Humanity has been troubled by many great questions during its time on Earth. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Where do all those bloody odd socks go? However, none of these perplexing quandaries is more troubling than the ultimate question: which is the best Nintendo handheld for playing Game Boy Advance games on? You might assume this is a silly thing to lose sleep over, but when you begin to comprehend the pros and cons of the various models available, it will keep you up at night. Believe us.
The original GBA is an ergonomic dream, but lacks a backlit screen and relies on AA batteries. The GBA SP fixes both of these shortcomings but is a little on the small side for some players; it also lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack and (unless you pick up the increasingly expensive AGS-101 version) uses a crummy front-lit display rather than a superior back-lit one. The Game Boy Micro is cute and truly pocket-sized, but its screen is tiny, it can't play original Game Boy or Game Boy Color games and is so small that anyone with hands larger than those of a child is going to struggle to play it for prolonged periods.
Despite the wide array of options no single version of Nintendo's handheld hardware ticks all of the boxes, which is perhaps why modders are so keen to create custom variants to suit their own personal needs and wants. You'll no doubt have heard of the 'Game Boy Macro' concept before; it's basically a Nintendo DS (Phat or Lite) with its upper screen removed – the main intent of this intentionally-crippled system is to play Game Boy Advance games on the DS' bold and bright screen. We've seen a wide range of 'Macro' models appear online, but none of them have bowled us over in the same way as the Neon Advance. We've been lucky enough to get our hands on the 13th Neon Advance ever made, as well as the chance to sit down with the man behind the magic, Joe 'Joe Bleeps' Heaton.
A prolific modder and chiptune enthusiast, Heaton crafts the Neon Advance from the broken carcasses of DS Lite systems, breathing new life into dead hardware. "In the new year I wanted to try something new after spending so much time modding Game Boys over the last few years," Heaton replies when asked how the idea came about. "So I decided to learn how to re-shell DS Lite consoles with repro shells after they had suffered from damage. I bought a few faulty job lots of these consoles and the most frequent problems were faulty top screens or broken hinges, so after doing quite a few refurbished DS Lites, I was left with a lot of functional bottom halves."
Stuck with a collection of spare parts and loathe to simply bin them, Heaton hit upon an idea. "I looked into making a Game Boy Macro, where you have a single screen unit and remove, fill, sand and paint the shell to hide where the hinge parts used to be," he continues. "However, it was such hard work and I never really achieved the professional finish I wanted." Heaton decided to take a slightly different approach and leave the hinge parts in place, making this a much neater job. Where the top screen hinge once was he has fixed a light bar which is illuminated by a single LED, found in the left-hand hinge section. While it might look like this encroaches on the display, even in a darkened room the screen's brightness ensure that the LED doesn't 'bleed' light onto it. "I remember a while back I'd seen one with a bar across the two hinge points," he explains. "I had some translucent acrylic rods, so I tried it with that and it worked well. The main reaction from my Instagram following was 'Wow! Does it light up?' so I went prodding around for voltages and eventually got to a point where I could build them with a light-up strip. It got a great reaction, so I just kept making them from there."
Another notable change relates to the bottom screen, which lacks touch input. "One of the main issues with used, broken and faulty DS Lite units is the state of the touch screen," Heaton says. "I realised that if you carefully remove the digitiser it reveals a crisp LCD underneath, so I decided that seeing as it was going to be used mainly for GBA games – and the menu can be navigated with the D-pad – it was a great way to reuse an old screen and save it from the bin." Waste not, want not.
Because the DS Lite's speakers are located on the upper screen, Heaton has had to fit a single mono speaker on the underside of the device, where the stylus would normally be found. "Audio was a challenge, especially seeing as the main appeal of this project for me was to avoid too much cutting, drilling and painting," he says. "After the first few I made, I realised that as the touch screen interface wasn't really needed, therefore neither was the stylus. I removed the stylus housing and worked out a sweet spot to position the speaker at the opening. It's only a single speaker – connected to left and right stereo outputs – and it's facing the back, which isn't perfect, but it's loud enough for general use and it doesn't interfere with the aesthetic of the console's design." Indeed, we can confirm this isn't the most powerful speaker we've heard and it's often muffled by your palm, but it gets the job done – and is obviously better than having no audio whatsoever. Of course, with this being the DS Lite, you can plug in a pair of headphones if you so wish – something that GBA SP owners need a separate adapter for.
The DS game card slot remains in place so if you insert a DS game, the console will play it as normal – but without touch screen support or that upper display, you're not going to get very far. However, you can dive into the settings and configure the console to bypass the main menu and auto-start when it's switched on with a GBA cartridge inserted, which makes it behave very much like the real thing. Speaking of software, on the original 'Phat' DS, GBA carts could be pushed all the way into the slot but on the smaller DS Lite, Nintendo was forced to make a small sacrifice to maintain this backwards compatibility – carts poke out slightly from the main body. When playing games on the Neon Advance you'll need to become comfortable with this unsightly problem, but because the unit is quite wide, the protruding cart never really gets in the way. The Everdrive GBA pokes out even more alarmingly, but you soon learn to live with it.
