2023-01-25

Gaming and Watching

You remember the Nintendo Game & Watch? If you grew up in the 80s, it's likely you at some point came across one of them. Small handheld games with simple black and grey LCD segment displays that featured printed static colour background. They were always on, merrily blinking away while being idle, and in the corner of the screen was a digital watch, hence the name. They even had alarm functionality. They ran almost forever on two small button cell batteries, no need to ever charge them.

Mario Bros. Game & Watch

Me and my brother had the Mario Bros. Game & Watch game. It's a foldable dual screen game where you move Luigi and Mario independently up and down their ladders on their respective screen, moving crates through a machine that fills them with bottles and packages them. At the end the crates go on a truck. When the truck is full, the round ends. If you don't manage to have the character at the right place at the right time, the crate falls to the floor and the boss gets angry. You loose a life. The game moves faster and faster, making it more and more difficult to handle.

I still have the game. Unfortunately the metal face plate have fallen off and the flexible connector between the two halves have gotten brittle and cracked, rendering it unable to operate any more. 😢

But this is not about that. You see, in late 2020, Nintendo® released a new Game & Watch™.

Super Mario Bros.â„¢ Game & Watchâ„¢

This one, called the Nintendo® Game & Watch™ Super Mario Bros.™ does have a design that very closely matches the old classic games, but inside it's a lot more modern. Featuring a bright full colour graphical LCD screen, rechargeable battery and USB type C connector for charging. Some young whippersnappers say it's the 35th Anniversary Edition, but it does not say that anywhere on the box, and I don't believe a word of it. If it's been 35 years that would make me … how old really? No, it's the children who are wrong.

I thought it looked quite neat, and I wanted one, but the price it was released for just felt too high for what it was, thus I did not buy it. I was in luck, however, as a few months later, towards the end of January, one showed up on a local auction site. Someone had gotten it—possibly for Christmas—played it for a day, gotten bored with it and was now selling it. It was in pretty much mint condition in box and I managed to get it at a price far below retail.

I also very quickly discovered that it was actually quite boring after a while. It has an NES emulation of the original Super Mario Bros.â„¢, Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 (not the Doki Doki Panic version we eventually got outside Japan), and a reimplementation of the very first Game & Watch game Ball.

It also has a pretty neat watch function, but that's about it.

I think it would have been a lot better value had they also put the international version of Super Mario Bros. 2â„¢, as well as Super Mario Bros. 3â„¢ on it. Those were the games I played the most on NES growing up, and I consider them a lot better than the first one.

But it is what it is. Or is it?

We can Rebuild it. We have the Technology.

It only took one day after the new G&W was released until Stacksmashing managed to hack it. They released a video on YouTube about it, and Nintendo® promptly issued some copyright claims to get the video taken down. It was up again soon with all Nintendo® graphics blurred.

Pretty soon after it was possible to put your own NES games on it, and even play DooM.

This interested me a lot.

So, naturally, I wanted to do it myself. I ordered a cheap ST-link programming interface and some clip-leads (because I was stuck in Sweden—thanks to COVID—and all my electronics equipment was stuck in the Philippines.

By the time I was attempting this a lot of work had already been done to streamline the process. Everything needed was available in a few Github repositories and instructions were pretty clear.

One major problem however. The Game & Watch runs at 1.8 V. This is a lot lower than the more common 3.3 V that most things ordinary electronics enthusiasts like me work with. The clone programmer I got, although it looks just like an official one, is actually not. It's missing a major component, and that is a level shifter that allows it to work with the target devices voltage level.

To register as a one or a high logic level, a 3.3 V logic signal input requires usually 2.0 V to 3.3 V. The 1.8 V the Game & Watch uses is not high enough to always properly register. (At least this is my belief as to what caused me problems here, please correct me if I'm wrong.)

I did not really know about this when I ordered the interface, and I also did not know there were differences between the genuine ones and the clone ones. They look superficially identical.

Thank you Mario! But it's Dangerous to go Alone!

Anyway, this caused me to have a lot of issues, but after trying and trying about twenty times I finally managed to get a complete backup of the flash memory (non volatile rewritable memory chip that stores the game ROM) and firmware (flash memory located internally inside the microcontroller/CPU chip that stores the program code). I could verify that they were correct by checksumming them, and thus I was now safe. I could always restore.

So I of course did what anyone would have done. I reflashed (reprogrammed) it with a Gameboy™ emulator and The Legend of Zelda® A Link to the Past™. After a few tries I eventually got it flashing properly, and everything worked fine.

But I wanted to try more things, so I tried doing an NES emulator and The Legend of Zelda. And this time it did not work out as well. I got the microcontroller firmware flashed properly, so it actually booted up and showed the interface, but was not able to get the ROM to flash. I was getting all sorts of errors, no matter how many times I tried.

So I was left with a Game & Watch that could start up, display a menu and then not much more. This only marginally less useful than the factory default, but not what I wanted.

Anyway, after messing around with it for a day, I put it on a shelf and forgot about it.

Two years later …

Fast forward almost two years. I saw the game again and thought, why not make another attempt? I wired it up, set up the software, noticed that there had been some updates due to the release of the new colour screen version of The Legend of Zelda™ Game & Watch™, ran the scripts and … nope.

Still the same errors. At this point I honestly didn't know how I ever got it working that first time. Maybe something to do with the phase of the moon? Anyway. I thought to myself, how expensive could a real genuine ST-link be anyway? Surely that would fix the problem?

So I went online and searched. I quickly found out that they were out of stock at all reputable distributors, with lead times of 53 weeks. Thanks Global Semiconductor Chip Shortage. But then I thought to check good old Elfa, or Elfa Distrelec as they are known these days. And wouldn't you know it, they had 128 of them in stock! And really, not even that expensive compared to clones. So I ordered one.

Your Quest is Over.

Today it arrived. After comparing it to the clone and confirming that it was the real deal, I carefully hooked up the small wire hooks to the board in the Game & Watch, plugged in the USB-leads and ran ./5_restore.sh stlink mario. The LED on the device blinked franticly for 30 seconds and my terminal then reported Success, your device should be running the original firmware again!.

I had a working device again. Just like when it was new in box.

And where does the Reborn go from here? The Net is Vast and Infinite.

The clip leads I use are not very good, and fitting four of them next to each others, hooked to vias that have a 2 mm pitch is a bit precarious. If I move it around they have a tendency to snap out and I don't want anything to short. But it worked, I can now reflash it with any homebrew or emulation software I like.

However, it's just too inconvenient opening the case and clipping the leads every time I want to change games. What I need to do is to solder some wires permanently to the board and put a small connector somewhere instead.

Actually, I should probable get the new The Legend of Zelda™ 35th Anniversary Edition Game & Watch™ instead. It's the exact same device, but it's green and—more importantly—have two extra buttons for select and start. That makes it a lot more appropriate for general NES emulation.

Or, you know, I could just use my old hacked Nintendo® New 3DS™ LL that I imported from Japan a few years ago. I don't think I played it for almost a year now. I should get it out and check that the battery still is good. As I recall, I was in the middle of playing the DLC chapter Turnabout Time Traveler in the game Ace Attorney® Phoenix Wright Spirit of Justice when I last used it. I should really finish that.

But anyway, that's it for the moment, and as always, thanks for Watching!