The GBA Is Dead, Long Live The GBA!
Specifics on the hardware are somewhat thin on the ground, but the K-Team claim that the SoC is fully backwards compatible with that of the GBA. It can operate at up to 150Mhz but is scaled right back to somewhere around 16Mhz for GBA gaming. This means that it should not only play nice with the vast GBA library, but will also be capable of other tasks like emulation and mp3 playback once the CPU has been ramped up to a more suitable speed.
The team first began work on a GBA emulator device but decided that the results could never be satisfactory in an emulated environment. This led them to begin work on a reverse engineered GBA in around 2008, the result of which I have in my hands for review.
I have been sent 2 engineering samples to review, but before we begin let me make a couple of things known. These are samples, therefore the build quality and the software side of things are unfinished and I won’t be reviewing these. It is clear from looking at them that they have been assembled inside some old shells, only for the purpose of making them useful to review. The finished products will of course be housed inside shiny new cases and it is likely that the software will have been tweaked by that time too. In fact I’ve received 2 firmware updates since beginning this review, meaning I’ve had to come back and edit out my notes documenting the bugs that were first apparent :-)
Let’s get on with it. I received 2 samples, both slightly different from one another. The blue machine is perhaps the less exciting of the two as it functions only as GBA usually would. This means that it will play official and pirated cartridges, and it’ll work with some (but not all) GBA flash carts. This version of the machine is intended for less wealthy parts of the world and areas where branded electronics sell for a massive premium despite their age. It’ll allow kids to play titles from a golden era of gaming without paying through the nose for the privilege. These are on sale in some Russian online stores already, check here for example.
The grey machine is the more complex of the two, it can function exactly as the blue machine does but also has many extra features. The grey machine comes with a K-Card, which functions in a similar way to a standard flash cart. It’s a cartridge with the GBA aesthetic save for a small cut out slot on the outer edge that houses a micro SD card. Your firmware and ROMs are dropped onto your Micro SD which clicks inside the cartridge and away you go. This machine has additional DRAM to which the ROM is temporarily loaded when you select it from the menu. If you’re using a standard GBA cartridge then the DRAM is not used, and your save games are saved back to the cart as usual.
Usual emulator devices use a CPU LCD interface which is typically not capable of displaying anything higher than around 48 FPS, the interface inside both of these machines is serial RGB capable of displaying the full 60 FPS of the original GBA.
My review will focus more heavily on the grey machine as I test some of the more demanding ROMs on it and check out its other features, so let’s get started.
As previously mentioned the UI has recently been improved with a couple of firmware updates. The photos show the newest firmware in action. The menu is divided into three sections for List, Options and Help. The list heading contains the browser for games, including those for other systems that will be emulated instead of run natively. To start a game you just highlight it and hit A. Doing the same on an MP3 file loads up the audio player. MP3 playback is a basic but functional extra feature that actually works quite well.
Moving over to the Help heading displays a list of the button combinations you can use to change settings while you’re playing. Scrolling to the second page shows a list of compatible file extensions, including those for emulation and image viewing.
I noticed that my ROMs aren’t showing up in alphabetical order in the list, they’re displayed in a seemingly random order, but I have word that this is to be fixed in the next firmware update. Overall the UI feels snappy, it’s perfectly intuitive once you’ve remembered a few button combinations and does the job fine.
This is the important bit I guess, and I’m happy to report that everything I’ve tried so far has worked perfectly. I’ve loaded a selection of ROMs that I know to be problematic in most emulators and not encountered any issues. Games tested are as follows.
Mario Kart (used to test multiplayer).
Mario Power Tennis
Sigma Star Saga
Teen Titans 2
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
I was planning on breaking it down ROM by ROM, but honestly there is little point. Obviously I haven’t played all of these through to completion, but with the testing I’ve done there hasn’t been a problem. All save types have thus far worked perfectly. The save files are stored in DRAM which is cleared when powering down, a swift tap of * + START backs up the save to SD which is automatically loaded next time the game runs.
I slung 5 homebrew games on there too. AGB Elite, Bullet GBA, Blast Arena Advance, AGB Rogue and Lords of Midnight. I am happy to report that although my testing wasn’t extensive, they worked flawlessly too. I’m not particularly au fait with the GBA homebrew scene so if there’s something you’d like me to test just shout up with a link to the download.
Multiplayer link up with an official GBA worked just as expected. I tested it with a Mario Kart ROM on the K-Card and nothing in the official GBA. I also linked the grey K-card clone to the cartless blue clone and that also worked flawlessly. Nice
Included in the firmware are some ‘experimental’ emulators for some old consoles and handhelds. I say experimental because these are still in development, and with the handful of games I tested performance was average. Most Game Boy games seem to work pretty well, with the Sega and PC Engine games causing the biggest issues. Included emulators for the system are NES, PC Engine, Game Gear, Master System, Game Boy and Game Boy Color.
The system is also capable of outputting to a TV in VGA 640×480. It came bundled with a hacked together Composite cable providing video and mono audio out. The TV cable plugs into the charging port. You can toggle between LCD and TV with * + Left, and switch between NTSC and PAL with * + Right. This is another function that initially wasn’t supported at all, was later supported but buggy and now works perfectly. The unit can be charged with an official GBA charger and takes the same battery as the official GBA SP. The speaker is louder than that of a real GBA SP and I’d be inclined to say that it’s marginally better too. Though the LCD will be tailored depending on each manufacturers requirements, it may be worth noting that the screen in my sample was very nice. Viewing angles are better than that of a GBA SP and the screen is way brighter and very crisp despite scaling the 240×160 image to the 320×240 display.
This is without doubt the best attempt at a fully functioning clone that I’ve seen. If the minor bugs in the firmware can be ironed out (and I’m confident they will be, I’m on firmware v3 so far which has killed the majority of noticeable ones) and perhaps the UI neatened up a bit then the device will be pretty much a perfect GBA clone. Hopefully it will put an end to the endless supply of GBA emulator devices once and for all.
The non-DRAM version meant for playing cartridges only is currently available in Russian stores, but the DRAM enabled version is yet to surface. I believe it to be in its final stages of development so would expect to see it in the coming months. I have been told to expect not just the SP form factor but also other variations including different screen sizes, depending on what the manufacturer wants – so keep your eyes peeled.