Nintendo's Game Boy family of consoles has, in total, sold around 200 million units during its lifespan, which stretched from the release of the original monochrome system in 1989 all the way up to 2005's Game Boy Micro, the final console to showcase the name.
While Nintendo has enjoyed significant commercial success away from the Game Boy brand – its successor, the Nintendo DS, is the most successful Nintendo console ever, with over 150 million units sold – there will always be a special place for the system that effectively created the handheld console market, and established Nintendo as its champion.
The Game Boys were my fun; I enjoyed upgrading them and putting my knowledge to use. As with anything I do, it tends to end up as a business
This affection for the Game Boy line has resulted in a vibrant aftermarket industry which produces new shells, screens, buttons and other components in order to augment the capabilities of the base system. We've seen screen mods for the original Game Boy and Game Boy Advance SP and even Nintendo DS consoles repurposed as GBAs, but RetroSix's Luke Malpass has taken things to the next level, building what can comfortably be described as the ultimate Game Boy console money can buy (at the time of writing, anyway).
Malpass got interested in modding hardware not via a Nintendo system, but one created by Microsoft. "I used to own a business modding Xbox controllers," he explains. "I was known worldwide for the rapid-fire chips, and was the 'hidden name' behind almost all of them on the market – certainly the most popular ones – including my own, the Arbiter. I am I software developer by heart, and I've done that since I was 10, but I also love anything challenging. I can do plumbing, welding, soldering, mechanics, airbrushing, CAD, hardware and anything else that is cool and interesting. That's where I get my pleasure; learning new trades and making things. I got into the Game Boy scene last year as I'd done 5 years solid in a life-consuming software business that grew large, but was absolutely no fun. The Game Boys were my fun; I enjoyed upgrading them and putting my knowledge to use. As with anything I do, it tends to end up as a business."
Malpass now runs his own console modification business, where he not only reconditions old systems but also sells kits people can fit themselves. While he also offers mods for other consoles – the Sega Game Gear upgrade he offers is especially popular – it's the Game Boy which really seems to resonate with his customers.
"It has survived the challenges of time, and there are lots of cheap consoles and games available all over the world," he replies when asked why such a massive community has grown up around the Game Boy family. "That, and the way many modern games are now – digital downloads, no physical copies, online-only, filled with micro-transactions and so on – for many people, games are no longer fun. It's all high-adrenaline, high-stakes and pressured gameplay, all aimed at multiplayer and spending money. On the other hand, on the Game Boy, you buy a game for £5 and can play it peacefully, without stress, for weeks at no extra cost. I've always said that modern games increase stress, retro games decrease stress. With the extra stress in the world right now, I think more people are turning to the stress-relieving things in life. With that comes the realization that in the modern world, a low volume, non-backlit and scratched screen don't cut it anymore. With demand comes supply. People want backlit screens, chargeable batteries, better sound and new-feeling retro consoles – and demand is only getting bigger."
What I did was combine every known issue of every GBA I have come across, and add it to my list of things I fix on every single one, regardless of whether it appears to have the fault or not
Malpass is clearly a master at his craft, given the huge volume of stock he is shifting at the moment. "I've sold well over 1000 consoles in 18 months," he says. With each system he painstakingly restores, he learns a little bit more about the process and factors that knowledge into future projects – and that even extends to fixing annoying issues that have been baked-into the hardware since it was first made. "Let's take the Game Boy Advance, for example," he says. "As you work on them, you discover certain versions have certain issues, others have other issues. Most have a lot in common and as the faults are built into the manufacturing and the time the console has been around. The power switch on the GBA is the most common fault; over time the metal finish turns to a black sticky non-conductive sludge, preventing the console powering on, or giving ground noise or 'flickering red light syndrome'. Fewer have volume wheel issues of a similar nature, causing scratchy sound or no audio. What I did was combine every known issue of every GBA I have come across, and add it to my list of things I fix on every single one, regardless of whether it appears to have the fault or not."
In a niche market full of modders who take battered Game Boy consoles, fit new screens and cases and then sell them for a tidy profit, Malpass stands apart; each system he modifies effectively becomes a 'new' console, and he undertakes an exhaustive upgrade procedure with every machine that passes through his workshop. "Step one is the restoration of the console itself," Malpass explains. "This involves the disassembly of the power switch, cleaning contacts and reassembly. I also clean the volume wheel internals and the cartridge pins and expansion port. Button contact pads – the metal ones on PCB – are also cleaned and restored to perfect condition. I then undertake a full test of every aspect of the hardware and I repair any faults, such as blown fuses, bad capacitors, shorts or dead regulators."
This initial step ensures that the machine is as good as the day it rolled out of Nintendo's factory, but it's the next is perhaps more exciting; Malpass takes the humble Game Boy Advance and transforms it into a system more befitting of a 2020 gamer. "I only sell the fully-upgraded consoles, no middle ground," he states proudly. "I replace the rubber contact pads with brand new ones. The entire shell is also swapped out for a brand-new cast ABS shell, which I designed and made so the shell is better than original quality. Pretty much all of the other third-party shells on the market are low-quality injection-moulded ones; mine are cast ABS from Japan. Then, the plastic screen protector is replaced with a tempered glass lens for better clarity and protection, while all of the buttons are swapped for brand-new ones."
