GB Operator
Image: Nintendo Life

Casual readers would be forgiven for seeing the maker's name on the box of the GB Operator — a neat little device that lets you play your Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance carts on your PC — and confusing the company with Analogue, the producer of such quality retro-playing consoles as the Analogue NT (SNES) and the upcoming Analogue Pocket (Game Boy).

The cheekily-named Epilogue is obviously hoping to align itself with the same brand of uncompromising quality Analogue is known for, and has adopted the slogan 'No compromises' for its Operator series. The Romanian company's first effort is a strong entry into the field of retro gaming, although it's a very different product to anything Analogue has produced, and one which may have limited appeal.

the GB Operator won't work without being connected to a PC... it requires a downloadable .exe running on your computer to function

Firstly, banish any ideas that this is a mini Game Boy emulation system that plugs into your TV like the Retron SQ; the GB Operator won't work without being connected to a PC, for starters. It requires the use of a downloadable .exe running on your computer to function in any way at all.

The device works as a middle man; an interface between your cart collection and tried-and-true GB emulation served up in a bespoke emulation wrapper on your PC. To reiterate, without the accompanying desktop app and some modest processing power from your PC, the GB Operator is simply a flashy-looking cart stand. Plug it into your TV via USB and nothing will happen.

That may be disappointing to some retro enthusiasts, but Epilogue arguably makes up for the limitations with an otherwise convenient and comfortable user experience, not to mention a couple of functions that could make it indispensable to a select group of Game Boy fans.

On opening the box, you'll find the unit itself, an attractive little chunk of see-through plastic housing mounted on a quality strip of non-slip rubber. It's a simple, stylish plinth in which to insert your carts and remove them as you would a mighty sword from a stone, and we enjoy the reverence it imbues in that action. These carts deserve respect, and the GB Operator provides that.

The included instruction leaflet directs you to download the 'Operator software' from Epilogue's website, with Windows, Mac or Linux options available. Once extracted and installed, the software searches and automatically detects the GB Operator connected to your PC via the supplied USB-C to USB-A cable (we used our Switch Pro Controller cable). A distractingly bright LED in the unit indicates that it's powered on (Epilogue plans to address this minor irritation via an update) and it's time to insert a cartridge of your choosing. Almost instantly the software recognised our Metroid: Zero Mission as a legitimate European cart and showed appropriate box art and blurb, which it appears to be pulling from a server.

On loading up a cartridge, the app offers 'Play' and 'Data' options, along with a third 'Photo' tab reserved for the Game Boy Camera, which we'll get to later. The Play page, predictably, is where you launch the game. You rebind Gamepad and Keyboard controls here and we would have liked the option to duplicate inputs on multiple buttons, but it worked smoothly enough with our 8bitdo FC30 Pro. The app also has greyed-out options for Emulator and Device settings that will be unlocked in future updates. Hit Launch, the ROM downloads to the emulator and the game fires up.

Emulation is handled via the open source mGBA by default, although you'll apparently be able to use whatever emulator you like in the future. Super Game Boy enhanced games are flagged and play with added colour, and everything worked beautifully in the games we tested. However, it quickly became apparent that basic features are missing in this beta version of the software. Expanded functionality is coming, but at the time of writing (we used v0.7 and v.0.7.1) you're limited to playing in Windowed mode, for example. At present there are no options for save states, pausing, rewinding or fast forwarding. There are no alternative colour palettes to pick from or visual filters to cycle through, either.

everything worked beautifully in the games we tested, although it quickly became apparent that extremely basic features are missing in this beta version of the software. Expanded functionality is coming...

It's worth remembering that Epilogue is continuing work on the software and has committed to a roadmap addressing several of the issues mentioned above. This includes fullscreen and shader support, plus in-app volume control and game reset, along with other changes brought about by user feedback, with several of these features are planned for a September/October update. The beta foundation here could be described generously as 'barebones', but it is a solid start.

Hitting ESC quits the game (removing a cart while playing will send you back to the launch menu immediately and you'll lose unsaved progress) and you're given the open to Save your progress to the cart or Discard it. This is where the device comes into its own: not only can you save your progress on the cart you're playing (and pick up again on actual GB hardware), but you can copy your cart's save data, back it up on PC, write it back and carry on where you left off.

