Sunday, 19 January 2020

GAMEBOY RESTORATION


I recently purchased this 'broken' Nintendo Gameboy for £19. It was being sold as spares due to a screen issue and the A/B buttons failing to work properly. Everything else however appeared fine once I put batteries in it. The screen was problematic in the sense that it was suffering from several missing vertical lines and the A/B buttons were a little unresponsive - though I suspect from judging by the general condition of the device that this unresponsiveness was due to dirt inside.



The first thing I always do with any restoration project is gently take everything apart so that you can see the full extent of the problems. You will need a tri-wing screwdriver to open up the casin of which I have a couple, both of which have been damaged by my wife trying to use them to unscrew Philips screws in the past but they're still able to do the job in this case.



It's worth mentioning that care needs to be taken when removing the springs from the rear battery case. These have little metal catches that are designed to hold them in place to prevent them rattling around in the casing. These can be easily removed by using your screwdriver to pop the catches.




It was very clear at this stage that I needed to give the Gameboy handheld a good wash. To be honest it was pretty disgusting in parts but a dip and a descent scrub soon had it looking presentable. There was still some discolouration on the front outer shell but considering this thing is nearly 31 years old, I'll let it off. Remember to throw everything in apart from anything metal: casings, battery cover, buttons and rubbers, they all need cleaning especially in this instance where most of the inside was caked in thirty years of dirt.



With everything scrubbed and dried, it was time to partly assemble things back together. Only the rear casing and the battery springs should be assembled - don't forget the power switch at the top like I did! The rest will need to wait until the screen issue has been fixed. In order to do this, add batteries and power up the device. Set the contrast dial to its lowest setting and you will now see the extent of the issue of missing lines. Also remove the small rubber strip that runs along the base of the screen.



To fix the issue of missing vertical lines on a Gameboy, we're going to have to use a soldering iron to heat the contacts underneath where that rubber strip once sat. You need the soldering iron nice and hot and you'll need to apply some pressure in order to melt the old solder beneath. This scared me when I first tried it as the screen will appear to get worse before it gets better but keep persevering and eventually you will have all the lines on the screen restored. Remember, this process takes time and although I've repaired many Gameboys this way, it still takes me about half an hour to complete this stage.





Once happy that the screen appears as it should, assemble the remaining parts, ensuring that all the buttons have their nicely cleaned rubbers sat behind them. Take your time when assembling everything back together, the screws screw into the plastic casing and won't tolerate being removed and screwed in repeatedly, so make sure you don't miss anything out.



The finished result is a very clean Nintendo Gameboy with a fixed screen and fully working buttons. I am still amazed at how retro consoles can easily be revived with a little TLC, I am even more amazed at the power of a good clean. The before and after photographs don't highlight enough how dirty this handheld was but it's looking and working so much better now and I love it.




Wednesday, 8 January 2020

MORSE CODE TRAINER PROJECT

Salisbury is home to a number of great secondhand and house clearance places and recently whilst doing the rounds I came across this interesting homemade box comprising of an old Bakelite phone and working Morse key.


The most interesting feature of this find was that it came with a rather interesting phone connector, allowing the phone to hook into a telephone network similar to what would have been on army bases. As there are many army camps in the area, I'm guessing this was once made for a child living on one of these neighbouring bases. There was similar box in the shop, obviously they were built as a pair but unfortunately it was in such poor condition that i decided to just purchase the better of the two.



Just imagine living on an army base fifty years ago as a kid where yourself and a friend were kitted out with a communications box such as this. You could hook the contraption into the network and communicate with one another via voice or better still, Morse code.



I wanted to bring this build into the 21st century by adding a few additional features of my own. I decided to first concentrate on the Morse key and built in a Morse code trainer comprising of a BBC Microbit. By tapping out a combination of dots and dashes on the key, if done correctly the equivalent letter will display on the small LED matrix. If you want to experiment with your own Microbit Morse code trainer, you can download the hex file I used here.

