Portable power

Meet Elliot Coll: The Game Boy's very own Dr. Frankenstein

On his channel The Retro Future, Elliot Coll turns aging game consoles into something more.

There are a lot of people on YouTube reviewing old video games. There are a lot less people tearing old video game hardware apart and turning them into absurd, borderline nihilistic, works of art. One such madman is Elliot Coll of The Retro Future.

Coll, who was already well known in the retro gaming community for his repairs and restorations on YouTube, is probably best known for his video "Giving the GameBoy Advance SP another screen for no reason," in which he does precisely that. He's also produced "Giving the Nintendo DS one screen for no reason," "I made a left handed GameBoy for no reason," and "The Gintendo Bame Noy." There's also the one-two punch of "I made the GameBoy longer for no reason" and "1200 GameBoy Games in 1," in which he creates a Game Boy long enough to play baseball with.

After months of discussing his work in the Input office (and our Slack, post pandemic), I finally decided to reach out and discover just what kind of a mind could produce such singular works of genius. A friendly and quite thoughtful one, it ends up.

Ryan: When did you first start tinkering with Game Boys?

Elliot: It's always been something that I've played. I think about 11 years ago, I filmed a video on a Nintendo DSi talking about a Game Boy that I had refurbished. I took it apart and gave it a clean... if I remember correctly something had been spilt on it. That video is actually on YouTube, I uploaded that on to my second channel, and that's the first time that I refurbished one. I was 11 years old. So yeah, a long time I've been involved in Game Boys.

Ryan: How many handheld consoles do you own now?

Elliot: Over a hundred, definitely. Game Boys, probably about 70, and then a ton of very undesirable, but rare, handhelds like the Mega Duck, the Game Mate, the Game Master. All of those are things that are by no means desirable to anyone but they're just very hard to come by.

Ryan: What gave you the idea for your first big mod "Giving the GameBoy Advance SP another screen for no reason"?

Elliot: I stumbled across this picture nine months ago and I put it up on my Community tab on my YouTube Channel saying 'I want to make this.' It was a picture of a Game Boy Advance SP in red. It had two screens, one on top of the other, but it was only a Photoshopped thing. It wasn't a real thing; I just said I wanted to make it. It got like 1800 likes, which is not a lot of likes now, but back then that was probably one of the most liked posts I'd ever made. Then I didn't think about it anymore.

Then I put out a post on Community saying that six months before I said I wanted to make this and six months later I'm now gonna make it. So then I uploaded a sneak preview of some stuff I was doing on my Twitter and that same week I released the video "Giving the Game Boy Advance SP another screen for no reason." So then that has four-hundred thousand views, and I thought 'This has done quite well, I'll make another one.'

Ryan: Did you consult with anyone on how to accomplish that?

Elliot: I’d spoken to a few people, who were very technically minded but couldn't give me a definitive answer. So I then proceeded to just go for it, which involved case manufacturing using limited tools, limited experience, super glue, toilet roll, my first time using body filler, spray paint. Most people would probably use a 3D printer, but I didn't have that.

Then it came to the soldering, because it was getting two screens — "Giving the Game Boy another screen for no reason" was the title — I had to solder that top screen to the bottom screen because, obviously, there wasn't a connection for it to just plug in. Which, if I remember, was something like 32 pins on each screen, so 64 connections on a thing that's smaller than an inch long. So 32 wires, 64 connections, and then there was a chance it wasn't gonna work. No one was able to tell me that it would work or not.

That was about four hours of soldering. Then I rang my friend Stuart Ashen and just flipped [out]. I just went absolutely berserk. The fact that I got it to work was just… Yeah, it was just a moment to behold.

“The most grueling thing I've ever done.

Ryan: How long does one of these mods actually take you?

Elliot: There's wait time involved, you know, glue hardening, body filler hardening, spray painting, primer. The whole painting process takes two days. You’ve got to wait for the primer to fully dry and then for the paint to fully dry, so I would say that one video was probably about two weeks of solid work. Then not putting out any other videos. The second one was "Giving the DS one screen for no reason." That video, actually, I managed to bash out in two days because it was just removing stuff. It wasn't adding more stuff so that one was quite an easy one. "Making the Game Boy longer for no reason" was a tricky one because I had to manufacture a longer case. That took about, I would say, a week. There was far less soldering. That’s a common mod that people do; it's called a DS Macro. I was just being clever with the title. That was nothing compared to the two screens. That was the most grueling thing I've ever done.

Ryan: Why do you think people are still fascinated with the Game Boy? Is it just nostalgia?

Elliot: The Game Boy, even when it came out, was a very simple thing, right? The first Nintendo handheld was the Game & Watch and that was using calculator technology, a liquid crystal display, quartz as a mounted component to keep time. You know, it was using technology that was preexistent. It wasn't a massive feat of engineering, the stuff that they were doing.

The second reason is: There are games for the Game Boy that have become absolute staples. Famous games like Tetris and Super Mario that are solid games that stand up now as still enjoyable. I'm fairly certain you could give a kid who's addicted to Fortnite a Game Boy and Tetris and they’d still get lost in it. They are going to be so engrossed in such a simple, solid game. I think it's because of that simplicity to pick up — not having to put a load of energy into a storyline or a difficult mechanic that you have to master. It's just a simple, beautiful game that's easy for anyone to understand and play, that you can pick up and put down a week, that you can pick it up again a week later, and it's still exciting and exhilarating to play.

There are so many Game Boy games that are just still beautiful to this day. How many people are playing the first FIFA? How many people are playing the original Call of Duty? It's a disposable thing. Games come out, you have your fun with it, you'll put it away, and you'll probably never ever ever play it again because the new things have come out. But people are still playing Tetris. People are still playing Super Mario. Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening? Heck, they've released that again because it was such a solid game. I think that’s the reason that people mod Game Boys. It's a heartwarming experience to play a Nintendo game.

