When you take a step into the world of console modding, it can feel like you’ve pierced the veil into an alternate universe, ruled by misshapen plastic creations the color of Easter eggs. While most of them have a resemblance to your favorite video game systems of yore, they exert a kind of uncanny valley effect: perhaps the button configuration is slightly different, or maybe their neon shades throw you off just a hair. The truly amateur creations recall outsider artists like Howard Finster, with their circuit-board guts spilling out of their cracked shells, or bizarre controllers that pay no respect to the realities of human anatomy.
On the other side of that spectrum, however, you have sleek, professional-grade projects that look like they just rolled off an assembly line, such as the “Game Boy Macro,” a surprisingly-popular console modification that produces a Game Boy Advance in an entirely new form factor. Unlike most mods, however, building a working Game Boy Macro doesn’t require any particular technical wizardry or highly-specialized tools; instead, you merely remove the top screen of a DS Lite, move a few resistors, add a speaker, and you’re ready to go. Yes, that’s right: this so-called new Game Boy is, in fact, half-a-DS, with its innards rearranged and its exterior so dolled up that it’s hard to tell that it isn’t some forgotten Nintendo experiment.
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Building an Unlikely Trend
The name most associated with the Game Boy Macro is Anthony Thomas, a modder who has become somewhat famous in the community for building them in his free time and selling them for $160 each. But while Thomas takes credit for popularizing and refining the mod, he fully admits that he wasn’t the one who first pioneered the concept, pointing out that it’s existed under various names in the mod community for years now. While he originally thought that at least invented the “Macro” moniker, he recently discovered that someone else had coined it on a Spanish-language modding forum before he set up his operation.
If you aren’t intimately familiar with the DS and you’re not sure how exactly this works, here’s a quick primer: back in the 00’s, console manufacturers actually gave more than lip service to the idea of physical backward compatibility, which meant that the DS shipped with an entire separate slot for GBA games on its bottom. Thus, by removing the top screen, messing with the motherboard, and sanding down the protruding hinge with a rotary tool, you can shunt your DS into the previous console generation.
If you’re wondering why exactly someone would choose to mangle a precious treasure from their childhood for the sake of a unique shape and aesthetic, you’re not alone: I found myself asking the same question when I first read about the Macro. But, according to Thomas, the reasons for doing so are surprisingly robust. For one thing, you can use a piracy device like an R4 in the DS slot to emulate games from previous console generations on the go, and you have four face buttons to work with versus the GBA’s two.
He also notes that the flip-top GBA SP, which boasts a backlight and is easily found at flea markets or retro shops, has a nuance to its design that some casual collectors can overlook. SP models from early in its production cycle have a front-lit screen (known as the AGS-001) that adds a dim blue light; however, later ones have a fully back-lit screen (the AGS-101) that dramatically improves the play experience. Since a Macro is based on a DS Lite, it replicates the latter.
“I’m one of those people who thinks that the GBA SP is basically a perfect handheld system, but there’s one thing about it,” Thomas says. “Either you have the good screen or the bad screen, and not a lot of people know how to look for that. The DS is the highest-selling mobile console of all time, so there are a lot of them around, in closets or drawers or whatever. For a lot of people, it’s cheaper and easier to do this mod than try to find a good GBA. Plus, honestly, I think it just looks really cool.”
“A hobby, not a business”
Thomas’s original interest in modding the DS stirred from boredom and an idle need: he found himself without a GBA he was happy with, and he had a broken DS lying around, so he decided to mess around with it until he could make it work to his standards. I can certainly relate, because like a lot of people, a broken hinge claimed my original “fat DS,” and I would love to transform it into something that’s actually useful. Unfortunately, as Thomas’s own responsibilities at his day job have increased as he’s gotten older, he hasn’t been able to produce as many Macros as he would like. “This is strictly a hobby to me, not a business,” he says. “I sell them pretty much at-cost, and I’m always trying to make the process cheaper to save people money. I’ll still be selling a few this year, but I really do wish I could do more.”
As Thomas is quick to point out, he isn’t the only seller trafficking in this sort of thing. There’s the UK-based “Obirux,” who actually stamped out glass panels emblazoned with a retro-style “Game Boy Macro” logo. There’s also Joe Bleep’s Neon Advance, which adds a tube to the top of the box to give it more of a synthwave feel. But, since these projects take too much time and grit to establish any sort of regular schedule, if you really want a Game Boy Macro, Thomas has some words of advice: just try it yourself. Pull out your broken DS, or ask a friend for theirs, and go to town.
“It’s really not as hard as you’d expect, which is why I include the guides on my page,” he says. “It’s a fun thing to do, and you’ll feel really rewarded by the end.”