Introduction: Building a Gameboy Macro in 2021
A continuation from my first Gameboy build I've extended the hobby into making more GBA's with beefier components, and after covering my basis with GBA's, I wanted to move on to something truly custom...
You may be thinking: The heck's a Gameboy Macro? Simply put, a Nintendo DS (phat, lite, or even 3DS's) with one screen, resembling the Gameboy Micro, but bigger... There's more than one kind of Macro but the most common (and for this build) is a DS Lite.
When done correctly, the Macro mod is among the cheapest of custom gameboy's: all you need is a donor DS Lite and a resistor, both of which are readily available, and to boot it's backlit and rechargable right out of the box. The rest is purely aesthetics with multiple options to suit your budget and function, how far you go is up to you...
- Donor DS
- Triwing + Philips Screwdriver
- Micro Cutters (for plastic & metal)
- Sandpaper (400, 600 grit)
- Woodworking/Metal f
- Soldering Iron
- Solder Sucker
- Rosin Core Solder
- Kapton Tape
- 330 Ohm SMT 0805 resistor
- Thin Electrical Wire
- Spray Paint
- Epoxy Clay (Milliput)
- USB-C Port [Optional]
Nintendo Switch Speaker [Optional]
Step 1: Choosing Your DS
Stated in the intro, you can choose from multiple DS's, each have their own methods of construction with pros and cons. Mine is a fully functioning red DS Lite with a dodgy hinge (complete with Mr. Bean sticker) and cost me a mere £10 with shipping.
Before you jump in you should consider the colour palette of your DS. In my experience, it's preferable to obtain a fully functioning DS with a broken hinge in a body colour you already want (in this case red) so you don't have to paint it. These are readily available on eBay with a quick search i.e. 'broken ds lite'
If you want different colour buttons and screen bezels I recommend buying another DS with colour buttons you want, one that's completely busted and only worth salvaging for parts; this is cheaper than buying 3rd party buttons and of higher quality as aftermarket DS parts tend to be poor quality.
Step 2: Disassembly
With your DS ready lets tear it down. This has lots of steps but done slowly and methodically can be done with relative ease. I've included 2 links showing the same procedure in case a step is unclear. Check the annotations on each image for extra info and keep your parts organised...
-Flip it on its back and loosen the battery tray, taking the battery with it.
-Locate the 8 screws (2 behind the rubber bumpers circled orange) and unscrew.
-Separate the front and back halves, remove the power switch, the volume switch and shoulder buttons carefully [the shoulder buttons are spring loaded; don't lose these!]
-Pop off the BIOS chip [shown in the orange square] and the black wire; the BIOS chip can be wiggled off by pinching the left side and tilting back and forth. Pull the black cable out from the side underneath the cartridge reader; the head of the black cable can be cut off if needed as this part will be discarded.
-Unscrew the screw marked in pink that holds the board to the faceplate.
-Unlatch the digitizer ribbon tab with tweezers by sliding it in and lifting it up, then pop the white cable off.
-Unfold the motherboard from the faceplate; the only thing connected will be the top screen ribbon cable.
-Unlatch the top screen ribbon cable [marked in purple] by sliding in tweezers and lifting the black latch up, similar to the digitizer cable latch.
-Unlatch the bottom ribbon cable [marked green] the same way the top screen was separated.
-Pull the barrel out of the left side of the DS faceplate to separate it from the top screen housing.
From this point you have done every step needed to start the macro conversion. To state here, the black and white cable and the barrel can be discarded and will never need to be reassembled but the BIOS chip is required, so keep hold of that!
Step 3: Disassembly Pt. 2 [Optional]
From this point, the top unit can be discarded, however you may want to salvage some parts from the top half for your macro; in my case I'm after the top screen and the long wires from the speaker.
-Remove the 4 rubber tops on the face of the screen to reveal the screws; unscrew.
-Slide the top housing off from the back.
-Carefully press and pop the top screen off the the housing; this is held with double sided adhesive.
-Desolder the speakers and keep the screen safe for later...
(for those wondering, the black wire is the WiFi antenna and the white wire is the mic, neither of which we need and can be discarded.)
Oh, and from this point on I will refer to it as a Macro...
Step 4: Faceplate [The Flat Style]
Now it's time for cosmetics, and we have a lot of options here.
The Gameboy Macro has 4 distinct styles I've categorized you can choose from:
1. The Lightbar style that uses a clear acrylic rod with LED's [or metal bar] mounted where the hinge used to be for a clean, affordable and effective look; no faceplate modifications are required.
2. The CNC Aluminium style that replaces the original faceplate with a machined finish anodized plate; expensive but gorgeous.
4. The Flat style, the most cost effective and my choice for this build.
Every style also has the option of plugging the X and Y buttons or leaving as is, often a '4 button' or '2 button' style comes up when researching macro designs, and some have bezel options that can match the GBA aspect ratio, or left as is.