Once that was in place and tested I decided to update the way in which the box transmitted its Morse code messages. As access to an old and obsolete army base phone network is not an option, I decided to play around with the idea of transmitting Morse over the airways by utilising one of my hacked FM transmitters (a previous build of mine that you can read about here). Once installed, I not only had a means to test my Morse knowledge with the Morse trainer but also had the means to transmit my coded messages. Below is a quick video demonstration on the build at this stage.


This build was a rather fun one to do, and highlights the that fact that anything can be reprogrammed and repurposed. Unfortunately, fitting modern technology into a box that used to house old telephonic technology fro decades ago, it soon became apparent that the housing was too big and cumbersome. I therefore started experimenting to see how much I could downsize the Morse trainer section and after a couple of prototypes settled on the small box you see below.



This makes it incredibly portable and adds fun to the project having it fully mobile. It still has the Morse trainer built in as well as the means to transmit messages over a variety of FM frequencies. I have been testing is a great deal with a huge amount of success and interest from the passing public. I am now in the process of making a second Morse set so the pair can transmit and receive.

Friday, 3 January 2020

THE RECORD BREAKING GAMEBOY

It's 2020 I want to see what's out there.

The idea is to use my builds throughout the year to push myself out of the familiar comfort zone, attend events and meet others with similar interests to me. So I'm kicking off the year by aiming big, really big as myself and Rich attempt to break the world record for the largest Gameboy ever built.

Last year I was fortunate enough to play on the current record holder and to be honest I've seen bigger Gameboy builds but similar to the Wright brothers not being the first to achieve flight, this current record holder had all the documentation to back it up, thus achieving the record. Incidentally, I noticed that it's emulated, a topic guaranteed to divide the retro gaming community.



So in order to start planning the build, we first needed to take measurements of the original model and it's surprising how short and stumpy the original Gameboy actually is. From here we were able to scale up the plans and taking into consideration the size of the flat screen TV that's going to be used, the height of the proposed build comes in at around 2 metres tall, crushing any previous record attempts.



Once again the topic of emulation rears it head and we've decided not to go down this route as we try and keep the build as authentic as possible. For us to achieve this we're going to have to output directly from the device. Luckily I had a handheld that required the screen to be fixed so we were able to look closely at how this was going to be achieved.



The reality is that it's going to be difficult, really difficult. So much so that various searches on the internet yielded very little. We're of the generation that grew up with the likes of Gamesmaster and Bad Influence where Gameboy games were regularly reviewed on our screens completed with console outputs, so we dropped a line to one of the researchers from Bad Influence.



The response we received was really helpful though directed us to a piece of kit that reporters were given at the time from Nintendo themselves. A quick search online revealed how expensive these elusive boxes are, so we're going to have to go back to the drawing board.

In other news, knowing the dimensions of the final build we've found the perfect bookcase that will house everything and act as the inside support for the project.



The project has got off to a good start but straight away we're facing challenges. For this reason, this is going to be shelved under "Slow Burning Projects" as we carve out a way that navigates these pitfalls.



Tuesday, 31 December 2019

GAME JAM ENTRY: SHOOT FOR THE MOON

This week's weekly game jam theme is titled Lost in Space and after working on a game for a few days, I've submitted my game Shoot for the Moon. Here is evolution of the game from sketch to concept. Those wanting to dive straight into the game can do so here.


All my little games start with my sitting down with pencil and paper. I first sketched a couple of space themed ideas but the one I thought would be the most fun to build involved a space craft harpooning objects in order to propel itself through space.

The next step was to prototype the idea, so I put together a few shapes and from there was able to build the main mechanics of the game. Even at this early stage of development I could see the motion of the player didn't quite work as it either needed drift so that when the harpoon was detached, the player continues to glide for a short time in the direction of travel (similar to Asteriods), or the player needed to fight gravity, again allowing the player to continue moving once the harpoon had been disconnected.


I decided to go with the latter, mainly because it was the easier option given the timescales I'm working with but also by adding a gravitational element I would be able to add a character or planet to the bottom of the screen. The obstacle will be constantly pulling you down, preventing you from remaining stationary in the game.


