Upgrading a GameBoy Advance SP ~

28 Jun 2022 // Jump to comments


Introduction

This blog post is part of a rare double-upload - meaning it marries into an accompanying YouTube video! The content of each reaches the same goal, but gets there in different ways.

This post contains more musings about my Nintendo history and reflections on the upgrade process, as opposed to being a demonstration of the upgrade - which is where the video comes in!

It doesn’t matter which one you start with - as the other type of content is available to you at the end (so if you started at the video, you probably came to this blog post after… and vice versa).


Titch holding a GameBoy Advance SP


TL;DR

These are the main topics covered in this post:


The brief history of my Nintendo love affair

Whilst you may know me for mostly playing SEGA games across YouTube and Twitch, my heart has always been with Nintendo - mainly because they were the main console brand in my household growing up. When I wasn’t plodding the streets of Dobuita in Shenmue or breaking speed limits in Crazy Taxi, I was either hunched over a dimly-lit GameBoy or sat cross-legged on the carpet in front of a 4:3 ratio CRT television playing on the Nintendo 64.

Every new Nintendo console was a day-one purchase, but always worth it as nobody else got a go if I was around (in other words, they were well-used and well-treasured!).

The first console I played was a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). There is photographic evidence of me playing it as a baby, not really having a clue what was happening on screen, but more like enjoying the colourful buttons on the controller. The first games I remember fondly are (being terrified of) F-Zero, being totally useless at Mario Kart (it was really hard on the SNES!) and being glued to Donkey Kong Country 2 for hours on end (mainly as I loved Dixie Kong).

However, the fondest memories of all surround getting my own GameBoy Color (GBC), to keep me quiet during the summer holidays and beyond. Having enjoyed a hand-me-down gargantuous GameBoy, followed by a slimmed-down GameBoy Pocket, it was a real joy to upgrade to a colour screen - and better still, actually become a real-life Pokémon Master (more on that later!).

Nothing felt cooler or more high-tech than battling the Pokémon I’d caught on the GameBoy, on a big TV via Pokémon Stadium for Nintendo 64. You could even play the actual GameBoy Pokémon games themselves on the big screen in the same way - using a Nintendo 64 Transfer Pak. Those were the days.


Pokémon Red via Pokémon Stadium

Too much nostalgia for one image...


The GameBoy Color soon became a GameBoy Advance (GBA) - and I was still squinting over a dark screen with an overhead snake light. I skipped over the GameBoy Advance SP and got a preowned, battered-up OG silver Nintendo DS instead. The backwards compatibility of being able to play GameBoy games on the DS meant it felt like having two consoles in one - so the GBA soon got retired.


Going back to my roots

Fast forward a few console generations later, to 2015 - the Nintendo Wii U and 3DS generation was in full swing by that point. Although, screen technology wasn’t the best, and I longed to play a handheld console in the blistering sunlight whilst on holiday (mainly to wake myself up after nodding off reading a water-crinkled paperback book), just like old times.

After mindlessly scrolling on Depop for another pointless clothing purchase, I randomly came across a recommended listing for a GameBoy Advance SP. It was scuffed within an inch of its life, and buying it would have been a risk given its condition, age… and price. Memory fails me on a regular basis, and Depop has erased my purchase history from that long ago, so it’s hard to pin down exactly what the price was, but it was no more than a tenner (£10 GBP) all-in. “Stuff it”, I thought, “I’ll take the risk and see about upgrading it somewhat”.


GBA SP from Depop

The 'before' picture


The most obvious upgrade was changing the shell, as it was in a right state (although the picture above says otherwise, the lid and base were really damaged). This was to become my first shell upgrade of anything, so it took forever to do as I wanted to take the time and not rush it. The replacement shell was a third-party one as opposed to an official Nintendo one, so it had a few imperfections and it didn’t have a satisfying closure on the lid - it made a creaking sound that made you think something was wrong with it. On top of that, I thought it was going to be a maroon-coloured shell, but actually looked more like purple when it turned up.

Either way, it was a good opportunity to check the ‘innards’ of the console, considering it was so cheap. I’d hit the jackpot - it was in great condition and had no visual faults. The original shell had taken the brunt of any damage.