I recommend taking a look and see what you like the most.
- Shave off the left hinge bump; cutters, Dremel, files and sandpaper will get you there.
- Sand off the factory colour with 400 grit and 600 grit.
- EITHER file down the right bump flush or fill it. (I ended up filling it later)
- Score the trench with a hobby knife, sand with 400 grit and fill with epoxy clay, mixed 1:1 and use a plastic card with water to sculpt a nice flat surface; let it cure for 24 hours.
Step 5: Faceplate Pt. 2
- When the epoxy is set, sand flush with sandpaper stuck to a flat block.
- Back fill the opening on the left bump with superglue, mixed with baby powder [ratio 1:1]; let it cure (this can take an hour + without a superglue activator) Do the same with the right bump.
- Fill any small holes with model filler and sand the faceplate smooth between the clay, and the backfilled superglue mix.
- Bond the right bump to the faceplate.
- Apply spray primer and let dry; inspect the surface for discrepancies and either sand or fill with model filler; getting a flawless surface is key to a great looking faceplate.
- Apply more spray primer as required until your faceplate is spotless, have it in safekeeping for later...
Step 6: Resistor [Required]
This is the only modification that needs to be done for the macro to function properly, without this modification the macro will fail to boot as it will try to connect to the top screen we've disconnected. A 330 Ohm 0805 surface mount resistor is the perfect size and resistance to 'trick' the motherboard into booting. A pack of 20 costs little more than £1 and you only need 1...
On the left side of the D-pad, locate 'LEDA2' and 'LEDC2' [circled yellow] and apply solder, carefully placing the resistor on top (these are teeny tiny), reheat the solder with the iron tip and let it flow onto the resistor.
While we're soldering at this point I came across mentions of the macro going into sleep mode inadvertently due to speaker placement so to bypass this the contacts by U11 located in the middle of the ABXY buttons are bridged, after trimming the chip that was there. I must admit I never noticed any problems but I did it anyway and I haven't noticed any discrepancies since assembling and testing.
Note: (As of writing, a flex amp mod specifically for the DS Lite Macro configuration was made available that can be substituted for the resistor as there is one built in. I've not had the opportunity to use one but I recommend checking it out. Link here.)
Step 7: Screen Lens Swap (Optional)
An easy upgrade you can make to the screen comes with your DS: the top screen. Both screen lens perimeters are identical, the difference is the top lens is unscratched and has a lovely flush red trim, where the touch screen trim is proud, collects dust around the border and gathers scratches from the stylus.
Both screens are lightly adhered with double sided from the factory, using a plastic spatula you can pop off both screens and place the top screen lens on the bottom, using the faceplate to align everything.
It comes down to personal preference, but I think the swap looks fantastic.
Note: This will nullify the touch function, but the touch itself is useless because you're not playing any DS games that require it, even if you don't swap the screen...
Step 8: Stylus Plug
The stylus and the sheath attached to the body are useless and take up room in this build, in its place is where the speaker will go but I didn't want the opening exposed (and I bet you guys don't either) so I came up with this simple cosmetic modification to plug it.
- Cut the excess off the sheath, leaving approx. 3mm from the 1st screw mount.
- Cap the end will epoxy clay, body filler or my choice, the superglue/baby powder mix.
- Paint the inside the same colour as the plastic or paint the whole thing one colour.
- Screw it back to the backplate with the screws that used to hold the whole thing together.
Step 9: Speaker
The macro doesn't need a speaker to function; you can play with a headphone cable but a speaker really ties the system into a neat little bow, there's an heir of quality to it that makes it feel like a genuine Nintendo product.
This configuration only allows audio output from one source, right [SPR0] or left. [SPL0] In my experience I haven't found an instance where stereo audio was a crucial game mechanic.
You can use a speaker that was salvaged from the top screen, but I recommend a Nintendo Switch replacement speaker for its compact size and superior audio quality.
-To wire sound, solder a length of wire (preferably red for 'positive') on 'SPR0' located on the front board right next to where you soldered your resistor and route it to the back following the image, feeding it under the BIOS chip. Use a piece of Kapton tape to secure it in place.
-Solder a short black wire the the speaker ground [circled] and feed up.
-Desolder the contacts on the speaker and solder the red wire to '+' and the black to '-' (The speaker has these marked on the back.
-Cut a small piece of double sided foam tape to the speaker and gently place where the image shows.
Step 10: USB-C Mod
(Disclaimer: If you attempt to modify the charging port, do so at your own risk! There's always an element of risk when you tinker with charging.)
The DS proprietary charging port is outdated and the charger itself even more so. You can use an aftermarket USB cable with the DS head if you want a quick solution but I wanted to use modern cables that were compatible with current devices, and the one the world is leaning towards is USB-C...
