This Game Boy cartridge enables texting and WiFi

Millennials, rejoice!


This week’s dose of 90s nostalgia comes in the form of the Game Boy, an 8-bit handheld console that can now enable some WiFi usage thanks to one tech-savvy YouTuber. Physicist Sebastian Staacks is the creator of the “there oughta be” YouTube channel, where he uploaded a video last week explaining how, exactly, he created the custom Game Boy cartridge.

The origin story — Staacks recently rediscovered his old Game Boy in his parents’ attic and immediately started wondering about its potential. After scouring the web, he was unable to find anyone who had successfully installed a WiFi chip into a custom cartridge.

“The Game Boy has been modified, hacked and tortured for thirty years now, and we live in times when every maker on YouTube just has to put [a WiFi microchip] into everything that does not protest loudly enough. And yet, I did not find a single working WiFi cartridge,” Staacks explains in his video.

What can it do? — Staacks decided to challenge himself by creating the first WiFi-enabled Game Boy cartridge. While the results may look rudimentary, the Game Boy is able to use Telnet to send and receive text-based messages and can also access Wikipedia pages.

While texts and Wiki pages are the only tests Staacks has run so far, he concludes it would be easy for his invention to access most simple webpages like Twitter or Reddit if implemented on the device.

But Staacks’ project has limitations. The WiFi cartridge can’t enable online gameplay or ROM library access. In layman terms, the Game Boy’s tech is simply too old and would not know how to handle things like input lag.

How it works — Through a miracle of electrical engineering, Staacks first designed the hardware for the 32kiB cartridge and added a ESP8266 chip to enable the WiFi feature. After the hardware had been refined, he wrote the code for the cartridge’s software. The code was drawn from the Game Boy Development kit, which is also publicly available on GitHub. Staacks goes into intricate detail on his website, breaking down his process into a step-by-step explanation.

Challenges and risks — While tinkering away on a Game Boy cartridge might seem like a fun way to pass spare time over the holidays, it’s not for the faint of heart. After reviewing Staacks’ instructions, the cartridge seems impossible to replicate successfully without some electrical engineering knowledge.

Despite his achievement, Staacks admits that his creation is “a hack” and should not be attempted unless aspiring engineers are aware of the risks. Tinkering with a Game Boy and developing custom cartridges could short-circuit or otherwise damage the now-retro handheld.

Future inventors, proceed with caution.