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Game Boy Compendium

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Game Boy Compendium

Jan 2022

Nintendo has dominated handheld consoles by thinking differently about technology.

Whereas others went for top-shelf components and specsmanship, Nintendo’s products have historically focused on accessibility and experience, making the most of mature, low-cost, well-understood technology.

Game Boy designer Gunpei Yokoi called this approach “lateral thinking with withered technology.” This month we use CT scanning to explore this design philosophy in the evolution of the Game Boy product line and learn its lessons.

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Intro image for the scan.

Game Boy

April 1989

Nintendo introduced the Game Boy around the same time as the Atari’s Lynx and Sega’s Game Gear. Its 4-shade display was technically no match for Game Gear’s 4,096-color backlit display. Its processor had a quarter the power of the Atari Lynx. How did Game Boy win?

Nintendo first introduced the cross direction pad in 1982’s Donkey Kong Game and Watch console. The patented design includes a down-facing hemisphere to act as a fulcrum and silicone pads to provide a soft click feeling. This interface became so fundamental to the modern gaming experience that Nintendo was presented an Emmy at CES ’08 for the design.

Here is the LR35902 processor, running at just 4 MHz. Based on the Intel 8080 and Zilog Z80, the technology was already 10+ years old at the time of the Game Boy’s release — this minimized cost and maximized developer familiarity. The processor is similar, if not slower, than those in calculators such as the TI-83.

Fun fact: according to Michael Johas Teener, former chair of the FireWire working group, the connector design of Game Boy’s link cable inspired that of the original FireWire connector.

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Game Boy Color

October 1998

Nearly a decade after the original Game Boy, Nintendo came out with a new handheld. The scans look shockingly similar. Minimizing the upgrades provided the backward compatibility game-collectors craved. Game Boy and Game Boy Color would sell a combined 120 million units.

Here we can see exposed copper traces on the PCB that serve as contacts for the buttons. The hard plastic buttons hide a flexible silicone pad embedded with carbon pills. The conductive carbon completes the circuit with little concern for vibration or wear when pushed down. Low-tech, yet robust and ergonomic.

Visible are the spring fingers of the game cartridge slot - these are what make contact with the copper edge connector on the PCB of the cartridges when the user inserts a game.

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Game Boy Advance

March 2001

The Game Boy Advance brought 32-bit processing, marking a generational shift in Nintendo’s handheld offerings. New generation, new competitors — Nokia’s N-Gage released with 10x the processing power. Yet the Game Boy Advance leaned into time-tested hardware and was awarded 10x the sales.

The GBA introduced the mechanically complex shoulder buttons previously found on 40+ million Super Nintendo controllers. The plastic button and its hinge at one end are in blue. The metal components are yellow; a thin metal leaf spring on the left and a tact switch on the right.

The buttons’ construction evolved little since the original Game Boy. Hidden key features prevent unwanted rotation of the plastic buttons. Silicone pads underneath them pop downwards when pressed, yet the compliant material provides a soft stop at the bottom of the buttons travel.

Intro image for the scan.

Nintendo DSi

November 2008

Well, this scan looks quite different. Ball grid array (BGA) components, developed in the ’90s, increase the PCB’s density. Peripherals become integrated, from cameras to batteries. Modern electronics have arrived, along with the usual speculation about gimmicks to appease early adopters.

The clam-shell design has a hollow hinge where electronics run between the two halves. A camera & mic live inside of the hinge itself. We can even see the connections to the imaging element inside the camera’s package!

The direct PCB contacts on the d-pad are gone, replaced with clicky dome switches. Nintendo aggressively slimmed down the component stack here - from 10mm tall on the Game Boy to just 4 mm. You can see - as well as feel - the difference this makes.

Intro image for the scan.

Nintendo Switch

March 2017

We’ve come a long way from the “Wii is just two GameCubes duct-taped together” debacle. Still, when Nintendo announced Nvidia’s Tegra mobile SoC for the central processing unit of their latest flagship console, eyebrows were raised. Nintendo would prove that content matters more than spec sheets; the launch title “Zelda: Breath of the Wild” is named one of the best games of all time.

Metal rails provide the slide and lock connection of the Switch’s detachable controllers, known as Joy-Con. The mating connections on the Joy-Con are plastic, cleverly pushing points of failure to the cheaper device. Leveraging the magic of CT, where color relates to material, we can focus on the metal rails and screws in yellow.

Even though the Tegra processor sips a tiny 10 watts of power, it still presents heat distribution challenges. The heat pipe that routes waste heat from the processor to the brushless DC exhaust fan is visible. When we focus on the fan, the motor’s internal structure and stator are visible.

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