First upgrade of GBA SP

The creaky shell


Once upgraded, I dug out all my old GameBoy games - many still working despite still containing their original round CR batteries inside (which either hold saves or maintain a time function - once the battery inside dies, you’ve likely lost your save files!). I did some Googling and slowly amassed a small collection of must-have / classic GBA games (although even to this day, I still haven’t played some of them… maybe when I retire).


Inside of Pokémon Red game cartridge

Internal battery still holding some charge!


Now fully equipped with some games and a new shell, the GBA SP was ready to go on holiday with me. It was weird having to cart all these clunky things to use it effectively (headphone adapter, game cartridges etc.), after being used to the small profile and cartridges of a 3DS, but it was a comforting hit of nostalgia playing simplistic, fuss-free games again.


Getting the customisation bug

When I ran out of things to do during the lockdown of 2020 (despite having that backlog of GBA games remaining untouched), I saw a few YouTube videos on changing Joy-Con shells. The main thing that tempted me into doing my own shell change was the elusive-at-the-time Animal Crossing exclusive Nintendo Switch design…



Animal Crossing Nintendo Switch

Lockdown holy grail


I didn’t really fancy forking out for an entire new Switch console, just for the design and the pretty-coloured Joy-Cons, so thought I’d work with what I had - and just ordered some mint green and sky blue replacement shells, and a leaf decal for the back of the console to make something similar and unique.

I soon learned that changing Joy-Con shells is not for the faint hearted. Talk about jumping in at the deep end! They are intricate and small inside, and the screwdriver I had was stripping every screw it touched. It was not a relaxing experience, but I got there in the end… although when it came to using the Joy-Cons, one of the shoulder buttons seemed to get stuck a few times on one of the controllers, which was a pain for some games.


My upgraded Joy-Cons

Copied homework version


Despite the difficulty, I changed a few Joy-Con shells over time, mainly as I got the bug for changing shells for some reason… and so I did the same on the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller and an Xbox controller. Everything had to be matchy-matchy, so if one changed design or colour scheme, then everything else had to change (it’s great being a pedant).


Nintendo Switch Pro Controller and Xbox Controller upgrades

Same but different



The second upgrade iteration

After spending most of 2021 making content online and finding anything to help drum up more content ideas on a regular basis, I fancied digging out the GBA SP again. At one point, I was considering filming / streaming GameBoy (and Advance) games - especially as I had the means to put my camera in a precarious position that would allow for top-down filming. It had been a while since the GBA SP had been touched, mainly due to lack of holidays (again, lockdown), but more so since content creation as a hobby takes up the majority of your spare time when you get into it.

Despite living in a carry case, never being dropped or stored somewhere that it could have got wet, the screen had started tearing. It was still the stock screen so it was probably just old age. I also still wasn’t keen on the creaky shell, so it was the perfect excuse to do its second upgrade iteration - another new shell, and a new screen.

This time, I fancied a see-through shell - something I’d never had before but always thought was cool (it was the peak of ‘tech fashion’ back in the early 2000s). A classic GBC model is one with a purple clear shell.

The process of changing the shell and replacing the screen was more of the same, but instead of putting the old screen back, a new one went in. It was the same screen technology as the previous, with the dim front-lit illumination.


Second GBA SP upgrade

Upgrade 2.0


Despite this newfangled upgrade, I still didn’t really play anything on it, nor ever did get round to filming / streaming anything with it. Being spoiled by modern screens and having an abundance of other things to do meant it went back into a drawer and got forgotten about once more.


In its final form…

Fast forward to late spring of 2022, and this time I am mindlessly scrolling through the ‘explore’ section of Instagram. A random Reel is recommended to me - it is a short video of an overexcited and emphatic guy in his late-teens / early-twenties, showing off a GBA SP with a new neon-green clear shell… and with the most vibrant, pixel-perfect-looking screen, like that of a modern-day smartphone, showing off Pokémon Leaf Green in a way I’d never it seen before.

Down the rabbit hole I went - just what IS that screen and why is it a million times better than the front-lit dim thing??

A quick Google brought up an array of replacement screens for all types of GameBoys. Flicking through a load of eBay listings brought up the usual ones which I’d already ‘upgraded’ with (technically called a ‘Reflective TFT Color LCD’ screen, apparently), and then one called an IPS screen.

This was it! It was much more expensive than the usual screen model, but it must be worth it to play all those old classics in better quality, right? No more squinting!