The entire shell is also swapped out for a brand-new cast ABS shell, which I designed and made so the shell is better than original quality. Pretty much all of the other third-party shells on the market are low-quality injection-moulded ones; mine are cast ABS from Japan
All of this work effectively means you're getting a brand-new console in terms of looks, but what Malpass then does to the machine's internal tech completes the enhancement The weedy original speaker and audio amplifier are replaced by a 'CleanAmp' module and new speaker, increasing volume massively and improving both bass and treble. The old TFT LCD – which caused so many problems back in the day because it relied entirely on external light – is removed in favour of a modern, backlit LCD with brilliant colour and rock-solid viewing angles. Those pesky AA batteries? They're gone, substituted for a rechargeable LiPo battery pack using the 'CleanJuice' mod, so the console is good for around 20 hours of playtime and can be topped up via a USB-C cable (you can even reverse-charge your smartphone using the console's battery). The GBA is then tested again to ensure everything is working as expected and packed away in one of RetroSix's superb bespoke boxes, complete with a tiny instruction manual which states you should put away your mobile phone during use so you can concentrate solely on the joy of handheld gaming.
In Malpass' eyes, this 'prestige' edition of the Game Boy Advance is quite simply the best Game Boy system money can buy. The original Game Boy Advance may have had its faults at launch, but the landscape form factor is more comfortable than the somewhat cramped GBA SP and Micro, and it provides a 3.5mm headphone socket (something that was missing on the SP). Unlike the tiny Micro, it can play the entire Game Boy library, too – right the way back to the original monochrome system.
Having sampled one of these RetroSix systems, we can attest to their quality. The shell really does feel incredible; it's covered in a soft-touch coating which increases grip and feels even better than the original case. The sound in also incredible, hitting volume levels that the standard GBA could only dream of, without any distortion or loss of quality. Not having to worry about AA batteries is a boon too, and the robust 20-hour stamina means you don't have to worry about charging it every single day. The modern display is perhaps the most impressive element of the upgrade, providing a crisp image that can be played in any environment, no matter how dark or dimly-lit. The only real catch is the cost; at £199.99, it's significantly more expensive than buying a battered GBA off eBay, but it's also the very best example of this kind of thing – is it possible to put a price on perfection?
Many of the mods Malpass is using in his consoles have appeared quite recently, which begs the question, is there a ceiling on this technological wizardry? When will modders take the machine as far as they possibly can? "There will be a limit eventually, but we are far from it," he replies with confidence. His own desire to reach complete perfection means that he's always finding ways to improve his mods. "I don't like anything less than perfect and I am always striving for that. I've released 4 revisions of the amplifier, each one better than the last, 2 versions of the USB-C charger, 4 versions of cast ABS shell, and I have yet to tackle the LCDs – which I am about to start doing myself, rather than relying on external suppliers."
It costs a lot, and that's why many do not do it; they don't have the financial backing or technical ability, and they have more sense than me than spending close to £150k on improving a few old consoles
Malpass laments that the biggest problem with the modding community today is that few share his desire to reach this level of perfection, and the cheap nature of the parts required mean that many consoles are being upgraded on the cheap. "Injection-moulded shells from China anyone can buy, poor quality glass anyone can buy, off-the-shelf audio and USB solutions, and so on. I came in and changed that. I made my own shell moulds, which have cost me well over £50,000 for GBA and GB moulds so far, because I needed better quality. I made my own amplifiers for cleaner, louder sound, and universal support for all consoles. I made my own USB-C board for a drop-in, no soldering power solution, and I use the largest and by far the most energy-efficient battery on the market. I made cast moulds for the battery covers so the USB-C hole looks factory stock; others just drill out the hole. I box my consoles in brand-new custom made boxes and so on. I think you see the pattern. I always go that extra mile, for that extra quality. It costs a lot, and that's why many do not do it; they don't have the financial backing or technical ability, and they have more sense than me than spending close to £150k on improving a few old consoles. But now, its really starting to pay off, and the reputation I have for going that extra mile is becoming known."
Malpass is keen not to limit himself to a single system, though, and is eager to branch out in order to improve and upgrade other handheld systems. "So far I have tackled the GB, GBP, GBC, GBA and GBA-SP. I am just starting to remake all the hardware for the Game Gear. After that probably Neo Geo Pocket, then maybe the Bandai WonderSwan." However, there's still unfinished business with Nintendo's best-selling handheld. "I'm not done with the Game Boy yet," he says. "This year I will have one of the biggest announcements in the scene ever, around the perfect restored Game Boy. There are issues with the current mods that take it away from its origin. I love original and I'm all about making it seem as original as possible, but with modern touches. There is a huge problem with one of the most popular mods to the Game Boys and people won't realise it until I release what I have coming – then the nostalgia should return even more for those die-hard retro fans who want truly original restorations, and not overly modernised versions."
Thanks to RetroSix for supplying the Game Boy Advance console used in this feature.