I think the planets add a really creative border to the game and offers an element of risk during game play.

Below is a short video of the progression of the game's evolution, complete with game play at every stage. You can play the game here.



Friday, 27 December 2019

THE BB8 INTERACTIVE CHATBOT

Coding chatbots has always fascinated me for years and during that time I have created a number of chatbot projects with varying degrees of success.

It wasn't until I exhibited one of my simpler yet more successful chat projects called Woggle at a science fiction convention that I started to realise that putting a sci-fi spin of things greatly increases a project's popularity. For those interested, you can see Woggle in action and follow the links to chat with it yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skrpZBU0VIs

Whilst at the show I took the time to visit the other exhibitors, one of which were a group of Star Wars droid builders and they kindly gave me a tour and breakdown of the robots they had brought with them that day. It was these people that suggested that I put one of my chatbots into a droid's body and we all agreed that this would make for an interesting project indeed. However, as I am not skilled in the art of droid building, this quickly became a problem. I was lucky enough though to meet James Bruton at another show shortly afterwards who suggested re-purposing a toy to help solve my droid building problem.

Now I have a young son, who like his friends are Star Wars crazy and so I didn't have to wait very long before a broken droid toy came my way care of one of his friends. This toy happened to be a BB8 droid of a decent size, perfect for housing a Raspberry Pi that I was planning on using to run a bespoke version of Woggle. Once again another problem decided to surface as it soon became apparent that the round bodied droid can struggle at times to house a square Raspberry Pi board and its components, so I had to get a bit creative with BB8's insides.


It wasn't long before the project started to take shape and I could hold a semi-decent conversation with BB8. As well as the conversational aspect to him, I also coded the droid to perform basic tasks like streaming radio and Ham radio websdr which I thought would compliment things rather nicely. As with my more recent chatbots, BB8 utilises a simple SQLite database in order to learn from the conversation he has with people. This means he can improve on the responses he gives by himself without my help.
Here is the short video of the finished project...

This has been such a good project to teach myself new skills. Sometimes it's a good thing to be pushed outside your comfort zone and if I hadn't then I wouldn't have met some really nice people.

So what's happening with this project now? Well, BB8 and I have started visiting schools in the Salisbury area to give talks to children on programming and toy hacking. The response has been absolutely amazing though I keep it a secret that on the inside BB8 is partly held together with tape!

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

BROADCAST NUMBER STATIONS ON THE RASPBERRY PI

An old Raspberry Pi project of mine seems to be gathering in popularity once again. This is to do with turning a Pi Zero into a little FM transmitter. I had previously written a tutorial for it over at Instructables.com and I remember at the time being amazed at how many people viewed it on its first day of becoming featured on the site.

If you have an old model Raspberry Pi or a Pi Zero and stuck for something to do then this simple project might just be for you. It’s all based around number stations, relics of the Cold War that transmit cryptic messages to spies out in the field over shortwave. This tutorial shows how to broadcast your very own station over FM. Read it here.

Radio has been an interest of mine since I was very young but it's only now, over the last few years that I've been able to develop this interest further as my knowledge of electronics and software has grown.

My favourite of all has to be a little WebSDR box that I built, complete with a Morse code decoder. This allows me to listen in on ham radio broadcasts whilst fully mobile. I even added a retro looking handset to complete the look, the sillier a project is the better in my opinion. You can check out a quick video of it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWUm9ggDN7g



Sunday, 1 December 2019

RETRO GAMING PICTURE FRAME

It was my son who gave me the idea for this. We’re rationing his gaming time and he wished he had a secret gaming setup that nobody knew about but him – The retro gaming picture frame idea was born. What if we made a picture frame hanging on the wall that displayed a photograph and somewhere in that photograph/artwork there was a screen cleverly concealed within it. Then on connecting a controller to the frame, the screen will come to life and allow you to play games on it.



I got hold of a nice chunky picture frame from Ikea, this allowed me enough room to house the screen, Raspberry Pi and everything else. It’s running Retropie which will allow me to emulate games from a wide range of consoles, so I can see myself easily carrying on this idea with a series pictures depicting retro gaming through the ages.