Ryan: Will you be buying an Analogue Pocket?

Elliot: I'm hoping that I'm going to get sent one for a review. If I wasn't a YouTuber, I probably wouldn't buy one. There are a few reasons for that. I think they're very expensive. They're gonna be very good, there's no doubt about it — Analogue does everything well — but it's a very expensive piece of equipment and I would prefer to buy the grotty old Game Gear that needs new caps and do that myself and clean up the board. Or buy the Neo Geo Pocket or a Game Boy and play the original things.

I've got so many of these handheld console things that play all the games and stuff and it just devalues whatever game you're playing in that moment or whatever console you're playing in that moment, because you have access to a hundred thousand other games and several different consoles. For me personally, I like going on a road trip or going out to a friend’s house and just bringing the one Game Boy with the one game. 'Cause then I can focus on that game and appreciate it more.

Elliot CollThe Retro Future

Ryan: What's different about a Nintendo Switch game that makes it so unlike the handheld games of the past?

Elliot: I think the difficulty now is, because of advancements of technology, there's ways to monetize everything. First of all, you buy the game, then a downloadable piece of content comes out that is a premium to pay, then you have to have a subscription for online to play with your friends, then something "new" comes out and you're the only one still playing that game.

Whereas back then it was: You buy one game, you play that game, and there is nothing else. It's a face value purchase. Plugging in a game and then playing that game until you’ve unplugged that game, and that's all you’re gonna get from that game… a lot of kids and younger people are not gonna understand that. They're gonna expect that, when they download Fortnite, there's gonna be new updates with new maps, new skins, new weapons, new whatever. I think the experience is different. It's just a completely different thing now. It's not really comparable anymore because you're playing something that's an online gateway. Every time I turn on Animal Crossing [New Horizons], there's something new happening.

“Why spend $70 or whatever it is on a piece of naughts and ones?”

Ryan: Do you worry about game preservation in the digital age?

Elliot: Yeah, see that's a weird one. I don't think we're there yet to know what's going to happen, but what I do find very, very difficult is the idea of downloading a game as opposed to going to the shop and buying the physical one. I am sure during the whole pandemic, most people were just downloading all these new games that came out, Animal Crossing, etc., but I will never understand that. Unless it's a download only, indie eShop game.

Why spend $70 or whatever it is on a piece of naughts and ones? It’s just confusing because surely once you’ve had your fun with that system and you want to sell it to get a little bit of recoup, a little bit of your investments, and then you buy the new thing, what are you going to do with all your downloaded games? They're gonna wanna reset the console and then all the games go. What happens then? Different rules are applying now that we can't really judge until the future.

Ryan: What's your next big project going to look like?

Elliot: I've got stuff in my notebook — videos that I wanna do, stuff that I wanna make — but right now, I've got stuff coming from Japan that I wanna fix and do reviews on. I've got handhelds that I've just bought from Amazon that I wanna do some reviews on. In terms of the wacky creations? They require so much energy, and so much thought process, that at the moment I’m just exploring some of the dumb accessories that’ve existed.

I've got the Game Genie, that you can enter codes into, and I wanna look at that. I've always known that they've existed and never used one. I've got a solar charger Game Boy case that powers your Game Boy using the sun. On the bottom of it, it's got some patriotic American slogans. "Innovation” is the name of the company and it says "Helping to Keep America Beautiful!" but then around the box, they've got different languages... but it doesn't say "helping to keep Spain beautiful." It just says "Helping to Keep America Beautiful!" So there's loads of fun stuff like that for the Game Boy and I think it's just really fun looking at these accessories. I just reviewed a piano for the DS in a video and a camera for the Game Boy and music composing software, like loads of just dumb stuff that people probably thought about or read about that they never bought.

Ryan: Rapid fire. What's your favorite handheld system, your favorite mod, your favorite gaming accessory, and your favorite game?

Elliot: From the Game Boy line, it would probably be Game Boy Pocket or Game Boy Light (pretty much the same thing). From a non Game Boy line, I would probably say the Mega Duck, or something called a Game Plus.

Favorite mod has to be… I mean, without a doubt, the best result you can get from a mod is an IPS screen installation. All you have to do is just cut up the plastic shell and you don't even have to do that now, companies are selling the shells pre-cut or pre-molded with the ability to just drop in and just plug and play, it's that simple. It's inexpensive, it's like £40 or $50 or whatever and you get an insane, insane result. Like, a Game Boy with an IPS screen, the result is unreal.

Favorite accessory, I guess in a dumb sense would probably be the Game Boy Advance steering wheel. It’s just so dumb. But in an actual usable scenario — it's not really an accessory but the Game Boy DMG Test Cartridge, which is a massive, long test cartridge which was used in repair centers to diagnose buttons that weren't pressing properly. It looks awesome, it's massive, it's very dev/prototype-y looking, it's incredibly rare, and very desirable. I actually used that in the process of the "Making the Game Boy longer for no reason" video, which annoyed some people because it should be something that you put away on a shelf and just look at and appreciate because they're so expensive and rare. But I was plugging it in, scraping around the floor, pressing the buttons, making sure they actually worked because I had to extend the controls. I also used it for making the left handed one, because I had to swap the buttons around, so I functionally used that, which I think winds a lot of people up, but, hey, these things were made to be used.

And my favorite game, at the moment, is Tetris DX because I played it on one of my modded Game Boy Colors and the colors of the Tetris blocks are just beautiful. But overall? I mean, Link's Awakening.

Elliot has two YouTube channels you can follow: The Retro Future and Elliot Coll. You can also find him on his website, Instagram, and Twitter.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.