What was quite surprising was the fairly-limited number of places to purchase this IPS screen (in the UK, anyway). I just got the one for me to start with, from an eBay listing by an average-Joe seller.

Another thing to consider was that this was going to need soldering, if I wanted to make the most of its changeable brightness controls. I was willing to take the risk and attempt this, just to see if I was capable of doing it myself rather than forking out for someone else to do it / buy one with the modification done already.

As the GBA SP was going to be in bits for the modern screen replacement, I decided to change the shell again. This time, going for a clear, colourless shell with black buttons, to match the set of Joy-Cons from the OLED Nintendo Switch I’d (yet again) tinkered with.



This is where the YouTube video comes in - I filmed the entire process and you can find the video at the bottom of this blog post!



Final upgrade

Final stage of evolution


The shell replacement and putting in of the new screen mirrored the same process as the previous upgrade iteration, but required two extra steps:


Solder points on board

World's tiniest wire


To get the required section out of the lid, I just hacked away at a strip of plastic using a Stanley knife. This was fairly straightforward, but it’s worth noting that the cut-out is visible from the top of the console if you have a clear shell - if you care about neatness.

I picked up a cheap soldering iron kit from Amazon just to get the job done, as there was no point in picking up a decent one until strictly necessary (e.g. doing something a bit more adventurous or finding a use for one on a more regular basis).

The soldering process was nowhere near as scary as first thought, especially as I hadn’t soldered anything since being a teenager. Luckily, this pittance of soldering experience was enough to get it done with - it’s weird what you remember! However, due to excessive caution, it did take me a while to do the soldering, as having something in your hand reaching temperatures of 300 degrees Celsius is quite nerve-wracking!


…well, almost

Much to my surprise, the process went well and the console worked first time on boot - including the brightness button working as expected (pressing it cycles through each level of brightness before jumping back to the lowest setting).

Alongside doing the console upgrade, I took apart a couple of GameBoy cartridges and replaced the CR battery inside them, with new ones. This again took some soldering, but was a less complicated job than the one for the screen. The only confusing bit was which way up the CR battery needed to be, for the correct electrical polarity.

As mentioned earlier, some of my old GameBoy games still had their saves from the late-1990s / early 2000s, including a 100% Pokédex completion on Pokémon Red. I was desperate to preserve this save for sentimental reasons, and so found the means to via a GBxCart RW 1.4 Pro Reader.


Screenshot of Pokémon Red save with completed Pokédex

Fully 'dexed out


Now fully modernised, I’ve been reaching for the GBA SP a lot more often, as it’s a joyful experience playing with that screen! However, there was a blatant issue with the new screen - it was eating through the battery like no business. I couldn’t play anything for longer than an hour without needing to charge it again.

I started looking for a better battery, in the hope that it would make the console more playable (as it’s meant to be a portable console and would be rubbish having to play it on charge all the time). During this search, I found out that the batteries that are commonplace on your usual online shopping haunts, for about a tenner (£10) each, ‘do not actually hold the capacity printed on the label’. Meaning, a GBA SP battery for about that price claiming to be 850mAh (milliampere per hour), was actually running more like 600mAh (therefore, absolutely pants).


Battery upgrade

The better battery


This is by no means sponsored, but I came by and picked up this battery instead and so far, so good! It’s getting many more hours out of that new screen (rated at 900mAh) and making the console portable again.

Also, since successfully doing my own upgrade, I got asked to do a couple more! I really enjoyed the process so the more requests, the merrier. I’d love to offer the service on my shop but it might be too complicated for my noggin to suss out (i.e. the legalities if they broke or whatever).


Two additional upgraded GBA SPs

More successful upgrades!


…oh, and one last thing - I just had to do some sort of decal for the top of the console using a Cricut, and of course, it had to be Sparks-related ;)


Sparks, aka best band ever, as a GBA SP decal

Not obsessed, honest...



That’s a wrap

Phew! If you made it this far, thank you muchly for reading. As a reward, you now get to see the YouTube video nicely embedded into this blog post (if you’ve seen it already, sorry!)…



See you in the next post… or video!


~~

Speak soon,

//Titch.



The images in this blog post were either shamelessly stolen from Google Images, or were photographically taken by me for once. All links and images correct as of June 2022.