Joonas Javanainen

Game Boy research status, September 2016

It’s been a while since the last time I wrote anything about Game Boys. Unlike what it might seem, I haven’t stopped doing research or working on my emulator. It’s the complete opposite: I’ve been very busy setting up better tooling for hardware testing, which will hopefully lead us to the “end-game” of Game Boy research where most questions are answered. I’ve decided to start writing a monthly or bi-monthly summary of stuff I’ve studied and results I’ve discovered. The main focus is on pulling back the curtain a bit on my Game Boy work, so I will mostly just list random things instead of trying to write very clearly thought posts. Lowering the barrier of writing should make it easier to have enough time to write these things.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some things I’ve worked on or thought about recently:

Early DMG boot ROM dump and CPU differences

I found out that early DMG units had a different boot ROM, which flashes the screen instead of scrolling a block if the Game Boy is started without a cartridge. I successfully dumped this boot ROM, and it’s now in the No-Intro database.

That being said, I also realized something today: I’ve got an early unit with CPU labeled as “LR35902” and another unit with CPU labeled as “DMG-CPU”. I can’t remember which one I dumped, and there’s also a possibility that these are two different versions. At the moment I’m still assuming they are the same, but this needs more testing.

Hardware revisions

I’ve watched ebay very closely and acquired a lot of Game Boy hardware versions. Very soon I should have all the CPU versions, which are the most important things for research. I already have all known mainboard versions of everything except SGB and AGS units.

Game Boy hardware database

I’m building a website that will have a big database and photo album of Game Boy units, games, and accessories. I have around 70 Game Boy units, and I’m collecting precise data from them, including stuff like chip date codes, board stamps, and serial numbers. The serial numbers have already been a huge help in making educated guesses about which Game Boys to buy from ebay.

GB-LIVE32 rapid development cart

The GB-LIVE32 rapid development cart is the main hardware project I’ve been working on for two years. It’s nothing very complicated, but I’ve had to learn a lot of skills to make the cart reality. The first PCB I designed was the GB-BRK-M board, but the main goal has always been to practice things bit by bit to finally have the skillset to create this rapid development cart.

The cart is based on some very simple requirements:

I want to have a USB cable connected to a cart in a Game Boy, and update the ROM without unplugging any cables. The Game Boy should also restart automatically after a ROM update without any manual touching of power switches or other things. Updates can be done in parallel to multiple Game Boy units with a USB hub + multiple carts.

No cartridge RAM or any kind of MBC is needed for running my test ROMs, so the implementation can be quite simple:

I plan to open source everything (including the board design) once I work out some kinks and improve the software. The cart itself has worked since the v1.0 design and software, so the improvements are relatively minor. Parallel testing made it much quicker to run mooneye-gb tests on real hardware, so I was able to very quickly confirm test results on previously untested but accessible hardware revisions.

Automated hardware testing

While I’m still improving the GB-LIVE32 cart, my main focus has shifted to an automated Game Boy hardware testing system. The idea is to have the capability to run a huge amount of tests with slightly different parameters and gather results without human intervention. For example, PPU timings are very complicated and depend on multiple factors, and it would make research much easier if I could simply write a simple test generator that runs a certain test with slightly different parameters. Even a simple thing like measuring how many cycles something takes is much more difficult to implement in a test ROM than with a hardware testing platform that could simply control the clock and count the number of clock edges until a certain event happens.

I already have the first version of the system working, but it needs a lot of improvements to make things truly automated. However, I already have full control of the clock and the CPU, so I can for example do these things:

HALT on DMG/SGB/MGB/SGB2 has strange delays

Using HALT on pre-CGB devices can lead to the CPU waking up later than intended. I don’t understand this behaviour yet, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen delays up to 6 cycles. The following diagram is from my notes and might be inaccurate:

time in M-cycles

E = EI instruction
H = HALT instruction
. = NOP instruction
I = interrupt handler

In all cases the interrupt source is unchanged so the interrupt happens at the same time, but for some reason the interrupt handler timing varies. The only thing that changes is the amount of NOP instructions between EI and HALT. There’s plenty of NOPs after HALT so the problem can’t be that HALT and the interrupt would be too close together.