Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My Latest Retro(ish) Purchase - the GB USB 64M Smart Card

Most of my gaming time the last 2-3 months has been spent on 3 newer AAA titles - Gears of War 3, Uncharted 3 and Batman Arkham City. I enjoyed them all, but as per my usual routine I am now chasing that current-gen gaming binge with a palate-cleansing drink from an older vintage. And for the last few days that involves a formerly forgotten and neglected Game Boy and a new hardware addition to the retro arsenal - the EMS GB USB 64M Smart Card (catchy name eh?).  Mine was an impulse purchase from Kitsch-Bent for $38.

The package came with the Smart Card and a mini CD with installation drivers and a file transfer program. The card is not plug-and-play nor does it come with a setup/installation program, so you have to manually install the new hardware and browse to the drivers on the CD, but then you are good to go.

The card is in the shape of an original Game Boy cartridge and has a small mini-B USB port at the top where you can connect it to your computer via a USB cable and transfer Game Boy and Game Boy Color ROMs from your PC onto the cart, thus allowing you to play them on your actual Game Boy and Game Boy Color. Unfortunately, you can't drag and drop files onto the card like an external USB drive, but their included file transfer application is very easy to use, if a little slow on the transfer speed.

You can of course play the same GB/GBC games via emulator on your PC, but I have very little interest in doing that. I mess with emulators fairly often, but almost never for any of the portable systems. No, the only way I'm ever going to see most of these games is on a real Game Boy to get a more authentic experience.

"If you're so into authenticity then why don't you just buy the real Game Boy carts then dude?  They're cheap these days!"  Well, generally speaking I do prefer to play real carts on real hardware and I do have a stack of GB/GBC carts I bought at dirt cheap prices on Craigslist, but the fact of the matter is that I'm not much of a portable gamer even on my newer devices like my PSP and iPhone and even less so on my Game Boy. So there is virtually no chance I'm going to go out an buy many more Game Boy games even if they were at giveaway prices. Plus, given my relatively low interest level I really don't want to have to deal with their storage demands on my ever-shrinking space either. But that being said, my interest in gaming history does provide me with enough curiosity to want to spend a little time shuffling through these old Game Boy ROMs that are taking up space on my hard drive. And if I DO happen to stumble upon an old game that I really like a lot well there's a good chance that I might just track down a boxed copy of that one off of eBay for my "Game Boy Collection".

"Well you know you can play those ROMs on a GBA don't you? Or by emulator on a DS. Then it's backlit so it's better."  Yeah and that is good enough for a taste, but I decided if I was going to spend a decent amount of time checking out this long list of games I wanted to try them on the original hardware. Somehow having to play these primitive games in a well-lit room on a gray brick that forces me to dial in the contrast on a little green monochrome screen lets me appreciate the game more even though the visual product is arguably inferior to what I could get on other platforms.

I've been playing with it for a few days now and it works great. This little card prompted me to pick up my GB that would have otherwise just continued to sit on a shelf gathering dust and occasionally making me wonder why I bought it in the first place - even as I still occasionally look for a cheap Game Gear, Lynx and Neo-Geo Pocket Color knowing full well they will be begging the same questions later.  I'm currently in the A's and I can tell you from just a few minutes of gameplay on each that Amazing Penguin and Amazing Tater are pretty nifty little games, while Amazing Spiderman utterly sucks.

One potential problem is that all games utilize the same sram to store the .sav file, which basically means that if you store any game-save information to the card it will be overwritten with new save information when you start playing a different game. I'm not sure yet if you can copy your .sav files back to your PC so you can reload them to continue later, but my curiosity on the great majority of these games is satisfied with just a few minutes of play so personally I don't really need any major multiple .sav file support or workaround. It would have been a nice feature though.

The card is advertised as a "64M" card which has confused some folks into thinking it has 64 megabytes (MB) of storage capacity. In actuality it contains 64 megabits (Mb) which translates to only 8 MB. This doesn't sound like much space at first, but only a few Game Boy games were as large as 1MB (e.g. Pokemon), many were only 32K (e.g. Tetris) and most fell into the 128K to 256K range.  So you can easily store about 50 Game Boy games on there and if you go for the smaller ones you could even fit over 100.  Game Boy Color game files are larger, so the card can only hold about 5-10 average-sized GBC games give or take.  The card is split up into 2 separate banks or pages and you can save 4MB of files on each page. When you turn on your Game Boy the list of games on the first page is displayed. To see the second page of games you power cycle the Game Boy by turning it off and then quickly back on, then the second page of games will appear. Then you just scroll down and select which game you'd like to play and have at it.

Apparently a lot of people who buy this card use it to load LSDJ (Little Sound DJ) a program that turns a Game Boy into a programmable 4-channel, 4-bit music workstation that LSDJ-aficionados use to explore Game Boy chiptunes or create their own. It even came with a LSDJ sticker to apply to your card.  You can see a random LSDJ music video here.  Looks kinda cool and has a fairly large online community so I might check out the LSDJ scene later, but for now I'm content to just speed-date a bunch of old games that I would have otherwise completely ignored. I'm off to Alien Olympics.

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gnome said...

Problems aside, this does sound pretty brilliant. Like ones personal and highly customisable pirate kart!

MadPlanet said...

Yeah it's a pretty nice little gadget to play with. I almost didn't post about it given it's piraty nature, but since we're talking about 20+ year old black and white handheld games that are no longer supported anywhere rather than console games or newer DS games, I didn't think it would ruffle any feathers too much.

Mik said...

Very nice, I have a similar cart for my GBA and it's a nice way to try games you would have never heard of otherwise :)

MadPlanet said...

Agreed sir Mik. I have a GBA cart like that too and even those are getting harder to come by these days since the GBA is at least a couple of generations old at this point. Most of the gaming community that uses those things has moved on to 3DS smart cards at this point I suppose.

Anonymous said...

If it's possible can someone load a video to youtube about installing this GB USB Smart Card?

My Windows XP machine refuses to accept the drivers. I'm using 32 bit.

MadPlanet said...

Hello Anonymous. So you were able to install the hardware but couldn't load the drivers from the CD? Hmm.. I'll have to go back and recall exactly what I did. I should be able to throw a video up on Youtube for it, but it will have to be a while because at the moment I am completely swamped at both work and home unfortunately. Check back later! :)