As I grew up in the Nintendo generation, Nintendo handhelds were a part of my life until early adulthood. At some point, I stopped gaming and went several years not really playing anything, except for a PC game every now and then.
In late 2019, I started going back and looking at some of the older computers and game systems I had throughout my life. The nostalgia was addictive; the more I researched, watched videos, and looked around online, the more I wanted to re-experience some of those systems. There were also many systems that I never had a chance to use, and I also yearned to experience some of those for the first time. So, a couple of years ago, I started collecting classic computers and video game systems.
My collection is slowly growing, but I’m taking my time. In part, this is because I want to only collect broken systems that I personally repaired. Not only do I appreciate the feeling that comes with a successful repair, but I also like to use that repair process as a way to learn about each system to appreciate it more fully. So far, I’ve mostly stuck with that principle, but I do confess that I’ve made a couple of exceptions for harder-to-find pieces or deals that I just couldn’t pass up.
In April 2021, I added a Gameboy Pocket from eBay into my collection. It was listed as “for parts”, yet the photo in the listing showed that it was still working. I figured this would probably be an easy ‘repair’. Instead, I should’ve take that as a warning!
A Failed Repair Attempt
When it arrived, I put in some fresh batteries and turned it on. The display came on and the game did load. However, none of the buttons worked. Upon opening it, I found a large area of corrosion that had completely wiped out several traces on the board. Oh well – this is the risk that you take when you buy something “for parts” on eBay.
After a quite a long time of working on it and scraping away corrosion, I found that the trace damage was extensive. I finally came to the conclusion that I needed a schematic or another working board to probe against. And then shortly following that conclusion was the realization that I could’ve purchased a fully working unit for cheaper than it would cost to repair this one.
After some searching, I came across an AliExpress seller that was reselling used, but working Gameboy Pocket mainboards. Based on the photos in the listing, the boards looked like they were in good shape. I bought one, thinking that I could use it to beep out the corroded traces in the original board. After it arrived, though, I took the lazy way out, used it in place of the broken board, and brought the unit back to life. It cost me another $30, but I did get a working system in the end. I still plan on repairing the original board and getting another working unit out of it.
Upgrading the Display
All done, right? I played on the Gameboy Pocket for a little while, tilting it left and right, back and forward in an attempt to get a clear look at the unlit monochrome display. No, this wouldn’t do. It’s nice to have a working system, but without a direct light source beaming down on the screen, it was virtually unplayable.
After doing a bit of research, a couple of different options surfaced. First, a stock screen replacement could be done, and it would be very straight-forward. Remove the old screen, pop in the new one, and Bob’s your uncle. In fact, iFixIt has a thorough guide on this process. Of course, this assumes that the screen is hard to see because it’s defective. It’s entirely possible that the screen visibility is exactly what it’s supposed to be, and my eyes have grown accustomed to more modern displays.
The other option was more expensive, but seemed to be a better one – upgrade the screen with a new, back-lit, IPS display. The main downside is that the back-lit IPS display needs additional power, and that does dramatically cut the battery life of the Gameboy Pocket by more than half, depending on the brightness setting. Not being a 10-year old kid toting the Gameboy around town, this was an acceptable trade-off.
There were several different upgrade kits online, and none seemed too difficult to work with. This kit by FunnyPlaying was one of the more expensive options, but there were a couple of important selling points. First, the replacement screen is slightly larger than the original screen. This causes it to fill out the entire display window, without any visible gaps around the edges. And second, there’s a touch sensor that can be used to cycle between 36 different backlight colors.
One thing to note – the kit comes in two versions; with or without an LED hole. This seemed odd, until a little more research answered the question why. Nintendo originally released the Gameboy Pocket in 1996 without a power LED. Having been accustomed to it on the original Gameboy and the Play it Loud series, customers asked for it. So, at some early point in its production, Nintendo added the power LED to the Gameboy Pocket. Since there are two versions of the Gameboy Pocket around in the wild (one with the power LED, and one without), there are two versions of the replacement kit offered.
A couple weeks later, the kit arrived in the mail. Opening the package revealed an interesting little box, resembling a Gameboy cartridge.
Contained within this box were the screen replacement parts – the IPS display, a flexible PCB that contained the control board and a touch sensor (more on that shortly), an additional touch sensor, and a replacement screen cover. The package also contained a replacement transparent shell with a new power switch cover, buttons, and screws; everything needed to refresh the Gameboy Pocket and make it look new again.
Installing the New Screen
With the replacement screen kit in hand, I was ready to start the surgery. The first step was to remove the existing shell by unscrewing the six tri-tip screws in the back (four along the sides, and two under the battery door).
