In June of 1994 Nintendo released a piece of hardware that would change how people played their portable Nintendo games at home. It was called the Super Game Boy and it allowed consumers to play their Game Boy titles on their televisions by putting real Game Boy hardware into a SNES cartridge. Then in late January of 1998 Nintendo released a new version of the hardware exclusively in Japan called the Super Game Boy 2. Which Super Game Boy provides the best experience for playing Game Boy games on the big screen? Lets find out.
The Super Game Boy is compatible with all original monochrome Game Boy titles but adds colour to the games. Similar to the Game Boy Color, the Super Game Boy can assign different colours to the different shades of grey of the original Game Boy, leading to loads of different colour palettes to choose from. There were also some Game Boy games made with the Super Game Boy in mind that have their own custom colour palettes such as Metroid II: The Return of Samus and The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening.
This is where things get technical. The Super Game Boy plays Game Boy games at their native resolution of 160x144 pixels whithin the SNES's resolution of 256x224 pixels. This means that there is a boarder around the screen area used by the Game Boy game. To fill that area the Super Game Boy comes with many different built in boarders as well as a custom mode where you can draw all over the screen and create your own boarders.
There are three different versions of the original Super Game Boy hardware that were produced for the global market prior to the release of the Super Game Boy 2. There is the North American NTSC version, The Japanese NTSC version and the PAL version used in Europe, Australia and other PAL regions. I unfortunately don't have the PAL version so we will only be comparing the NTSC versions. The PAL Super Game Boy looks almost identical to the Super Famicom version which can be seen below.
The NTSC-US, NTSC-JP and PAL versions of the Super Game Boy are all internally identical and suffer from the same main problem, the CPU clock speed. The Super Game Boy actually runs faster than the original Game Boy. The error in clock speed is because the Super Game Boy's CPU takes the clock speed from Super Nintendo's CPU and divides it by 5 leading to a clock speed that is higher than the Game Boy's 4.194 MHz. Here's the math:
SNES CPU Clock Speed: 21.477 MHz
21.477 MHz / 5 = 4.295 MHz
1 - (4.194 MHz / 4.295 Mhz = 0.024 = 2.4%
SNES CPU Clock Speed: 21.281 MHz
21.281 MHz / 5 = 4.256 MHz
1 - (4.194/4.256) = 0.015 = 1.5%
This small increase in clock speed means that all aspects of the gameplay are sped up by 2.4% on NTSC systems or 1.5% on PAL systems. This may seem to be trivial but it actually leads to a noticeably different gameplay feel and higher pitched music. The PAL version does a little better than the NTSC version because the PAL video standard of the day had a refresh rate of 50 Hz. This is slower than the NTSC standard of 60 Hz meaning the PAL Super Nintendo's CPU had to have a slower clock speed.
The PAL Super Game Boy will deliver a more authentic Game Boy experience than the NTSC version but utilizing it would mean having to buy a PAL SNES as well. Even though Game Boy games are totally region free and will play in any Super Game Boy hardware, PAL and NTSC Super Nintendo cartridges and consoles are not compatible. Thankfully the CPU clock speed problem was completely fixed with the release of the Super Game Boy 2. The newer hardware has a CPU that runs at 4.194 Hz on its own, matching the clock speed of the Game Boy exactly. Here are the PCBs from the three Super Game Boys I own. Notice how the North American and Japanese versions of the original Super Game Boy are identical, while the Super Game Boy 2 has a new CPU chip.
You might be wondering why Nintendo would even bother releasing a new version of the Super Game Boy, especially in 1998, over a year after the release of the N64 and almost 9 years after the release of the original Game Boy. The answer is Pokemon. Pokemon on the Game Boy was still extremely popular, especially in Japan. So, Nintendo built a new Super Game Boy with a link cable port for trading Pokemon and fixed the CPU clock speed simultaneously. Unfortunately, we did not see a release of the Super Game Boy 2 in North America but luckily both Japan and North America use the NTSC video standard and the Super Game Boy 2 will play in a North American console after a simple modification. All you have to do is break away the small tabs inside the cartridge bay on your Super Nintendo with flush cutters or needle nose pliers and Super Famicom cartridges will slide right in and play perfectly. I will demonstrate this on a SNES Mini but this will work on any North American SNES. See below:
Now that we have it all figured out, let's take a look at the difference the Super Game Boy 2 makes. Below is a video of the opening cut scene from The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX played on both the original Super Game Boy and the Super Game Boy 2. Link's Awakening DX is one of many enhanced Game Boy games that not only have their own custom Super Game Boy colour pallets but also have their own game specific borders around the game. Notice how the original Super Game Boy creeps further and further ahead of the Super Game Boy 2 and the change in audio pitch between versions.
The Super Game Boy 2 is by far the best way to play Game Boy titles on your television. If you want to play Game Boy Color exclusives or Game Boy Advance games on your television then that is a whole different ball game that we won't go into here. A Super Game Boy 2 can be easily imported from Japan for less than $50 Canadian however a North American original Super Game Boy can be found at most retro game shops for around $20. If you aren't bothered by the 2.4% increase in speed found on that hardware then you don't need to go through the trouble of importing a Super Game Boy 2. On the other hand, if you are like us and are looking for the most authentic experience possible, then the Super Game Boy 2 is the way to go.