There's no denying that the original Game Boy was a technological marvel in its day, but if you've ever actually held one in your hand, you know we've come a long way since 1989.
While its chunky size and surprisingly-tactile buttons are charming to our modern eyes, its grayscale screen is anything but. In fact, you could argue that it puts the "retro" in "retrograde." However, thanks to hackers like Ivan "toruzz" Delgado, many of the classic Game Boy games can be played in full color these days — you just have to know where to look.
In living color
Like many hackers, toruzz became obsessed with classic games at an early age, and that feverish interest led him to the ROM-hacking community. As a native Spanish speaker, toruzz quickly became aware of unofficial fan translations of beloved games like The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening.
After determining that the existing Spanish-language translations of Link's Awakening didn't meet his standards, he crafted his own, along with a hack that added variable spacing to the game's dialogue to make it more aesthetically appealing. However, when toruzz discovered fellow hacker Drenn's influential color patch for Pokémon Red, he knew that he had found his niche in the scene.
"I like my hobbies to be challenging, and romhacking is one of the best ways I've found to challenge myself," toruzz tells Input. "And it may sound silly, but I love that once you overcome all the hurdles, you're rewarded with one of your retro gaming 'what ifs' becoming real. On top of that, you get a lot of fans telling you that your work has made them happy. So, overall, it's very satisfying."
Today, toruzz is best-known for his color hacks of Super Mario Land and its expansive sequel, Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. But that's not where he started his colorization career. His first project was a game you've probably never heard of: The Frog For Whom The Bell Tolls, a lesser-known Zelda-like that was only released in Japan. In order to craft the color hack, he had to thoroughly teach himself the ins-and-outs of Game Boy assembly code (commonly known as ASM), as well as using a debugger to iron out the kinks.
When toruzz posted his progress on a ROM-hacking forum, the response was so positive and overwhelming that he decided to switch over to the game that users requested the most: Super Mario Land 2. It ended up taking him more than a thousand hours (estimated) to put it together, but he learned a lot about the process of hacking — knowledge that came in handy when he immediately moved onto its predecessor, which took him roughly a third of the time.
Though toruzz is quite humble in his own way, he says that his goal with the SML2 project was to inspire other hackers to take their own colorization hacks to the next level. Since Drenn's pioneering Pokémon Red hack, there have been a number of really successful color hacks, such as Marc Robledo's Snoopy Magic Show DX, EJR Taime's Metroid 2: Return of Samus, and Marc's upcoming Mega Man World 5 DX hack, which toruzz says is particularly impressive.
However, despite their explosion in popularity, toruzz notes that there are several great Game Boy games that have yet to receive the treatment, including Final Fantasy Adventure, Gargoyle's Quest, and TMNT: Fall of the Foot Clan. He also notes that not all of these color hacks are created equally, so some of them might be revisited and improved over time as the hackers further develop in skill. For example, toruzz says that EJR Taime's Metroid 2 hack uses a fixed set of palettes, whereas more recent GB color hacks switch around palettes for a more dynamic experience.
If you're concerned about the legality of these hacks, don't fret. While it's illegal to download or distribute ROMs from the internet, modifying a ROM is perfectly legal as long as you own the game in question. Ripping a ROM from a cartridge is not as complicated as you might think. You can even do it with a DS or DS Lite. (Similarly, playing ROM hacks on an emulator is also legal in most countries). This is why these hacks require you to use a program like Lunar IPS to apply the patch to your (legally-ripped) ROM of the game.
“Modifying a ROM is perfectly legal as long as you own the game in question.”
Though he says he would colorize the entire Game Boy library if he had the time, there's one game in particular that's close to toruzz's heart — Donkey Kong '94. Though he's put together a few mockups of the Game Boy classic, he's stopped short of actually colorizing it in full, for the time being, at least. "It's my favorite Game Boy game," he says. "I think it would really look fantastic in color."
For now, toruzz says that he's hoping to finish his original The Frog For Whom The Bell Tolls DX hack this year, as he's been working on it off and on for years. That said, he has another project on the horizon, too — he's been hired to officially colorize a game that will be commercially released soon. Though he can't announce the name of the game yet, he's quite excited to see his work on a real box rather than a hack on an emulator, or via an unofficial cart. In this sense, toruzz and others are taking the scene into the mainstream for the first time, and that's a major milestone for these hackers.
For his part, toruzz notes that colorization hacks don't have to be limited to the Game Boy — after all, the WonderSwan and other early portable consoles output in grayscale, too. Though the audience for such hacks would be smaller than the likes of Mario and Final Fantasy, toruzz hopes he sees hackers embrace lesser-known machines in addition to the Game Boy.
"There are some really cool hacks coming out now, and some of them can even be considered love letters from fans," toruzz says. "That's amazing to me. The scene is better than ever."