Monday, 18 November 2019

MY NEW ARCADE CABINET

After hours of tinkering, the arcade cabinet is finally complete and I love the way it has turned out. It started out as an idea and a heap of scrap wood (mainly from an old bed) and I basically made it up as I went along.
Inside is a tiny Pi Zero running Retropie which means there is a large amount of internal space to play around with if I ever decide to add things like a coin slot. The total cost of the build (minus the screen which is my tv from the bedroom that no longer has a bed – see above) the cabinet build has come it at around the £40 mark which I think is pretty good going. The most expensive elements of the build were the controls and the vinyl covering.



Some people have asked me for the plans but unfortunately I don’t have any, it was all built on the fly. I would love to make another one, learning from the mistakes made in this build and improving my woodworking skills. I also need to get some practice in order to beat my son at Street Fighter 2 first before I do any of that again.


Thursday, 7 November 2019

BUILDING SALISBURY IN MINECRAFT

I am about to host my very first event here in Salisbury. It's an idea that's been brewing for sometime and like most ideas of mine, if you don't take that first step and just crack on with implementing it then it'll never happen.

The event is based around Minecraft. This game just seems to be always gaining in popularity with my pupils (and even parent) so it made a great deal of sense to build on that interest as we attempt to construct the whole of Salisbury in the virtual Minecraft world.
Even at this early stage it has generated a great deal of interest in such a short space of time, I was even featured on TV last night.


After the announcement online, the event was fully booked up in a matter of hours. I have never known anything I’ve organised to gather pace so quickly the way this event did. As a result, the posters I had made to help boost interest weren’t required. Due to its popularity, the event will be run again next year, so the posters won’t go to waste. 


The lovely people at Salisbury Cathedral have kindly sent through the plans for their building. Realising that the cathedral is the starting point of the project, it is hugely important that it is built it in the correct proportions and to scale. These plans will help enormously, thank you!




Tuesday, 5 November 2019

THE RASPBERRY PI ARCADE CABINET

I recently made a start on my RetroPie arcade cabinet. I’m making it up as I go along really but my first attempt seems to be heading in the right direction.


It’s been slow going but the cabinet I’m building without following any plans took a big step forward recently as I installed the joystick and buttons.  They were slow to arrive (probably a very slow boat from China), easy to wire up and a pain to drill the holes and install but they’re working great and really change the feel of the games, as they’re now being played how they should be.


It’s all running off a Raspberry Pi Zero which means that there is a huge amount of empty space actually inside the cabinet. I’m thinking I made it a little too wide but the extra width gives me room to play around with some clever lighting or something around the screen when I build its cradle.


It’s been suggested that I make it coin operated and have it calibrated to the old 10p coins we used to have in the UK, making it truly authentic. I think this is a fantastic idea and as luck would have it I’ve already found a source for the old coins here in the town where I live.
My son loves it already, as do I and I’ve promoted him to chief cabinet tester.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

GAME JAM DAY TWO: WHAT A MESS


I am entering the Weekly Game Jam being held over on Itch.io. The week's jam is titled 'What a Mess' and I'm attempting to make a eco-simulator game. You can read day one's progress here.



Day two was all about predators. If you recall the rules that the predators have to follow in the simulator are as follows:

  • One predator at a time will be introduced by the player
  • A maximum of three introductions at a time
  • Predators feed off insects to gain energy
  • Predators can only reproduce if they have sufficient energy
  • Predators die if energy levels reach zero

Progress has been good, really good. I think this is down to the planning and rules that I set before the building started. At the end of day two I have a finished concept where the player has to balance the number of landscape consuming insects with the insect eating predators in order to keep the ecosystem surviving for as long as possible.


It doesn't work as well as intended but it was still a great deal of fun to come up with the rules and build a framework around them. You can play the game here.

GAMEBOY RESTORATION

I recently purchased this 'broken' Nintendo Gameboy for £19. It was being sold as spares due to a screen issue and the A/B buttons ...