Speaking of which, if you're lucky enough to have one of these remarkable flash carts lying around then the Neon Advance becomes even more appealing thanks to its ability to run GBA-based emulators. Not only does this allow you to rectify one of the biggest shortcomings of the DS hardware – the lack of backwards compatibility with Game Boy and Game Boy Color software – but it also means you can play NES and Master System games. Performance isn't perfect – NES games look a little squashed, for example – but it's a neat bonus all the same.
Heaton is quite the perfectionist, and doesn't rush himself when working on these projects. "I've added lots of extra touches and I like to take my time to get it right," he comments. "I enjoy the process so I never rush. I'd say about five hours from start to finish is typical, from cleaning, repairing and refurbishing parts to boxing up the final product. Putting the shell back together without any wires pinching or the screens, switches or buttons slipping out of place is always fun. In general I've developed a sequence that allows me to get on with some tasks while I'm waiting for paint or glue to dry so the work flow is pretty good overall. Also, I'm doing my best not to use any new parts, just original casings and buttons, to keep it authentic and reduce needless waste. So in some cases, I'll have parts that are cracked or chipped and I can't use them, which is a shame. Digging around for the right part can take time." Getting the process streamlined is one thing, but Heaton still has to find the time to actually perform the operation in the first place – and like a great many of us who claim to be 'grown ups', that's often easier said than done. "I don't have a lot of free time with work and life in general, so I work on these in my down time for fun. When I might get that time is never certain!"
Each Neon Advance comes in its own box along with a USB charging cable and plastic stand. It's a very professional operation, but given the sudden surge of interest in his work, Heaton fears he may have trouble keeping up with demand. "I've been overwhelmed from the off," he admits. "Even when I posted pictures of my first few attempts, I didn't think it was anything really special or unique but the Instagram community are great; people were so positive and encouraging I just kept going and making them. There are always going to be haters and I've had a fair share of people calling me out for 'destroying' consoles because they don't really understand what I'm doing. It annoys me when I've revived and refurbished so many consoles over the years but people who've never restored or archived these systems think they are suddenly the authority on these things. I had to laugh when someone called it a 'lazy Gameboy Macro', like I should suffer for my art. I'm thin-skinned when it comes to criticism so it's as well people have been overwhelmingly lovely. It's been very surreal. I'm still amazed so many people love them."
Heaton is now being inundated with commission requests – something which he admits he wasn't expecting. "It's a personal, creative project in which I didn't expect anyone else to be interested," he says. "I've had good and bad experiences before with custom Game Boy requests but in general I'm uncomfortable working on other people's consoles in case anything goes wrong, and also sometimes people can be picky if it doesn't turn out exactly how they hoped. And sometimes people pick colour schemes or mods that I don't really like! With this it's much more personal; I like to sit and play around with parts until I find a combination I like. It's fun to surprise my followers with new ideas, and I'd rather have time to produce a completed product to show people without keeping anyone waiting."
If you want to purchase one of these unique systems, you could do a lot worse than get in touch with Heaton via his Instagram or Twitter accounts. "I'm not a business but at the same time I want these out in the world being loved and cherished instead of gathering dust in my house," he explains. "I've been selling them on to friends so far and it's helped me invest in parts and resources to be able to make more in future. It was hard to decide on a reasonable price but I hit on £70 [approximately $94 / 79 Euros] in the end, mainly reflecting the time and effort involved with creating it, and the personal touch I try and add to it. These are a labour of love; without wanting to sound pretentious it's a creative project and these are my artworks. It's not mass produced; due to time constraints it's a limited but quality production line. I'd much rather focus on that. I've been getting loads of requests and people asking if I have a store or a website but I just want to reassure people that I am planning to keep making Neon Advance. There are so many ideas I've still to try out. I've invested in lots of parts, and lots of junk consoles that would have been binned are now sitting waiting to be reborn. As I said before, I'm not a business so I'd even be open to trades in some cases. I need more games for my new Nintendo Switch!"
As for future projects, Heaton isn't in any rush to jump onto a new project any time soon. "It's still nice to mod Game Boys for my friends from time to time, but I still feel there's a lot to be done with refining the process of the Neon Advance until I feel it's foolproof. I'm still solving problems as they appear. I'd also like to do some more DS Lites with replacement shells as I've now got parts organised ready to rescue those, too. During the car boot season I'll pick up a few toys for circuit bending, that can be good fun. My main project for the Summer though is to try and build myself a shed where I can set up a proper workshop and get my Neon Advance process more organised!"