09-16 battery-free Game Boy

[Image above] As the new Game Boy-like ENGAGE platform shows, sometimes substituting modern alternatives for original parts can improve a classic design. Credit: Northwestern University

I don’t know about you, but retro video games have been on my mind lately.

This year is the 35th anniversary of Super Mario, and in honor of the occasion, Nintendo announced earlier this month it will offer a limited-edition Super Mario 3D All Stars package that will be on sale until March 2021. The package contains remastered versions of three classic Super Mario games: Super Mario 64 (1996), Super Mario Sunshine (2002), and Super Mario Galaxy (2007).

As fans scramble to preorder the package, the situation makes me think about the lengths we go to preserve old technology, be that because of familiarity, nostalgia, or convenience, among other reasons.

In some cases, preserving old technology in its original state is possible because replacement parts are still being manufactured or can be easily acquired. However, in many cases the parts needed to restore a technology to its former glory are no longer produced and are difficult to acquire.

Such circumstances lead us to the difficult choice of either losing the original technology entirely—or modifying it with modern alternatives so that future generations can enjoy the technology in an updated form.

Nintendo took the latter route with the Super Mario 3D All Stars package when it remastered the games to be playable on the Nintendo Switch. And a classic Nintendo device is also the inspiration for a proof-of-concept study that has the potential to help preserve other retro gaming devices with slight modification as well.

Battery-free gaming in 3, 2, 1…ENGAGE

In the recent study, researchers at Northwestern University and the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands created a clone of the 8-bit Nintendo Game Boy using an energy-aware gaming platform they developed called ENGAGE.

The ENGAGE platform is a redesign of the original Game Boy, built from the ground up with modern computing techniques and driven by a Game Boy emulator. From the outside it mirrors the original Game Boy in size and form factor, but the inner mechanics are noticeably different.

For example, a capacitor is used to store energy rather than a battery, and it is charged from a combination of solar panels on the front of the device and from the user pressing buttons. There is the threat of intermittent power failures because of the capacitor’s lower energy density, but a nonvolatile memory storage technique the researchers developed allows quick restoration of the game—even mid-jump!—when power returns.

The ENGAGE platform does not play sound, but as a CNET article on the device notes, producing sound takes a lot of energy, and deciding how to handle sound after the device loses power “would just be annoying as hell,” Vito Kortbeek, a doctoral candidate at TU Delft, says in the article.

The researchers presented ENGAGE yesterday at the virtual UbiComp 2020, a major conference within the field of interactive systems. Northwestern professor Josiah Hester hopes the device can inspire a conversation about alternative energy sources for products and highlight their benefits to the environment.

“We kind of need radical, crazy approaches,” Hester says in the CNET article. “One of the radical things we could do is completely rethink how we build these devices by throwing the batteries away.”

Check out ENGAGE and hear Hester explain more details in the video below. And consider—how else can we restore classic video game consoles so they are more environmentally friendly while retaining their original retro charm?

Credit: NorthwesternU, YouTube