The back half of the shell lifted away easily. Next, there were three phillips head screws that attached the mainboard to the front half of the shell. The mainboard would have to come out in order to get to the screen. So I removed those three screws and set them aside.
Before lifting out the mainboard, the clips holding the old screen’s ribbon cable into the connector needed to be released. Gently pressing up on the two white tabs on each side of the ribbon cable connector released the pressure on the cable.
Once the clips were released, the ribbon cable slipped out of the connector. The mainboard then lifted right out; so I set it aside for now. What was left was the front half of the shell, with the old screen mounted in place, and the existing button pads and buttons.
Since I purchased the replacement kit with the new shell, there was no need to remove the old screen from the old shell. The replacement kit came with buttons, but it did not come with the rubber button pads. So, I removed the rubber pads for the D-pad, A & B buttons, and the Start & Select button, and set them aside.
Using the new transparent shell, I then peeled the backing off one side of the double-sided adhesive and mounted it to the inside of the front half. This operation was rather delicate. To align the adhesive perfectly, I very carefully used tweezers to lift it back up and re-adjust it. It would’ve been easy to tear the adhesive, so going slowly and patiently was the key. After fine-tuning the position of adhesive with my tweezers, I pressed it into place well.
Confident with the placement, I peeled off the other side of the adhesive backing, ready to drop in the display. Before dropping it in, it’s always a good idea to remove as much dust and fingerprint marks as you can when your replacement screen is not mounted in the case. So I used a micro-fiber cloth and some compressed air to clean it up.
Dropping the screen in place was actually very easy. The replacement shell had two square notches below the screen opening, which made it a cinch to correctly line up the screen.
After dropping in the screen, I gently massaged around the edges to make sure it was adhered well to the adhesive. The driver board was next. When the screen arrived, it was already attached, but I removed it before installing the LCD. There’s a press-fit connector on the bottom left of the backside of the screen that the driver board connects with. So I connected the screen to the driver board, and then mounted the board to the back of the screen using the adhesive that was already on one side of the driver board.
I then placed the buttons back into the front-half of the shell, as well as the rubber pads. I did notice that the rubber pad for the D-Pad was rubbing up close to the edge of the screen. Uncertain of whether or not this would impact the feel of the buttons, I pressed on and figured I could trim the rubber pads with an x-acto knife later, if necessary. It turned out to not be a problem, so the pads remained unmodified.
The mainboard went back in place nicely, with three of the shiny new screws that came with the kit. Once mounted, I connected the new screen’s ribbon cable into the connector on the mainboard, and pressed in the mounting tabs. In the photo below, you’ll notice that the flexible PCB cable for the screen has a cut-out section that’s sticking straight out. This little cut-out is actually a touch sensor.
The new screen needed a 3v power supply. The kit came with a small wire that can be soldered to the power switch, so the screen gets fed 3v when the switch is turned on. Using my soldering iron on a low setting, I tinned both the pad on the flexible PCB cable for the power, as well as the left leg on the power switch. The key to the soldering on the flex cable is to keep the heat low and not to leave the iron on there too long. All that was left was to connect a small wire from the flex cable to the power switch.
At this point, I wanted to make sure everything was working before, so I put 3v from my bench power supply into the battery terminals and powered it on. The screen lit up, and the start-up animation appeared. The crystal-clear picture was sharp and vibrant. Adjusting the backlight brightness is simple and intuitive; you just turn the contrast dial on the right side of the Gameboy Pocket. I really was blown away by how great the screen looked.
Remember that square cut-out on the flexible PCB cable? When you touch it, the color of the backlight changes as it cycles through 36 different color options. Some of the color differences between the options are subtle, and others dramatic. In fact, this is my only gripe with this display – having 36 different color options means that if you’re flipping through them and there’s a color you like, you have to cycle back through them all to find it again. The multiple backlight colors are a great feature, though – you can get close to an authentic Gameboy experience by choosing the right backlight color.
Obviously, I don’t want the touch sensor sticking out the unit. Fortunately, the touch sensor actually works through the plastic housing. So, I just tucked the sensor into the top of the shell, and to change backlight colors, I just have to touch the top of the Gameboy Pocket.
With everything verified to be working, I reassembled the case and adhered the new, scratch-free screen cover. After popping in a set of freshly charged batteries, I inserted Tetris and embarked on a trip down memory lane. As I navigated tetrominoes down a narrow brick corridor, I was reminded of why the Gameboy was such a formidable memory in my pre-teen youth.
At this point, you astute readers out there will have realized that the only original part in my “repaired” Gameboy Pocket is the rubber button pads. That also means that the only other parts need to fully re-construct the original Gameboy Pocket are the rubber pads. Stay tuned for a future post, where I’ll repair the corroded board and resurrect this original red Gameboy Pocket with the original parts… minus the rubber pads.