"Many a true word is spoken in jest." That age-old saying is very true of Hyperkin's SmartBoy device; originally pitched as an April Fool's prank it gradually evolved into something more tangible thanks to online reaction which keenly illustrated a demand in the marketplace for something that allowed you to play old Game Boy games on your smartphone. After two years of research, prototyping and development the SmartBoy is finally here – and we've been lucky enough to get ours hands on one of the first production units ahead of its September launch.
If you haven't been following the development of the SmartBoy then allow us to summarise; in short, it's a bolt-on device which connects to your Android-based smartphone via a USB Type-C connection and allows you to temporarily dump ROMs from original cartridges. It also comes with physical controls for a more authentic experience – there's a D-pad which is a close match to the one seen on the original Game Boy line, as well as two face buttons, Start and Select keys and two shoulder triggers.
The unit is a surprisingly complicated piece of kit in pure engineering terms. Your phone slides into the top and connects to the USB Type-C port, which is spring-loaded so you can adjust it to fit your handset's design perfectly. The SmartBoy carries the "Designed for Samsung" certification and appears to have been created with the Galaxy S8 in mind, but it should – in theory, at least – work with any Android device that has a Type-C connection (that's basically any leading phone released in the last 12 months). However, when we tested it with the only other Android smartphone we had to hand with this connection – a Wileyfox Swift 2 – it stated that it wasn't compatible with the companion SmartBoy application. Undeterred, we sideloaded the app and found that it wouldn't register that a game had been inserted.
To be fair to Hyperkin, it has been very clear that it can only guarantee the SmartBoy will work with Samsung devices at present, stating that "other Android device compatibility may vary." We'd imagine that following launch the SmartBoy will – in the fullness of time – offer support to a much wider range of phones; that may already be the case, as it should be pointed out that we only had one other Android USB Type-C handset to test it with, outside of the Galaxy S8.
To accommodate this (hopefully) wide range of different handsets the SmartBoy has telescopic sides which pop out at the push of a button on the back; this means you can insert phones which larger screens than the S8. The interior of the SmartBoy has two strips of rubberised material which grip the sides of the phone and hold it in place. On the back of the SmartBoy there's the aforementioned button which pops the sides out and the all-important cartridge slot, which accepts Game Boy and Game Boy Color cartridges. Because the unit is powered by your phone's USB port, no batteries are required to run it.
As we've already mentioned, the SmartBoy application is available for download from the Google Play Store, but it doesn't do any emulation – that side of things is handled by one of the many Game Boy emulators you can find on Google's digital marketplace. The SmartBoy recommends My OldBoy by default and this emulator has all of the correct button maps in place as soon as you install and run it; we tried using other emulators – such as the excellent GBC.emu – but found that we had to manually map all of the keys, and that was easier said than done when you consider that half of the phone's display is inaccessible thanks to the fact that it's inserted into the SmartBoy itself.
Working around this issue does cause some headaches. While apps like the SmartBoy companion and My OldBoy "push" the image to the top of the display so you can see everything clearly, Android's pop-up messaging system doesn't compensate for this change and therefore any alerts or prompts which appear are partially obscured. You can usually make a selection or remove the prompt by using the D-Pad and buttons, but it's hardly ideal as you often have to guess what selection you've made. Again, we imagine this is something that Hyperkin is already aware of and is working to fix. Another issue (and this will vary from phone to phone) is that most screen unlock systems are rendered useless. Pin codes can't be tapped in as the display is covered, and if you're using fingerprints then you can't reach the scanner; in the case of the Galaxy S8, the scanner is located right behind the cartridge, which means you either have to remove the device to unlock it or disable your screen lock temporarily while you're using the SmartBoy – or use Samsung's eyeball-based unlock system.
All of these issues sound like they're mounting up into something truly disastrous, but when you actually get the SmartBoy working they swiftly dissolve away. Plugging the device into your phone automatically opens the companion app and slotting in a cart begins the dumping process (which can take a few seconds, depending on the size of the game). As we've mentioned, the unit doesn't handle any of the emulation and all that the SmartBoy companion app does is dump the ROM from the cart – you then launch your emulator of choice and navigate to the SmartBoy folder using your emulator of choice and select "smartboy.gp" file – the temporary ROM file. In a neat touch, removing the cartridge post-dump triggers a warning which proclaims the evils of piracy and disconnecting the SmartBoy from the phone deletes the ROM entirely. While theoretically there is almost certainly going to be a way of extracting the dumped game, we couldn't find any easy means of doing so with the device attached and half of the screen obscured. Having said that, it's perfectly possible to load up your phone with ROMs you've downloaded online, boot the SmartBoy into your chosen emulator and then use the physical controls to play those games.
Because the emulation is handled entirely by the app of your choosing, the performance of the game you've dumped can vary. On the whole however, any Game Boy emulator running on a phone as powerful as the Galaxy S8 should be near-flawless; My OldBoy is free to download but some elements – such as save states and the ability to fast forward play – are locked behind a paywall. While it's possible to save your game data on your phone, the SmartBoy can't dump save games from original cartridges and it can't upload save progress to a cartridge, either – so you can't continue a game you began on your battered Game Boy back in 1994 and play it on your phone, and vice versa.
By relying on external emulators Hyperkin has effectively ensured that the SmartBoy should enjoy a long lifespan; as new Game Boy emulators appear, SmartBoy owners will be perfectly positioned to take advantage of all the new features they bring to the table. Another bonus is that if you already own a preferred Game Boy emulator on Android, you can use that if you wish. The biggest benefit afforded by the device itself is therefore the introduction of physical controls and the ability to use your original cartridges – for those concerned with the shady nature of ROM distribution, this provides a legitimate means of playing Game Boy software on modern hardware, where you benefit from vastly superior display technology, save state support and much more besides. The original spec of the SmartBoy promised Game Boy Advance support (hence the L and R shoulder buttons), but this has since been removed – time will tell if Hyperkin choses to reinstate it, but that could potentially make this unit even more desirable to Android-owning Nintendo fans. In conclusion, the SmartBoy might not be the most elegant of solutions when it comes to resurrecting your Game Boy collection, but it does work – and could perhaps offer the best means of playing Game Boy on the go yet seen.