Video game consoles have evolved into multi-purpose entertainment hubs, allowing gamers to stream movies, chat with friends, and do much more than just play games. The 32-year-old Nintendo Game Boy was, by comparison, strictly a gaming machine — at least until… Sebastian Staacks found a way to expand its capabilities, including turning into the worst possible way to watch movies.
If your gaming pedigree goes back to Nintendo’s earlier handheld consoles, you probably remember that the Game Boy Advance’s color screen can actually be used to watch TV shows via special cartridges containing episodes from shows like Spongebob Squarepants, or full-length movies like the Shrek movies. Picture quality was downright awful, limited to resolutions of 240 x 160 for animated TV shows and even less for longer movies, but it was still significantly better than Frankenstein’s monster of a media player that Staacks made.
The Game Boy was powered by a Sharp LR35902 processor running at just 4.19MHz (for comparison, the speed of processors in modern smartphones is now measured in GHz), meaning it simply doesn’t have the power it needs. to decode and display in compressed format. video files in real time. So how did Staacks get Star Wars on that ugly four-color grayscale screen?
Last month Staacks shared a post on their personal blog detailing how they successfully built a WiFi Game Boy cartridge that relies on an ESP8266 wireless microchip in addition to several other components mounted on a custom PCB. The cartridge’s capabilities are severely limited by the Game Boy’s processor (for example, you can’t use it to download playable ROM files from a cloud server), but Staack’s earliest demonstrations include using telnet to send and receive simple text messages and using a simple on-screen keyboard to access and View Wikipedia Articles. As impressive as it is to see a Game Boy with wireless Internet access, accessing Wikipedia is not very exciting, so Staack came up with another use for the wireless cartridge that is much more interesting.
Staack has promised to make a much longer video explaining all the details at a later date, but on Twitter last week she shared a short video from an original unmodified Game Boy that uses the modified Wi-Fi cartridge to stream Star Wars, compressed to just 160 x 144 pixels and at 20 frames per second — a limitation Staack says is a result of the “short intervals at which the Game Boy allows access to the video RAM.” Watching streamed video on the Game Boy’s screen is an awful experience, especially given the cropped shape of a movie to fit the square screen, but the fact that it can be done is pretty awesome. Just don’t expect soon (or ever) a Netflix or Disney+ app for the Game Boy.
If you want to build one of these WiFi cartridges yourself, Staack has provided quite detailed instructions on their personal blog, and the open source plans and files available for download on their GitHub page. You need to be very familiar with electronics, programming and soldering to build your own hardware, but as more people tinker with this hardware, it will be interesting to see what else the 30-year-old Game Boy can do with internet access.
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