There's 2 versions to this mod, one witch allows USB-A to USB-C with a 5v supply (i.e. phone charger) and another which accepts ALL cables with USB-C. Either method you go with the original port has to be de-soldered. I used a solder sucker, a solder wick would work too. Additional room needs filing on the backplate to allow a bit of wiggle room for the port.
Option 1: Basic Version (6 Pin Female USB-C Port)
- Flip your USB-C port upside-down and cut the tabs shown; all we need is 5V & Ground
- Slot the USB-C port onto the board and feed 2 resistor legs through the 2 holes in-between the port posts (these connect to VIN and VGND)
- Apply flux, solder the resistor legs to the port pins and flip the boards and fill the holes with solder to complete the circuit. Trim the excess resistor legs and solder the mounting points to secure in place
Option 2: Advanced Version (Rorosaurus USB-C Mod)
- Solder resistor legs to VIN and VGND (the same holes as the basic version)
- Line up the board so the grooves latch to the resistor legs
- Apply flux and solder the legs to the board
- Trim resistor leg excess
- solder the mounting points on the back to secure in place; give the board a wiggle to check it's mounted
The DS lite only requires 5V at 500 mA, with my understanding and experimentation the "Basic version" of this setup without resistors means if you try to charge usb-s to usb-c or your voltage isn't 5V, it simply won't charge which in itself is a handy safety feature; a phone charger and a usb-a to usb-c is the way to go.
The "Advanced version" has built in resistors and supports USB-PD so it works with all usb-c cables and automatically regulates the voltage to be 5V, meaning an ac adapter that powers a Nintendo Switch will work just the same. I recommend this option more and the board only costs $10. Link here.
Step 11: Paint
My colour scheme is based off the Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. console that came out for the Mario 35th anniversary. The rest of my parts are already red, the only thing I need to paint is a gold faceplate.
Whatever paint job you go for, research things like base coats and try to stick with the same brand when using spray paints. I know from experience a white base coat is great for gold so that's my start.
Build up your layers slowly, don't dump all your paint in one go!
Once you get your colour hit it with a lacquer or top coat of some kind to protect your paint.
For an extra flair I added a metal Nintendo sticker in the middle to sell that 'genuine' feel, link to the Etsy shop here.
Step 12: Paint (Alternative)
During the making of my first Macro, I was making one on the side for my friend with most of the same modifications with an alternate colour scheme. This one has a painted back so I thought I'd both show off doing a vinyl stencil and how 2 Macro's can look side by side.
This one was painted with Tamiya spray cans. The cans are small but they dry fast, leaving an amazing tough finish and high in pigment (you'll have plenty of paint left over to spray what-nots and such)
To top this one off, I used a silver version of the same metal sticker I used on my gold Macro.
[Post Publish] I've included the DXF of the Macro logo I drew up as I figure you may want to do the same. The file could also be used for laser cutting, extruded for 3D printing, stickers, even screen printing so go nuts.
Step 13: Reassembly
Reassembly of the device is easier than the reassembly of a full DS Lite; no fiddly wires or hinges to deal with. You can use the same tutorial I linked in an earlier step in reverse, minus the wires and the top screen here but I'll show it here in full clarity.
- Laying your board flat, reattach the screen ribbon cable (if you decided to keep the touch function, reconnect the digitizer cable as well.
- Lay the faceplate face down, insert all buttons with the membranes on top and insert the board onto the faceplate, adjusting the screen to slot into its bezel.
- Screw the board and faceplate together located near the speaker to hold it all in place.
- If at this point the BIOS chip isn't in, insert it.
- Place the bumpers into their respective posts (be very careful not to lose the springs!)
- Prep the backplate with the power button and volume button in place, and the cartridge shield and stylus plug screwed in.
- Holding the faceplate with the back of the board facing you, place the backplate over the unit, making sure the power button and volume button align with the switches they latch to. The whole unit should click in place seamlessly. If it doesn't, check nothing is pinching or being obscured, don't force it!
- Screw the black screw in the middle of the ds cart slot, the 2 brass coloured philips screws next to the bumpers, the 3 long triwing screws in the corner by the battery slot
- Insert the battery, rescrew the battery cover and add the rubber screw covers back on.
Step 14: Conclusion
As far as niche hobbies go, this may be my favorite thing I've ever made because it's as practical as it is gorgeous, and using an Omega flash cart means I can play my games without a protruding cartridge to fully emulate that Gameboy Micro feel. To tie it all together I bought a DS case to store it along with a 3.5mm aux cable and a usb-c cable.
This project has the opportunity for so many cosmetic and practical applications, I'd love to see anyone try out what I've written and make their own.
If you have any questions, like technical elements or design ideas feel free to drop a comment and I'll do my best to respond.
First Prize in the
Toys & Games Contest