, buttons and glass screen cover - This will give the GBA a face lift and bring it back to looking brand new again. The glass screen cover will also be much harder and therefore won't scratch as easily. I decided to get all these parts in a kit from RoseColoredGaming.com. I went with their "Dingy DMG" kit in honor of my first love in the handheld gaming world. This is unfortunately a special edition kit they do not always keep in stock and it is quite expensive, especially if you are Canadian, like myself. I had to wait about a year for this to come back in stock and be ready to pre-order the moment it was available, but I thought it would be worth the wait and cost to have a GBA in original GB clothing.
AGS-101 screen mod - AGS-101 is the specific model number of Game Boy Advance SP that has a backlit screen. With a simple modification this backlit screen can be implanted into an original GBA. There are two ways to do this; the first being to actually use a screen from a real AGS-101. The other is to use a new screen that are readily available on ebay, straight from China. I chose to go with a real AGS-101 screen as I have heard they are better screens and I was able to find one to use as a donor locally for very cheap. Installing the screen requires a compatible adapter cable which was imported from China through ebay.
GBAmp3 sound mod - This little mod board will turn your quiet little GBA into a screaming monster. It is an amplification board that increases the volume level of the both the speaker and the headphone jack to almost ridiculous levels. This mod is bought directly from the creator, Anton Veretenenko, in Russia here.
New speaker mod - If I am going to go through the trouble of installing the audio amp mod I figured I might as well install a new speaker as well. Compatible speakers are very cheap and can easily be found on ebay.
Rechargeable battery mod - This mod was a last minute edition to this project as it had only just come out. I had been looking for a rechargeable battery solution for GBA for years with nothing really to show for it until RetroModding.com decided to tackle this idea once and for all. This battery pack is super easy to install but it is rather expensive. Retro Modding is Canadian and they ship worldwide, but they do unfortunately sell in US dollars.
I also needed an original GBA to do all these mods to and I couldn't bring myself to use the GBA I have had since the day I opened that drawer in my friend's room. I patiently waited until I was able to find a donor in great condition at a good price at a retro game swap. Once I had all the parts in hand the modding could finally begin!
This first task with any mod like this is to disassemble the console. I disassembled the donar GBA first, salvaging the motherboard and the rubber button pads which I gave a good cleaning. Next, I disassembled the donor GBA SP and salvaged the screen. I was actually able to reassemble this GBA SP with a screen out of an almost completely trashed pink AGS-101 GBA SP that I found for next to nothing at a used game shop. Luckily Nintendo's bomb proof case protected the screen entirely and you would never know it came from a console in such rough condition.
INSTALLING THE AUDIO MOD
The first mod I decided to install was the audio mod. There are two ways you can wire this board to the GBA motherboard. The first way is a little easier to solder but is noisier and the second is more difficult to solder but provides a less noisy output. I quickly decided to do the less noisy version knowing I would never be satisfied with a less than ideal installation, adding the new speaker along the way. The new speaker fits nicely in the round hole in the GBA case but it isn't quite as thick as the original speaker. To stop it from rattling around I placed a small piece of foam between the speaker and the motherboard.
PREPARING THE CASE
Before installing the screen and the battery mod I needed to prepare the case. There is a ridge on the front half of the clam shell that holds the original screen in place that needs to be removed in order to fit the new screen in. There is also a little nub on the back half of the clam shell that keeps the AA batteries in place that needs to be removed as well as another nub that needs to be cut in half to fit the rechargeable battery in. All this can easily be completed with a pair of flush cutters. I also had to remove the little metal battery tabs from the battery compartment as they are not used by the rechargeable battery.
INSTALLING THE SCREEN
Instructions for this mod are very well documented on a number of websites as well as many YouTube videos so I won't go into great detail here, but there are a few things you should know if you plan to do this mod yourself. First and foremost is that your GBA and adapter cable need to be compatible. There are two motherboard revisions of the original GBA, one with a 32-pin ribbon connector for the screen and the other with a 40-pin connector. Determining which you have is very easy and all you need to do is buy the appropriate adapter cable. There are also two different types of AGS-101 screens, one with a brown connector on its ribbon cable and the other with a white connector. Both will work with 32-pin and 40-pin GBAs but there are certain combinations that perform better than others. Full details and instructions are best found on GitHub. Hooking up the backlit screen was fairly easy. The adapter cable fits perfectly and soldering on the power lead was a breeze. Getting it all to fit back into the case is another story. There are two layers of rubbery backing on the screen and one of them needs to be removed along with the foam on the front of the screen if you want to have any chance of closing the case up again. Even with removing these parts of the screen it just barely fits but with some tinkering I was able to get the new case closed up with the new buttons and glass screen in place.
INSTALLING THE BATTERY
With the case preparation work already done, installing the rechargeable battery was as easy as installing new AA batteries, maybe even easier than that. It slides right into place and fits nice and snug. Charging this battery is done with a standard micro-USB wall charger like most smartphones use. This feature is what really sold me on this device. If I am travelling I always already have one of these chargers with me and I'll never have to worry about finding the right charger for my GBA if I decide to bring it along.
With the battery installed and the battery cover in place my ultimate GBA is complete. I powered it on and was relieved to see the new screen spring to life and hear the audio mod blasting away. The screen looks absolutely fantastic and I could not be happier with that aspect of this mod. Any combing on the screen you see in the image of the completed GBA below is entirely an artifact from the camera. It is always difficult to photograph screens and do them justice. The new shell, buttons and screen look fantastic. The glass screen cover really takes it up a notch and the buttons feel just as good as the originals in my opinion. However, a friend of mine also bought the Dingy DMG kit from Rose Colored Gaming and he was unlucky enough to receive a faulty d-pad. The bump on the bottom that the d-pad rocks on was deformed leaving it feeling mushy and unresponsive, with precise directional input not possible. Buyer beware.
After playing for several hours the battery is still holding up very well and I have not had to charge it yet. When I do finally have to plug it in I know the convenience of doing so with my phone charger that is always plugged in and ready to go will justify the hefty price tag. I originally had mixed feelings about the audio mod, but after spending more time playing with it I quite like it and would recommend it to anyone who loves the GBA and isn't afraid of soldering teeny tiny things. It is incredibly loud through the speaker and drives my headphones exceptionally well but it can be rather noisy depending on the game being played. Some games such as my homebrew Mother 3 cartridge have a background hum that is very noticeable and others, like Donkey Kong Land on original GB have clicks and pops in them I had never noticed before. That being said, other games like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance have almost no background noise at all, so when there is noticeable noise I blame the game and not the mod. With the vast majority of games I don't notice the background noise because it is just so loud. It is almost laughably loud and I think that is great. Overall, I am very pleased with the outcome of this project and I will certainly be taking my ultimate GBA out of the house more often. It is about time I played through some of my favourite handheld games again and try some of the games I missed out on while growing up.