Video game consoles have evolved into multi-purpose entertainment hubs, letting gamers stream movies, chat with friends, and do far more than just play games. The 32-year-old Nintendo Game Boy, by comparison, was strictly a game machine—at least until Sebastian Staacks found a way to expand its capabilities, including turning it into the worst possible way to watch movies.
If your gaming pedigree dates back to Nintendo’s earlier handheld consoles, you probably remember that the color screen Game Boy Advance could actually be used to watch TV shows through special cartridges containing episodes of shows like Spongebob Squarepants, or full movies like the Shrek films. The image 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 considerably better than the Frankenstein’s monster of a media player that Staacks has created.
The Game Boy was powered by a Sharp LR35902 processor running at just 4.19 MHz (for comparison, the speed of processors in modern smartphones are now measured in GHz), which means that it simply doesn’t have the horsepower needed to decode and display compressed video files in real time. So how did Staacks get Star Wars playing 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 relied on a wireless ESP8266 microchip in addition to several other components attached to a custom PCB. The cartridge’s capabilities are severely limited by the Game Boy’s processor (you can’t use it to download playable ROM files from a cloud server, for example), but Staack’s earliest demonstrations include using telnet to send and receive simple text messages, and using a basic on-screen keyboard to access and display Wikipedia articles. As impressive as it is to see a Game Boy with wireless internet access, accessing Wikipedia isn’t terribly exciting, so Staack came up with another use for the wireless cartridge that’s far more interesting.
Staack has promised a much longer video explaining all the details at a later time, but on Twitter last week they shared a short video of an original unmodified Game Boy using the custom wifi cartridge to stream Star Wars compressed to just 160 x 144 pixels and running at 20 frames per second—a limitation that Staack explains 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, particularly given how cropped a movie has to be to fit on its square screen, but the fact that it can be done is kind of awesome. Just don’t expect a Netflix or Disney+ app for the Game Boy anytime soon (or ever).
If you want to try building one of these wifi cartridges yourself, Staack has provided fairly detailed instructions on their personal blog, and the open source plans and files available for download on their GitHub page. You’ll need to be very comfortable with electronics, programming, and soldering to build your own, but as more people start tinkering with this hardware, it will be interesting to see what else the 30-year-old Game Boy can do with internet access.