Building the Game Boy Advance of my Dreams
This summer, I decided to pursue the mod of my dreams, repurposing and rebuilding a forgotten legacy handheld to give it a bright future. I learned several lessons along the way, about resin casting, silicone molds, painting, as well as persistence, patience, and polish.
A Brief History of the Game Boy Advance
At the dawn of the new millennium, Nintendo released Game Boy Advance (GBA), a 32-bit cartridge-based handheld gaming console capable of displaying a whopping 32,768 colors on a 240-by-160 LCD. The first reveal of the Game Boy Advance was at Nintendo Space World 2000 (Nintendo’s video game trade show), where Nintendo displayed a prototype of the handheld console donning a mind-meltingly gorgeous silver and orange colorway. Sadly, this colorway never saw an official release, disappointing dozens of silver and orange enthusiasts.
Unfortunately, the original GBA was cursed with the unlit transflective screen of its ancestors, making it practically unusable unless in direct sunlight.
To address this issue, Nintendo released the Game Boy Advance SP, a GBA with a rectangular clamshell design and front-lit screen. The front-lit screen, although a decent solution for gaming in the dark, significantly diminished screen contrast. Nintendo eventually released the AGS-101 hardware revision to the GBA SP, with a back-lit screen that used an LED panel behind the LCD to greatly increase contrast when compared to the front-lit model.
The AGS-101 is the golden child of the Game Boy Advance pedigree, and it is generally regarded as the ideal medium for playing Game Boy games for its vibrant back-lit LCD. However, many prefer the original GBA’s more comfortable oval form factor, despite its unlit screen, when compared to the relatively narrow GBA SP.
In layman’s terms, the perfect GBA– complete with an round form factor and high-contrast back-lit LCD– can’t be bought, only built. (…Well, you can buy modified original GBAs with back-lit screens on eBay, but where’s the fun in that?) In any case, the perfect GBA must be built, forged from the remnants of an original GBA and a GBA SP AGS-101, bred for the best traits of each. Today, we embark on a quest to create the perfect GBA as described above, but with a unique twist: we’ll attempt to recapture the magic of the original silver-and-orange prototype from Space World 2000.
Along the way, we’ll explore the challenges that come with meticulously rebuilding this legendary handheld with aftermarket parts and rattle can paint, venturing into the territory of obsessive hobbyists.
To begin, we’ll need to paint the shell silver.
But Mike, there already exists a silver GBA shell! Remember the Platinum edition that was released in November of 2002? Why don’t you just buy that instead?
Yes, I do remember the Platinum edition GBA– a mighty fine colorway indeed. However, this colorway is hard to come by– and aftermarket shell manufacturers don’t make shells in silver. So we’ll take the painting route instead. The original GBA shell is dented to hell, so we’ll use aftermarket shells purchased from eBay. The molding on them isn’t perfect; there is some waviness near the corners. Nintendo’s quality control is known for being top-notch, so any aftermarket parts won’t be up to the “Nintendo Seal of Quality” standard. We’ll need to carve out some ribs in the shell to make room for the larger LCD containing the back-light. (Credits to Rose Colored Gaming)
Prepping for the Paint
When it comes to prepping these shells (and any part you want to paint), the name of the game is adhesion. Adhesion means two things: cleanliness, and primer. We wash the parts very thoroughly with soap and water, and wipe them with some isopropyl alcohol to remove any grease or mold release, wearing gloves to prevent getting finger oils on our part.
We apply a thin coat of Tamiya’s white fine surface primer. Grey primer also works, but will cause the final colors to come out slightly darker. After a 24-hour dust-free wait period, we’re ready to begin applying color coats.
In case dust particles do happen to fall on the part, just wait until the primer is dry, and use a clean microfiber cloth to brush off those nasty dust particles.
We’re using Tamiya’s synthetic lacquer paints because they are great for preserving detail due to their thin application. They’re typically used for Gunpla modeling, which is a very detail oriented craft. They also come in some great colors, including lots of metallic varieties. The GBA shells and buttons are made out of ABS, which will play very nice with synthetic lacquer. (Tamiya’s Polycarbonate paint will react poorly with ABS, so avoid the PS line of paints if you’re looking to paint ABS.) The colors we’re using are TS-30 (Silver Leaf) and TS-12 (Orange). When it comes to painting these shells, there are three main variables to keep in mind: distance from the nozzle to the can, speed of the can moving relative to the part, and temperature/humidity of the can/environment. That’s a lot to wrap the mind around, so we’ll start with a helpful diagram from Tamiya’s very own guide to painting (a great read!).
When the paint comes out of the can, it atomizes into millions of tiny droplets. Once they hit the surface, these droplets will try to cohere to one another, “puddling” on the surface and resulting in a sooth, glossy finish. However, if there is too much distance between the nozzle and the surface where the droplets are airborne, the solvent in them can evaporate, and by the time they hit the surface, they are unable to fully join their neighboring droplets. This results in a surface finish that is somewhere between “orange peel” and flat. Not pretty. The longer the distance between the nozzle and the surface, the more time the paint droplets have to “dry” while in the air, when they should be drying after they’ve hit the surface. On the other hand, if your nozzle is too close to the surface, or you move too slowly across the part, the paint will run. Blech! The moral of the story is to keep your paint’s viscosity low, and to observe how the droplets are falling onto the surface of your part, rather than looking at the color of the part itself or the color of the paint. Adjusting the distance and speed of your nozzle is a matter of gaining experience and staying vigilant while applying coats. The third variable is trickier to manipulate. We can control the viscosity of the paint by controlling the temperature of the can. And high humidity (> 60%) can prevent paint coats from curing correctly, so unless you can manipulate humidity, it’s best to paint on a dry rooftop, around noon. (Humidity is highest closer to the ground.)
Heat the cans in hot water 30 minutes before painting. This will lower the viscosity of the paint, allowing it to be applied in thinner coats. Caveat: The paint will come out of the can faster, making the spray harder to control, so you’ll need to move across the part quicker. For more information on painting, read Tamiya’s guide. It’s a great read if you want to understand the granular intricacies of painting with any rattle can, not just Tamiya brand.
We’re using a jig made out of straws, double stick tape, and a barbeque tray. Since we’ve heated our cans, the paint comes out quick, and we need to move quickly across the part to ensure our paint doesn’t run. In total, the paint is applied in about three coats. The first is very light– not even enough to cover the entire part. After waiting half an hour, another coat is applied to cover the whole part, and then after another half hour a final coat is applied.
Do not to try and cover the whole part with one coat; with the Tamiya paints, this will most definitely cause a run to occur.
After waiting a day or two to allow the paint to cure in a dust-free area, we apply Mr. Hobby Super Clear. Apart from having an awesome name, Mr. Hobby Super Clear will give the part an even surface finish, as well as protect and seal the paint.
The Buttons (Where things get interesting)
To make orange face buttons (A, B, D-pad buttons) , we will explore two options: resin casting new buttons, and painting over existing buttons.