Moving over to the Data tab, you can rip a full copy of the data stored on the cart to your PC as a .gb or .gba file, and also write data to rewritable cartridges, which opens up the world of homebrew and fan patches/translations. You could, for example, take your legitimate copy of Mother 3, download and patch the ROM with the English fan translation, and load it onto a suitably sized rewritable cartridge for play via the GB Operator or your Game Boy Advance itself.

You can also download/upload just the save data (.sav) and backup to your heart's content. We immediately backed up our original Mario Golfer and Pokémon Yellow menagerie and can finally rest easy knowing that our stalwart Gen I pokeymans — Metapoo, 'Lecky Mouse, Stinky, et al — are now preserved for posterity. This feature is particularly handy if you're looking to replace a battery in a treasured cartridge without risking losing your precious save data. Simply transfer it to your PC, switch out the battery at your leisure, and transfer back once you're done. Sorted.

Manufacturers of fake carts have begun using more sophisticated techniques over the years and it can be tough to spot a rogue repro in your collection, but the GB Operator flags unofficial games as such — the app performs an 'integrity check' and asks you if you'd like to progress if this check is failed.

Plug in a Game Boy Camera, click 'Save All' and voila, your precious pics from yesteryear are saved in tiny 128x112 pixel .png form

However, one headline feature that made this writer pre-order the thing in the first play is the ability to transfer Game Boy Camera photos quickly and painlessly off the device. Plug in a Game Boy Camera and the third 'Photos' tab becomes available (interestingly, you're not able to 'play' the camera on your PC). Head there, click 'Save All' and choose a folder and voila, your precious pics from yesteryear — or the best Blue Steels and Magnums you could muster for a pic to accompany a hardware review — are saved in tiny 128x112 pixel .png form.

Or they would be if your Game Boy Camera battery hasn't died. Unfortunately, the 30 blank spaces on this writer's Camera were all filled with static. Yes, pour one out for the forever-lost high school-era pics of random selfies with school mates and family members, and that rangy cat we saw walking home from school that one time.

So, yes, turns out the primary reason we bought the thing — to transfer GB Camera pics to PC in a quick and easy fashion — wasn't actually possible in our case, although through no fault of the GB Operator. We've otherwise been incredibly lucky with our cart batteries and managed to save everything else from digital oblivion, though. You win some, you lose some.

Overall, the GB Operator is a great little piece of kit with oodles of potential, but it's a device for a very specific type of user — people with an existing GB(A) library who run their PC through their TV, for example, or anyone with a comfortable gaming monitor set-up. The option to take your treasured GB carts, play them on a big screen, save your progress, and carry on where you left off on official hardware gives the device an almost Switch-like appeal for the right person, and this writer just about fits into that niche category.

The GB Operator is a quality product — a small, stylish, relatively inexpensive addition to a gaming environment that enables you to conveniently play your carts and your saves on a big screen

If you're coming to this expecting a 'mini console' experience with the added functionality to play your physical catalogue, you'll likely come away disappointed by the restrictions and current lack of features. The GB Operator is a quality product, a small, stylish, relatively inexpensive addition to a gaming environment that enables you to conveniently play your carts and your saves on a big screen. It is in danger of falling between two stalls, though; too reliant on an existing physical library for its plug-and-play accessibility to appeal to casual players, yet too restrictive for die-hard retro enthusiasts looking for the ultimate way to play GB games on a big screen.

Improvements are coming that should address our biggest gripes with the GB Operator as the app moves towards Version 1.0, and the user-friendly way it enables save backups makes it a very handy device for any Game Boy lover with an intense affection for the genuine article (or anyone with cart batteries to replace). Even if GB games do end up coming to Nintendo Switch Online, there will inevitably be a great many titles that'll never see the light of day on Switch, so there's still room for devices like this, even if the appeal is somewhat limited.

We're intrigued to see what Epilogue has in store for the Operator series in the future. In the meantime, we'll be eagerly awaiting those feature updates.

The GB Operator is available for $49.99 plus shipping from Epilogue's website.

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